It was out of necessity that Alyson Kuhn first discovered the art of envelope-folding when she was working for a fashion designer in San Francisco in 1978. The style they intended to play up at an annual holiday party was black satin pants and satin jeweled tops. Kuhn was charged with sending out invitations, and she wanted the envelopes to match the clothing: shiny black envelopes, and jewel-toned stamps in emerald or ruby colors.
But after visiting three different paper stores, she returned to her boss empty-handed. The envelopes apparently were nowhere to be found.
“[My boss] said, ‘Does the paper exist?’ She is the person who made me fold my first envelope,” Kuhn says. “It was transformational for me.”
It set her on a career in design, which has included freelance copywriting for paper companies like Mohawk, feature writing for design magazines and writing the script for two exhibitions at the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum.
Kuhn led her first envelope-folding workshop in 1994, and has taught related classes in San Francisco, Chicago, Kansas City and Washington, D.C. She moved to Monterey six years ago, and this weekend speaks about her “theory of thanking” at the Monterey Public Library.
Weekly: You got into letter-writing well before the era of email made it seem like a throwback. Does letter-writing feel different to you, now that we have the internet?
Kuhn: Of course. We are hardwired to respond to something we can touch. There are people who order groceries online because it’s easier. Will I ever be one of them? No, because I want to see it, smell it and touch it.
What are some of the things you love about paper mail?
Every piece of written correspondence has three elements: content, form and soul, or inspiration. The proportion shifts depending on what you’re doing.
As with much of modern life, people have gotten overwhelmed – anything you can’t do on your phone is the harder way, and why would you choose that? My belief is, you choose it because it means more both to the recipient and to you.
You write thank-you notes to friends and family, and also people you don’t know.
Thanking people we don’t know – which is to say, fanmail – is something I’m a huge believer in. I think it’s such a gracious way to show your appreciation for someone who’s polite, or whose performance you enjoyed. In the old days, it was more common. To like someone’s Facebook page, it doesn’t have much resonance.
You dedicate time and thought to making letters that are like small works of art, then you send them away. Do you ever feel sad to part with them?
They are to give away. If you think of it as a little present, then what a nice present.
This is probably one of the few Zen aspects of my personality: I really believe as soon as I let go of something, something good is going to come along.
I grew up with thank-you notes as an expectation always, but they seem to have gone out of style.
I do think thanking is good. After my very first workshop, my daughter says, “I just heard this thing on Oprah, that there’s no statute of limitations on thank-you notes.”
Even years after, it’s nice to let someone know you got the thing, and you still use it: “I think of you whenever I use it and want you to know that.” I read in some etiquette thing you are not supposed to say, “I’ve been meaning to write,” and play up your tardiness.
Do you keep all of the mail you receive?
I have a big fat folder of thank-you notes of note. Obviously, I cull it because I don’t need to become archival. My current favorite category is this [she pulls out a folder with the label, “From Young Correspondents”].
What’s your level of trust in the post office, on a scale of 1 to 10?
Ten and a half. They’re wonderful. It’s heartbreaking to me that they get such a bad rap.
You use a typewriter. Is it for aesthetic purposes?
You can feed it more easily into your typewriter than a computer. And I am way too impatient to write by hand, and my handwriting has deteriorated.
Frequently when I sit down, I don’t know what I’m going to say. I let my hands take over.