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How To Get Physical with Physical Correspondence

It is my pleasure to report that a standard black Sharpie marker works reasonably well for writing on a salted cod. I know this because I once used a salted cod for stationery. The fish carried a short note to my friend Jack Roepers. I don’t remember what I wrote, but I do remember the large padded envelope my fish used to swim through the postal system, and I believe Jack remembers the missive even more vividly, since my cod trumped him in our escalating exchange of unusual stationery.

My sister sometimes uses birch bark as stationery. Thomas Jefferson did the same.

Today with the wonders of email, we can send a digitized animation of a cod, and even the exaggerated sound of it swallowing up some smaller fish—but not the actual cod itself. It’s time to remember this and rediscover the true potential of physical mail. Not only can you burst the bounds of normal creativity, but you can communicate with remarkable effectiveness. As my friend Roger Hurlburt says, "It's a way to create a closer bond."

Roger is an avid collector of fishing gear and an expert fly-fisherman. He once sent a card to a fishing guide friend of his with an antique fly made by the legendary angler Joe Brooks. In addition to amazed appreciation, "I got an offer for pizza dinner from it," reports Roger.

My sister, Joli Greene, is an artist who sometimes uses birch bark as stationery. (Thomas Jefferson did the same.) Normally she puts her calligraphied bark in an envelope but will mail the bark directly if she finds a suitably flat piece she can cut to postcard size. "People love to receive these natural things in the mail," she says.

Physical mail is on the eve of a countertrend renaissance. Not just handwritten notes, but the intensely physical objects with textures and smells.

Alexandra Stoddard, the author most recently of Choosing Happiness and the grande dame of letter-writing, often puts a bookmark made from a piece of ribbon in with her notes. They are always written with a fountain pen and in her trademark shocking-pink ink. Alexandra reads no email at all; she carries on a huge, purely physical correspondence.

My bet is that physical mail is on the eve of a countertrend renaissance. Not just handwritten notes, but the intensely physical objects with textures, smells (I’m thinking of perfume rather than cod) and a surprising number of unlikely things you can fit into an envelope.

Paper placemats with maps are nearly irresistible since you can write things such as "We ate rattlesnake here" and even draw an annotated travelog.

Inspired by my fly-fishing friend Roger, I spent 10 minutes with a few old magazines and cut out images that struck my fancy. In another few minutes I had made up two perfectly demented cards for friends, far better than I could have purchased. (It’s amazing what a new caption can do for a photo.) Throw in a ticket stub, and old trade show name tag, or whatever you have handy.

I have a particular fancy for writing on things not intended as stationery. Paper placemats with maps are nearly irresistible to me since you can write things such as "We ate rattlesnake here" and even draw an annotated travelog. Bar coasters and matchbooks also make surprising stationery for short notes home. (I wonder if an old flip-flop would work...?)