September 28, 2013 at 8:00 PM
4,000 and counting: The handwritten letters of Shoreline’s Charles Morrison
When was the last time you wrote a letter?
Charles Morrison will write four today. He wrote four yesterday. And the day before that. And the day before that. All told he’s penned 4,000 letters to about 110 people in the past 11 years, hardly ever missing a day. They’re nothing grand. Just “letters by a guy of modest intelligence who likes to write,” as the 71-year-old put it. He mailed 150 of them at his Shoreline post office two weeks ago. Each was written with one of 36 calligraphy pens, and each is about something completely different.
I have no idea when I wrote my last letter. I told Morrison as much at Caffe Umbria in Pioneer Square last week. Most of the people walking by on Occidental Avenue South, I guessed out loud, probably wouldn’t know either.
“It’s so easy to get information, give information, dash off an email. The very ease of it makes it so convenient,” he said.
“Convenient,” he added, is not one of his favorite words.
“When everything needs to be convenient, you lose sight of the process, how important the process is,” he said. “It’s just: Get it done.”
It was a cold morning and we were sitting at the cafe’s outdoor tables. It was here, back when Caffe Umbria was Torrefazione Coffee, that Morrison met many of the people on his cycling list of letter recipients. They’d notice him leaned over pen and paper, ask what he was doing, sit down to hear the story and make a request. “Could you write me a letter, too?”
I would have asked to move our conversation indoors except for one thing: Morrison writes his letters outside, every morning, no matter what. He stands at a tall desk under a permanent canopy in the back yard of his Shoreline home, a bird feeder to his left, five wind chimes to his right and a cup of hot coffee by his sheet of Bienfang calligraphic parchment. As he described the yard, I imagined the wild lush of Thoreau’s Walden Pond. It stretches back 150 feet, with towering trees and grass that hasn’t been cut in 20 years.
Morrison, who teaches humanities courses at Cornish College of the Arts, DeVry University and Antioch University, shared his letter-writing process publicly for the first time at the Sept. 13 Creative Mornings. That’s a breakfast speaker series that features one 20-minute talk a month in dozens of cities (watch his talk in the video below). After his talk, attendees were invited to write their address on a blank postcard and give it to another attendee to write and mail.
The theme for Seattle’s September event was “connect,” which is interesting: Morrison isn’t on Facebook or Twitter. He sends emails, but never texts; he doesn’t own a cellphone.
He began to write daily in 2001, when his sister June — he’s the youngest of seven — was dying of cancer. He sent her an email every day, about whatever was on his mind. It just happened. “Please, oh please, don’t stop your daily emails,” she wrote him when he’d asked if it was too much. “Even if you just say, ‘Good morning, I love you,’ it will make my day happier.”
June’s daughters asked to be copied on the emails. Then other relatives did. Nine months passed. In his sister’s last days, Morrison recorded himself reading his emails and shipped the CDs to Missouri overnight. At her funeral in June 2002, he read one last letter.
“This was your final gift to me in this life, June: you gave me a reason to write, day after day after day, no matter what else was going on in my life,” he read. “You helped me begin a discipline of writing that will never end, wherever it leads me.”
After she died, Morrison changed his medium. He got pen and paper and began to write one letter at a time to each of a growing list of a contacts. Over the years, he’s fine-tuned a writing process that makes the most of his curiosity. He’s taught almost every liberal art there is to teach in a 40-year career: literature, drama, psychology, sociology, history — even nutrition, Buddhism and meditation.
To write the first daily letter, he opens one of six file folders that together contain 1,500 topic ideas he’s collected from encyclopedias, books of quotations and other sources. The topic that’s on the top of that folder — the day we met it was “stability and change” — is the topic he’ll write about on both sides of an 8.5 by 11 inch sheet of paper to the next person on his list, relating something of his experience in what reads like a thoughtful, open inner monologue. He’s written about more than half of these topics three times.
Morrison writes the next two or three daily letters on folded art cards. Rather than consulting his idea files, he turns to his dictionaries. Forty dictionaries of architecture, art, politics and other disciplines sit on two bookshelves at home. He grabs one at random, opens it up to a random page, and finds his topic.
Morrison hopes for a handwritten letter every time he checks his mailbox — who doesn’t, even today? — but he has just one correspondent, one person of the more than 100 he writes to who regularly writes him back.
Since the Creative Mornings talk, he’s received six letters from people who heard it. At Caffe Umbria, he showed me a handwritten letter he received last week, the first from a former student he’s been writing to for four years.
“Thank you for noticing me — for actually seeing ME when I was your student,” she wrote. “And thank you for your letters. I enjoyed each one and have kept them both for their content + so that I remember you + how you impacted my life for the better.”
Before we said goodbye, Morrison gave me a copy of his last message to his sister, with one condition: “You’ve got to mail it back to me,” he said. I agreed.
And promised to include a letter.
Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.