Monday, September 21, 2015

Q & A with Karen Benke, Poet, Creativity and Fun Maven, Letter Writing Aficionada, and Author of "Write Back Soon!"

I met poet Karen Benke about 500 years ago while on tour in California for my first book, Sky Over El Nido, and we kept in touch by email, occasionally, and especially when she brought out Rip the Page! Adventures in Creative Writing, which includes a piece by Yours Truly ("People Who Pat Me, I Sometimes Like," by Picadou). 

All of which is to say, we writers and poets experience community in many ways, from meeting in person, to exchanging emails, commenting on blogs, tweeting, encountering each others' works in an anthology... and now, though it be 2015, let us add ye olde letter writing!

Herewith some Q & A with Karen Benke about her latest book, Write Back Soon! Adventures in Letter Writing. She is also the author of a book of poems, Sister, and Leap Write In! Adventures in Creative Writing to Stretch and Surprise Your One-of-a-Kind Mind. She says she prefers letters delivered to her actual mailbox, but can be reached via her virtual address at

C.M. Mayo: What inspired you to write about letter writing?


Karen Benke: I went through a period of "healing time" after getting divorced, when I didn't really want to talk all that much or see too many people. Including friends. But I longed for connection... and I love my friends and family, and adore knowing what they're up to. One of my closest friends, Lynn, is an amazing letter writer. Over the years, her letters have always arrived at exactly the right time, when I've needed her voice on the page the most. 

Being a low-tech type and — because I'm a writer of books who eventually must sit for hours pushing square plastic keys on my computer — I find the act of writing with a favorite black pen in my hand comforting. Addressing my thoughts to a certain someone is fun and intimate, in a way that is also safe. It's a relaxed pleasure for me to write a note or letter and to then imagine my words being met by a friend. Plus I love seeing the hops and tumbles of friends' writing when I open my mailbox and find an envelope addressed to me. 

So the short answer is the need for connection is what inspired me to create Write Back Soon! Little heart notes sent from a friend is what keep us connected. 

C.M. Mayo: What advice would you give to those who haven't written a letter before, or who haven't written a letter in an age?

Karen Benke: Don't be afraid to write about the mundane, the typical, the every-day happenings in your everyday life. "Hi, I ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for breakfast after walking the dog and am thinking of you. Let's see a movie soon and meet for ice-cream. Sending love on this foggy day... K." 

People love hearing what you're up to, love imagining a future outing. It's okay to write the way you talkthere's no need to reach for formality with your friends and loved ones. It's the act of sitting down to jot a few sentencescomplete thoughts or run-ons... friends don't judge you, that has the power to change us. Make it a fun project to find paper you like the look, smell, feel of. Find just the right stamp. Get that note/letter folded and into the envelope, seal it, and drop it in the big blue box. That's what counts, sending it on its way. Then you get to enjoy the pleasure of imagining it reach your friends hands, eyes, heart. And, well, those who write letters do receive letters!

C.M. Mayo: Are there any collected letters you have found especially inspiring?

Karen Benke: I really love the correspondence between the illustrator Edward Gorey and writer Peter Neumeyer. They collaborated on three children's books from 1968-1969 and through 75 letters, 60 postcards, and 38 illustrated envelopes became close friends. The story of their friendship and correspondence is found in the book Floating Worlds. I'm not much of a drawer, but Edward Gorey inspired me to start sketching odd little figures and fragments of unusual sitingsmy dogs paw prints, and elephant with upturned trunk, even half of my peanut butter and jelly sandwich breakfast on my envelopes. 

Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence is also one I'd highly recommend.

C.M. Mayo: Why do you think so many people have such a hard time writing bread-and-butter thank you notes?

Karen Benke: I think sitting down to write a thank you note requires us to slow down long enough to land in the present moment, minus any distractions... and our world is filled with tantalizing distractions. How often are we actually not multi-tasking and remaining in the no where else? I think many people feel it's a burden to write a thank you note, to slow down. Texting makes everything so immediate and instantly gratifying. Though staring into a small screen for too long is anything but intimate for me. I actually find it quite lonely. 

Writing a thank you note is as much a gift for the writer as it is for the receiver. Whenever we get a chance to feel genuine gratitude, and writing a thank you letter offers us this chance, it expands our world. It also makes us happier. Gratitude is the gateway to happiness, after all. 

There's also actual proof that writing by hand slows us down and de-stresses the nervous system. Sign me up for that.

C.M. Mayo: Who is the best letter writer you know?

Karen Benke: Hands down, my friend Lynn Mundell. Her letters have just the right amount of detail to transport me to wherever she is. She's incredibly well read and wickedly funny. She has this looping, easy to read script, and always picks out the card that makes me snort out a laugh. We met in college and Write Back Soon! is dedicated to her. 

Although he does not have an opposable thumb,
my writing assistant approves of letter writing.

>> Your COMMENTS are always welcome.