Letters of Note

Letters of Note is a compilation of more than 900 letters, postcards, memos and even faxes, often written by famous people, and almost always thought-provoking.

Here’s a recent one, from movie director Martin Scorsese, about the necessity of diversity.


An excerpt:

Why don’t they make movies like ours?
Why don’t they tell stories as we do?
Why don’t they dress as we do?
Why don’t they eat as we do?
Why don’t they talk as we do?
Why don’t they think as we do?
Why don’t they worship as we do?
Why don’t they look like us?

Ultimately, who will decide who “we” are?

Here’s one from the archives, a 1973 letter from writer E.B. White (author of Charlotte’s Web), about remaining hopeful in what seems like a hopeless situation.


An excerpt:

“Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.”

And here’s a letter from a 10-year-old to former president Obama: “Our differences unite us.” You can see his response, too.

Copying vs. inspiration

Yesterday I had to have a talk with some students about plagiarism. I’m not sure why it still happens, especially this late in the school year, but it does. I understand the temptation to just copy something from the internet when you have a paper due and are busy with many classes, part-time jobs and other priorities. But it won’t help you learn to write, it’s both immoral and illegal, and it’s almost always really obvious when you do it.

Anyway, I saw this video and was reminded of my conversations with students about copying. The video says it’s a “tribute” to cinema. Certain scenes in these Pixar movies are inspired by scenes in other famous movies. This is not copying, is it?

Where do you draw the lines between original ideas, inspiration, and copying?

Writing prompts from 1919

Talk about writing prompts! This list of  “The 37 Basic Plots, According to a Screenwriter of the Silent-Film Era” (from Slate) — from a 1919 manual for screenwriters — is a good place to start when you can’t think of something to write about.

37 basic plots

If you scroll down the text, you’ll find many subclassifications for inspiration. Including:

  • “An appeal for refuge by the shipwrecked”
  • “A union between lovers prevented by an imaginary marriage of one party”
  • “Rivalry between a vampire and a modest woman”

17th century advice

Have you ever read an advice column in English? There are lots of different kinds, geared towards different audiences. Here are some examples:

Dear Abby is probably the most well-known, at least in the US, and at least of the older generations.

Dear Prudence is from Slate and covers all kinds of questions about life.

Ask E.Jean is from Elle Magazine and it’s an example of an advice column for women, focused on love, dating, dieting, working, fashion and more.

Ask Amy is yet another example of a “personal advice” column.

Since You Asked is a bit unusual because the advice is given by a man. This column was discontinued in 2013, but you can still read the letters, most of which are quite long, as are the responses.

There are plenty more, and they are all rather similar in the types of topics people want to know about. But this next one is very different. It’s from the 17th century (from the Atlantic):

The language is sometimes very different than today’s English:

Q: What is the cause of the winds, and whence do they come, and whither do they go?”

And the types of questions are very different, more philosophical at times:

Q: What is anger?”

Q: What is love?”

Sometimes they are very politically incorrect from today’s standpoint:

Q: Is it proper for women to be learned?”

And the last question is answered very, very succinctly:

“Q: Is there, do you think, a large part of the world still left to discover?
A: Yes.”