'There's nothing more satisfying than finding a letter'

Shaun Usher,Founder,Letters
Thursday 13 October 2011 00:00

Each week Insight asks innovative individuals to explain their work and their ideas. To kick things off, we asked Letters of Note founder Shaun Usher, 33, to explain how collecting some of the world's most moving, funny and inspiring correspondence has, over the two years that the website has been live, taken over his life.

"The founding of Letters of Note was pretty unromantic. I was a copywriter at the time, trying to write an article for a client, a stationery company. I was going to write the piece about famous letters, so I looked online for some that I could write about. I ended up getting completely obsessed by it within about an hour. I realised I could sack off that article – I thought 'I can do these more justice'."

"About 80 per cent of the letters come from me looking for them; that can mean digging through anything from museum websites to internet archives.

"There are plenty of letters on the internet but they're often quite hidden. The archives on the museum sites are particularly hard to access. They're maze-like and not very accessible to normal people.

"The other 20 per cent of letters are sent to me from readers. That's growing as time goes on, but the majority come from monotonous searching on Google."

"The ones that get sent over by people tend to be the more personal ones, mainly from celebrities to fans. Which are brilliant actually, the most popular type of letters on the site. And most are previously unseen."

"There's a letter from Iggy Pop we published early last year. Iggy wrote back to a young girl who was having a tough time at home. It was beautifully written, you didn't quite expect it from someone like him."

"There's another, a memo called 'In Event of Moon Disaster' written by an advisor to Nixon. Within it there's a speech to be read out should Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin not come back from the moon. It basically says, 'Armstrong and Aldrin are stuck on the moon and they're not coming back.' It's chilling, but really beautifully written."

"One that featured recently was a young lady [a German called Emma Hauck] who had been certified insane [in 1909] so she was put in a mental home. Years later they found all these letters she'd written to her husband asking him to come and get her. They just said 'sweetheart come, sweetheart come' over and over. Over thousands of times and pieces of paper. It was horrible. Really quite affecting."

"The most popular letter in terms of hits was a letter from John Kricfalusi, the creator of the cartoon Ren & Stimpy. It's eight or nine pages that he wrote to an aspiring animator, it's a guide to how to make it in animation and throughout it's illustrated with pictures of Ren and Stimpy."

"I get so much correspondence. The worst thing is that I haven't got time to reply to it all. Which is quite ironic given the focus of the website. But most days I get emails from people just offloading in response to the letters they've seen on the site."

"I put letters up online as and when I can, unless there's a particular event coming. Like last week with the death of Steve Jobs." [Letters of Note carried a typed 1983 letter from Steve Jobs with a signed Apple computer chip on it.]

"I've got thousands of them saved. There are 607 different letters on the site at the minute and that's the tip of the iceberg. As long as I can type I'll be uploading them."

"Collecting wasn't something that interested me until I found all these letters. I'm obsessed now. It's addictive. Actually finding them is quite mundane but once you've discovered one it's like a high. There's nothing more satisfying than finding a letter that you know everyone's going to enjoy."

Visit lettersofnote.com. The first Letters of Note book is due to be published next autumn

Iggy Pop's letter to a depressed fan

"Most of all I want to see you take a deep breath and do whatever you must to survive and find something to be that you can love. You're obviously a bright fucking chick, w/a big heart too and I want to wish you a (belated) HAPPY HAPPY 21st b'day and happy spirit."

You can read Iggy's note in full here: ind.pn/Iggyletter

REn & Stimpy creator john kricfalusi's letter of advice to a 14-year-old aspiring animator

"Good drawing is more important than anything else in animation. More than ideas, style, stories. Everything starts with good drawing. Learn to draw construction, perspective.

OK, now it's up to you."

Read John's letter in full: ind.pn/renstimletter

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