Portland, Oregon July 24, 2000 Satch, I'm back at one of my usual jobs here in Portland washing dishes Saturdays and Sundays at a hippie-ish, mostly vegetarian diner. I can only say that sanitation (or lack thereof) starts at the top. And since there is very little at the top, there isn't much of it at the middle or the bottom at this place. Let's just say that hygiene isn't a priority among many of the employees. When I first started, I noticed after a couple of weeks that one of the waitresses had cut her hair. When I asked her about it she told me that she had to cut it because she had a case of lice. She is now the day manager at the place.
Meet Dishwasher Pete. Would you want this man as your pen pal? How about Sarah Jones, the most popular girl in Grade 6? Or Samantha Shapiro, a young American living in Israel who recently had her laptop blown up? Open Letters hopes so.
Just when you thought letter writing was officially dead, former Saturday Night editor Paul Tough has put a new spin on the practice, in the form of an on-line magazine called Open Letters ( ). The question is, do you want it in your mailbox?
Open Letters was conceived in the dark heart of last winter, when Paul Tough met Ian Brown for a pint at the Munster Hall, a traditional English alehouse in downtown Toronto. The two journalists met to talk about ideas. Tough, a Toronto-born editor who cut his teeth at Harpers magazine in New York, had recently resigned from his position as editor of Saturday Night magazine and was in the process of deciding what do with the rest of his life -- or at least where to direct his energy after he packed up his desk. He told Brown, a freelance writer and the host of CBC Radio's Talking Books, about a project he had been mentally toying with for a while. It involved letters. A whole magazine of letters, in fact.
During his tenure at Saturday Night, Tough (who was hired at the controversially young age of 30 and left after the magazine announced it was going to a weekly format little more than a year later) had created a section devoted to the epistolary form. Canadian Letters, as it was called, consisted of a series of dispatches from freelance writers around the country and was the heart of the magazine under Tough.
Though his vision of Saturday Night was about to be demolished for good, he remained stuck on the idea of a public epistolary form as a new mode of journalism -- one that would potentially work as well on the Internet as it had on paper. Surrounded by the sagging velvet and faux-Tudor interior of the Munster, Tough hesitantly related his idea to Brown. The veteran journalist, a generation older than Tough, was more than enthusiastic. "I thought it was a stroke of genius and I told him he was an idiot if he didn't pursue it," Brown recalled over the phone from his office at the CBC headquarters in downtown Toronto.
Today Open Letters is a reality. The daily on-line magazine publishes a new letter every day (they have been on summer hiatus for the last couple of weeks, but will resume publishing on Sept. 5). According to Tough, the site receives an average of 4,000 visitors a day, and while most readers are from the U.S., 20 per cent of the site's traffic is Canadian.
The site has been operating since June 19, when it launched with a glimpse into the life of a Dallas, Tex., minor named Chana Shvonne Williford. The inaugural letter, which tells the story of Williford's flirtation with a local tattoo artist, displays the kind of tone Tough is looking for -- earnest and personal without being self-indulgent or sentimental. "The idea of honesty and intimacy is important to me on this project," he said in a telephone interview from his temporary San Francisco base (he is on the verge of moving to New York to join his long-time girlfriend, former National Post entertainment writer Deirdre Dolan).
As an editor, Tough is very big on honesty. During the course of our conversation he mentions the word probably a dozen times. This belief in being open about the editorial process is what motivated him to post a daily letter-from-the-editor updating the reader on what editorial or technological changes are going down with the magazine.
It's a fiscal and editorial transparency inspired by the U.S. writer Dave Eggers (editor of the literary journal McSweeny's), and one that Tough craves after years spent at more traditional magazines. "After Saturday Night, where I was expected to toe the party line by saying that 'breaking even was just around the corner' -- which of course it wasn't -- I'm not going to do that [with Open Letters] I'm being very open with my readers."
The project is not without its challenges. Sam Sifton, senior editor at Talk magazine in New York and an Open Letters reader, said that while he's a fan of the site, he foresees problems down the road. "The difficulty Tough is going to face is in keeping the writers honest, and in keeping them writing in that perfect place between public and private."
The magazine differs from most other on-line publications mainly in its use of "push" technology -- a clever system that allows readers to "subscribe" to the publication free of charge. A subscription to Open Letters works in one of two ways: Readers can either request a daily e-mail with a description of that day's letter and a download option, or, at the end of the week, they can receive a file containing all that week's letters. The second option -- a digital weekly magazine that is meant to be printed and read on paper -- is Tough's answer to the problem of on-line publishing. Namely, the fact that many people still prefer to read magazines they can touch.
Unlike most Web entrepreneurs, Tough is no digital rhetoric-spouting cyber disciple. While he sees possibilities in the electronic medium, he remains critical of its limitations. Since moving to San Francisco, the new-media hub of North America, to start Open Letters, Tough has spent a lot of time communicating through e-mail, a medium, he says, "which can be intimate, but at the same time there's a lot about that intimacy that doesn't feel right."
In many ways, Tough's frustration with the limitations of the electronic epistolary mode is what inspired him to create Open Letters. "Generally, it's hard to find any emotional information through the Internet," he said. While most Web sites provide visitors with information they were already looking for, Open Letters seeks to surprise its readers by offering content not widely available on the Net -- emotional narrative in the form of personal letters.
The most conceptually intriguing aspect of Open Letters is the way it uses Web technology to resurrect the very form it is often accused of destroying: letter writing. Toronto writer Lynn Crosbie contributed one letter to the site about her crush on Maple Leafs goalie Curtis Joseph, and is working on another about Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love. As a writer who favours the epistolary form (her novel Paul's Case consists of a series of 52 letters), Crosbie said Open Letters gives her some hope that the antiquated practice of intimate letter writing hasn't died out completely. "I like it that an electronic source is reviving the practice," she wrote in an e-mail interview.
But why, one might understandably ask, would a busy person be regularly tempted to read personal letters written by people they've likely never heard of, living in places like Tampa and Winnipeg? According to Tough, for the stories. Take OL's popular ongoing series of letters from an anonymous Winnipeg correspondent known only as "X". A single mother of a teenage boy, X addresses all of her letters to the father of her son, a mysterious guy named Mike, whom she hasn't seen or heard from in a decade. Her letters relate the day-to-day life of her son, a sweetly typical adolescent boy known only as "O".
There is something addictive about this string of simply written reports about the author's son's new ball cap and his obsession with basketball. At its best, as with X's correspondence, Open Letters draws the reader back again and again -- through narrative, but more importantly, through the intimate authenticity of the letter writer's voice. X's letters have received a gush of e-mail response, a success that Tough is hesitant to take much credit for. "People are really struck by [X's letters] I think because she's writing empathetically. She's taken to this form in a way that's pretty rare. That conversational voice comes very easily to her."
While Tough does most of the day-to-day editing work on the site himself, he relies on a team of secondary editors (Brown is one) from all over North America. And while most of the letters that have been published so far have come from writers Tough or his editors are already familiar with, a few were selected from the electronic slush pile. Unlike most on-line publications, Open Letters accepts and actively encourages unsolicited e-mail submissions. Tough gets 10-15 submissions via e-mail each week.
As with most literary start-up projects, the financial reality for Open Letters looks dicey. To date, Tough has poured something less than $10,000 of his own money into the site and says he's currently talking to investors. His editors are all volunteers, with the exception of a technical editor who is paid, in Tough's words "an insufficient amount." Contributors receive a tiny honorarium of $20 in return for each published letter -- less than most literary journals pay.
But Tough has a plan to make money, or at least to break even. Once the site has been up and running for awhile, he intends to charge $20 (U.S.) for a year's subscription. If he can get 10,000 paid subscribers, that's $200,000 a year. Enough, he figures, to pay himself, run the site and pay his writers a decent sum. Will 10,000 people pay twenty bucks a year to read letters -- even well written, carefully selected ones -- in a weekly digital magazine they can download from e-mail? Tough is betting on it.
For the time being, at least, he's happy to fly solo with his project, even if it's despite the odds. "Before this I'd been connected to two institutions that are both more than 100 years old, which has its advantages," he said, referring to Harpers and Saturday Night. "But with a start-up there is the excitement of watching whether we stumble or soar."