How to write a letter

I used to have a pen-pal, a girl I met right after I broke up with my first serious boyfriend. It was a very sad time for me -- I had to get used to something that had become foreign to me: being alone. My pen-pal, who I'll call Irene, was a great help during that time. Her letters would brighten up my days and I loved learning about her likes and dislikes, what life was like in her country (she lived in Central America). I loved writing back to her, too, filling her in on the intricacies of my life.

The years rolled on and Irene and I stopped writing, suddenly too busy with school and work to take the time to continue writing. Now we e-mail from time to time, but you know, it just isn't the same.

There is nothing like receiving a letter. I'm always after my boyf to write me one, and he never does. *tear* I think he feels intimidated, which is silly. I would love anything he set down on paper and treasure it always. But I am content with receiving cards from him, hoping against hope that one day he'll give in and set pen to paper.

We all know getting bills in the post is no fun -- my heart leaps every time I get the rare handwritten letter. It's been years, I think, since I received my last. Why have we stopped? Is it simply the advent of e-mail and Facebook and Twitter? Or is it something else?

In asking myself these questions, I recall one of my favorite pieces of Garrison Keillor's, "How to write a letter." If you've never read it before, you're in for a treat:

How to write a letter

by Garrison Keillor (written for Corrine Guntzel)


We shy persons need to write a letter now and then, or else we'll dry up and blow away. It's true. And I speak as one who loves to reach for the phone, dial the number, and talk. I say, "Big Bopper here - what's shakin', babes?" The telephone is to shyness what Hawaii is to February, it's a way out of the woods, and yet: a letter is better.

Such a sweet gift - a piece of handmade writing, in an envelope that is not a bill, sitting in our friend's path when she trudges home from a long day spent among wahoos and savages, a day our words will help repair. They don't need to be immortal, just sincere. She can read them twice and again tomorrow: You're someone I care about, Corrine, and think of often and every time I do you make me smile.

We need to write, otherwise nobody will know who we are. They will have only a vague impression of us as A Nice Person, because, frankly, we don't shine at conversation, we lack the confidence to thrust our faces forward and say, "Hi! I'm Heather Hooten; let me tell you about my week." Mostly we say "Uh-huh" and "Oh, really." People smile and look over our shoulder, looking for someone else to meet.

So a shy person sits down and writes a letter. To be known by another person - to meet and talk freely on the page - to be close despite distance. To escape from anonymity and be our own sweet selves and express the music of our souls.

Same thing that moves a giant rock star to sing his heart out in front of 123,000 people moves us to take a ballpoint in hand and write a few lines to our dear Aunt Eleanor. We want to be known. We want her to know that we have fallen in love, that we quit our job, that we're moving to New York, and we want to say a few things that might not get said in casual conversation: Thank you for what you've meant to me, I'm very happy right now.

The first step in writing letters is to get over the guilt of not writing. You don't "owe" anybody a letter. Letters are a gift. The burning shame you feel when you see unanswered mail makes it harder to pick up a pen and makes for a cheerless letter when you finally do. I feel bad about not writing, but I've been so busy, etc. Skip this. Few letters are obligatory, and they are Thanks for the wonderful gift and I am terribly sorry to hear about George's death and Yes, you're welcome to stay with us next month, and not many more than that. Write those promptly if you want to keep your friends. Don't worry about the others, except love letters, of course. When your true love writes, Dear Light of My Life, Joy of My Heart, O Lovely Pulsating Core of My Sensate Life, some response is called for.

Some of the best letters are tossed off in a burst of inspiration, so keep your writing stuff in one place where you can sit down for a few minutes and (Dear Roy, I am in the middle of a book entitled We Are Still Married but thought I'd drop you a line. Hi to your sweetie, too) dash off a note to a pal. Envelopes, stamps, address book, everything in a drawer so you can write fast when the pen is hot.

A blank white eight-by-eleven sheet can look as big as Montana if the pen's not so hot - try a smaller page and write boldly. Or use a note card with a piece of fine art on the front; if your letter ain't good, at least they get the Matisse. Get a pen that makes a sensuous line, get a comfortable typewriter, a friendly word processor - whichever feels easy to the hand.

Sit for a few minutes with the blank sheet in front of you, and meditate on the person you will write to, let your friend come to mind until you can almost see her or him in the room with you. Remember the last time you saw each other and how your friend looked and what you said and what perhaps was unsaid between you, and when your friend becomes real to you, start to write.

Write the salutation - Dear You - and take a deep breath and plunge in. A simple declarative sentence will do, followed by another and another and another. Tell us what you're doing and tell it like you were talking to us. Don't think about grammar, don't think about lit'ry style, don't try to write dramatically, just give us your news. Where did you go, who did you see, what did they say, what do you think?

If you don't know where to begin, start with the present moment: I'm sitting at the kitchen table on a rainy Saturday morning. Everyone is gone and the house is quiet. Let your simple description of the present moment lead to something else, let the letter drift gently along.

The toughest letter to crank out is one that is meant to impress, as we all know from writing job applications; if it's hard work to slip off a letter to a friend, maybe you're trying too hard to be terrific. A letter is only a report to someone who already likes you for reasons other than your brilliance. Take it easy.

Don't worry about form. It's not a term paper. When you come to the end of one episode, just start a new paragraph. You can go from a few lines about the sad state of pro football to your fond memories of Mexico to your cat's urinary tract infection to a few thoughts on personal indebtedness and on to the kitchen sink and what's in it. The more you write, the easier it gets, and when you have a True True Friend to write to, a compadre, a soul sibling, then it's like driving a car down a country road, you just get behind the keyboard and press on the gas.

Don't tear up the page and start over when you write a bad line - try to write your way out of it. Make mistakes and plunge on. Let the letter cook along and let yourself be bold. Outrage, confusion, love - whatever is in your mind, let it find a way on to the page. Writing is a means of discovery, always, and when you come to the end and write Yours ever or Hugs and kisses, you'll know something you didn't when you wrote Dear Pal.

Probably your friend will put your letter away, and it'll be read again a few years from now - and it will improve with age. And forty years from now, your friend's grandkids will dig it out of the attic and read it, a sweet and precious relic of the ancient eighties that gives them a sudden clear glimpse of you and her and the world we old-timers knew. You will then have created an object of art. Your simple lines about where you went, who you saw, what they said, will speak to those children and they will feel in their hearts the humanity of our times.

You can't pick up a phone and call the future and tell them about our times. You have to pick up a piece of paper.

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12 comment(s):

VitaminR said...

I still have all the love letters my husband wrote to me from 15-20 years ago. I cherish them. I, too, wish he would sit down and write me a letter sometimes even though we live under the same roof. He was so good at expressing himself in written form. Thanks for sharing this. Where is the Kleenex?

Bitches said...

Great post! I agree, letters are always great to receive & everyone (including me) should do it more often. Being from the midwest, my parents are big Garrison Keillor fans so I really enjoyed this. It also reminded me that I need to send a nice letter to my grandmother & just to write & not stress about it.
Hope one day you'll receive one from the BF : )

robynxx said...

Interesting. I've never had a pen pal before, but sounds awesome. Emailing/Twitter/Facebook etc. i think is one of the reasons why ppl stopped writing handwritten letters. I do love it when I receive the occasional one as well!

My Castle in Spain said...

i do love a hand written letter from time to time...but, yes when was the last time i received one and when i wrote one? i can't even remember!
My boyfriend writes me notes at times when we're seated at a café, always something a bit funny but i love them and keep them!
great post Annie!
:-)

g2 (la pianista irlandesa) said...

YES. YES. And more YES. I still write the occasional hand-written letter, but I wish they were more frequent. One of the problems I run into is that the only way I know some of my friends is via IMs, and I'm not necessarily going to ask for written addresses. The closest substitute I thought of, however, was to write a letter, scan it into the computer, and email it. Not quite the same, but it was something.

Jenny said...

I very much remember you giving this to us to read. :) One of my favorites.

Malia said...

I like the part about not owing anyone a letter. It makes it feel much more special and not forced.

Although David and I don't write letters, we do make each other cards and write notes often. I have a few up in the house so I can remember them.

I'm all for face to face or even written interaction. I think too much get lost online. It's a great way to connect, but it makes me sad to see it replace other forms of communication.

♥Karm said...

I love the post... thanks for sharing. Oh btw if you haven't received my tweet, I left something for you on my blog =] have a great day XOXO

Nancy Face said...

I enjoy writing letters...but just lately, those letters have only been in the form of note cards with pretty art on the front. Thank you for reminding me to take the time to write REAL letters again! :)

I LOVED this post!

nsiyer said...

I love writing letters. I burst out into lot of creative writing especially when I have to write to someone who is special. Even e mails, I write a lot. Self expression, I guess.

Connie said...

ha ha your comment on my post on bbl made me laugh =) Thanks!!

Rose said...

Omg Annie this post is one after my own heart. Probably one of my favourite ones of yours to date. Just because I adore writing letters! I can't seem to get anyone else to share my enthusiasm and that piece by Garrison Keillor, "How to write a letter" was amazing. Seriously! That just totally speaks everything I would want to say about writing letters. It was almost moving!

I have a penpal in France and I love exhanging letters with her! We even go as far as sending loads of gifts and stickers and crafty things, just because! :) And I ramble on and on in my letters and there's no other way you can replace that - not in email, not in anything. And I've just recently made a special box to keep all my letters in because they mean so much to me. I even have a whole sealing wax set to seal my letters with. :)

I wish I had more penpals. I might put off emailing someone, or looking at blogs or tire of IM, but I will always always write to someone.

Thanks again for this post! You know I could go on and on about this but I will stop here! hehe

Rose x