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Archive for March, 2016

What Do I Put in a Letter?

I’ve been trying to encourage friends, fans, and social media acquaintances to write me letters this spring, as I have 51 beautiful envelopes just waiting to be stuffed with correspondence, and I intend to use every one of them before the end of May.  Several people have expressed an interest in trying out this whole handwritten correspondence thing, but weren’t sure exactly what sort of things they should put in an old fashioned paper letter.

Now, I’m certainly not Emily Post, but I’m not sure the old fashioned rules about letter-writing really apply anymore anyway.  I think email, social media, and texting have changed the purpose of letters from what it may have been even a decade ago.  Sending important news by postal mail is ludicrous when we have Facebook and email, and Twitter and text messages seem made for daily small talk.  So what does that leave to put in a letter?

As with any medium, consider its unique strengths when deciding best how to use it.  What makes a paper letter unique?

  1. Personality.  Even if you don’t try that hard, and even if you don’t have a strong writing “voice,” your unique handwriting as well as your choice of pen and paper will make your letter stand out from another person’s in a way that emails do not.
  2. Permanence.  Okay, who are we kidding, most people will eventually throw your letters out, but perhaps not! The chances of a paper letter being kept, perhaps read again months or even years later, are significantly higher than with email, and astronomically higher than with a Facebook or Twitter post.
  3. Openness.  Paper correspondence is the only form of person-to-person communication that defaults to being generally available for perusal by anyone in its vicinity.  It isn’t hidden behind a login; it is freely available for third parties to peruse now and in the future.
  4. Sentiment.  The very fact that the message is on paper gives it a +3 to Nostalgia and also tells the person that you sat down and did a thing specifically for them, hand crafted a message unlike any other.

And so I offer a few suggestions of how one might take these qualities into account and use them to generate ideas about what to write.

First, throw “correctness” out the window.  All the old rules about what constituted civilized correspondence were created when we didn’t have word processors and emails to keep things neat and uniform.  Do things on paper that you can’t in email.  Doodle in the margins, underline and draw asterisks, play with the arrangement of the words on the page.  Write in spirals if that’s your kind of thing. Slip in a movie ticket stub or a piece of ribbon.  In short, be you.

Second, write about things that will still matter in six months.  If possible, write about things that will be even more interesting in a decade than they are now.  What is just so today about today?  How can you capture it?

Third, write things that you want to share.  Come at this from a spirit of generosity, not only to your chosen pen pal, but to anyone else who might pick up the letter and find it interesting.  Be courageous.  Give people a glimpse into yourself, confess interesting and little known facts, even navel-gaze a bit.  You are leaving a bit of evidence of yourself out there in the world, and have little control over its ultimate destination.  Ask yourself, “What would I put into a bottle and float out to sea?”

Lastly, put your heart into it.  Anyone who receives a letter from you knows that you spent anywhere from ten to forty-five minutes (and at least 50 cents) doing something just for them, so there’s no need to feign nonchalance.  The cat is out of the bag.  Be affectionate, be free with your praise.  Say the things you’d be too shy to say if you were looking the person in the eye.  The distance and the lack of response-pressure frees up both of you, allowing for more intensity, more honesty.

Some of these suggestions tend to balance each other in interesting ways – an enclosed rose petal won’t last a decade, and a confession of undying lust might not be appropriate to potential third parties – but that’s the art of it: balancing the unique qualities of handwritten correspondence and finding the perfect combination to suit you.

Please feel free to send any and all experiments to:  Mishell Baker; P. O. Box 78670, Los Angeles, CA 90016.

March: On Praise.

In some ways, this is a sequel to my January post: a sheepish admission that as much as I wanted to insulate myself from reviews, I was unable to do so.  It’s been easy enough to avoid my bad reviews, because no one has yet addressed any of them directly to me.  But my publicist quotes the best reviews in her weekly reports, people include my @-handle when they say nice things on Twitter, etc.  So while I’ve done well at avoiding the bad stuff, I find it physically impossible to insulate myself from reader enthusiasm.

This should be good, right?  But for me in particular it’s dangerous in a couple of ways.

Danger #1: Complacency.  I have an unfortunate tendency to define myself by others’ opinions of me.  When you combine this with the internet’s tendency toward hyperbole (everything we like even a little becomes the BEST THING EVER), there’s a danger that I might start to think myself more skilled than I actually am.  Confidence is all well and good, but it’s uncertainty and insecurity that have always made me view my first and second drafts as “too boring” and driven me to try just a little bit harder.  Well-managed insecurity is what impels me to study and improve.  Growth comes from health, health comes from balance, and it’s hard to stay balanced if you have a steady supply of tempting, sugary praise with which to feed yourself.

Danger #2: Backlash.  Public praise is like a rubber band: every good review pulls the band a bit tighter, raises expectations a bit higher, and eventually the tension bursts as that first person explodes, “THIS IS GARBAGE!  I’VE BEEN LIED TO!”  Soon the internet is awash with “THANK GOD IT’S NOT JUST ME.”  The higher the praise, the louder and more vicious the backlash — and the higher likelihood that the author will be targeted directly with it, because people assume that anyone who has been hearing nothing but “brilliant!” probably needs to be knocked down a peg or two.  Unfortunately, for me, it only takes one “garbage” to cancel out eleventy gazillion “brilliant”s, because my personal demons seize gleefully upon even a single negative opinion as THE TRUTH ABOUT YOU, UNVEILED AT LAST.  So the continuing backlash, meant to “even things out,” actually becomes overwhelming and blots out any trace of joy.

I like to think that the effort I’ve made in therapy etc. has turned my life around, that I’m in a much more solid mental health position than I was, say, three years ago.  But a miscalculation in my favor could be catastrophic or even deadly, so I have to be constantly vigilant.

This is an entirely new kind of problem after decades of desperate, vain efforts to write something that would get an iota of attention (I was actively seeking publication from the age of six onward).  Like anything new, this change is stressful.  My familiar, well-practiced cognitive tools have helped me to cope, and so has the deliberate decision I made in late 2013 to focus relentlessly on the positive.  The real positive here has nothing to do with attention or lack thereof, but with something far more intimate, more personal: the fact that after a youth spent being a pain in everyone’s ass, feeling like an emotional and financial parasite who needed others to support me in every conceivable way just to survive, I have finally given something.  People are reading something that I not only conceived of but persevered with and completed, and it pleases a great many of them.  This fact alone is so potent that I can cling to it like a raft in a stormy sea.

I did a thing.  There is a reason I’m alive.  I’m not obsolete now that I’m (probably) finished producing excellent children.  There are still things I can offer, things that can improve the lives of others, mostly fleetingly, but occasionally in much deeper, more lasting ways.  So, thank you.  I owe a great deal to all of you who took the time to write kind things about my book.  Every author loves good reviews, but for me they’ve awakened me to an entirely new paradigm: a world in which I might have infinite capacity to be of value.

But that capacity will shrink the minute I actually believe any of the things any of you are saying.  I’m straddling a peculiar paradox, and I’m fascinated to find out how well it holds up in the long run.  But in the meantime, you all have my sincerest gratitude, and I will enjoy this feeling for however long it lasts.