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.

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