I wasn’t shocked in the least when I started working on my birthday letter-writing project a couple of months ago and found it to be a perfect fit for me. I am not at all afraid, ashamed, or feeling weird about admitting that I am very good at writing letters. They’re not only in my wheelhouse; they are my wheelhouse. I only realized recently that there is a thread which runs through the majority of my life marking memorable moments or eras, made up of letters. It started with one well-edited and well-written letter in fifth grade but I’ll get to that one in a minute.
I have always enjoyed communicating via snail mail, and growing up I had too many pen pals to count. Those letters were always handwritten, but not anymore. Over the past few years due to excessive computer use the quality of my handwriting has deteriorated from “kind of readable” to “absolutely the worst”. That said, I can type out a letter like nobody’s business.
My first magazine rejection was from People. I was sixteen years old and wrote a letter to the editor about how devastated I was that actor/model Jon Erik Hexum (Google him, kids) had died unexpectedly on set. To be honest, I don’t blame the editor for that rejection at all; it was not my best work. That said, my teenage, celebrity letter-writing efforts were not completely unrewarded. I wrote back-and-forth with Berlin bassist John Crawford for a couple of months and that was enough of a thrill to make me forget all about that People rejection.
Back when Jim was in the Navy, the internet wasn’t yet a thing and neither were cell phones, so we had to write letters. Each time he left on a cruise that was longer than a week or two, we’d write to each other often, numbering the outside of the envelopes so we could make sure to read them in order if we received more than one in a single day. (That happened a lot since the mail was picked up from and dropped off on Navy ships rather erratically back then.) We still write letters to each other now and then, especially on our anniversary.
Years ago when I was writing feature articles for a salon industry magazine, I proposed a Business Letter Workshop series that was intended to teach nail technicians and salon owners how to write to clients about issues like their constant lateness and cancellations, asking them to leave their children at home or with a sitter, and other difficult topics. It ended up being an eight-part series and was eventually nominated for a Western Publication Association Maggie (magazine) Award. The series didn’t win but it was an honor to be nominated (seriously!) and it was a high point in my writing career.
I have written letters to my kids a few times, to tell them how proud I am about something they accomplished, something they were working on, or something they seemed to be handling far more maturely for their age than would be expected.
Although I have no firm plans to follow through with writing another book, I have a short list of ideas in case I change my mind and the one at the very top of that list has something to do with letters. That’s all I’ll say here, just in case.
Bonus, “not-MY-letters-but-you’ll-enjoy-this-anyway” story: My kids have had to write letters, too. One of my favorites was when I caught one of them working on something on our computer that I was certain would lead to trouble. When I questioned him about it I asked if he knew just how seriously he’d be punished at school if he got caught. He didn’t, so I told him he had to email the principal and ask. This is what followed (details changed to protect the feelings and ego of the now-adult son):
Dear Mr. *Principal’s name*,
This is *name on team *#*
I have a friend who made this joke called *name of joke*. And as a joke I made a poster on Microsoft Word, that had some curse words related to it, and was going to bring it to school. My friend was just going to put it in his locker.
When my parents were helping me find a destroyed document, they found it, and it was only a joke but…my parents talked to me and told me that I had to write to you and ask this:
If I had brought it to school and been caught what would have happened?
I sent the principal a heads-up and was thrilled that he blind-copied me on his response.
Hi *same guy who wrote that above*,
If you have your assignment notebook, check out page 27 under the verbal abuse section. In more extreme cases, an out of school suspension for up to five days can be given as a consequence. If your picture was readily visible, it may result in a Saturday School. Actually, I am glad that your parents found the picture. I hope you did not get in too much trouble at home, but they probably did save you some trouble at school. Consider thanking them for being good parents.
We already loved that principal but this sealed the deal forever and ever. Funny bonus bonus story: that middle school principal became the same kid’s well-loved high school principal. Also? That kid never, ever got in big trouble at school. Neither one of them did, actually. (Shew.)
Speaking of super cool school principals, one of the most important letters in my life was the aforementioned fifth grade letter. The principal at my intermediate school encouraged everyone to enter her writing contests. On the first school day of every month we would arrive and see that she had tacked up a new poster on the main bulletin board in the school entryway, all of which were those famous 1970’s motivational posters like the kitten in the tree with “Hang in there!” in some crazy font off to the side. Interested students would use the poster for essay inspiration, and the best three entries every month would win their writers a trip to McDonald’s for lunch with the principal. And yes, you read that correctly: back in the 1970s it was no big deal for a school principal to put three kids in the car and drive them to McDonald’s for lunch.
I was dying to write something good enough to win that contest. Eventually I met with my teacher and told her that I was working hard on ideas because I wanted to do something unique. I can’t remember what that month’s motivational message was, but the picture on the poster was of the cutest little puppy. I decided to give that puppy a backstory: she was at an animal shelter, in need of adoption. My essay would be a letter to the shelter, expressing my interest in giving that puppy a new home. My teacher, knowing how badly I wanted to win the contest, worked with me during lunch. She became my very first editor, and with each edit I had to rewrite the letter so it would look nice when I turned it in to the principal. After each rewrite, we would talk about how the letter could be improved again. I think I rewrote that letter nearly ten times over a three week period. The predictable ending to this story is that I did win that McDonald’s lunch with the principal, but what’s even better than that is how, after that process with Mrs. Heckmann, my amazing fifth grade teacher, I knew that I wanted to be a writer.
And that, my friends, is the power of letter writing.