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How To Write A Letter

(Garrison Keillor wrote this in 1982 for his friend, 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.


( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 22nd, 2013 04:46 pm (UTC)
I really enjoyed reading that, thank you for posting it :)

Hope you're doing well x
Sep. 22nd, 2013 04:51 pm (UTC)
That's ok, I loved it too and thought I'd share the joy, as I am a big letter writer and also lots of my friends list are my pen pals. I didn't realise you were into your letters though!
I wrote you a message with all the latest in, more importantly I hope you are doing good and are feeling positive.
Loads of love xxxx
Sep. 24th, 2013 05:09 pm (UTC)
I got your message, just letting you know that I'm not ignoring you! Look out for postie either tomorrow or Thurs xx
Sep. 24th, 2013 05:24 pm (UTC)
Not at all honey, I read your entry and see you have stuff going on. Mostly I am just really worried about you, being so tiny and finding eating so difficult.
You are naughty, sending me niceness! I will drop you a text when post man delivers. And you'd better give me your address too as I want to send you something beautiful!
Write when you get a chance honey, but know I am here for you any time in between and keep fighting it xxxx
Sep. 24th, 2013 05:41 pm (UTC)
I'm really not tiny, and I just ate a chocolate if that makes you worry any less? My mum has a box of those Lindt thingys and she asked if I wanted one and I went "eeeeerm...." *frantic typing* "sorry, what was that?" *search results, nutritional info Lindor dark truffles, click, loading page HURRY THE FUCK UP* "oh, a chocolate? Uuummmmm....yeah, ok" :D

I hope you're ok? x
Sep. 24th, 2013 05:44 pm (UTC)
You really are tiny. A chocolate is great and I am proud of you honey, but really, I have about a thousand chocolates every day and am about double your weight, you have a way to go... I know you're ill, I just wish you weren't, I am concerned about you.
I'm alright yeah, carrying on carrying on and all that. xxx
Sep. 23rd, 2013 04:48 am (UTC)
"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've never thought about it like that but it does make sense, come to think of it! What I feel bad about, however, is the fact that I can't write more because of my hand >:/ And I guess my style of writing can be considered cheerless-y for it's so matter of fact.

I don't recall telling you this earlier but your letter arrived a week or two ago, thank you very much for it! I really enjoyed reading it x
Sep. 23rd, 2013 05:23 pm (UTC)
Do you have a bad hand honey? I don't know how you mean.
Don't worry about it, you can write to me any time, I recognise most people have a life, not like me! All my letters descend into misery at least once, just say how you feel and what you want.
I'm glad the letter reached you, can't wait for my reply when you get a chance!
Sep. 24th, 2013 01:55 am (UTC)
My hand starts to ache really quickly because of the way I hold a pen in hand so even if I wanted to write a lot at a time, I couldn't. So, in my case, that's the main reason why it might take me some time to reply to letters :)
Sep. 24th, 2013 05:22 pm (UTC)
Oh I see, it's sad you can't write more at a time, but then, it's nice to do a letter over a period of time sometimes too, I usually take about 2 or 3 evenings, especially if it's a long one. It's more important to rest your hand if it hurts than over do it regularly, so I am prepared to wait in return for you being out of physical pain.
I see from your entry you're having an ok day, and for that I am glad honey, exciting news that your man is on his way shortly!
Loads of love xx
Sep. 24th, 2013 10:20 pm (UTC)
YES! Thank-you for posting this Helen! BTW did u get my letter
yet? I have been going thru some seriously shitty work/people issues
and although I don't have the energy to explain here I'm going
To have to write about it in yr next letter...Just to forewarn you.
I have been thinking about those truly special and good in my life though. You are
Most definitely in my heart and I'm lucky to know u sweet pea.
Give your family hugs and think of those who demonstrate the
Power of the human spirit and heart
Us shy folks have to stick/write together. <3
Sep. 25th, 2013 06:14 pm (UTC)
Hi honey
Yes I did get your letter, thanks so much for it, I am currently writing the reply, won't take me too long, I've just been stopped by personal issues, more information soon.
I am sad to hear about the mess with people at work, poor you, it's always something in this life isn't it??! You don't need to warn me about anything, you write whatever you want. I am touched you feel happy to know me and know I feel the same about you, you are very special to me.
Indeed we will be shy and write to each other, forever, hopefully! Keep fighting it honey, send me an email or anything if you need extra support or to rant at someone and I promise to help you all I can.
Loads of love, and see a letter from me shortly. xxxx
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )