Be a good letter writer = be a good writer.
Consider the last time you wrote a real letter.
You’re away on holiday, and the slower pace gives you some much-needed perspective. One night, a lost memory of your friend Gregory pops up in your mind. You haven’t connected with him for a while, so you make a bit of time the next day, walk to an internet café, and send him an email. The email is a proper letter: you include some notes about the place you’re staying, a funny story about the restaurant last night, and thoughts about what it means to have this time away from work. You look at the corner of your computer screen, and see that forty-five minutes have passed already.
You and Erin used to live across the street from each other, but she moved to the other coast, and now the time difference makes phone calls difficult to organize. You think of her all the time, and wish she could know the daily details of your life again, and vice versa. But you’ve become so busy, caught up in the business of life, that you missed her birthday this year. So you take time on your weekend to find a beautiful card from a local craft shop. You include belated birthday wishes, and some news of the day. You fill up both sides of the card and then write on the back of it. You reach the bottom of the card but you’re in the middle of a story, so you grab a piece of paper, whatever you’ve got, and you keep writing. It feels like you’re talking to Erin – there’s always more to say – so you grab another piece of paper and keep going.
Whatever the reason for the correspondence, when you write a letter, it goes like this: you picture your friend in your mind, and then you simply want to connect.
You aren’t thinking about the literary quality of your sentences (although it feels good to craft them to sound just right, and you might even enjoy pausing to reread them yourself). When you are writing the letter, you are thinking about your friend.
In fact, you write with ease, grace, and humour – your voice as a writer, freed from expectation, ego, and fear of failure, is able to be itself. And, hey, what do you know? You’re a good writer! You love writing!
Then it’s time for you go to your desk to work on your Fiction (or whatever it is you’re working on). You get your special notebook, your talismanic Annie Dillard, your cup of tea. You tell yourself “It’s time to write.” And all of a sudden it’s so freaking hard. You have to trick yourself just to stay in the chair. You may, perhaps, bribe yourself with treats (a bowl of pretzel sticks, chocolate truffles, a shot of tequila).
Why make it so hard? Writing can be easy and fun for you: you know that’s the case, because when you’ve written letters, you have lost time and run out of paper as you wrote them. But when it comes to something that you think is Very Important, you make writing feel less appealing than cleaning the algae out of your fish tank.
Okay, so what if you made a conscious decision to cultivate the elements of letter writing in your creative writing? Here they are:
1. Feel happy that you are about to sit down and write.
Don’t go to your writing feeling grim or scared. Think about the headspace you want to be in when you write a birthday letter or a thank you note. You feel grateful, you feel generous! It should be no different with your creative writing. Start with those kinds of feelings before you sit down to write. This alone will make an enormous difference.
Like all brain neuron pathway reconstruction projects, this takes a bit of practice and repetition, but you can change the way you think.
2. Select a special place to write, as though you were writing a letter.
Now, as you know from letter writing, this can actually be anywhere. You can write a letter in a café, at the kitchen table, or on your lap at the train station: it is your focus and intention that turns any space into a special space. So just sit down, wherever you are. Don’t be precious about waiting to have the perfect desk. But do make the space special by eliminating distraction, and slowing down so you feel some connection before you start.
4. Write as though you’re giving a gift.
This, more than anything, is what makes a letter a letter. There’s no goal in mind – you’re not trying to get anything out of it. You’re certainly not writing it for The New Yorker. You’re writing it as a gift from you to the person you want to connect with. The writing is a pleasure for you because it’s something you’re giving away, like a birthday present. Slowing down to write the details of a story is a gift that can feel good for both writer and reader. Get your ego out of the picture by remembering how it feels to write for the pleasure of generosity.
5. Be honest and be kind when you write.
A good letter is not about upstaging, pretension, or trying too hard. It’s about you being you, and putting yourself on the page with as much transparency as possible. Write unapologetically with your authentic voice, however it feels that day. Whatever energy you like to bring to your letter writing, you can bring this to your page.
6. Enjoy the absence of criticism.
Your InnerCreep lives on your fear. When you infuse your writing time with kindness and honesty, you dissolve the InnerCreep! Bonus.
When you’re at your writing desk, decide to cultivate feelings other than fear. You can do this – remember, your fear is a thought, and you can change your thoughts. So instead of focusing on resistance (and trying to get away from resistance, which is just another way of focusing on resistance), decide to focus on writing with other emotions. This is why it helps to think of how you would want to write a letter.
Get quiet so you can locate the fear in your head. Then look past it, and find the other emotions that are also there. Aha! There they are.
Now write: with gratitude, humour, suspense, lightness, excitement, or love.