So what are these letter things anyway?
August 8, 2011 8:51 AM   Subscribe

I haven't lost the ability to correspond at a level higher than most ten-year-olds. I never had it to begin with.

Are there blog posts, magazines, or books that might be helpful in giving me insight in how to write long, coherent, interesting letters to people I care about but do not live close to on an ongoing weekly/monthly basis?

Are there books of published correspondence from Back When This Was Done All The Time that would help ground me in the right kind of thinking?

Please tell me about them.
posted by jsturgill to Writing & Language (5 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Good question. I like to read the letters of C.S. Lewis. He's an excellent writer and his prose is quite modern. Most famous authors' letters exist somewhere, so googling letters will get you a lot of books to read and perhaps some public domain texts online.

And you didn't ask this, but while you're waiting to learn how it's done, practice! You don't even have to send the letters out. Writing letters is mostly a mix of being observant and kind and being yourself.

posted by michaelh at 9:08 AM on August 8, 2011

I don't have a link for you, but I routinely write such letter myself and have frequently been asked to share "how I do it". For me it is natural, but talking to people isn't. Perhaps you don't have a problem carrying on a voice conversation? Well, write like you are having a conversation. In fact ... talk out loud like the person is there, then write what you said. Some people I know have had good experiences with recording themselves "speaking" to the intended recipient as though they were next to them, then listening back and writing from that. And practice. Practice and edit, too ... but don't edit too severely.

People who write letters freehand (ye old pen and paper) spend much of the time thinking through WHAT they are going to write, before writing it. Few people just put the pen to paper and go for it. With computers, you can write stream of thought more easily, then edit.

And beware of the "hmm, i don't think they will want to hear THAT" and editing "THAT" out ...just share about your days, your plans, the way you have thought of the person you are writing to, ask them what they are doing, or what they think, or comment on something they said the last time you spoke.

Good Luck and good for you in wanting to do this!
posted by batikrose at 9:26 AM on August 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Letters of E. B. White, the letters of Flannery O'Conner, the letters of Dalton Trumbo, the letters of Groucho Marx, are examples of brilliant, funny correspondence. Can't link from here but hit Amazon. You'll be glad you did.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 10:28 AM on August 8, 2011

The book Put Your Heart on Paper: Staying Connected In A Loose-Ends World might have some ideas.
posted by Lexica at 11:09 AM on August 8, 2011

A lot of making a good letter has to do with not cutting yourself short because you're too tired/lazy to explain. It's the opposite of Twitter. Or in fact, it's like Twitter or Facebook with all the mystery and posturing taken away (you know when you read a status update and you can't even be sure what they're talking about because they're being so terse and what's "the K project" anyway?) Think of what you'd say in blurb format, and then de-internet it. Make sure it's got the context that it needs so that your reader gets the same information out of it that you intended, and then once that's all set up, you may as well add some details to flesh out the concept.

Tweet: Home from work, so sick of that place! But at least I'm learning more as we go so maybe by the time they lay everybody off I'll even be a competant employee.

Now consider, what kind of context do you have when you say this that your reader might not know or be certain of? Is this a job you've had a long time? Have you always disliked it? Did your job description change recently? What are you learning? Is the company having trouble?
Now flesh it out, how do you feel, what else do you think - are you nervous about your lack of ability? are you happy to be learning or kind of resentful that you have to? what's wrong with having to learn this stuff? do you think you'd use those skills again elsewhere? why do you think the clock is ticking? what's is like to be in an office with people getting laid off? Have you got friends at work who feel the same or differently?

Basically, don't feel like a letter has to cover a lot of different topics - just start someplace, and take that topic as long as it can keep your attention, don't rush. Like journaling, letter-writing takes enough time to get something typed/written that a simple thought has become more complex just from spending time with it, you can end up spending more thought than usual on a single idea. I often find that the more I write about something, the more there is to say.
posted by aimedwander at 11:37 AM on August 8, 2011

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