I got a letter this week–four pages long, hand-written. I couldn’t wait to get home to read it. Since I live in a very rural area, it’s nearly six miles to the mailbox. You can believe I hugged that letter every inch of the way home–where I poured a cup of coffee and opened it at the dining table. My friend Pam (teacher extraordinaire, both writing and music) specializes in letters that are written like journals. They span several days. So on one day she might take the Border collie to the vet. On another, she might be training one of her horses–or taking photographs stunning enough to bedeck a calendar. Whatever happens, I get the details, day by day. I get to hear what her daughter said, what her husband thought, how the latest music lesson went, what’s for dinner, what kind of weather is bubbling over the Rockies at the moment. And details translate into voice. The thing about letters is, they’re personal–they’re written to someone in particular, someone the writer is picturing as he or she writes. What a difference that makes. No wonder a letter is a treasure, a true gift. No wonder when you go on any website that coordinates delivery of care packages to U.S. troops, they inevitably say, “Please–send letters.” When you’re far from home, nothing is more welcome than a letter.
So–think about it. Think about writing a letter to someone who has not heard from you in a long while. Or invite your students to write letters. Don’t send an email. Not the same. That feeling of opening a mailbox and finding there something you can hold in your hands and read over and over cannot be topped. Garrison Keillor said it best: “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” (“How to Write a Letter,” p. 137). Those wonderful words come from a book first published in 1989, now out in paperback: We Are Still Married (Viking). If you don’t have a copy, it’s worth tracking down. The chapter “How to Write a Letter” will inspire you and your students. It could just as well be titled “How to Write with Voice,” and the lessons it teaches apply to much more than letters. Every successful piece of writing in the world has a little bit of “letter” in it, after all.
I’m incredibly fortunate to have several friends–Jeff, Judy, Sally, Pam, Donna, and others–who still write letters, who even put real notes (not the pre-printed variety) into holiday cards. I’m thankful for these people every day. Yes, we’re all busy. We need email and Facebook to do some things speedily. But there’s a time for speed, and a time for heartfelt words.
Looking for ideas on where to send letters? Local businesses love hearing from students, and make good recipients. Penpals work, too. You can find many sources, such as penpalsnow.com on line. If you are interested in sending notes to the troops (very welcome), check out any of the many sites for that: Amillionthanks.org, operationgratitude.com, and booksforsoldiers.com offer just a few options. Many students love writing to favorite authors. Check out Kidsreads.com for a terrific list. Writingfix.com offers many ideas for putting together a letter to which an author will respond. Or–just send a note to a friend and change someone’s day.
In a world where so many things seem difficult to change, do something small that makes a real difference. Write a letter. Share your voice. Who knows? Someone might just save your writing. Just listen to Garrison Keillor’s reflection . . . ”And forty years from now, your friend’s grandkids will dig [your letter] out of the attic and read it, a sweet and precious relic of the ancient [times] 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. Yourt 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” (p. 140).