Most people are thrilled to receive an unexpected letter in the mail…not a bill, not an ad, not a notice that the cost of your strep test was applied to your deductible, but a real letter: a friendly, chatty missive from someone you care about, from someone who clearly cares about you. It can be typed or handwritten, organized or rambling, intimate or not-so-much, but it should have meat and meaning, and it should cause the reader to settle in for a moment to enjoy. Some tips:
Embark with enthusiasm. “Hey you!” or “My dearest—and my loveliest—aunt” or “How do I love thee? And, more importantly, when and where do I get to love thee next?” Let the reader feel adored from the onset, and assured that he or she has your full attention. Stifle any tendencies on your part toward aloofness or sarcasm. Remember: A good letter always flows from an open heart.
Capture the moment. “I’m at the computer, listening to a pre-disco BeeGees CD. Henry’s in the garage changing the oil in the Corolla, and the twins are napping.” Or, “I’ve been in bed all day with Salinger’s short stories, and now I’m depressed, and all. I’m wearing those PJs you sent for Christmas. God, I miss you.” Then, capture a slightly broader moment: the movie you watched last night, a failed attempt to make ice cream at home, your child’s latest unreasonable fear. Depending on the recipient, mention your mammogram or the NCAA standings.
Write the way you talk. If, in conversation with a friend or family member, you’re stilted and humorless, write that kind of letter (but not to me, okay?). If, in conversation, you’re candid and gregarious and you seldom finish a sentence, write that kind of letter: “The other day, I was at the grocery store buying tampons and a case of Mexican-style stewed tomatoes because they were on sale and you’re never gonna guess who I saw. Becky Callahan, you know, the student-council secretary when we were juniors? And she had four kids with her, and the youngest was sucking on a Lion King toy…Simba, I think. I said hi, but she obviously didn’t recognize me. Well, maybe she did, and just pretended not to…” Like that.
Don’t be afraid to bond. “This is what I like about you.” “This is what I’ve learned from you.” “This is what I remember most fondly about our time together.” And don’t spare the details; when you think you’ve provided enough detail, go ahead and provide a bit more. Take a moment to say thank you for a long-ago gift or compliment or piece of advice. Allow yourself to tumble into love with this person (even if it’s your mother-in-law, and even if the feeling is fleeting).
Ask questions (but only if you really care about the answers). What have you been reading? What have you been watching? Which celebrity would you choose to be the father of your child? If you were to move to another country, which would it be? What’s your take on the health-care debate? Have you come across a really good recipe for low-fat cheesecake? Think: What is the most intriguing thing about this person? Follow that lead.
Divulge something. Describe the romantic details of your first date at age 15, the time you dropped a full tray in the college cafeteria, the time you ate a dozen glazed donuts for lunch, the time you checked out the men’s room when you were working alone on a Sunday afternoon. And feel free to ramble for a moment. Describe your dream last night, your take on the Kennedy assassination, your recent (brief) foray into vegetarianism. Reveal yourself in all your goofy, messy, joyful glory.
Share a quotation. It broadens the scope of communication by inviting a third person to the table. I like Thoreau, but I usually opt for Leonard Cohen (especially if the letter has become too cheerful). Or quote someone from your household: “Tom says ‘Hi, Mom!’ He says thanks for the $33 you sent for his 34th birthday. He bought a package of socks, a bottle of pinot noir, and two apple fritters.”
Imagine your letter being read aloud. (I imagine my letters being read by Mr. Darcy to Miss Bennet.) A good letter will be tucked into a pocket to be reread in a more private setting, like a bathtub, or a parked car, or a grassy meadow at dawn. Take the time to make the second reading worthwhile: “I’ll never forget that night you made me a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of tomato soup. Remember? It was August, and it was raining, and we’d been to the nursing home to visit my grandma, who was dying…” It isn’t necessary to hold back. Really…it isn’t. “Remember that first time I said I love you, and you said thank you, and I stood and pulled the sheets off the bed to wash them, and you said don’t be like this, and I said don’t tell me how to be goddamnit…”
Assume the letter will be saved. Maybe it seems unlikely today, but a good letter can survive decades; it can survive marriage, divorce, an out-of-state move, the occasional house fire. So take a minute to review the big picture. Mention a war in which the country is engaged. Mention the latest political scandal. Mention the price of a new pickup truck, a one-bedroom apartment, a gallon of milk.
And save a copy for yourself. This is a journal entry of the best kind, especially if you were forthright and revealing (and of course you were). Years from now, when you’re home alone, you can eagerly retrace the to-and-from steps of a relationship, whether it was with your mom who died unexpectedly, a lover who dumped you unceremoniously, or your best friend from college who was at your side on both occasions.
Before sending, and if you feel so inclined, add something extra to the envelope. Enclose a snapshot, a recipe, a $2 bill, a coupon or free sample, some postcard stamps, some stickers, a paint or wallpaper swatch, an editorial from the Sunday paper, a magazine article, a snip of something from your herb garden. Stuff that letter. Nothing says “I love you” like extra postage.
“They don’t need to be immortal, just sincere,” says Garrison Keillor, about letters. So write! Today, spend 44 cents and half an hour delighting someone and, perhaps, learning a little about yourself. Start with “Hi there” and don’t stop until you find yourself describing the weather.