A Month of Letters

February 1, 2012

Never think, because you cannot easily write a letter, that it is better not to write at all. The most awkward note that can be imagined is better than none.
— Emily Price Post, 1872-1960
American author and arbiter of etiquette

Fresh from my success in reading and posting a line or two from a new poem every day, I take up another challenge: A Month of Letters.

This is not my idea, although I had one like it. In 1999, six months into this online presence, and while I was still trying to shape my post-classroom life, I announced my Hundred Letters project. I was going to write a hundred letters over the course of a year, two per week. They would be “surprise” letters, letters that the recipient had no reason to expect. It was an extension of a project I had once done with eleventh graders, assigning them the task of writing ten letters of positive focus to people who had taught them a skill or given them some good advice, people whom they found inspiring, a former teacher who had meant something to them. The letters didn’t have to be sent, just written, and if they were intensely personal, the contents did not have to be divulged. It was an easy grade, and proved popular.

I did write some letters, both when I wrote along with my students and when I reframed the project as a year-long effort. But certainly never a hundred. I do write a lot of letters, although most of them are by email. I used to write a holiday letter, but for reasons that I can’t quite pinpoint, I haven’t done it since 2006. I keep lists of people I’d like to write to, people I don’t communicate with regularly. I often recopy the list without actually writing the letters.

Mary Robinette Kowal’s challenge to write a paper letter and send it through the mail on every postal day in February has come to my attention at the best possible time. I’m in a period of some emotional turmoil, feeling isolated and out of touch with people I truly care about.  So I’ve drawn up a list, announced my participation on Facebook (inviting postal addresses from online friends who might want a letter), and made some guidelines for myself, such as a decision to use materials — stationery or pretty art cards — that I already have in sbundant supply.

And I am off to a good start. At left is a book that I got at Bread Loaf last August, Beautiful Unbroken, by Mary Jane Nealon. It is a memoir of her career as a nurse, and it won the Bakeless Prize for nonfiction. When I heard her read, I immediately thought of Kim, one of my daughter’s closest friends. Like Nealon, Kim carries the death of a beloved sibling into her life and her work. And she works in pediatric oncology, an area of practice that can be especially draining of one’s emotions and challenging of one’s skills. The letter says those things, but also mentions something that Kim did last week, mentioned on her Facebook stream, that I found especially tender.

It is my custom with a gift book to sign inside at a passage that I think captures the essence of the recipient, or reflects the reason I chose this book for them. Near the end of the book, Nealon mentions the death of her father and likens her grief to a loaf of bread. That is also an experience Kim already has borne though she is only 26. The best part? I signed it “Marm,” the name Lynn calls me, the name some of her friends use as well. Writing the letter reminded me of the level of intimacy, the feeliong of family, that I have had with so many of the beautiful young people I have come to know because of Lynn.

I’ve already gotten a great deal of reward from this project, and the first letter hasn’t even been delivered yet. I can’t wait to see what comes next.

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