The Art of Letter Writing

mark twain

Emails have revolutionized communication much like the telephone changed the art of letter writing. But, as for me, I cannot say it was an improvement. The availability of all the various instant communications is efficient and fast but it may in fact rob us of some very essential things.

I grew up in a family that did not communicate well or often. And having a military father, he was least inclined to discuss anything and more inclined to just lay down the law. But there was a rare moment that came only once a year when I was allowed to see into a far deeper and much more wonderful part of my father: Christmas.

My dad had a tradition with all of us. He would, once a year for Christmas day, write each of us a letter. In that letter he would talk about the year, his new years resolutions but what he did the most was share feelings, share his heart and talk about loving each of us in ways he never once showed us in the year leading up to Christmas.

I imprinted on these letters as my life raft of relationship with my dad. But what I took away from 18 letters that began the day I was born was that a letter is power. It is life changing, transformative, revealing and deeply personal. A letter allows us to craft our feelings, to create imagery that remains in the heart of the reader. A letter is spacious and forgiving. I cannot say any of that about an email or a text.

So when I married at 18 years old, the letters stopped as my father thought they should. But every letter was kept by my mother in a shortbread cookie tin and handed to me when I was nearly 50.

I remember being in a U-Haul in a blizzard between Maine and somewhere in Ohio when the roads were a whiteout and my knuckles were betraying how terrified I was. My husband was driving and listening to AM radio and televangelist’s had nearly driven us mad. So, I had the tin of letters in my backpack and pulled them out and started reading them to my husband.

We crawled along with no way to see where the road started and stopped and prayed for a place to stop for the night. I kept reading letter after letter, and then I noticed that even in the midst of tension and peril my husband and I were crying. We were crying at the beauty of these small gifts that my dad had left as his legacy. We could have ended in the ditch but instead we were mesmerized by the power of a letter.

For me a letter is a gift of the soul. The time, the effort, the care and making someone a priority is an art form we are losing. It is essential that we keep this form of writing alive and well.

paper has more patience


Don’t Call an Exorcist


For the writer, my suggestion is to never call an exorcist if you feel that you have lost control of your story and someone else, who came uninvited, is writing your story for you. Don’t call Father Damien to make a late night house call. Just get a cup of tea or a scotch and sit down and take a deep breath. Then from somewhere inside, you might hear a voice that says, “Fear not, I am your muse”. Then relax.

We all have myths and concepts about what a muse really is. I won’t go into Greek mythology but for most writers, we say we know when the “muse” is upon us and we know equally well, when the muse has disappeared. I want to put a new lens on the subject of being possessed my the muse.

Short and sweet: We are not only crafting our story, we are a channel that allows the story to come through us. Whether you want to write the self-help book of the century or write a true crime about a real life serial killer and feel you need to get all your facts correct, in the end, you are simply the messenger. When you allow this to be the case and detach from your story [which translates as stopping holding your story in a vice grip], then magic is possible.

I interviewed a possible client with a story that he had defined his life by. He had been working on his story for ten years. I asked him how many drafts he had and the answer was: 152 drafts. I didn’t take him as a client since I knew in an instant that the process was far more important to him than the outcome. And I knew that his muse had gone on permanent vacation or was a sadomasochism .

Our muse is an energetic voice that as you write, steers your story in unexpected directions. The more you try to bring the story back on whatever track you think it needs to be on, the more you labor, you flush an entire draft down the toilet and stare at the page. The muse knows the destination of your characters, knows the plot line even before you do and you simply surrender into the arms of the muse and be a faithful scribe.

“Where did he come up with that stuff?” I have said more than once about one of my favorite writers, Stephen King. He has a serious long-term muse relationship. My passion for writing is not only about the beauty of words that when stuck together with another word forms and even more glorious experience on the page, but my deepest passion is for the mystery of not knowing and being taken on a ride every time I sit to create a scene, dialogue or inspiration. This is what makes a writer prolific, insatiable and powerful: Listening to the directions of the muse and faithfully following the breadcrumbs into the forest of story.

I am working with an author to co-write of all things a story about Reality TV. Not a genre I have ever written about before but I have experienced the shark tank of reality network TV, so I thought “what fun”. The author of the idea sent me an amazing outline. After talking at length one of the things I remember him saying was that “the storyline just poured out effortlessly”. So, armed with a fabulous outline of an idea I dove in thinking I knew the direction and had pretty good idea of how to write the characters. But I was wrong. This story grabbed me in the middle of the night and made me start writing in a very different direction. The main character wanted new clothes, firearms and loved super heroes. The villains had their two cents about how they wanted to be portrayed and now I am nine chapters in and have not one single clue how the story might morph. It is an exhilarating way to write.

Allow the voice of the muse to derail you, to take you down a blind alley, to have your trash one of your best scenes in order to replace it with something entirely different. This brave choice, for a writer, is a courageous act that takes confidence and patience. But in my book, it is what makes great writing.

Stephen King Muse