Ben: Writing Letters to Grandma

Dear Grandma

I write letters to my grandmother.  I feel pressure to keep something in the mail.  She is my only regular reader.

On my grandmother’s 92nd birthday, she told my aunt that her second daughter’s family, my mother’s family, wrote to her more than anyone else called her on the telephone.  That may not have been true; a letter has more impact than a telephone call and persists in memory.

It is easy to forget the power of writing for a single person.  I hope this post is read by many people.  When a book comes out, everyone involved hopes that a hoard of readers will grab it and dig in.  Even with a hoard, the book must still be read by each individual.  Experiencing a piece of writing as a cultural phenomenon can have value, but the books that move us personally feel as if they are written for us; the writer crafted those words for our eyes.

With a book, that may not be true.  With a letter, it is.  When I write a letter, it is for my grandmother or for my sister or for my friend.  If someone else reads it, that may be fine (depending on the content of the letter), but that does not mean the letter is for them.  I do not address the recipient of my letter to a “gentle reader” the way Isaac Asimov sometimes did in his books.

The post From the Archives: Deb Vanasse on Push-ups and Poses from a few days ago talks about the power of being constrained by a form.  A writing exercise is one way to force that constraint.  Writing a letter is another.  When I write to someone specific in a letter, my writing becomes focussed and constrained in the same way it does when I work on a writing exercise.

In Brian Kiteley’s book The 3 A.M. Epiphany, he marries the idea of an exercise with a letter.  For the exercise, “Letters From Inside the Story,” the writer is instructed to “Have one character in a story you’re working on write a story to another character in the same story.”  Ariel Gore, in her book How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead, suggests letter writing as the first stepping stone to sending your writing out into the world.

A letter doesn’t cary much glory with it.  It is a humble form of writing.  We sometimes read the letters of famous people, but no one grows famous for their letters beyond the small circle of friends and family they write to.

In the end, the best reason to write a letter may be in the impact it has on the relationship between you and whoever you send it to.  My grandmother lives two thousand miles from here, but I am always in her apartment when one of my letters is on her table and that keeps both of us closer to each other.  Isn’t that the reason we write anything at all: to be closer to other human beings?  It’s time to finish that letter and get it in the mail.

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