Week two of our recommended isolation from the Coronavirus has almost come to a close, and Barbara and I have survived pretty well thus far. We’ve done more reading than we usually do, and we’ve watched more television too. We’ve played games like Scrabble and Qwirkle, and we’ve often walked in the neighborhood. We’ve even started to clean out the attic. We’ve also made phone calls to family, neighbors, and friends, and we’ve communicated on Facebook too. If you have been doing some of these same things, perhaps you are now ready for an activity that is extremely radical, way “out of the box,” and potentially frightening. You might actually be open and agreeable to writing a letter to an old friend.
After all, your old friends are out there. You know they are. You went to school with them. You played sports with them or marched with them in the band. You may have shared your first drink with them or your first job. Maybe you attended the same church. Yet, through the years, you drifted apart, and now that you’re confined to your home with lots of time on your hands, you may be wondering how they’re doing. This is the perfect time to use the Internet to find one special friend and send that person a letter.
I began writing letters periodically a few years back because a person connected to our church is in prison and wanted some personal contact from the outside world. I also began writing to an old friend because his illness made it difficult for him to speak. I was a bit apprehensive at first, I have to admit, but since I teach writing at a community college, I had to follow my own advice. After all, I am always encouraging my students to write as often as they can, whether it be through letters, journals, or creative endeavors such as poems, songs, and short stories. Thus, I would now like to encourage you, too, in this noble endeavor.
I can imagine your thoughts at this moment: “How about just a phone call or an email or a text message?”
Sure, you could do that, and I’m sure your friend would love to hear from you. Still, I think an actual letter, with a piece of paper and an envelope and a stamp might be even better. Yes, you may be out of practice, and you may be worried that you can’t do it, but, honestly, I think you will enjoy the experience, and it may not be as hard as you think. Just follow these four simple steps.
First, start with a greeting and then a question or a short comment about our current situation. For example, you might begin by writing, “Hi Larry. How are you, and how are you handling this whole virus situation? Everything seems so crazy, nothing like we’ve ever seen before, and in the midst of this craziness, I thought of you.”
As an alternative, you could simply describe your current state of mind and somehow connect it to an experience the two of you shared in the past: “Larry, I am so bored sitting at home. I feel like I’m stuck again in Mr. Howlan’s ninth-grade Geography class, and I can’t wait for the bell to ring. Back then, I used to doodle in my notebook; today, I decided to write you a letter.”
Next, you can use another question as a lead in to answering that same question yourself. For instance, you might ask about family or work or a recent experience. Obviously, you don’t want your letter to be merely a series of questions, so pick one question that relates well to a story that you want to share. If you ask about work, for example, that’s an opportunity for you to describe your current position or retirement activity. Similarly, if you inquire about travel plans, you can then describe your recent trip to see the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, an experience that perhaps reminded you of a special song or a relationship from way back when.
Third, use a paragraph or two to remind your reader of a special experience that you shared. Thinking back to your time together will, hopefully, put a smile on your face as you write and also remind your old buddy of the simple pleasures that the two of you enjoyed in your youth.
For instance, I recently wrote to a former student, and as I did so, I reminded him of our special bond. Early in my career, I taught at a small, Catholic high school for nine years, and he was there for most of them: first as a student for four years and later as a supportive and involved alumni. When that school closed due to low enrollment, we lost touch, but in my letter, I recalled some of our crazy adventures and unique experiences: the student speeches in my English class, the basketball games and tennis matches, and our annual end-of-summer trip to see the U.S. Tennis Open in New York City. The actual writing was fun for me, and when he reads that letter, I hope the recollections will be equally enjoyable for him.
Finally, when you finish your letter, keep your closing simple. Don’t make any promises you won’t keep, and don’t worry about a long-term communication commitment. If it happens, great, but don’t create any unnecessary pressure. Just thank your friend for his or her presence in your life, and close with an upbeat thought, a blessing, or a prayer.
About 30 years ago, Garrison Keillor wrote an essay with a similar theme, and he described a letter as “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 . . . a day our words will help repair” (225).
When Keillor wrote his essay, letters had already become rare, and today, they are rarer still. Thus, your letter will provide a certain permanence, a permanence that is not quite the same as a phone call, an email, or a text. In this case, your friend will actually hold your words and your memories in his or her hands and, perhaps, read them again — and again. Letters today are so special and unique, much like that old friend of yours.
Keillor, Garrison. “How to Write a Personal Letter.” The Simon and Schuster Short Prose Reader, edited by Robert Funk, et al., Prentice Hall, 1997, pp. 224–27.