The Transformative Act of Letter Writing
Three ideas to begin a letter writing practice.
Letter writing seems to be a lost art. There are so many other, faster ways of communicating to people; we can tweet, DM, email, or tag those we want to get word to. But there is a softer, perhaps nostalgic side of me that misses actual letters, both the writing and the receiving.
When I was ten, my best friend moved four thousand miles away. Phone calls were too expensive, so we filled the incomprehensible gap with letters. We poured our pre-teen hearts out to each other, describing our wins and our mis-steps, sharing the angst of those years in a way that softened the blow of not being able to giggle ourselves to sleep in person.
Perhaps you had a pen pal growing up, or have a stack of letters sent to you by your first love, tied together with a string and kept on the top shelf of your closet. Letters offer an intimacy, a form of personal connection, where you can sense how the writer felt by the shape of letters they wrote.
In her new book The Secret Letters Project author Juliet Madison offers letter writing as a way to navigate the challenges of life. In it, she offers journal prompts for writing letters around situations that come up for most of us at some point in our lives. Madison writes, “when you’ve completed your letter, do what feels right with it. In some cases, you may actually give it to a recipient, but only do this if it will enhance the person’s well-being or assist a positive outcome. It it won’t, then use the experience as a way to help yourself instead.” She suggests burning it if it needs to be releasing, or putting it away in a special place if it’s something you want to hold close to your heart.
Here are three ideas to begin a letter writing practice:
- Dear Loved One. Take the opportunity to say what was left unsaid to someone who has passed away. You can express how much you loved them, or share disappointments and resentments. You might also share how those disappointments shaped you, or maybe what you learned from them. You may then wish to tape the letter behind a picture of the person, read it aloud at their grave, or let the ocean wash it away.
- Dear Illness. When we are face with an illness, it’s easy to want to move away from the experience, to try to forget about it. According to Madison, “writing to an illness is a powerful way of acknowledging it as part of your journey but not allowing it to become your identity. If you are not able to write it, invite someone you trust to write it for you. The key with this one is to recognize the difficulty the illness has caused, and then look for something you have learned, perhaps about yourself and your capacity. You may choose to keep this letter for when you feel defeated, or you may wish to release it through burning it or tearing it up.
- Dear Song. Certain songs can take you back to powerful moments in your life. By writing a letter to a song and expressing your gratitude to the song, the band, and the singer, you get to return to a moment in your life that has strong roots in your memory. Savor the details of that time, and enjoy a moment of reliving it. You might decide to save the letter and add other “dear song” letters to it, or put it in an album with photos from that time.
Writing letters that aren’t necessarily meant to be read can a wonderful way to practice fully expressing yourself. You can write things that you would never say to someone, or express yourself to inanimate objects or to those who are no longer part of your life. As Madison writes, “the more you get used to expressing yourself, the easier it gets.” In the relatively safe realm of letter writing, where your words are not ‘out there’ to be analyzed or misunderstood, you get to explore and communicate with all the aspects of your life, and that, in itself, has the power to transform.