Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Defending Snail Mail

Letters are scary things, apparently. Or they take too much time to write. Or there’s the rising costs of stamps. Or that disgusting glue on envelopes.

Yes, there are lots of excellent reasons not to write letters.

But there’s one very good reason why you should, and it sounds a lot like the Golden Rule. Think about how excited you get when you get a real letter in the mail. (If this never happens to you anymore, send me your address. I’d be happy to give you this experience so you can relate.) It’s nice to know that someone cares enough to take a writing instrument in their own one hand and jot down a note.

So do that for other people.

At first, I wanted to make one of these points “Be Creative.” I was going to list ways to make mail fun and unusual. But then I realized, hey, not everyone is creative. (Sometimes, writers have to keep reminding themselves of this.)

Besides, some of the best letters I’ve ever received are pieces of paper folded in half, filled with messy handwriting. So you clearly don’t have to be creative to write a letter. And you certainly don’t have to be a writer.

Everyone can write letters. It’s not scary. It doesn’t take that long. And I will personally pay for your stamp and lick your envelope if that’s the issue.

(Sidenote: there are some people who just do not like writing letters, and will be skeptical of this in the same way that I would be if someone else wrote a post about how anyone can learn to dance the Charleston. If writing letters just isn’t for you, fine. I get that. So don’t let my enthusiasm guilt you into feeling like you have to pick up this hobby.)

Here are a few tips from my vast amount of experience from sixteen-ish years of writing letters.

Put yourself on the page.

When I was a freshman in high school, we had to write thank-you notes to the chaperones of our field trip. We all dutifully scrawled out the required number of lines and turned our papers in.

The next day, my teacher called me up after class. (Isn’t it funny how, no matter how much of a good kid you are, your first thought is that you’re in trouble?) “This is the best thank-you note I’ve gotten from this assignment,” she said. “Thank you so much. I’m going to send it to the mom who had the worst time with her group so that maybe she’ll volunteer again next year.”

That’s the only time I’ve been thanked for a thank you note.

But let me tell you what made mine different. I didn’t write an epic poem or do some fancy writer-y thing. I just let the other person see a little bit of me. I made it personal, talked about my favorite part of the trip, made fun of high school freshmen, and said thanks to the chaperone for putting up with us.

That was it. That’s how I had been taught to write thank-you notes since I was old enough to misspell words like “the.”

Write like you talk. Tell a story. Give specific details. Include an inside joke. Just make it sound like you. Yes, it takes a little extra effort. But it’s more fun to write (and read).

Lose the pressure.

If you went on a safari in Africa and almost got mauled by a lion, I’d love to hear about it. But if you spent your Saturday weeding until you wanted to get out a chainsaw and attack every dandelion in existence, I want to hear about that too.

Never write to impress someone. (Unless you’re writing a sonnet to your true love. I suppose that’s an exception. But in that case, just go sing under the girl’s window and save on postage.) It’s perfectly fine if you can’t fill your letter with dramatic news.

Facebook has trained us to think that everyone else’s lives are more exciting than ours. Let me tell you a little secret: they’re not. In fact, about half of my statuses are entirely made up. (Just kidding.)

Guess what? If you are my friend, I really just want to hear about your normal, boring life, because it tells me something about your normal, non-boring self.

But don’t feel like you have to give a play-by-play of your daily routine. Write about what God’s been teaching you. Tell a story about something funny that you overheard at the park. Bring up a controversial subject and take a stance. Make a Top Ten list. Ask a series of random questions. Mail a blank envelope, just for fun (make sure the person who gets it is a good sport, or he’ll be angry that he spent twenty minutes trying to figure out what happened).

Chances are, whoever you’re writing to will be excited that they’re getting non-spam, non-bill, non-form letter mail at all. So they probably won’t be too picky about the content.

Don’t give to get.

Here’s something ironic, in light of the subject of this post: for the past three weeks, I’ve been without a mailbox. (So if you’ve written to me recently, I’m sorry! I haven’t gotten it yet. Which means I haven’t written back.)

The family I’m living with recently moved, and they haven’t gotten the key to their little mailbox yet. Apparently, the post office won’t give a key to you until ten days after you apply, so I’ve still got a week of postal desert stretching out in front of me. I’ve written more letters in the past month than I ever have before . . . without the ability to get a single one in return.

This has taught me something about myself. As I think about my lack of a mailbox, I wonder if, most of the time, I give to get. Would I still serve in ministries and plan parties and make lunch dates and edit papers and invest in relationships if I didn’t get something out of it? Maybe not.

I wouldn’t suggest smashing your mailbox. The U.S. Postal Service would not approve. It might even be a felony—a lot of things related to mail randomly are.

I do know that you should never write a letter to someone expecting one back. You might even mention that in your letter. Sure, you want to hear from them, but let the non-letter-writers out there off the hook. An email or Facebook response or phone call would be fine. That way, you won’t be disappointed when you don’t get as much mail back as you send.

Well, that’s all I have on letter writing. And if you find yourself in desperate need of some old-fashioned pen-and-paper mail, just let me know!

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