“Write a letter to someone dead, alive, or otherwise. It can be someone from the past, the present, even the future. Sometimes, it helps to start with a question.”
First, do the writing prompt above. Think about it and take seriously. And when you are done, read the rest of this article. It will make sense. To feel the power of these ideas, you should spend the time and write the letter. (I will wait.)
A long time ago, I was inspired by Tim O’Brien’s letter to his infant son. A Letter to My Son is a beautiful letter to his son about life with and without him. When I read this letter to a class, I always choke up because it just hits me harder every year I get older.
From this emotional letter, I began a project called Letter to Humanity, a writing prompt that asked writers and students to write letters to people who would never read them. The writer could send it to people who have died, moved away, have disconnected, or simply just want know the contents of the letter. This proved a powerful tool to reaching writers who were waiting for a place in their lives to say something personal and meaningful. In some cases, it was so powerful, I often felt like it was out of control. People cried, people shouted, people wrote to an emotional place that was literally breath taking. Simple, but powerful when handed to people interested in releasing emotional stories or ideas.
I’ve done this exercise with more than one two hundred writers, and the results have been impressive. For some, writing the letter is easy, but reading it is terrifying. For the sake of completely understanding this, I would recommend writers try this and see what comes from it. And of course, I would love to read your letters and see what came about (email@example.com). But I also want you to see a few samples if you are doing this on your own. Sharing is important.
This letter was from a graduate student sharing her work in a workshop:
I think about it more often than I want to, and maybe that’s my penance. I find my mind drifting back to that day, that morning when, in all my bitch-tastic preteen glory, I accused you of stealing my mail and then slammed the door in your face.
You were what, nine? Maybe ten? You had only come to give me a letter that landed in your mailbox by mistake. How could I have done that to you? Where did I learn that I could treat people like that? I think about that day because it scares me to know that I have that brand of cruelty in me. I don’t want to be that person. But maybe I am, and I hate that.
I remember this day because I know that you remember it too. I had no idea how much I hurt you until you told me a few years later. And now that knowledge haunts me. – Lisa Nichols
Writing a letter like this is more than just a discovery, it is something more.
Recently, I had been pushing on the “it helps to start with a question.” I asked all students to ask a question when they started this prompt. It changes the context when you ask the receiver to recall something, to become part of the conversation. There are a lot of reasons to ask questions, but it brings about a different context for writing a letter. Why did you tell me? Do you remember? Do you think of this as much as I do? It brings the urgency and the moment closer to the surface.
In June, things shifted again. I was reading an article about titled How ‘One True Question’ Will Clarify Your Life’s Purpose by Marjorie Hass. In this article, she mentions “When we look inward to discover our own question, we are looking for a core dissatisfaction that animates our thinking and that drives us intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.” And it started to make sense. When I ask these questions in this letter exercise, I am asking them to cut deep and quickly into something big. That is why the letter reading is fully of emotions and energy (positive and negative).
This was important and I was impressed. But she went on to explain something so clear, that my vision of this whole experience, something I did as a writer’s warm-up – is really heavy and significant lifting. She says:
“Badiou describes the intensity of an individual’s question as a “wound” or a “thorn” in her very experience of existence. There is likely a truth here for many of us. The ordinary traumas — of loss, grief, anger, and desire that are inherent in human development — leave each of us with our own idiom of yearning. And many among us live through traumas of a more significant and destabilizing kind. But the negative language of “wound” isn’t enough. Whatever its origin, the gap or opening that our question reveals is also an invitation, a wellspring for creative imagination, and a promise of infinite possibility and beauty.”
And perhaps in its small contribution, this work, this idea of writing a letter into the abyss, not intended for reading, but for writing – is an opening. It is that moment, sitting in your subconscious waiting for a door, waiting for an invitation to arrive into reality. Not only was this a significant moment in the evolution of my ideas, but it made perfect sense. This is not the warm-up, this was the main event. This was what we should be thinking about.
What’s next? Write a letter and send them my way. I just like to read them. I may not really know you, but I will see something profound, and something meaningful. It could release you, it could save you, it could just change things – just sit down and write.
Please send me one of your letters, I would love to read them. I have no intention of publishing, just fascinated with the ideas.