Letter Writing Betters the Soul

Taking the time to write a letter reveals that there are no quick fixes to hectic lives.

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Editor’s Note: Last summer, we asked readers to talk to us about their letter-writing habits. Amid the flood of articulate, inspiring responses we received this story from a pair of friends in California. 

For years the two of us had talked of writing. We wanted to share our thoughts and ideas, but we never managed to find the time. Both of us are in the “helping professions,” so work and the needs of others shoved aside our secret dreams…year after year. Like so many others, we felt our lives were running at a dizzying speed as we spent sixty to seventy hours or more at work each week. Still, there weren’t enough hours in a week to get everything done. Our families suffered. We suffered. We felt guilty.

We tried to start a tradition of getting together for lunch each spring in celebration of our birthdays. Year after year we found ourselves postponing our date because of someone else’s needs, or our “demanding” work responsibilities. One year we couldn’t manage to celebrate our spring birthdays until Christmas!

The spring of 1997 was our turning point. We each took a day off work, met for breakfast, then headed to a local library for a couple of hours of solitary writing. The results startled us. We had both written in stream of consciousness. We had both written about the same things! It was as though we had tapped into each other’s minds.

While somewhat unnerving, the experience nonetheless intrigued us, and we struck upon the idea of a weekly exchange of letter writing. Each Friday, Maureen mails a letter to Sandy. The same day, Sandy mails a letter to Maureen. Upon receipt of the letters, we make marginal notes and comments, and send them back along with another newly written letter the following Friday. In this way, we have simultaneous letters in the mail each week.

Five years have passed, and our amazement and intrigue continues—because we’ve actually stuck to our commitment, but also because of the content of our letters. Sometimes we write in stream of consciousness, other times just newsy items about family, car problems, work. Often we write about the same topics at the same time. We almost always write in longhand. We never exchange email. Forcing ourselves to slow down and actually put pen to paper has removed us from an increasingly electronic world, if only for a few moments a week.

Gradually, we have noticed a wonderful thing happening. Our writing exercises have become our “righting” exercises. On the outside we were known to others as happy, empathetic, nurturing professionals. In our letters, we discovered that we were both in desperate need of slowing down, but didn’t know how. We knew our very lives depended on it and we couldn’t do it alone.

We discovered that there are no quick fixes in a world of chaos and clutter. However, with long-term practice, it is possible for people with busy lives to change themselves for the better. Our letter-writing has given us the gift of time and the first steps along the long road to rediscovering ourselves.