My partner is one of those super-humans who always writes prompt, thoughtful thank-you notes. At Christmas, he takes notes to remember who gave him what. Last year, he was writing them during our flight home. This year, we overloaded Canada Post by mailing our cards and gifts across the country and some of his family's thank you notes arrived mere days after original packages.
As much as I admire this practise, it has never been second nature to me. I'm much more likely to send off a text, something to the tune of
I just got your card in the mail! Thank you so much :)
But I write love letters.
But... aren't thank you notes and love letters are two completely different categories of correspondence? Not the way I do them.
I write love letters to my parents on birthdays and parental celebration days. I write love letters to my friends via loooong text messages when they're having a bad week. I write love letters to professional acquaintances. This last has occasionally shifted a relationship from professional acquaintance to friendship.
You think that's crazy?
I'm NOT writing:
Dear Colleague,.I love the way your hair falls across your cheek, and how you hold yourself when you're 100% confident compared to when you're expecting criticism....Yours affectionately,Brianna
Oh my god, can you imagine? That's creepy. That's sexual harassment. Don't do that.
I am writing,
Dear Colleague,.Thank you for your guidance during this most recent project. I couldn't have done it without you. I really appreciate how you alternated making suggestions and telling me I'm capable of handling something solo. It really helped me to hold myself to a higher standard. I'm looking forward to collaborating in the future!.Sincerely,Brianna
See the difference? See how this could serve to thank someone while making them feel seen? It's important that it's truthful. I might swap the line out that says "I couldn't have done it without you" for something like "It would never have succeeded as well as it did without your input". Don't give someone room to wiggle out of accepting a compliment!
Let's try one to a parent, shall we?
I'm keping this deliberately vague, haha, because I'm drawing inspiration from my life. I know you're capable of figuring out where to put in your own details and how to adapt it to your own relationships.
Dear parent,.Our phone calls recently have meant the world to me during physical isolation. I feel closer to you (2 provinces away) than I do to some friends here in Edmonton. I'm dreaming of a future when we can see each other, if not for Sunday dinners, then at least on all the major holidays!.I've been thinking about that story you shared with me, about that thing you went through 15 years ago. I never knew what a hard time you had. It really did help me feel better about the thing that I'm going through. I'm trying to think about the situation as if from far in the future. How will I feel about how I'm handling this conflict when I've got years of hindsight? I enjoy how our relationship has evolved as I make my way further into adulthood. Thank you for telling me about your experience..I hope you're able to do some celebrating this week. I assume a chocolate cake is in order, and.. tacos? Spring rolls?Happy Birthday!Give Dad a hug for me..I love you both,Sincerely,Brianna
I read somewhere that when you're writing a note for a specific occasion you should never lead with the "Happy Birthday" or the "Thank You" or the "My Condolences". You close with these lines. I've found it a useful tip!
When I was a child I would write letters that were littered with questions. It's hard to have a flow of conversation that way, since you won't get the answers until much later and you can't use them to inform the content of the rest of your message. As a rule, I try to make letters kind of timeless. In the example above, I've definitely contextualized the content in terms of world events and personal narrative, but the thoughts and feelings expressed are perennial. I'm rooting my writing in specific experiences but not in such a way that misremembering the details will make it nonsensical. You never had the details but you get the gist. People keep handwritten letters and so I try to write them so that they'll evoke the same feelings in the reader if they read it in 2 weeks, 2 years, or 2 decades. I need to get better at dating my letters for that reason, actually.
I don't use letters for catching up. Certainly, they used to be, and some people still use them that way, but I've always felt ridiculous sharing an update in a letter, knowing that I'll speak to the person on the phone before the letter arrives. Especially these days, my relationships are mostly phone-based, with the letters as physical manifestation. This is where part of my creative practise comes from. If you've read my homepage, you probably stumbled across the line "I give you something to hold onto while your mind is far away." Books, art, letters: same concept.
I have also found that demonstrating vulnerable honesty and appreciation invites reciprocation in kind. Can you tell that words of affirmation is one of my primary love languages?
I have always kept handwritten letters. Most of them are addressed to me. I have one that is from my late uncle to my late aunt about how much he is inspired by their late in life romance and how much she made him feel like a teenager (swoon). This year I have received a few digital notes from people who I deeply admire and respect expressing their encouragement, their pride, their admiration to me. This blows my mind every time. I have started collecting them in a folder on my computer to save for an impostor-syndrome day, a sad day, or a day where I feel like I could really use a pep talk.
I ALSO have letters that I have written to other people. I usually scratch out a rough draft in my sketchbook before I get it down on nicer paper. Looking back on those letters (which I did yesterday and inspired this post) is magical in a way I can't quite explain. Seeing myself however many years ago in that writing, and seeing myself in relationship with those people now is heartwarming. Even in the case of letters between myself and a person I no longer have a relationship with, the evidence is nice because it reminds me that we did once have a connection. The friendship meant something, even if it's over.
I'm going to leave you with an idea for a letter to a friend during a hard time. Again, this is a bit vague, so you need to adjust it for your own relationship. Remember, the magic of letters only works if you make yourself honest and vulnerable. You can express affection without hiding in self-consciousness.
Dear Friend,.I'm so sorry that the thing you worked so hard for and have been looking forward to for months (if not years) has been overshadowed by recent events. I'm putting a note in my calendar in 2 months time for us to celebrate you properly when we actually can..I think you've been doing a wonderful, thoughtful, inspiring job handling things on your own but I want to remind you that it's okay to be disappointed. There is no need to feel guilty about your disappointment. You have a acheived so much and you deserve to celebrate it. I know it's in your nature to brush off compliments and attribute your success to luck and the people around you. These things are a factor but YOU and YOUR hard work are essential and valid..You asked me last week if you were being selfish. I told you of course not. I want to expand that I think you are not being at all unreasonable and that sometimes, a little selfishness is in order. You have to help yourself in order to be fit to help others, right? I am often inspired by the way you consider other people's feelings so thoroughly and take the time to ask people so directly about them. Your generous frankness is one of my favourite qualities about you!Know that I am here for a 2 minute pep talk or an hour long cry on the phone whenever you need it..Lots of love,Brianna.ps. this thing happened today and I thought you would find it particularly funny.
I think there is a wonderful opportunity in letter writing to memorialize a conversation or idea that was originally expressed verbally, especially if it's stayed top of mind for a few days or longer. In letters to my mom, I've made reference to things she said to me a decade ago that I never forgot... in a good way, haha, not like bringing up old arguments. Think: pieces of advice that became particularly relevant or amusing with hindsight.
So pull out your favourite pen and that notepad you've saved indefinitely for a "special occasion" and write an earnest, encouraging, appreciative note to someone you know would enjoy it. Tuck in a dried plant or your favourite cookie recipe. Include a polaroid of your pet or a sketch of your favourite snack. Don't send it off expecting a prompt or regular reply, these things aren't required to make it worthwhile.