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What Letter Writing Has Taught Me

April 2, 2012

Letter writing is hard. What I’ve learned so far from my Letter Writing Project is that if you treat the task like a job, you will finish your letter. Will it be a work of art? A letter worthy of John Chamberlain? No, but you will have finished what you set out to accomplish in the first place. In the process, you will ease all the guilt that comes when you leave a thing undone.

Treating Letter Writing Like a Job

At the end of February, I found myself in a creative rut. In 2011, I took up a short story writing. That year, I completed six stories. Since leaving my home in Mozambique in December of last year, I hadn’t finished a single story. Foolishly, I believed that America had sucked me dry of creativity. I wondered if the muse had abandoned me.

A book changed all that. On a whim, I bought a book called The War of Art by novelist Steven Pressfield. In the book, Pressfield describes what he calls the “lunch pail mentality”: “…the hard-core, hard-head, hard-hat state of mind that shows up for work despite rain or snow or dark of night and slugs it out day after day.” He argues that treating work like a job forces us to ignore the negative voices in our head (what he calls “the Resistance”) and just write. We clock in and clock out.

The right attitude.

Inspired by this, I decided to apply Pressfield’s ideas to my own writing. The day that I finished the book, I set aside thirty minutes and wrote. In that time, I ignored distractions and fought writer’s block by plowing through each sentence, ignoring mistakes or errors of judgment. Every day thereafter, I committed to those thirty minutes. Stories suddenly took shape. I finished two stories in a little over a week. As of today, a little over a month after starting the program, I’ve completed six stories, equal to my entire 2011 output.

I’m doing the same with my letter writing. I find free time (15-30 minutes) and use it to write each letter. I don’t worry about writer’s block (“What am I going to say?” or “What if it’s not eloquent?”). I just write. If I write something stupid or lacking clarity, I leave it. Hesitation and indecision lead to stagnation. I would never finish anything if I obsessed over every detail. My strategy works for me because my goal is simply to finish each letter.

The more you work on something, the better you get at it. Only when I treated my writing like a job did I begin to complete my projects. While there are still times when the Resistance rears its ugly head and threatens to derail a project, I stop it by just writing anything. In my letters, I’ve written anecdotes that feel out of place and offered some extremely unhelpful advice, but I finished each one.

The Guilt

It’s far too early to extrapolate conclusions from the data I’ve gathered so far, but a trend has emerged: people aren’t replying. There are probably a number of logical explanations for this. But speaking from personal experience, one powerful explanation for inaction is guilt.

This is you.

One day, you receive a letter in the mail. The letter was sent by a long lost friend. Excited, you tear open the envelope and read the letter. Moved by its content, you decide to reply in kind. You put the project off until the next day. However, when you sit down with paper and pen in front of you, your mind feels suddenly blank. You sigh, pick up your iPhone, and browse Facebook. As this process repeats itself, day after day, guilt sets in. You feel guilty for having not responded to something that you imagine your old friend spent hours agonizing over. The guilt fuels nothing but more guilt. In the end, your letter goes unwritten.

If this sounds familiar, you are not alone. This happens to everyone. However, it is also a serious impediment to written communication. Take a look at something my friend wrote in his reply to my letter: “I [had] a slight feeling of dread because I knew that I was going to be asked to give a handwritten response.” The dread comes from self-awareness. My friend knows that he already struggles to reply to e-mail and Facebook messages. That dread could have quickly morphed into guilt had he continued to put off the letter writing process.

The only solution for guilt is the lunch pail mentality. This mentality forces you to make time for the project and just write, regardless of the outcome. Because you will finish writing something, you will feel the euphoria of completion. That feeling alone leaves you one step closer to your true aim: finishing something that you are proud of.

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