Don’t fret on this most spooky of nights my dear friends, we are far from done with the “Fiction Writing Challenge.” We’re taking a slight break today to satisfy the cravings of our fans and followers who love writing advice and grammar; we cannot forget them, they keep us all straight. Tomorrow we will continue with the contest. For a sneak peek, we have about a half dozen submissions left. Have a spook-tastic day!
When I scanned the mail the other day, one letter caught my eye. I couldn’t quite place the handwriting and tore open the letter. To my shock, I saw I’d written it to myself.
I should have recognized my own handwriting, but it was like seeing yourself reflected in a window. Even though certain aspects look familiar, most of us don’t have a clear picture of what we look like—or write like.
Three weeks earlier, I’d received a rejection on a particularly important writing project. After I poured out my despondency to a friend, she suggested I write a letter to myself extolling my virtues and mail it without a second glance or draft. I thought this idea a little hokey, but, desperate, I followed her advice.
Now when I saw the letter, I remembered writing and mailing it. But the mind is a marvelous, perverse entity, often defying logic. And writer and reader are two different creatures. Now, as the intended reader, I felt I was looking at the letter for the first time.
In the past, I’d occasionally fed myself words of praise, but they always got towed under by the persistent waves of doubt and whipped by the accusing winds of audacity. Only now, seeing the scrawled self-acclaiming phrases, did I begin to believe them and, amazingly, felt lifted.
Writing yourself a letter isn’t a new antidote in the writer’s self-help bag of tonics for depression, futility, blocks, purpose-clarifying, or other occupational ills. The letter can be used by any creative individual to support, encourage, and affirm. In The Artist’s Way, my favorite book for writers and other “creatives,” Julia Cameron recommends such a letter. Anticipating objections, she says that writing and mailing a letter to yourself “sounds silly” but, as I discovered, “feels very, very good to receive” (p. 190).
“Jeez,” you’re saying, “With all I have to do, I can hardly squeeze in some real time for my writing, painting, music, dance, pottery . . . . Why should I fool with a letter to myself?”
Here are only a few reasons:
- You’re at least writing something.
- The letter can—and should—be a place you can whine safely about your blocks. Writing the letter pushes you, not unpleasantly, to get the flow going.
- You can scold yourself or spill out your frustrations and betrayed hope without suffering through anyone else’s well-meaning, delivered-with-superiority bromides and advice.
- The letter nudges you to face your unproductive behavior and self-indulgent attitudes—procrastination, failure to stick to a schedule, yielding to childish grief that you haven’t been accepted by The New Yorker or won the Man Booker prize, even though you’ve done nowhere near enough work to get so much as a 200-word manuscript completed.
- With your soul clean and confessed, in the letter, you can now commit or recommit, to correction and new action.
- Without inviting the muffled giggles or outright scorn of friends and family, you can enunciate on paper exactly what you want—the well-worn but still precious ideal writer’s day/life.
- When you describe your perfect day on paper, you’re visualizing your perfect creating time and activities and affirming that you do indeed deserve them.
What Should You Tell Yourself in the Letter?
You’ve probably already thought of several things. Cameron suggests two. Your adult self can address “your inner artist” about the dreams you want to make real. Or you can write as a best friend suggesting “a few simple changes” in your life toward achieving your dream (pp. 53, 115).
You know the changes you want: solid regular gym sessions that help you summon more writing energy, more (or less) sleep, tactful withdrawal from a friend who calls five times a day or the committee sucking all your energy, cooking fewer gourmet meals (your family/relatives/friends will still like you), or other changes in your life that give you more time, creative space, and focus on the work your heart cries out to do.
You can also address yourself as if you’re 90 looking back. Or write your letter as an “artist’s prayer,” as Cameron does in a powerful poem (on p. 211). Or write out unabashed declarations of your artistic pluses and successes.
How often do we really acknowledge ourselves for accomplishments, even those as small as finally squeezing out a paragraph on that long-lingering novel or buying a new piece of software to track our submissions? The letter to yourself bolsters, motivates, heartens, inspires, and chides you into more work, better work, and more consistent and daring work.
What Others Have Told Themselves
Many types of letters to yourself will work. I asked a small writers’ group to write to themselves. To help you to your own letters and learnings, here, with permission, are excerpts that apply to any of us.
× One author wrote to himself from a simulated advanced age:
Don’t make the daily excuses. They add up to a wasted life. Don’t do what I did and live each day only to get through it and for creature comforts. You still have time. Your yearnings to create won’t
disappear, nor will your gifts. They’re waiting patiently for you and, with the least encouragement, will rush to express. Take hold and don’t lose your dream.
× Another writer instructed herself in the need for balance and self-nurturing:
Listen to music again. Read the books you like. Instead of stupid television flipping, you know how fulfilling a symphony or well-written paragraph can be. Take a course. Get outside and enjoy the air. Go play with your husband. Sit in a field and write. Breathe.
× A third underscored visualization of the ideal life:
Keep dreaming. Dream that you can be and are what you want to be. Dream you’re writing exactly what you want to NOW, and keep returning to this dream. Eventually, it will become what you are.
× A fourth cheered himself on:
You’re on the right path. Keep seeing your path with passion and purpose. Whatever writing you’re doing, do it wholly. Whether you judge it “creative” or not, you’re developing and enriching your gift. Believe in it and yourself to do it.
Give yourself this gift. Take about a half hour, settle into a spot you love and begin. Once you finish, fold the letter into an envelope (somehow email isn’t as powerful), address it to yourself, find a stamp, and mail it.
When, in a few days, you quizzically peer at the dimly familiar handwriting on the envelope, as I did, and then open and read your letter, I guarantee you’ll be astonished. You’ll also be bolstered and buoyed, moved and humbled. Your creative fires will flare and fuel your dedication. You’ll decide on a schedule for your current project and stick to it. And, more than ever before, you’ll accept and value the person who wrote that letter.
© 2017 Noelle Sterne
Monthly Contributor: Dr. Noelle Sterne
Author, editor, writing coach, writing workshop leader, and spiritual counselor, Noelle has published over 400 writing craft articles, spiritual pieces, essays, and short stories. Publications include Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Coffeehouse For Writers, Funds for Writers, InnerSelf, Inside Higher Ed, New Age Journal, Pen & Prosper, Sasee, Story Monsters Ink, The Write Place At the Write Time, Unity Magazine, Writer’s Journal, Writing in a Woman’s Voice, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest. Academic editor and coach, with the Ph.D. from Columbia University, she helps doctoral students wrestling with their dissertations and publishes articles in several blogs for dissertation writers. Her book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books) contains examples from her practice, writing, and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets, relabel their past, and reach lifelong yearnings. Her book Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015) further aids doctoral candidates to award of their degrees. As part of pursuing her writing Dream, Noelle’s mission is to help other writers reach their own and create the lives they truly desire.
Author, Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams. Unity Books, 2011.
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