Letter writing a lost art

Kevin Cowherd

July 13, 1992|By Kevin Cowherd

I'll tell you what we as Americans don't do enough of anymore: We don't write enough letters.

You know how it is. You've been meaning to sit down and -- off a note to your annoying, ne'er-do-well cousin in Minnesota.

But then you get to watching, say, MTV and it's the usual video parade of saucy vixens in leather and chains, or skimpy negligees, or shimmering bustiers, sleek fishnet stocking tracing the soft outline of flesh as they . . .

Anyway, before you know it, the evening's shot and you're staring at a piece of personalized stationary with nothing to show for your efforts except the salutation "Dear Earl."

This is why professional writing instructors recommend you write in a brightly lit and well-ventilated setting -- preferably one that does not include cable.

The first order of business is to decide what tone you're looking for in your letter.

Bemused? Didactic? Self-effacing? Seriously disturbed? Whatever your decision, this is the tone you'll want to adopt consistently as you weave a letter that is both informative and entertaining.

A good way to open a letter is with an apology of some sort.

As we are all, let's face it, scum on this Earth, there is always something to apologize for, whether it's the tardiness of your letter or your recent embezzlement of $500,000 in company funds.

Keep your apology breezy and to the point, then move on. ("Please forgive the poor penmanship, but off in the distance I can hear the baying of the hounds and now there is a police helicopter overhead, its searchlight piercing through the dense underbrush. How are mother and the children?")

One note of caution: It is usually considered bad form to begin a letter with disturbing news.

For instance, if Uncle Harry was in a bus that plunged over a cliff and tumbled 300 feet down a steep ravine where it ignited in a wall of flame, it is probably best to save this bulletin for the sixth or seventh paragraph.

I myself would try to work it in while perhaps passing on a favorite recipe. (". . . and line a 9-inch pie plate with graham cracker crust. Beat 6 egg yolks. Add 1 cup lime juice. By the way, did you hear about poor Uncle Harry? The bus company informs us the driver was one of their best, an alert and capable fellow never known to touch a drop of alcohol until his wife walked out on him for a stock car driver. Wasn't that always Uncle Harry's luck?!")

This next bit of advice is important: Don't be afraid to make things up.

It's no sin to arrive at a lull in your letter ("Aunt Betty is fine, although coughing up an alarming amount of phlegm") and then suddenly begin to detail a terrible fire down at the nursing home and your heroic single-handed rescue of 11 senior citizens -- two of them blind.

Remember, you're not under oath here. Again, we want to be informative and entertaining. And what could be more entertaining than a taut narrative about a towering five-alarm blaze and one man's selfless determination to save lives by crawling along a burning ledge over and over again with a frightened elderly person slung around his neck?

One of the best letters I ever received was from an old high school buddy detailing his Peace Corps stint in the high Andes Mountains of Ecuador.

It was a very moving account of a hardscrabble life among the Mestizo Indians and their gritty struggles to overcome poverty and sickness while eking out a living raising cocoa and coffee.

I came to find out the fellow was actually working as the assistant night manager at a Rite-Aid in New Jersey and playing in a modified slo-pitch softball league for Bucky's Tavern on Mondays and Thursdays.

Nevertheless, I was overcome by the sheer passion of his prose. And I had no doubt that, if he ever decided to give up stocking the shelves with Mylanta and straightening the magazine rack and setting up the Hallmark card displays, he would have done a bang-up job in volunteer work.

Perhaps the single question that is most asked by letter writers is: How do I end my letter gracefully?

Nothing is worse than a letter that overstays its welcome. If you have nothing else to say, don't say it.

Instead, bring your narrative to a swift conclusion and sign off, as in the following:

("Finally, I must tell you that the bull-headed skinflints who run this town have closed our local chapter of the Sweet Adelines. My life is so empty now. I sit here consumed with the thought of swallowing a fistful of pills and taking a hammer to Raymond's head as he lays sleeping peacefully on the couch.

("My best to you and your family.")

Don't forget your return address and a cheery stamp.

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