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.
Three weeks earlier, I’d received a rejection for a particularly important writing project. After I poured out my despondency to a patient friend, she suggested I write a letter of writing struggles, praise, and encouragement to myself and mail it without a second glance or draft. Desperate, I followed her advice.
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. In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron 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?”
A few reasons:
1. You’re at least writing something.
2. In the letter, you can—and should—whine safely about your blocks, frustrations, and betrayed hope without suffering through anyone else’s well-meaning, delivered-with-superiority bromides and advice.
3. 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 Writer of the Century award.
4. With your soul clean and confessed, in the letter you can now commit, or recommit, to correction and new action.
5. 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.
6. You can freely admire yourself—accomplishments, favorite passages, how you mentally record overheard conversations for later use, finally squeezing out a paragraph in that long-lingering novel.
What Should You Tell Yourself in the Letter?
Cameron suggests two. Address “your inner artist” about the dreams you want to make real. Or write as a best friend suggesting “a few simple changes” in your life toward achieving your dream (pp. 53, 115).
You know the changes: 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), really scheduling your writing sessions, or other changes to give you more time, creative space, and focus for the work your heart cries out to do.
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 live each day only to get through it and for creature comforts. 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. Keep returning to this dream. Eventually it will become what you are.
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 to work and consistent and daring work. You’ll decide on a schedule for your current project and stick to it. You’ll envision and list other projects that excite you.
And, more than ever, you’ll accept and value the person who wrote that letter.
NOELLE STERNE Author, editor, writing coach and soother, dissertation nurturer, spiritual counselor, Noelle Sterne publishes writing craft, spiritual articles, essays, and stories in print and online publications. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle assists doctoral candidates in completing their dissertations (finally). Based on her practice, her current handbook addresses these students’ largely overlooked but equally important nonacademic difficulties. Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015). In Noelle’s Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she helps readers release regrets, relabel their past, and reach lifelong yearnings. Visit Noelle at www.trustyourlifenow.com.