Last week was clarifying for me. I was reminded why I do what I do. On the whole I write — more specifically than that I write letters (for more on my letter-writing mission visit LetterLover.net). The last thing I expected to take place within the weeks following the release of my book, For the Love of Letters: A 21st-Century Guide to the Art of Letter Writing, was to forget my self-appointed purpose, but it keeps happening. In an odd way I'm glad, because that leaves room for outside forces to sneak up behind me with substantial reminders. My ready-made reminders last week came from both friends and strangers.
On Wednesday I did my first book reading at the Papyrus store in downtown Manhattan. I knew about the reading a month beforehand and became so concerned with how I was going to say everything — going so far as to memorize even facial expressions and voice inflections — that what I was saying sat beyond the back seat in my mind. It was in the trunk. It wasn't until after the presentation when certain members of the crowd approached me with their letter writing stories — not their questions, but rather their stories — that I realized what I said was more important than my well-rehearsed delivery. I forget how personal this topic tends to be, and how most people have a "box of old letters" story they love to share. There is, admittedly, no excuse for me forgetting that, as it is one of the reasons I wrote the book and felt comfortable including many of my own private letters as well as the stories surrounding them. Alas, it slips my mind on a regular basis and now I am so grateful to have readers who are kind enough to remind me. After the reading, a friend of mine told me she'd like to tell me how she thought I did but she'll write me a letter about it instead (I assume that means she approves), and another friend bought $300 worth of stationery. I can't even say I would go that far!
A much more humbling reminder of the great letter-writing crusade took place last Thursday night. I attended an Amnesty International event in which they discussed violence against native American and Alaskan native women. In the gift bags handed out were copies of the Summer 2007 Amnesty Magazine. In the Arts & Culture section was a short, very sweet review of my book. The opening sentence is, "A bizarrely intriguing little book..." Never has the word bizarrely been so well placed! The reason For the Love of Letters was included is because there is a chapter entitled "Letters of Change" in the book in which I tell the tale of Amnesty's use of letter writing to effectively enact political change. Having my book's write-up placed alongside articles that delineate the horrors of Darfur, the injustices taking place on American soil, and the profiles of political prisoners seemed (seems) so wrong. But the writer — poet, journalist, and human rights activist, Rose Styron — made her own personal, poignant connection:
"I had forgotten just how many diplomatically worded letters I'd had to invent and reinvent in my early decades with Amnesty International USA. The tried-and-true samples originated by AI's Urgent Action network were designed to get political prisoners released or their conditions bettered, even their lives saved. The world-wide letter writing campaigns, addressed to the lonely and anguished incarcerated dissident, or his/her jailer, the police, or the president/tyrant of the offending government, were really effected — as the survivors attested in letters of gratitude.
"Those letters were, and still could be, a primer for activists, a simple, effective first step that recognizes the importance of persuading authorities to cease repression, abuse, torture, killing, and all manner of injustice. The letter-writer is holding their feet to the fire, altering them to imminent exposure on the world stage, or possibly even supporting their better, private instincts. The collected missiles, piled up on the desks of the powerful, were very effective. I would hope they could be again: Afghanistan. Iraq. Sudan. Guantanamo. Home. Letters, please."
Letters to Juliet: It has come to my attention that there are people on this planet (many of them) who write letters to Juliet Capulet in Verona the same way children write letters to Santa Clause...
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Books mentioned in this post
Samara O'Shea is the author of For the Love of Letters: A 21st-Century Guide to the Art of Letter Writing