Words on the Street, Revisited #20: Write a Letter — Part One

Bi-weekly chatter about how looking closely at some of the most common expressions in everyday life can prompt new ways of thinking about our writing.


It took me a couple of years into my first university teaching gig to muster up the courage.

At the time, I was an adjunct professor at a small liberal arts school in Rockland County, NY. I was teaching classes like Sociology of Family Life and Introduction to Sociology. I loved it. Students located their own histories and life experiences in the topics we covered and class discussions were often lively, sometimes heated and other times emotionally exhausting. But still, I loved it. The forty-minute commute home from those classes was necessary, I needed time to decompress, wonder and recall the varied life tales offered in our small circle of students. I remember, in detail, some of those stories and how students learned to braid their own personal paths—those chosen and unchosen—into our intellectual work.

Those were the good days.

The not-so-good days involved things like grading and offering reminders about attendance policies. And also one big thing that became an ongoing challenge:  the need for students to construct that dreaded thesis statement before embarking on their final projects.

The thesis statements. The term sounds a lot kinder than it is. All those S’s should allow for a softer landing. That wasn’t the case in the mid-2000s when I was new to the job and students were full-on intimidated by this word, especially when it called to them from both a college campus and syllabus.

I offered models of statements, showed samples from our texts and even worked with them to build collective thesis statements. They called out suggestions from their seats and I used my nubby pieces of chalk (Why did I never have a fresh long one?) to jot phrases and ideas on the board. This strategy worked, some of the time, on a mechanical level.  But what I was really searching for was also their investment in the topic they chose to write about. I wanted the why, the heart of the matter. What made them want to learn more about that specific topic and where did the desire come from?

Back to that courage.

I thought about what worked for me when I was stuck on the page (or off, even) and when I had trouble finding words to match my ideas. I considered what kind of practice or strategy helped me get unstuck and to my heart of the matter—no matter what the matter was.

Write a letter.

How many times in my life had I felt overwhelmed, confused by or flat-out mowed down by my musings, emotions or ideas? A lot! And what worked when I did experience this unlovely circumstance? To write a letter, that’s what worked.

Sometimes it was to myself, sometimes to a person in my life, sometimes to a journal. The point is this:  Once the words, Dear X, were scribbled or typed, something happened that shook up thinking and feeling. There was a bit more power, a bit more control and a bit more release.

So, I exercised what I considered to be a brave and bold move! I told everybody in the class to forget about submitting their thesis statements to me and just write me a letter instead. (That I considered this brave and bold at the time is a whole other column, maybe one I might call: “How lame!”) But, at the time, it was a huge step out of the prescribed formula for writing a research paper and even the students gave me strange looks when I shifted course.

“Here’s the thing,” I probably said. “Many of you are freaking out and saying things like: ‘I don’t know what to write about! I can’t write a thesis statement! I have no idea how I think about this topic!’” I may have taken a breath, I may have tried to survey the even more confused faces and then I think I said something like, “Okay then. Forget the outline for now. Forget the thesis statement for now. Write me a letter instead.”

Courage. We went off course. We went in a different direction. One that was way more familiar and way more accessible.

Letter-writing is a form of expression that many of us learn when we are first learning to write. It continues as we grow and develop as learners and scribes. Write a thank-you note, write in your journal, write to your teacher, write to your future self. These are all prompts and directives we’ve heard before. (Feel free to modernize this as you see fit, emails and text messages count here, too.)

Once I gave students the chance to use a familiar form, and one that represents a little more control and personal access, ideas started to flow. The students generated on the page in ways that allowed for depth and investment to shine. I learned about why people were attracted to their topics, where the drive to know more about something came from and the origins of their passions.

Incorporating letter-writing into this academic setting helped unlock some doors and welcome notions and charms of all persuasions, intellectual, personal and sometimes even spiritual.

Why is this column titled, “Write a Letter… Part One”?

Dear Write or Die Magazine Reader,

I have more to say! In “Write a Letter…Part Two” I will share suggestions for how letter-writing can be a way to get unstuck as creative writers of all genres. I’ve also collected examples of beautiful literature that has come to us in letter form (hint: Ocean Vuong and Ta-Nehisi Coates) and will share some of those sources, too.

And, finally, I’ll suggest you grab a piece of paper and a pen (or snuggle up close next to your machine) and forget about whatever personal version of that thesis statement is tripping you up these days. You know what’s next…write a letter.

See you in two weeks,


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