Words on the Street, Revisited #21: Write a Letter — Part Two

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.


Dear all the cashiers who ask me to take the customer service surveys,

I never do them, those “quick surveys” that you ask me to do. Despite your cheery dispositions (most of the time) and the way you even circle the survey link with a yellow or pink highlighter and then say some variation of, Here lovely customer, the link is right here, easy to find and quick to do. Please take a minute and complete it, I still don’t. I don’t do what you ask me to do.

This has been going on for years now. I’m sorry and guilty about it. And clearly can’t let it go because, if I could, I wouldn’t be writing about it.

I’ll try harder. I promise I will. But, for what it’s worth, after those cashier counter exchanges, when I’m done loading the trunk of my car with packages from your stores, I rarely leave the shopping cart in haphazard, parking lot spots. I try my best to put them back under the covered spaces and into the tidy rows with the others. It’s my attempt to keep them clean and dry as well as prevent nasty scratches and nicks on car doors. That counts for something, no?

Anyway, just wanted to let you know this (and you!) are on my mind. As is, obviously, my guilt.

Take good care and see you next time,



The letter above is based on a true story. Mine.

The real reason I am sharing is because of what’s under it, what’s between the lines of the letter.

There was something lingering, something I couldn’t let go of and something that needed to be said.

Sorry. Guilt.

Even if only for not completing a cashier survey. Or hundreds of them.

On the good days, as writers we listen to what lingers. What’s left and not leaving. What lives in our consciousness, poking and nudging and mattering.

Writing letters can help us capture the in-between or underneath material and then locate the story.

Colleen Kinder’s anthology, Letter to a Stranger: Essays to the Ones Who Haunt Us is a collection I turn to often as both an essayist and a teacher. “I’ve learned so much from the essays in your hands,” she writes of the sixty-five selections (letters) in her book, “namely that any nagging ghost makes for a glorious muse; that memory goes to work on the rough drafts of our pasts like a ruthless editor, whittling them down until all we see clearly are the scenes that glint with significance; that while every society is stocked with teachers and mentors—the official and credentialed sort—there are invisible ranks of guides and quiet sages out there, edifying us in the most unexpected of places.”

The “nagging ghost.” The “glorious muse.” The “quiet sage.”

Kind of like those cashier clerks I can’t get out of my head. And the surveys they ask me to complete. And the guilt, the sorry.

Writing letters can be both a heavy and light experience. But this exercise, with all its contrasts and paradoxes, can be fruitful. The meaning-making we do, or try to do, as we write and the way we locate what gleams under the words can translate to discovery, maybe even a release, of sorts. “The letter,” Kinder suggests, “was the perfect vessel for that weight: brief and intimate, one keen on collapsing distance.”

Isn’t so much of the writing we do about “collapsing distance” in one way or another? I am thinking here of Ocean Vuong’s, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Both books use the letter form to tell a story.

In the Foreword of Kinder’s book, Leslie Jamison writes: “These letters are gifts. The invitation to write a letter is a gift.”  I suggest taking this to heart (and hand)…and write one yourself.

Here are some prompts I’ve used in classes to get letters, and new stories of our own, started:

  1. Write a letter from child to parent or parent to child.

  2. Write a letter to yourself at a specific age, but not your current one.

  3. Write a letter to a stranger (Off Assignment submission details here)


One more note from Kinder’s collection: “‘Writing is, in the end,’ as Pico Iyer puts it, ‘the oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.’”

Now grab your laptop or a piece of paper. Welcome, stranger!

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