Do anything long enough and you are a perceived ‘expert’ …


Do anything long enough and you become perceived as an expert at whatever it is. (I wish that were the case in golf and fishing.)

Not long ago I was plucked from obscurity to teach a course on letter writing. As I’ve told the sponsors – more than once – it’s more about longevity than the quality of writing.

Three would-be letter writers have been faithful in their attendance at Central Piedmont Community College. There is something to be said for a small class; the students know each other and they leave their anxieties at the door. So far they’ve exhibited no reluctance to share their writings and what’s behind their words on paper.

They’re finding there’s no real mystique to the process. In a nutshell, my counsel is to keep a short list of things that happen during their week, dredge up all the details of a particular event (place, time, emotions, outcome, observations, etc.) and write about those in any order of their choosing.

The trendy approach is to describe letter writing as a lost art (foisted on us by other experts who want to sell us on the romance of high-fiber paper and designer ink pens). I disagree completely. Letters were never an art. Each page was merely yesteryear’s mode of communication long before email or texting or telephones overtook and overran writing as a simpler (but not necessarily better) way to communicate. It was necessity, nothing more. Sure, some could spin a sentence more eloquently than others. But our grandmothers and our great-great grandmothers shared recipes and family doings and our great grandfathers and uncles and aunts long ago passed along tidbits the recipient might otherwise not know about. You either wrote, or there was no exchange of information.

Indeed, letters often addressed the mundane rather than the grandiose.  “Send me in return some seeds of the winter vetch, I mean that kind which is sewn in autumn & stands thro the cold of winter, furnishing a crop of green fodder in March,” wrote Thomas Jefferson to a friend in 1796. “Put a few seeds in every letter you may write to me. In England only the spring vetch can be had. Pray fail not in this. I have it greatly at heart.” Hardly the stuff associated with a grand statesman who would be sworn in as president in 1801.

So that’s what my trio of three women have focused on. Not the earthshaking or seismic events but rather what goes on in their ordinary lives that might be of interest to someone else. Don’t fret about constant writing and rewriting; get the letter out the door and find your style over time. Rocket science this isn’t.

As we weave our way through any of a number of ways to approach and craft their letters, my constant reminder is not to worry about the ‘big picture’ but instead concentrate on the doing. If there is an art to writing, it may have more to do with consistency and perseverance than what word follows another.

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