Once again, we’ve survived that time of year when we are to relax and enjoy life, loved ones, and humanity in general, while squeezing into the doors of overcrowded big box stores. One tradition, sometimes mocked, is the annual Christmas (aka holiday) letter. I’m a big advocate of the well written holiday letter. Why? It’s an epistolary composition, which creates the purest voice for the writer.
Below is a letter about writing letters, which I first published in Today’s Woman Magazine. It contains some general tips for essay writing—all of which outlive the holidays.
Pity the annual Christmas letter, which is sincere and well intentioned but often parodied. Generally, most of us would rather not hear about Lindsay’s breast enhancement or Ethan’s off-the-chart SAT scores. Yet, a thoughtfully composed Christmas letter can be entertaining for the audience, and therapeutic for the writer. What follows are observations, learned from my experience sending Christmas letters for almost twenty years.
The holiday letter is like a eulogy, composed to memorialize the passing of each year. The best funeral eulogies tell the audience stories about a person’s life. How the deceased person befriended waiters, liked to whistle, adopted stray dogs, baked flaky pie crusts, or prized a collection of Elvis memorabilia. Like the eulogy, the holiday letter tells stories about people and family.
In case you are working on ideas for your 2014 annual holiday letter, as I am, here are a few tips that might help your writing process and product.
Consider your audience. Most holiday letters go to a diverse mix of persons whom we love, or have befriended us, or with whom we have business relationships. Consequently, the letter writer must try to compose a missive that will appeal to all three groups. Wise writers consider the audience when choosing stories to tell. For example, your loved ones already know about your hysterectomy, and the people you barely know might not care to know. Even though the concept of privacy seems an antiquated value in today’s Facebook and reality-television world, there is still something known, in text-speak, as T.M.I. (too much information).
Prefer details to generalities. “The specific is universal,” is a writing mantra. In the holiday epistle, the letter writer should prefer details to generalities. For example, if one wants to describe how a fractured ankle ruined a ski-vacation, she might say, “It ruined my vacation because my ankle throbbed and I was stuck on the couch.” Alternatively, the writer might describe the event as follows: “ I sat on the couch, my leg elevated for five days, watching episode-after-episode of Law & Order, with a glass of water and a bottle of Demerol at my side.” The latter description includes specific details, helps the audience visualize the writer on the couch, and allows your audience to understand the ruined vacation without being told. As the writing mantra goes, “Show, don’t tell.”
As an example, here is part of a holiday letter describing the aftermath of a winter ice storm and power outage: “We slept fully-dressed under two down comforters. John wore his insulated ski-pants (outfitted with a microchip, in case of an avalanche). We rescued a pork roast from the room-temperature freezer and I cooked the roast with sauerkraut on top of a gas burner. Fully outfitted in coats and hats, we consumed our pork roast by candlelight. I especially remember the peculiar pleasure of doing six loads of laundry in a laundromat with a gathering of fellow Old Louisville citizens, all of us cherishing the fluorescent light, toasty heat registers, and the promise of clean underwear.” What makes this passage a story, is details.
Prefer First Person. The third-person pronoun might have been all right for Miss Manners, the advice columnist (e.g. “Miss Manners thinks your husband is a lout for giving you a Swiffer Sweeper for your anniversary”). But the use of third-person pronouns distances the writer from the reader, and seems disingenuous. Readers can quickly discern who wrote the holiday letter, because the writer has a unique point-of-view. Consider the following example: “This has been the first year of our empty nest, and Kim misses the socks and shoes that once littered the hallway.” Many of us would guess that Kim, the mother, wrote that sentence.
Readers prefer small inconveniences to grand adventures. Readers prefer complex characters whose behavior, thoughts and actions are imperfect. Trouble, not triumph, is at the heart of good storytelling. So be careful not to brag. One year, my daughters and husband critiqued the paragraph in which I wrote, under a vacation photo, “Here we are at the Ponte Vecchio, in Florence, just before touring the Academia to see the Statue of David.” The family howled in unison, “We sound snooty!” And so I changed the letter to describe the discomforts of our foreign travel: being scolded in cafes for sitting down when we had paid the stand-up price; getting lost in our rental Fiat Multipla, a uniquely ugly car, on winding roads with inscrutable signage.
Prepare to be surprised by your own words. The beauty of holiday letter writing is its occasional unintended consequence. Through storytelling, the writer discovers the meaning of the events of her life. For example, Kim really does miss the litter of socks, shoes and coats on the hallway floor. And during the ice storm Kim was comforted to discover the simple pleasures of warm heat registers, and the promise of clean underwear. For this writer, it had been a stormy year. As I eulogized the year, I surprised myself with one spiritual observation, “Perhaps God was pruning more than trees.”
There is serendipity in writing the annual holiday letter. The process helps me recognize the importance of the past, and prepares me to move forward with another year of life-unpredictable.
God bless us, everyone!