How to write a letter

Canadians spend many millions of dollars on stamps every year to say (ha ha!) that they have nothing to say. Bob doesn't care if you report that you're in jail as long as you Say Something

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN November 1 1953

How to write a letter

Canadians spend many millions of dollars on stamps every year to say (ha ha!) that they have nothing to say. Bob doesn't care if you report that you're in jail as long as you Say Something

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN November 1 1953

How to write a letter

Canadians spend many millions of dollars on stamps every year to say (ha ha!) that they have nothing to say. Bob doesn't care if you report that you're in jail as long as you Say Something

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN

THE EDITORS,

I'm sorry to be so long in completing (hope that's •

spelled right—never could remember about those "e"s !) this article on how to write a letter. Guess I could do with a few lessons myself (Ha! Ha!) But to tell you the truth I have been as busy as a bee with the opening of the 1953-54 social season (you know

me!) and I just haven't had time to get it down on paPE*er (Guess it's about time I bought another typewriter Ha! Ha!) But as I was saying when I stopped this letter last Thursday (Whoops! I'm

running off the page, but I'll try to finish this let

MACLEAN'S MAGAZINE,

TORONTO, ONTARIO

GENTLEMEN :

THAT LETTER was never written, of course. People never write like that when they get down to business. But it’s roughly the sort of thing a man in the above situation writes when he can’t put off writing any longer.

We’ve come to the conclusion that in a form of communication so phoney that women who loathe one another swear that they sincerely belong to each other, and men with blue jaws and eyes like nails address one another as “Dear,” anything goes so long as we can get to bed early and it’s someone else’s turn to write.

The result is a waste of our great pulp forests and a large portion of the sixty-five million dollars Canadians spend on stamps every year. Five thousand postmen in cities and towns from Victoria

to Corner Brook daily sink a little closer to the ground carrying letters that begin, “This is going to be a terrible letter, but here goes!—”

More than thirteen thousand rural couriers wear out tires between nearly four hundred thousand rural mail boxes delivering such puzzling statements as “Nearly got killed on Saturday (Ha! Ha!).”

Thirteen hundred and forty-three railway mail clerks work frantically over forty-seven million miles of track mileage sorting letters that begin “Things are about the same in Saskatoon,” from letters that begin “Things are about the same in Moncton.”

Canned Goods Aren’t Always Exciting

If this day and age is to produce anything remotely comparable to t he letters of Lord Chesterfield, Mark Twain or Napoleon, it’s time we got started. Until now about all we’ve done is start off with a lie about why we haven’t written sooner and try to think of something to say; we start sentences that we can’t seem to end, yet can see no point in continuing; forget what we were going to say the minute we unscrew the top from the fountain pen; work ourselves out on wobbly little planks of words like “John and I have both had supper,” add in desperation “at the table,” and try to tie things together with brackets; look at it so long that we l>egin to write out on separate sheets of paper little words like “took,” “tooke,” “tuk,” that suddenly look queer, like husbands; and call upstairs late at night to ask stout school-age daughters how to spell cemetery, changeable, biscuit, analyze and molasses.

Perhaps it will help you find something to say next time you sit down to write a letter if you rememter that your friends don’t want to hear that you went to Huntsville Thursday and bought some canned goods. They don’t want to hear, either, that tonight you are going to visit two people they

don’t know, who live just a stone’s throw from two other people they don’t know, or that Wednesday you are going to the dentist.

Things like going for canned goods are not essentially interesting even if you try to liven them up with little comments like “I’m writing this on top of Willy’s head. I bet it sure looks like it.’* They appear in letters so often because of a basic Canadian characteristic of being canny of enthusiasm and embarrassed by emotion. This leaves nothing to talk about except things like bats getting into the cottage. The trouble is, if no bats get in there is nothing left to talk about.

The whole thing was pretty well summed up by one plump saleswoman in a downtown Toronto hosiery department who told me: “I don’t mind writing letters exactly. But I enjoy writing them most when I have something to say.”

Something to say necessarily means, to most Canadians, an external event like visiting Brock’s Monument on Saturday or letting down the hem of little Sandra’s dress last night, which they are convinced should be described breezily.

But what goes on inside us is much more interesting than what goes on outside us, and often much breezier. All good letter writers recognize this. The fact that you wish your husband would drop dead, for instance, isn’t a typical bit of news, but it would make a dandy letter.

The kind of letters I like to read are the ones my wife gets from an English girl in Kitchener who larrups right in with low shoes and a lot of feeling:

My Dear: Please don't think me too beastly for not writing sooner, but life is such a bore at times that one finds that one simply can't face writing one's friends, then one finds oneself suddenly walking in the country

I go on working. I go on working for the same reason that a hen goes on laying eggs . . .

Letter« that start like that make pretty thin stuff of:

Dear George: How are you? We are all fine. Nothing much new. I'm enclosing the first page from yesterday's paper and three short stories from Esquire. Things are fine at my end and hoping you are the same at your end . . .

Events themselves are all right if you happen to have spent the week end in jail, or yesterday you found a pair of rosy-beige stockings in the car and you yourself never wear anything but gunsmoke grey. But trying to find enough of that sort of thing in the average commuter’s life is one reason why women—the same women who can talk for two hours on the phone without even using a cushion write things like “Thursday it rained, but Friday was beautiful, although Saturday . . .” And why men who have talked their way to vicepresidencies write “Dear Aunt Ethel,” then look up an hour later without having got any further; and why summer-bachelor husbands sit t ing behind two days’ growth of dirty dishes struggle to think of something to say besides “Where did you say you kept the dill pickles?”

“What 1 do,” I was told by one cleaning woman with glasses, who looked like a lady doctor, “I just say all the things I got from one friend in my letter to another friend. I change them around of course so they never know.”

That’s another thing your friends don’t want to get from you: a letter you write by spreading another letter in front of you and commenting on every paragraph. This is the friendly-letter-in-reverse method of not saying anything:

Dear Harry: Glad you got down to see Uncle George on Sunday. Bet you enjoyed yourself. Ha! Ha!

That must have been an interesting experience when the dogcatcher tried to throw the net over little Uncle Perce. The darndest things sure can happen !

So you're going on holidays Thursday? Sure envy you. But I'll just have to keep the old nose on the grindstone till next year.

If my nose holds out, that is!

That was a funny one about you sliding under the table just as the waiter handed you the bill.

Bet you won't go there again for a while !

Another good rule to remember is that if you nearly got killed on Saturday, it does not make it particularly funny to say (Ha! Ha!) after it, or even “no less” or “believe it or not!” To say “I’ve just finished a tomato sandwich (believe it or not)” is even worse. Continued on page 64

and thinking of something simply heavenly with sideburns and a black moustache . . .

What people think is much more interesting than what they do. I like to read letters from a man I’ve never met but who writes to me occasionally, sitting, I like to imagine, amid books and old dinosaur bones with a pipe clamped between his teeth, surrounded by the smell of good tobacco and ideas. He grumbles:

Dear Allen: Darwin said that the horse, ass, zebra, quagga and haemonius were all evolved from an equine animal striped like the zebra but differently constructed and that the ancestors of all domestic animals . . .

Men and women of the past who wrote letters we

are still reading didn’t niggle around with bats getting into cottages. They jumped right into something that was on their mind, and with emotion and enthusiasm. They got insulted and furious, had their feelings hurt, fell in love and out of love and seldom discussed anything more trivial than the meaning of life. Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote:

Sir: On looking through the piece which you have sent me, I shuddered at finding myself praised.

I refuse to accept this horrible present. I am convinced that, in sending it to me, you didn't intend to insult me . . .

Only twenty years ago H. L. Mencken wrote to Will Durant:

You ask me in brief what satisfaction I get out of life, and why

How to Write a Letter

CONTINUED FROM PAGE 21

Another good rule to remember is that putting things in brackets doesn’t help. Also, putting an exclamation point after something does not make it exciting. Paddling up the Chickenawaki, for instance, is not in itself exciting. If you want to paddle up it, okay, hut don’t expect anyone to enjoy it just because you do this (!) after it.

I don’t want to hear from you if you learned to write letters from a highschool composition class and still think that we need say nothing in particular as long as we say it in five parts: the heading, salutation, body, complimentary close and signature

These lessons are strictly exercises and should be forgotten as soon as you get out of school, if not before. I remember the specimen friendly letter I had in my English composition book:

Dear Dad: I took a trip to Mohawk Lake yesterday.

We stopped at a place called "Come Right Inn," and had the most delicious chicken dinner. The owner of the tea room was a darling old lady, just the kind you read about. She had snow-white hair, a Dresden China face, sparkling blue eyes and the darlingest spinet desk, and she offered to sell it for twenty-eight dollars. Just think, Dad, twenty-eight dollars for the most adorable desk !

May I have it?

This has been about as much use to me as knowing how to address a duke, a retired chargé d’affaires, or a divorcee who has indicated at the bottom lefthand corner of her letter that she wants to start going by her original name again; or how to invite twelve people to dinner at the Sherry-Netherland; or, even more useless, how to refuse if someone asks me to dinner at the Sherry-Netherland. Furthermore, I hope I never hear from anyone capable of saying “delightful time,” “delicious chicken dinner,” “darling old lady,” “snow-white hair,” “Dresden China face,” “sparkling blue eyes,” and “just the kind you read about” all in one letter, not to mention “Come Right Inn.” The only thing this gal didn’t do was wend her way up a hill.

And if your husband has always told you you could write a book, go ahead, but don’t write me letters about the golden orb of day sliding beneath the purple mantle of night, which was studded with stars—or so you say.

I’d rather hear from the garageman who told me: “I haven’t written a letter in five years. Every time I feel like writing, I get two lines down then muck the whole !*(%$!! thing up and throw it away.”

I like to get letters from children; they are short, easy to read, and to the point. Í have one here from a niece in Sarnia:

Dear Uncle Bob: I fell in the river yesterday. I like being wet. Sally had four more kittens. I saw a skunk. Joan won’t let me play with her doll. I hope she dies. I hope you are well. Love,

I enjoy, of course, getting letters from

readers, but if you write angry letters I feel bound in fairness to tell you that if you’re to accomplish your purpose you must know a few tricks. The main thing in giving a writer a piece of your mind is to do it without giving the impression that you have read anything by him. Obviously if you’ve read his stuff you’ve defeated your own point, which is to imply that you can’t stomach it.

To get read is what the writer wanted in the first place, of course, and it gives him a sly delight, like when he allows himself to be shoved to the front of a queue. The way around this is to start off:

Dear Allen: A friend of mine, who is in the hospital with ait old Maclean's that has everything torn out of it but your junk, told me that you write tripe. Surely we don't have to stoop to this . . .

But generally it’s only when you stop writing, which implies that you’ve stopped reading, that writers get worried, so you’d do better to write to Dad about a spinet desk, unless you write one of those letters that leave the writer wondering whether you did write a letter or not. These go:

Dear Allen: I've just finished your garbage about living in summer cottages. Obviously you want to be a movie star. Why don't they? As if you didn't know. Oh well —

"I'll fit sonne gonyan day,

Thou saydest eek, that there

Been thinges thre ..."

In disgust,

All in all, letter writing is at about its lowest ebb in history. We may no longer write, as Miss Pinkerton wrote to Mrs. Bute Crawley:

Dear Madam: I have the honor to acknowledge your polite communication, to which I promptly reply 'tis most gratifying to one in my most arduous

position to find that my maternal cares have elicited a responsive affection . . .

But, it would be a treat these days to get a few of them. I’d like to get something from Benjamin Franklin that went:

As soon as Dinner was over, I took a solitary Walk into my Orchard, until I came to my usual Place of Retirement under the Great Apple Tree, where having seated myself, and carelessly laid my Head on a Verdant Bank,

I fell by Degrees into a soft and undisturbed Slumber.

Instead of letters that twitter:

Dear Mr. Allen: Are we getting just a little bit forgetful? We must remember, mustn't we, how interest is being charged at 27% every hour we are late. With love,

The Little Used Auto Home Credit Corporation

I shudder at the thought of getting any more scientifically tested sales letters that no one ever tests on me, like one I keep getting from an insecticide company that goes: “You wouldn’t throw away a ten dollar bill would you?” . . . and presumably gets around to insecticide somewhere in the next ten thousand words.

I’d also like to get a letter that starts: “There is absolutely no obligation on your part, nor anything to do,” but doesn’t end, “Just sell five thousand Christmas cards between now and Christmas to your friends and relatives.”

But above all, I’d like to get some letters from friends who have something to say. I don’t mind getting breezy letters if they blow something my way: and I don’t mind getting letters from people who can just go on and on, providing 1 get them on a night when they get somewhere. If I do, believe me Madame, I will remain, as ever, your humble and obedient servant

Rbt. Thms. Alin.