On Parenting will host guest bloggers most Fridays. Today, Bob Brody, a media specialist at the strategic communications firm Powell Tate and blogger at Letters to My Kids, offers advice on writing letters to your children. His personal essays have appeared in the New York Times, The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.
Let’s say you’re ready to make the big leap. You’re going to record your personal family history for your kids. Good for you. Still, you might be asking yourself some questions: Where should I start? How do I say what I want to say? And so on, into infinity and beyond.
As it happens, I devoted two years to writing for both my kids, compiling more than 100 vignettes, amounting to nearly 70,000 words. In the process, I gleaned a few tips. So here goes:
1. Decide to do it. No, really. You’re either in or you’re out. Here’s a little trick I used long ago when wondering whether to marry my then-girlfriend, Elvira. Every day for about a month I asked myself, “Should I marry her?” Day after day, the answer that came back was yes. That self-survey helped me decide. We’ve now been married 34 years.
2. Plan it out. Do at least an outline. Even Shakespeare needed one. Call it a GPS for the flow of your thoughts. Before I jotted down a single word, I daydreamed for weeks. Then I took shorthand – “gleaned my teeming brain,” as John Keats wrote. “Caroline singing for Nanna,” one note said. “Michael going out late at night,” said another. All my recollections served as clues to the stories that ultimately came.
3. Vote for reality. Kids can smell spin from a mile away. So opt for the truth, however much it might hurt you to do so. Personally, I’m big on facts. My son Michael and I sometimes butt heads. That’s a fact. My daughter Caroline sometimes resists my advice. That’s a fact, too. All of us occasionally feel tempted to paint the past only with bright, sunny colors. But kids have an inherently keen sense of truth. Whatever you say, they will find you out.
4. Single out the highlights. Draw only from the richest memories at your command. Even though you can write about anything, you’ll be better off writing about something — and better still, something specific, even, if possible, singular. Look to tell the story that is yours and yours alone to tell. Zero in on a single action or comment or incident or series of episodes. Capitalize on experiences that resonate as special, that matter, that mean something. Seize, above all, on moments, and therefore on the momentous, the revealing, the revelatory.
5. Keep it spontaneous. First thought, best thought, poet Allen Ginsberg famously said. Theoretically, then, you’ll bring yourself within flirting distance of the genuine. I know — this tip directly contradicts tip No. 2. Let me explain: I planned the journals precisely so I could then be spontaneous. If you start with a general sense of the direction to take, you’re already halfway home. I went pretty much with whatever I felt the impulse to say — went what Robin Williams, in describing peak experiences in stand-up comedy, once called “full-tilt bozo.”
6. Briefer is better. It’s the soul of wit, no? Enough said.
7. Remember: Anyone can write. I know that sounds like lip service, so let me clarify here. We all have stories to tell. And nobody knows your story better than you. Writing is different from talking, of course. It takes a lot more time and patience. Do you have to be a writer? No. It comes down to harnessing a certain power we all have within us. Period.
Even so, my only expertise here is my experience. So please regard these tips as merely a starter kit. Your life is your turf; you can rightly claim absolute sovereignty — and you get final cut. So go at this however you wish. Go with your gut. That’s my only real edict.
After all, I’m me and you’re you. To thine own self be true, and all that. And if you’re lucky, you might find your true voice. A voice your children will hear loud and clear. A voice they’ll cherish for the ages.