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Disheartened And Dragging? Write Yourself a Letter

by Noelle Sterne

When I scanned the mail the other day, one letter caught my eye. I couldn't quite place the handwriting and tore open the letter. To my shock, I saw I'd written it to myself.

Maybe I should have recognized my own handwriting, but it was like seeing yourself reflected in a window. Even though certain aspects look familiar, most of us don't have a clear picture of what we look like or write like.

Three weeks earlier, a particularly important writing project had been rejected. After I poured out my despondency to a friend, she suggested I write a letter to myself extolling my virtues and mail it without a second glance or draft. Desperate, I followed her advice.

Now when I saw the letter, I remembered writing and mailing it. But the mind is a marvelous, perverse organ, often defying logic. And writer and reader are two different creatures. Now, as intended reader, I felt I was looking at the letter for the first time.

In the past, I'd occasionally fed myself words of praise, but they always got towed under by the persistent waves of doubt and whipped by the accusing winds of audacity. Only now, seeing the scrawled self-acclaiming phrases, did I begin to believe them and, amazingly, felt uplifted.

Writing yourself a letter isn't a new antidote in the writer's self-help bag of tonics for depression, futility, blocks, purpose-clarifying, or other occupational ills. The letter can be used by any creative individual to support, encourage, and affirm. In The Artist's Way, my favorite book for "creatives," as Julia Cameron calls us, in one of her weekly tasks, she assigns such a letter. Anticipating objections, she says that writing and mailing a letter to yourself "sounds silly" but, as I discovered, "feels very, very good to receive."

Why Bother?

"Jeez," you're saying, "With all I have to do, I can hardly squeeze in some real time for my writing, painting, music, dance, pottery . . . . Why should I fool with a letter to myself?"

Here are only a few reasons:

  1. It makes you write about your blocks. If you've been having trouble, the letter pushes you, not unpleasantly, to get the flow, or the brushes, going.

  2. You can scold yourself or spill out your frustrations and betrayed hopes without suffering through anyone else's well-meaning, superior advice.

  3. It nudges you to face your unproductive behavior and self-indulgent attitudes -- procrastination, failure to stick to a creating schedule, yielding to childish grief that you're not in a gallery or command huge sums for your paintings, even though you've done nowhere near enough work to get so much as a sketch taped to a wall.

  4. With your soul clean and confessed, in the letter you can now commit, or recommit, to correction and new action.

  5. Without inviting the muffled giggles or outright scorn of friends and family, you can enunciate on paper exactly what you want -- the well-worn but still precious ideal day/life.

  6. When you describe your perfect day on paper, you're visualizing your ideal creating time and activities and affirming that you do indeed deserve them.

What Should You Tell Yourself in the Letter?

You've probably already thought of several things. Cameron suggests two. Your adult self can address "your inner artist" about the dreams you want to make real. Or you can write as a best friend suggesting "a few simple changes" in your life toward achieving your dream. You know them: solid regular gym sessions, more (or less) sleep, tactful withdrawal from a friend who calls five times a day or the committee sucking all your energy, cooking fewer gourmet meals (your family/relatives/friends will still like you), or other adjustments that give you more time, creative space, and focus for the work your heart cries out to do.

You can also address yourself as if you're 90 looking back. Or write your letter as an "artist's prayer," as Cameron does in a powerful poem. Or write out unabashed declarations of your artistic pluses and successes. How often do we really acknowledge ourselves for accomplishments, even those as small as setting up our easel or buying a new piece of software to track our submissions?

So, the purpose of the letter to yourself is to make you feel better, remind you of your all-important life vision, and conquer those teeming demons of self-doubt. The letter bolsters, motivates, heartens, inspires, and chides you into more work, better work, and more consistent and daring work.

What Others Have Told Themselves

Many types of letters to yourself will work. I asked a small writers' group to write to themselves. To help you to your own letters and learnings, here, with permission, are excerpts that apply to any of us creatives.

One author wrote to himself from a simulated advanced age: "Don't make the daily excuses. They add up to a wasted life. Don't do what I did and live each day only to get through it and for creature comforts. You still have time. Your yearnings to create won't disappear, nor will your gifts. They're waiting patiently for you and, with the least encouragement, will rush to express. Take hold and don't lose your dream."

Another writer instructed herself in the need for balance and self-nurturing: "Listen to music again. Read the books you like. Instead of stupid television flipping, you know how fulfilling a symphony or well-written paragraph can be. Take a course. Get outside and enjoy the air. Go play with your husband. Sit in a field and write. Breathe."

A third underscored visualization of the ideal life: "Keep dreaming. Dream that you can be and are what you want to be. Dream you're writing exactly what you want to now, and keep returning to this dream. Eventually it will become what you are."

A fourth cheered on: "You're on the right path. Keep seeing your path with passion and purpose. Whatever writing you're doing, do it wholly. Whether you judge it 'creative' or not, you're developing and enriching your gift. Believe in it and yourself to do it."

Your Turn

Go on -- give yourself this gift. Take about a half hour, settle into a spot you love, and begin. Once you finish, fold the letter into an envelope (somehow e-mail isn't as powerful), and mail it.

When, in a few days, you quizzically peer at the dimly familiar handwriting on the envelope, as I did, and then open and read your letter, I guarantee you'll be astonished. You'll also be bolstered and buoyed, moved and humbled. Your creative fires will flare and fuel your dedication. You'll fashion a schedule for your current project and stick to it. And, more than ever before, you'll accept and value the person who wrote that letter.

Copyright © 2013 Noelle Sterne
This article is not available for reprint without the author's written permission.

Author, editor, ghostwriter, writing coach, and spiritual counselor, Noelle Sterne has published over 250 published fiction and nonfiction pieces in print and online venues. She has contributed many guest blogs and writes a column in Coffeehouse for Writers, "Bloom Where You're Writing." With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, for over 28 years Noelle has guided doctoral candidates to completion of their dissertations. Based on this work, her latest project-in-progress is a practical-psychological-spiritual handbook, Grad U: Complete Your Dissertation -- Finally -- and Ease the Trip for Yourself and Everyone Who Has to Live With You. In her current book, Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books), Noelle draws examples from her practice and other aspects of life to help writers and others release regrets, relabel their past, and reach their lifelong yearnings. Visit Noelle at http://www.trustyourlifenow.com.

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