It’s been a month since the experiment ended, and I still miss this little group of people. Some of them I know personally; some I don’t know a bit in real life. Some live nearby; some live too far to drive.
I mailed these people letters with stories about each of them—poetry, I suppose—for five weeks in a row. I hoped they would feel less alone. It was The Letters Project Beta, and I so hope you’ll read on.
I want you to be part of this next round. To do that right now, click here. To hear why, read on.
Here’s what happened:
I sent everyone anonymous questions to answer first. A whole list of personal questions. Stuff about regret and money and sex and joy. They answered quickly, and I felt like I was going to jump out of my skin when I saw their responses. Honest. Not framed to be clever. Gorgeous.
I closed my eyes and randomly chose one set of answers to use as the springboard for the first week’s writing piece.
That first week was a learning curve. I shopped for stationery; I learned what size the poem pages needed to be to fit in the envelopes; I figured out which pen made my handwriting look good without smudging all over the place. I wrote. The writing was writing of my absolute favorite kind. The production of it all It took so much more time than I thought it would. So much more.
And I loved it.
My daughter helped me mail that first set, and we put each envelope in the post office mailbox individually because it felt so special. We read each person’s name. We double-checked the stamp amount for the international one. We waved goodbye to them. It felt like a little party.
And then there was nothing.
Which was so weird.
I know and you know that we are training ourselves every day with smartphones and email and Amazon Prime to expect instantaneous response. I’ll tell you something embarrassing: Every week (still!) when I publish here, I refresh my email way more times a day than normal because I’m so excited when one of you sends me a response to my writing.
Well, when you mail a letter, there is no instantaneous response. In fact, when you mail letters as part of a creative project that you set up, there is no response at all. For five weeks. It’s just you mailing letters that for you are art, are a gift, are love—out into the world.
For the first two weeks, that felt surprisingly uncomfortable. I was shocked by the chatter in my own head: What if this wasn’t what they expected? What if they hated them? What if the piece I wrote based on their answers made them angry or offended or annoyed? What if people weren’t getting the letters at all for some reason? Should I email them to check in?
I did not email them to check in. Thank goodness.
I kept going. And, on the other side of that two weeks, I felt an enormous freedom. Writing those pieces, penning small notes to each person, putting them in mail—I enjoyed it from the beginning, and now my brain realized it could drop any expectations because there were no dopamine hits coming its way. Now I didn’t need to worry. I just needed to make the art.
Every week, I sat down with a set of answers. Before I started to write, I felt intensely excited and also like I was going to throw up. What if nothing came out this time? I wrote every one in one sitting, no matter how long it took. And then I read them out loud to edit them. I love reading out loud. I wondered if anyone getting the letters would read them out loud, too.
I wrote notes and killed several Sharpie fine point pens and spent plenty of time using the paper cutter at Kinko’s.
By the end of the five weeks, this tiny group in this tiny experiment was very dear to me. I thought about them often. I hoped they were well. I loved them. (I still do.) And even though it was entirely one direction for five weeks, I felt less alone.
The Letters Project (Beta) is one of the weirdest creative projects I’ve ever done. So tiny. So off-grid. So personal.
And it is also one of my very favorite creative projects I’ve ever done.
Will you be part of it this time? Do you want to know how it felt for the participants?
Since this was an experiment, I did indeed email them after the whole shebang had settled a bit. They were so awesome to respond right away. Want to hear some of their answers?
What was your reaction to seeing the letters in your pile of mail each week?:
“JOY. EXCITEMENT. WONDER.”
“Spike of joy.”
Was there a pattern to how you read the letters? In what space? Once or multiple times? Immediately or later on?
“I was so excited that I wanted to read them immediately even though the conditions were not ideal (kids running around, in the middle of cooking, on my way to pick up kids...) So for the last letters, I waited for the kids to be in bed and opened the letter comfortably settled on my couch :-) I usually read them twice.“
“Did not rip them open in the Post Office! Took each one home and settled down with it. As the project went on, I delayed the opening a little more, savoring the anticipation. I read them in different places, but cleared a mental space for them. And yes, I read them multiple times, usually twice at first sitting.”
“With most of them, I opened the mail in the kitchen and when I found the letter, I took it to a special chair in the dining room to read. Usually a dog would join me. With all, except one, I read them twice to myself.”
“Immediately - either in a passenger seat, walking to a coffee shop to meet a friend (and getting mocked by a tween on a bicycle), or on the bus.”
“Read them right away at my kitchen table, then tucked them away in my keepsake box.”
How did it feel to read the pieces that were about other people?:
“Wonderful! Nosiness is its own reward.”
“Like I wasn't alone. Even when the characters had different life experiences, I still felt connected to them very deeply.”
“Very intimate, like I had new friends.”
How did it feel to read a piece that was made from your answers but was still a character--wasn't actually you?
“It was affirming and hard. Sad and bittersweet. The way you captured my life so well was unlike anything I've ever read. I read it to my husband later. That was also beautiful and hard, but he knew all of it, so it wasn't like a confession.”
How did it feel to read pieces in the mail--instead of online or in a book or in a magazine?
“Intimate. More precious than even a book.”
Did you feel that you were part of a group, or was this a solo feeling?
“The time I felt part of a group was while reading--imagined 4 others reading, women I could only see from the back, at a distance--a group in time, but not in place.”
Did getting mail from me change your feeling of relationship to me at all? If so, how?:
“Yes. I've followed your work for a while now, but we've not met in person. Maybe if we had a personal relationship outside of the electronic world, this would be different, but now I feel like I'm a weird friend.”
How much would you pay weekly to be a part of something like this? What's the value in your mind--and would you pay that amount?
“Hmmm. This one is hard because it involves deciding what I would be OK not spending on, too. I paid $100 for a year of the Washington Post and I think I'd give that up for a year of letters. But per letter that seems really low--although that is pretty much what I'm willing to pay for a e-book. I would probably pay more than that for your letters--but a some price point I fear they would no longer feel like ineffable gifts but mere purchasable objects.”
Okay, so that last question had a whole range of answers.
I want to do this for a year. A whole year. I want to see where the writing goes and if the characters ever meet and what it’s like for a group of people to be connected in this way.
And I need your help to do that. Because I need answers for springboarding the pieces each week. I write best that way. And I need people to send letters to. People who are expecting them.
So I’ve decided to let you decide how much you can pay to participate. Maybe you’re broke, and you can’t pay a damn thing. Maybe it’s enough to cover my postage and copy costs. Maybe it’s more like a small commission for original work. Maybe you want to join yourself and also cover the postage costs for someone who signs up and can’t afford it.
I’m offering it to readers here first, and I’ll share it in other ways on Wednesday, December 19. Give it as a gift to yourself or to someone you love. I can tell you for certain it will be a gift to me.
I will love writing from your life. I will love mailing you letters. I love you, and you are not alone.