Saturday, December 23, 2006

Letter perfect

It's time to defend the (nearly) indefensible.

The annual holiday letter.

I know, I know. They are admittedly impersonal, since they are copied and sent out to a few dozen people. They take time to prepare, and some think they can't spare that time in the month of December.

The intent of the letter is great. I like to know what my friends are up to, and December is a great and traditional time of the year to catch up.

However. Most of them are simply awful. Part of the problem is that the people doing the writing only put pen to paper during the course of a year for a grocery list. It almost hurts to read those letters.

Even when they are in English, they are troublesome. The biggest problem, of course, is the issue of the kids. Let's face it, MY kids are all doing fascinating things that deserve to be mentioned to everyone. YOUR kids are doing things that no one cares about. It's not easy to turn such activities into general interest reading. I like to think of it as something like working with blasting caps -- leave it to the professionals.

We get a handful of letters every year. My favorite is from the wife of a college friend. She always writes it in the first person even though it's from the whole family, which hurts my sensibilities in such matters. But the "fun part" comes from the fact that my friend, the husband of the household, is barely mentioned in his own family newsletter. And when he is mentioned, it generally centers around the fact he works too much. Then the letter moves on. I'd kind of like to know what he's doing, how his golf game is, what he does in the workday world, how he liked the Red Sox' signing of Dice-K -- something.

In spite of this mountain of obstacles, I write a holiday letter that actually seems to be read and enjoyed. Granted, part of that is that some of the people on the mailing/e-mail list aren't members of the media, and aren't used to getting letters where most of the words are spelled correctly. But plenty of others write to say, "You have the only holiday newsletter I actually like to read."

Therefore, here are a few tips for the amateurs out there:

1. Don't have children. This may be difficult if they are already here, and they certainly have other advantages, but they don't do much for letters. If you do have kids, think of family activities rather than an individual's soccer award for perfect attendance.

2. Be positive. Had some bad news during the course of the year? Job still stink? Favorite baseball team lose five straight games to the Yankees in late August? Don't even think about mentioning it. (Exception: a death of a loved one deserves a note at the end.) No one wants to read about your problems, because they can probably top you.

3. Be funny. David Letterman's monologue doesn't get the care and attention I give to the holiday letter. I write a rough draft, and then try to sweeten the jokes. And then do it again. And again. I've even mailed out a few, thought of an improvement, and made new copies of the letter with the new joke. Mel Brooks I'm not, but people seem to laugh.

4. Keep it to one page. No one had THAT interesting of a year to expand to two pages. Well, maybe Donald Rumsfeld. But he has more time on his hands these days.

I try to keep up with my friends during the course of the year, and I'm pretty ruthless with my mailing list, so this isn't a case of a letter being the only piece of communication I have with people during 365 days. I'd like to think of it as a present, something personal that comes from me that can't be purchased at a store. It's worth my while to make time to send them a quality note.

In other words, I treasure my friendships, and this is a way of giving a piece of myself back to them on an annual basis.

Happy holidays.

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