Rhea Abramson of Devoted Diarist and Mail More Love is a card whisperer, letter writing artist, and our beloved pen pal. We are overjoyed to bring her back to our blog to talk about how she taps into vulnerability and gratitude to reach out to people (strangers, family members, famous people, authors, and activists) who inspire her. As to be expected this interview is chock full of rich, actionable insight. Pour yourself some tea, sit down, and enjoy!
We designed our inspire card as an invitation to embrace vulnerability, to lean into gratitude, and to reach out and let someone know how they've inspired you. This is something that you already do regularly. Can you tell us a bit about your motivation to use letters to reach out in this way?
First, thank you for designing the inspire card. I really need this card in my stash so I will have to buy a stack of them! My mother deeply impressed the idea of writing thank you notes to me as a child, i.e. nagged me until I had written a note to Aunt Gerry for my birthday gift : ).
Gratitude is one of my core values and when someone inspires you, I think they should know that they made the world a little bit better place. I get great joy when people tell me days, months or years later, “hey that thing you said really helped me”. I try to pass that along. It does take vulnerability to do that and there is no greater skill to hone than expressing your vulnerability in safe environments. Letter writing is my artist way. It’s my medium for bringing out the joy in my heart and soul. I was recently given the honor of hosting a letter writing event at The Morgan Library in NYC to coincide with an exhibit on display now called The Magic of Handwriting. When my contact called me the “teaching artist” I realized – yes that is what I am….a letter writing artist!
What types of people do you reach out to in this way?
I reach out to friends, family, colleagues, famous actors/writers/activists, acquaintances, people I meet very briefly. I don’t have to know them at all to communicate my feelings. Here are some examples of the way it has happened across these types of people.
Someone I met very briefly:
In December I hosted a letter writing workshop at my favorite boutique in St. Croix, Adorn. One of the participants got REALLY into it. She was the sister of a friend of mine but we had never met before. As I was collecting all the outgoing mail that the group produced, I jotted down her name and address and the next day wrote her a letter telling her how much I enjoyed having her in the group, and that her mail art skills had really inspired me. She is a lawyer who lives in San Francisco. Fast forward 7 months, we exchange 3-4 letters per month and have ignited in each other new creative paths of making cool mail, generally enjoying each other and opening ourselves up to new things. She’s got me really interested in camping!
I was recently prepping for the arrival of a hurricane that turned into a tropical storm and as I waited to get money at the ATM machine, I had the thought that I didn’t need to get too much money because I could always get some from my Dad. As the day went on, I kept thinking about all the things my Dad could help me with if the storm hit. That got me thinking how lucky I was to have such an inspirational and uber-organized Dad. So last week I wrote him telling him all of that and at the end told him I got money anyway so I wouldn’t be hitting him up : ).
A few weeks ago I was putting together some recommendations for a friend who is traveling to LA and was going through a travel journal I made on a past trip there. I started to realize that all my trips to LA for the last 8 years have been AMAZING because of one person – Gwyneth Paltrow. I was an early GOOP adopter and used Gwyneth’s LA suggestions for restaurants, activities and shopping. Gwyneth gets a bad rap from a lot of people so I decided to send her a letter letting her know how she has shaped not only my trips but my entire life. I have seen her twice in real life (a story for another time) but don’t actually know her, and don’t expect a response. I don’t even know if she will read the letter but I hope she does, because she may get the letter on a day that she isn’t feeling so hot, and there is nothing better than finding out you unknowingly made someone’s life more magical.
In May I read the book The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas. I couldn’t put it down. I loved it so much that I went with my friend Caroline to get her a copy. And then I wrote letters to my two closest bookfidants : ) and told them to read it. They both LOVED it. I knew the minute I finished the book that I would write to Ms. Wolas. The book resonated with me so deeply. When I finished it, I actually missed being in the place the book created in my mind. I read A LOT so when I feel this way, it is special. I had to tell Ms. Wolas how much I loved the world she created. It was also her first book and I wanted her to know she has to keep writing.
I found the book at Books are Magic in Brooklyn, an absolutely MAGICAL bookstore, owned and operated by author Emma Straub. When I go into that store, I feel like Emma has curated the selection to have only books perfect for me. I read one of Emma’s books years ago and LOVED it. After I finished The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, I wrote to Emma Straub to say congratulations on creating the absolute perfect bookstore, for naming it so appropriately and for being so awesome.
After listening to one of Oprah’s Super Soul Podcasts with a man named Bryan Stevenson, I downloaded his book Just Mercy on Audible. For eleven and a half hours of driving, cooking, and drawing, I listened to Mr. Stevenson’s story of advocating for the wrongly convicted on death row in the south. The book moved me to tears more times than I would have liked. I learned so much and was in awe of Mr. Stevenson’s dedication and selflessness. As soon as I finished the book I began working on the envelope for his letter. I had to tell him how much he had inspired me, taught me and made me want to be a more thoughtful and kind person. I wanted him to know his impact on me and the world.
Other letters in the ever long to be written list:
Christine Nelson, Curator at the Morgan Library; Sarah Jessica Parker; James Benton, someone who made me see my home through a different lens; Ashton Bertrand, a man who was instrumental in helping me with an insurance claim.
Walk us through your process, how do you get from "I should write them a letter" to sealing the envelope and posting it?
I think you can tell my process from the examples I gave but essentially, it’s a feeling that I want someone to know how they sincerely they touched me. Then I start drawing their name on the envelope, figuring out how I will get it to them and then I write the letter when I am feeling really spacious and have time – mainly on a weekend.
Is there a particular environment that you like to write these types of notes in?
At home on a weekend with lots of beautiful paper and my pencil sharpener close by. I quickly exceed the space of a card. What can I say, clearly I am long winded : ).
Does your process differ at all if you are writing to a friend/co-worker versus a "stranger"?
Probably just more personal and casual when I know the person but I’m pretty transparent so not too different.
Letter writing in general is a reflective activity, what kind of thoughts/questions run through your head as you write these inspiration notes?
I just let my thoughts pour out on paper. My poor hand can’t keep up.
Engaging in this way forces you to get a little vulnerable. Do you have any advice for dealing with the discomfort of this vulnerability?
I think if you struggle with vulnerability, the best place to start is any of Brene Brown’s books. If you are hung up on the discomfort of vulnerability you probably will never get the letter finished. Our vulnerability is our magic. So take the risk. Just ask yourself “what is the intention of this letter” and “is this person a safe recipient of my gratitude." If so, you are off to the post office!
A common roadblock when writing to "strangers" is not being able to find their mailing address. Can you share some tips that help you sleuth out the addresses?
Authors are easy you just look on the publishers website and the address to send mail to is easy. Celebrities also all have managers and agents so you can write to their agents and ask them to pass the letter on. You can easily find this info on the internet. Strangers can be tough but it depends if you have some way to see them or someone who knows them who can pass on the letter. I’m a big believer, where there is a will there is a way. If you are at a total loss, brainstorm with a friend who loves puzzles and challenges.
How does writing these types of letters nourish you?
For me it is energy in my heart that needs to be expressed. If I don’t get it out, it keeps coming back. I also feel like it frees more space for me to be inspired by other people. Expressing gratitude for inspiration seems to solve the equation with that person once it is conveyed. It’s a gratitude letter for me because my life got a little richer.
If you could give one piece of advice to someone who'd like to start this type of practice, what would it be?
Don’t write to someone because you want a response back or expect one, especially if you write to a celebrity. These people are crazy busy and have to have good boundaries to have healthy lives. Don’t expect a response even from someone you know. Write because you want to share a piece of yourself with no expectation. You may be pleasantly surprised and get a response. But just releasing your letter means the job is done.
People tell me all the time that when they write to friends and family and don’t receive a response it frustrates them. 50% of the people I write to in my general correspondence don’t write back. I don’t write to those people for a response, I write to them to share my love, experiences, and questions with them. And because I miss them and wish they were close enough to talk to in person. Last week one of these people sent me a picture of the card I sent and said “I can’t tell you how much your letters mean to me”. My heart soared. She is my best friend and I write her a card once a month and she never writes me back. But I write because that is the way I demonstrate my love. If you are writing someone to get a response, contact The Letter Writers Alliance, become a lifetime member for $5 and ask to get matched with a pen pal. Writing to someone who wants to have an active pen pal-ship is the way to get great mail.
Need more Rhea in your life? Learn more about her letter writing practice and the letter writing challenges we've done with her here.