July 2, 2013
How to Use Old Letters in Your Life Writing
Letters that you wrote, oh, so long ago, offer an invaluable glimpse into "who you used to be." Old letters will show your opinions, interests and, yes, even your obsessions from days gone by.
I'm lucky enough to have a repository of old letters from my boarding school and college years. I wrote to my parents and older sisters often and they had the foresight to keep the letters. I recently borrowed a bundle of letters my sister had squirreled away in her attic and I must admit, I cringed while rereading many of them. My naive judgements and proclamations! My incessant complaints about the cold and lack of money! My neediness!
But there were also several good surprises. My enthusiasm and ambitions for the future. My excitement at life every time I read a new book, learned a new fact, or visited a new place. My generosity of spirit in caring for others.
Rereading these old letters has helped me get a clearer picture of myself at that time. As I age, I tend to assume that what I know now, I knew then—about the world and about myself. But these letters remind me of a girl who was learning new things everyday. She may have thought she knew everything then, but she certainly didn't!
Aside from the insight they offer, you can use excerpts from your old letters to add variety when writing the stories from your life. What could be more compelling than the actual words and phrases you wrote during a specific time in your life? Perhaps you captured in your earlier writing a momentous meeting or memorable event that still has meaning to you now. Maybe you conveyed raw emotions that would be difficult to recapture at this removed date in time. Use those quotes in your current writing—they're very powerful.
No doubt just the act of rereading your letters will spark stories. Memories will come rushing in as you read your own words. Capture those memories on paper while they're fresh in your mind. Time has given you the gift of further insight and a new perspective of events that you wrote about so long ago. Use the perspective of who you are now to shed light on who you were back then.
So if you have a cache of your own letters, what a bounty you have at your disposal! Even if you have just one or two, read them through and feel free to use them in your future writing.