Writing that letter you really, really don’t want to write.
Visually rich presentation and letter writing workshop for those tough to write correspondence such as condolence letters, letters of regret, Dear John letters, I quit and your fired letters. Two-hour duration. In Spring 20a8 this class was given to 35 staff members of OXO corporation in New York City and during the week-long Conservator’s Holiday May 16-20.
This class is about creating those hard to write letters no one wants to actually sit down and compose, generally referred to in this series as letters of regret, and individually described as: The “I regret to inform you” letter. The “I quit” or “you’re fired” letter. The “Dear John” letter. And also, the various forms of condolence letters including bereavement acknowledgments.
The first category to be covered is the “I regret to inform you” letter, such as one from James Monroe, December 23, 1814, commanding—he was then the United States Secretary of War—Major General Scott to rally an “adequate force, composed of gallant spirits” to defend an area not at all in their favor defensively, with inadequate “material” comprised of unidentified volunteers, a regrettable circumstance indeed. Or the May 13, 1958 letter from Jackie Robinson, the first African American baseball player in a bona fide Major League, to President Dwight D. Eisenhower whom, Robinson felt, was regrettably not taking adequate action towards the advancement of civil rights in this country. Formally typewritten on Chock full o’ Nuts corporate letterhead, Robinson expressed frustration and growing impatience for “17 million Negroes…[to] wait for the hearts of men to change… [who] want to enjoy now the rights we feel we are entitled to as Americans.” While Robinson did use the iconic Chock full ‘o nuts corporate letterhead to lend extra weigh to his message (he utilized his executive position at the famous coffee company to fight for civil rights), even on the plainest paper, his words would surely have “respectfully remid[ed]” Eisenhower to make a more aggressive move to advance civil rights.
The second category is the resignation letter, such as Eleanor Roosevelt’s February 27, 1939 note to Mrs. Henry M. Roberts, Jr., president of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). In this extremely concise note, the first lady resigns her membership because the DAR refused to allow the noteworthy, African American singer, Marian Anderson, to perform at its Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C.. Roosevelt concludes her message with, “You [the DAR] lost the opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and it seems to me that your organization has failed.” Roosevelt’s letter was typewritten on a small, no-frills sheet of plain stationery, to great effect. Thereafter, Anderson was invited by the federal government to sing during a ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial.
Form, in addition to words, is also examined in this session, though more as a subtext illustrating message and content: An example of this is the March 13, 2009 resignation “cake” by Neil Berrett. Berrett’s edible gesture was followed up by a conventional letter of resignation, as he explained, “Today I gave a two weeks’ notice of my intent to resign. The letter was written in frosting on a full sheet size cake. The cake was delicious and it was well received.”
The third category of regret in this class is the Dear John letter. The instructor is mindful to include break-up letters providing constructive thought rather than merely venting spleen. * An example of this is the unsent letter from Marilyn Monroe to Joe DiMaggio explaining in simple terms her feelings of inadequacy about their failed relationship and marriage.
Mrs. Collins Regrets would not be complete without examining condolence letters, a method of communicating and sharing feelings with those who are bereaved due to personal loss. One example is from a widower in Oklahoma penned, by hand, to Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy expressing his empathetic feeling for her situation after her husband’s assassination in 1963. Primarily, Mrs. Collins Regrets focuses on private moments; however, in so doing, emotions concerning national, and sometimes international interest will be discussed. The Oklahoma gentleman’s letter to Mrs. Kennedy illustrates how the president’s death affected individuals on a level that many personally related to.
“Within seven weeks of the President’s death, Jacqueline Kennedy received more than 800,000 condolence letters. Two years later, the volume of correspondence would exceed 1.5 million letters.”—Ellen Fitzpatrick, Letters to Jackie: Condolences from a Grieving Nation.
In addition to the obvious timelessness of all forms of letters conveying regret—humans and animals have been dying, quitting on us, and losing interest in us for time immemorial—writing this book seemed particularly timely for multiple reasons centering on the need for a how-to approach for drafting a vehicle addressing the unimaginable. Reflect on the 153,568 signatures register as of July 20, 2013 to the “Please Sign the Boston Marathon Condolence Card” website and how much participating in the act of consoling means to survivors, well-wishers, friends and observers of loss and catastrophe. With this number of supporters it seems obvious that taking action in the wake of grief is important. Further testimony to this human necessity for taking positive action is the estimated number of floral bouquets (over one million) left outside of Buckingham Palace following Lady Diana’s fatal accident August 3, 1997 and the ongoing efforts for closure we, as a nation, continue to feel for the events of 9/11/2001.
* This class will touch upon Anna Holmes’s snarkily hilarious Hell Hath No Fury: Women’s Letters from the End of the Affair as models for break-up letters that ought not be sent.