Writing stalled? Send yourself a letter

Letter to yourselfWhen I scanned the mail the other day, one letter caught my eye. I couldn’t quite place the handwriting and tore open the letter. To my shock, I saw I’d written it to myself.

Maybe I should have recognized my own handwriting, but it was like seeing yourself reflected in a window. Even though certain aspects look familiar, we often don’t have a clear picture of what we look like—or write like.

Three weeks earlier, I’d received a rejection for a particularly important writing project. After I poured out my despondency to a friend, she suggested writing a letter to myself venting my frustrations, extolling my virtues, and declaring my writing goals and mailing the letter without a second glance or draft. It should be postal mail, she emphasized—email wasn’t quite the same. I thought this idea a little hokey, but desperate followed her advice.

Seeing the letter now, I remembered writing and mailing it. But the mind is a marvelous, perverse entity, often defying logic. And writer and reader are two different creatures. As intended reader, I felt I was looking at the letter for the first time.

In the past, I’d often berated myself in my journal and occasionally fed myself words of praise, but they always got towed under by the persistent waves of doubt and whipped by the accusing winds of audacity. Only now, seeing the scrawled self-acclaiming phrases, did I begin to believe them and, amazingly, felt lifted.

Writing yourself a letter isn’t a new antidote in the writer’s self-help bag of tonics for depression, futility, blocks, purpose-clarifying, or other writing ills. In The Artist’s Way, my favorite book for writers and other “creatives,” Julia Cameron recommends such a letter. Anticipating objections, she says that writing and mailing a letter to yourself “sounds silly” but, as I discovered, “feels very, very good to receive” (p. 190).

Why Bother?

“Jeez,” you’re saying, “With all I have to do, I can hardly squeeze in some real time for my writing, painting, music, dance, pottery, baking . . . . Why should I fool with a letter to myself?”

Here are only a few reasons:

  1. You’re writing at least something.
  2. The letter can—and should—be first a place you can whine safely about your blocks. Writing the letter pushes you, not unpleasantly, to get the flow going.
  3. Before the praise, you can scold yourself or spill out your frustrations and betrayed hope without suffering through anyone else’s well-meaning, delivered-with-superiority bromides.
  4. The letter nudges you to face your unproductive behavior and self-indulgent attitudes—procrastination, failure to stick to a schedule, yielding to childish grief that you haven’t been accepted yet by The New Yorker or won the Man Booker prize (even though you’ve done nowhere near enough work to get so much as a 200-word manuscript completed).
  5. With your soul clean and confessed, in the letter you can now commit, or recommit, to new action.
  6. Without inviting the muffled giggles, outright scorn, or “Yes, buts . . .” of friends and family, you can enunciate on paper exactly what you want.

What Should You Tell Yourself in the Letter? 

You’ve probably already thought of several things. Cameron suggests two. Your adult self can address “your inner artist” about the dreams you want to make real. Or you can write as a trusted friend suggesting “a few simple changes” in your life toward achieving your dream (pp. 53, 115).

You know the changes you want: solid regular gym sessions that help you summon more writing energy, more (or less) sleep, tactful withdrawal from a friend who calls five times a day or the committee sucking all your energy, cooking fewer gourmet meals (your family/relatives/friends will still like you), or other changes in your life that give you more time, creative space, and focus for the work your heart cries out to do.

You can also address yourself as if you’re 90 looking back. Or write your letter as an “artist’s prayer,” as Cameron does in a powerful poem (p. 211). Or write out unabashed declarations of your artistic pluses and successes.
How often do we really acknowledge ourselves for accomplishments, even those as small as finally squeezing out a paragraph on that stalled scholarly article or long-lingering novel or buying a new piece of software to track our submissions? Your letter chides, bolsters, motivates, heartens, and inspires you into more work, better work, and more consistent and daring work.

What Others Have Told Themselves

I asked a small writers’ group to write to themselves. To help you to your own letters and learnings, here, with permission, are excerpts that may apply to any of us.

  • One author wrote to himself from a simulated advanced age: Don’t make the daily excuses. They add up to a wasted life. Don’t do what I did and live each day only to get through it and for creature comforts. You still have time. Your yearnings to create won’t disappear, nor will your gifts. They’re waiting patiently for you and, with the least encouragement, will rush to express. Take hold and don’t lose your dream.
  • Another writer instructed herself in the need for balance and self-nurturing: Listen to music again. Read the books you like. Instead of stupid television flipping, you know how fulfilling a symphony or well-written paragraph can be. Take a course. Get outside and enjoy the air. Play football outside with your husband. Sit in a field and write. Breathe.
  • A third underscored visualization of the ideal life: Keep dreaming. Dream that you can be and are what you want to be. Dream you’re writing exactly what you want to NOW, and keep returning to this dream. Eventually it will become you and you it.
  • A fourth cheered himself on: You’re on the right path. Keep seeing your path with passion and purpose. Whatever writing you’re doing, do it wholly. Whether you judge it “creative” or not, you’re developing and enriching your gift. Stop judging it and just enjoy it. Believe in it and yourself to do it.

Your Turn   

Give yourself this gift. Take some time, settle into a spot you love, and begin. Once you finish, fold the letter into an envelope, address it to yourself, find a stamp, and mail it.

When, in a few days, you quizzically peer at the dimly familiar handwriting on the envelope, as I did, and then open and read your letter, I guarantee you’ll be astonished. You’ll also be boosted and buoyed, moved and humbled. Your creative fires will flare and fuel your dedication. You’ll decide on a schedule for your current project and stick to it. And, more than ever before, you’ll accept and value the person who wrote that letter.

© 2020 Noelle Sterne


Noelle SterneDissertation coach, nurturer, bolsterer, handholder, and editor; scholarly and mainstream writing consultant; author of writing craft, spiritual, and academic articles; and spiritual and motivational counselor, Noelle Sterne has published over 600 pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inspire Me Today, Transformation Magazine, Unity Magazine, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle has for 30 years helped doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion (finally). Based on her practice, her Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, September 2015) addresses students’ often overlooked or ignored but crucial nonacademic difficulties that can seriously prolong their agony. See the PowerPoint teaser here. In Noelle`s Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she draws examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets and reach lifelong yearnings. Following one of her own, she is currently working on her second novel. Visit Noelle at www.trustyourlifenow.com