Writer, editor, stumbler after Jesus

An Open Letter to people who write them

Dear Open Letter Writer,

I see that you have been busy of late. You have penned missives to Justin Bieber, Amy Schumer, Mark Zuckerberg, and Kendall Jenner, among others. Then there were several to President Obama, a slew to assorted relational exes, and even one to Men on the Subway, Specifically During Morning Rush Hour on the A Train Between Jay Street and Canal.

Your voluminous work has inspired an online collection of Open Letters to People or Entities Who Are Unlikely to Respond. Phew! Clearly you have a lot to get off your chest.

But, and I say this with the greatest appreciation for your pain—can you please just stop?

Why? Well, first, the open letter has become like house pants, barbed wire bicep tattoos, stick figure families on rear windshields, and the word, meh. It had its moment in the sun, fresh and fun, causing you to turn your head and think, How cool is that? But now it’s everywhere and kind of, yes, meh.

Not only is it lame, it’s also lazy writing. Rather than grab my attention with your own strong prose, you rely on someone else’s name recognition to appeal to my voyeuristic nature. As such, it becomes a name-dropping version of that journalist’s no-no—backing into the story.

If you want my attention on a subject, earn it with your words, not their name. Don’t try to sneak in on someone else’s coattails.

This practice reminds me of a method for dealing with writer’s block that I sometimes suggest in writing workshops. “If you don’t know where to start,” I tell students, “write a letter to your favorite aunt. Begin, Dear Aunt Whoever, then tell her what the article or chapter is about, and what needs to be in it. Sign off, Your loving nephew/niece. Then strike out the greetings and farewell, and you have the bare bones, something to work with.”

Now it’s at least down on paper, but it’s far from good. Kind of like an open letter.

There also seems to me to be a question of sincerity. For the most part, open letters aren’t really concern for the person you are writing to, are they? They are about you. The whole idea that someone really, really needs to hear from you about something is rather self-aggrandizing, though it’s handled in the vaguely self-effacing kind of way that passes for commentary these days.

An open letter inserts you into the issue. The result often is that reasoned opinions become secondary to your personal experiences. This approach may be self-revealing, moving even, but a great anecdote does not necessarily make for a good argument.

If my questioning your sincerity in addressing the person(s) in question is inaccurate, there’s at least the issue of strategy. If your chief desire is to speak into their life, what are the chances that they are actually going to read the publication or website through which you send your letter?

And if they should, how are they going to receive your words? I suspect that calling someone out in public isn’t the best way to win a hearing from them—especially in our uber-sensitive to “shaming” culture.

Sure, printing your correspondence, sticking it in an envelope, and putting it in the mail to them will further reduce the likelihood of them ever seeing it. However, if they should, might they not consider it more seriously?

Of course, this really isn’t the point about an open letter, is it? It’s not about them. And when it comes to anonymous recipients, it’s about venting. It’s about doing something with the sense of impotence or unimportance someone triggered in you.

But let’s stop with the whole passive-aggressive thing, can we? Counselors often suggest to clients who are dealing with unresolved anger that they write a letter to the subject of their rage, spilling their guts—and then destroy it.

Maybe you could try the same thing.

If I have offended you in any way, please understand that was not my intent. This letter was borne out of deep personal concern for you, not my own irritation. But do let me know what I have written that may hurt you—in a private message, of course.

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