Since my return from England, my aunt and I have been exchanging letters. We’ve tried this before (the first attempt was an email exchange when I was 11), but I’ve always been the one who allows the tradition to die. We’re on a winning streak now; I’m working on my third letter to her and the fifth since we began in mid-July. I’ve come to rely on these letters as I begin my senior year of college, but their importance to my life spans much farther than how they affect me personally.
This summer, during my last few weeks in London, I received a letter from my aunt written on a small card and spilling over several other pages. I’d decided to open the letter as soon as I boarded the tube from work. It always seems appropriate to read letters while in transition to somewhere else, and I’d been feeling the metaphor of transition rather strongly the past few days.
I scouted a seat on the train and slid the letter from the already torn envelope. In it, she described a period of several days, often stopping mid-letter and picking up on a different day. As I sat with my legs pressed between two other passengers on the hot, un-airconditioned train, I began to chill in the evening air of Bellingham, WA. After describing her recent days, my aunt told me about summers with her sister and brother (my father) and reading at night with my grandmother while the other neighborhood kids’ playful shouts could still be heard in the streets. She recalled chasing big trucks with mosquito repellent spray trailing behind them and the ecstatic joy she got from its misty release.
Through each jolt of the train, I hung on to every single detail in the letter. As I brushed the tears from my face (only to find a judgmental tube passenger staring at me), I was suddenly aware of the importance of that letter to my life. It was important, I decided, because it contained story. It was important because that story contained detail, and that detail mattered. Stuck in the weird transition of leaving London and starting a new school year, I had been waiting for something that would grab my attention and allow me to belong to someone else’s life. I didn’t know how much I’d needed that escape.
This brings me to the topic of detail. Detail, or the absence of it, dictates the fate of a story and its effect on the reader. For journalists, it’s truly a matter of choices. We are the only ones who know about the things we choose to leave out of the story, but we are also hyper-aware of how making the wrong choice could alter how others see our story. Speaking as a member of this hyper-alert breed of humans, I understand the anxiety that factors in to the choice of detail. To me, every detail in my aunt’s letters is perfect. They make up a story that serves the purpose of what I need every time I read them. I’m not sure if she agonizes about what to include or what not to include, but as a hyper-aware, semi-neutoric journalist, I do.
As I’m writing this letter to my aunt now, I struggle with how to say something to get the reaction I want. Yes, I even strategize theme and mood in my letter writing to family members. How sick am I? What will compel my reader to respond the way I hope she will? What details will make her understand my story?
This letter writing might just translate even farther in my life as I begin my field stories for intermediate writing. For one of my stories, I am going to attempt to tell a story I’ve already written, but longer and for a different audience in mind. The first time around, I left out so much detail that I had at my disposal. I was mostly completely overwhelmed at the writing process, and totally unsure about where to begin or what to include. What I do know is that I want someone to read my story, with all of it details and descriptions, and say, “I needed that.”