Why would you ever write a letter and not send it? Lauren B. Smith, of Tucson, tells you in her new book Unsent Letters: Writing as a Way to Resolve and Renew, Walking Stick Press. Writing letters to someone who has caused you pain, someone with whom you have a disagreement, or someone who has let you down, for example, gets the bad feelings off your chest. Writing one letter, then another, then another allows you to examine your feelings and, at the same time, to wring the strength out of a painful emotion. Meanwhile, not sending the letter until you have thoroughly clarified how you feel keeps you from deepening the wound or intensifying the pain connected with the person on the other end of the hurtful experience.

When Smith, began publishing a quarterly journal dedicated to letter writing years ago, she had no idea that it would one day evolve into a book about therapeutic writing. But Messages From The Heart caught the attention of an editor at Walking Stick Press. After three years of discussion, negotiation, and writing, Smith had her Unsent Letters in hand. The book appeared on bookstore shelves in July, 2002, and was selected as the July offering of Writer’s Digest Book Club.

The appearance of Smith’s book came at a time when medical science was busy proving the efficacy of therapeutic writing. Arthur A. Stone, Ph.D., attests to this fact in the book’s foreward. He says, “We demonstrated that writing produced lower rates of disease activity in people with rheumatoid arthritis and that it improved objectively assessed lung function in asthma patients.” USAToday (July 1, 2002) reported, “Evidence has mounted in the past 15 years that writing in longhand about traumas … leads to better mental and physical health.” On AOL’s October 7, 2002 home page, an article about sleep loss suggested recording your stresses and anxieties in a “worry book” just before bedtime. “It sounds so stupid, but it really does work,” Joyce Walsleben of New York University’s Sleep Disorders Center reports in the article. “It trains you to stop thinking about your problems after you close the book.”

Wanting to feel less stressed is part of our everyday talk during these uncertain times. And in Unsent Letters, Smith offers suggestions for identifying troublesome emotions and, then, gaining a greater sense of control over them by putting them into words. Smith discusses the technique of writing unsent letters, offers “nudges” to ease readers into their own private writing, and provides sample letters as examples of resolution can occur through therapeutic writing. By focusing on specific types of letters, Smith demonstrates how we can confess love, say goodbye, ask for help, seek forgiveness, accept disappointment in ourselves or others, and express anger.

"Unsent Letters was written out of personal experience with the power of letter writing," says Smith. While attending a boarding school during her adolescent years, Smith experimented with writing about her feelings as a way of coming to grips with emotions that confused her. She found that by giving a written “voice” to what was bothering her, she could gain a sense of control over her emotions rather than giving them free reign in her mind and heart. In addition, the letters that she wrote and received from her family formed a lifeline with home and neighborhood that she missed dearly. The act of letter writing to herself in her journal and to family and friends became a habit that has helped to shape her life.

Reshaping the stories of our lives is what Unsent Letters is all about. Smith guides readers through chapters about using writing to improve the way we romance the special people in our lives, face grief, clear up misunderstandings, and grant forgiveness. Her “nudges” lead readers through several rewrites about feelings and events. She often suggests that readers pretend during writing exercises. “Write to yourself, pretending you are a friend or relative who has been watching the serious misunderstanding unfold,” she suggests. In another chapter she suggests, “Describe your relationship as if you were walking with it through autumn leaves, through the first snow of winter, through gentle ocean surf.” And then, “For a moment, be a child. Use your imagination to see yourself in your relationship from as many new angles as possible.”
The object of these writing exercises is to remove the power from hurtful memories by expanding our understanding. As we rewrite the stories we tell ourselves about hurtful experiences, we reshape our emotions so that they are manageable, not out of control. We take action by writing about our pain rather than allowing it to cause headaches, sore shoulders, or sleepless nights.

A sample letter in the book demonstrates the power of turning vague emotions into words. “Dear Ed, / I should have told you this long ago, but I’m writing a letter instead. The time is gone. The ‘not now, maybe later’ has become the present, and you are not here. … I wish I could hear you breathing now. I should have said, years ago, that I love you more than anything. Should have, but didn’t. Now all I have to comfort me is the ghost of your arms around my waist. ‘Not now, maybe later.’ We only have now; there is no later. / Love. / Your sorrowful wife.”

The power of this woman’s letter lies in both her desire to forgive herself for something she failed to do and her wish to say ‘I love you’ before it’s too late. Words can transform. And Unsent Letters is packed with discussions, exercises, and sample letters that lead readers easily through the technique of using the letter-writing form to resolve personal issues and renew spirit. Sending these letters is optional (and discussed in the last chapter). But until that point, readers are urged to express their issues in totally privacy, allowing for an openness and honesty that otherwise might not be possible.

“Everywhere I give lectures or do book signings, folks tell me that they have used this technique at times to work through such things as grief over death of a loved one, anger over a frustrating situation, or sadness over a broken relationship,” says Smith. “These stories confirm my belief in the technique as something we all can do to live with greater emotional and physical well-being.”
Unsent Letters: Writing as a Way to Resolve and Renew (Walking Stick Press, $14.99) is available at most bookstores.

Author's Bio: 

Lauren B. Smith has been writing for her whole life, sometimes in journals, for years as photo critic for a Columbus, Ohio, newspaper. She created and edited a quarterly journal dedicated to letter writing for eight years. Currently, she is giving talks and writing workshops that focus on her book, Unsent Letters: Writing as a way to resolve and renew, by Walking Stick Press.