As it pertains to correspondence, I’ve inherited the (long-winded) writing gene from my mother.
I grew up watching her prepare bi-weekly summaries for my grandmothers; written out by hand and sent dutifully – but joyfully – every two weeks like clockwork. I remember when we got a computer and she could alter the text for each grandmother without having to rewrite pages and pages from scratch – a gamechanger. This is also the same mother that, until recently, would send out individualized Christmas cards, each one containing a very long, handwritten update. She would spend huge chunks of time (over weeks, sometimes months) getting this done each holiday season. She has finally jumped on the stock-letter bandwagon, but not before personalized communication habits were drilled very firmly into my psyche.
I’m not saying I have any unique talent in this area and I’m not creating written masterpieces of any kind…but when it comes to reaching out to people via e-mail (and, as often as I can, the good old-fashioned postal service), I think I have an unusual penchant for my demographic.
When I moved to a new province as a teenager, I wrote letters to all the friends I’d had to leave behind. For years. Then, when I finished my undergrad degree, I faced the inevitability of moving away from several of my closest university friends. We had all scattered for further education but kept in almost constant communication via e-mail. Every week or so we would write each other with a laundry list of current happenings. We’d air complaints about a frustrating professor or assignment. We’d share details about the latest pick-up league one of us had joined. Eventually, these e-mails saw us discussing wedding details and later we described meeting our peanut-sized babies for the first time on a fuzzy ultrasound display.
Recounting the minutiae of day-to-day activities kept us engaged in each other’s lives and, when we did get a chance to meet in person, it felt like no time has passed.
After I’d gotten into the habit of doing this with friends, I extended the tradition to involve my parents and parents-in-law.
I had developed a growing disdain for phone calls; they were tedious and long and there was no record of the conversation for reference purposes (read: they didn’t feel productive, a rotten attitude I know). E-mails, on the other hand, could be relatively short, with maybe a picture or two added for good measure (so people could actually SEE the things I was describing). Better still, I could work at my own pace, on my own schedule.
Over time, this monthly habit grew.
From short, relatively sporadic e-mails, I organically settled into sending regular updates. We had one baby and then another (there is always something new to report with an infant in the house).
And then, surprisingly, through word of mouth the requests started pouring in from extended family and friends asking to get added to this e-mail chain.
Just last week I finally managed to carve out time to visit a friend I’ve not seen in months. As I started to launch into the details of a new work role, she told me there was no need to explain – she’d read all about it in the latest installment of monthly updates.
At the core, I write these updates so those closest to our family get a sense of what’s going on. I don’t use social media and we have family and friends scattered across the world. Sending a one-size-fits-all update is the best way to reach everyone.
I should also confess a more selfish impetus: I have never been able to stick to keeping a journal, yet I absolutely love the idea of having a keen sense of where my time has been going. I use a daytimer, but without much pomp and circumstance (and nary a strip of washi tape to be found), and I certainly don’t want to keep hard copies from past years.
So I write e-mails. Every month.
Here’s a bit more information on the nuts and bolts of my process, in case you’d ever like to follow suit.
What do you write about?
Just about everything. I write about big events (buying a house, going on a trip) and little events (a kid learning to tie their shoelaces, our new couch and how it got stuck coming down the stairs).
How do you remember everything that happens in a month?
I have two tricks:
- I start the e-mail as a draft and add to it over the month. This helps me keep track of events as they happen and it means that when I actually go to polish off the e-mail and send it I don’t have to invest much time wrapping things up since I’ve worked at it in 5-10 minute increments throughout the month.
- I use my photos as a guide. If I haven’t carved out much time to include detail in a draft e-mail, I’ll turn to my phone. Since I tend to take pictures of most memorable events (big and small), it’s a great way to jog my memory.
How long are these e-mails?
It can vary, but most months I churn out about 2,500 words!
In 2021, August has the highest word count, clocking in at a whopping 2,694 words; January was significantly lower (~1,700). Typically I top 2,000 words.
In short – they’re long.
How do you organize The e-mails?
- I start with a basic introduction. I might talk about general weather trends (because, really, what’s a good conversation without at least a brief mention of the weather) and an overall sense of current events (“We’re all settling into the routines of fall and notice the days slowly getting cooler as the sun says goodbye earlier and earlier in the evening. I’ve no complaints about the earlier bedtimes, though it always feels sad to say goodbye to warm-weather conditions. That said, now we can turn our attention to all the festive happenings that come our way in the late fall/early winter”). I’ll also call out special events in the coming month like birthdays or anniversaries, or I might congratulate someone on graduating from high school or on the start of a new job.
- Next I label and write about about key categories (here is what October is likely going to look like, in terms of an outline). I will often highlight a particular trip (e.g. Cape Sable Island would have had it’s very own heading) or discuss a specific holiday event.
- Abby (I’ll discuss school, friends, extracurriculars, current interests…)
- Levi (ditto above)
- Elisabeth (work, extracurriculars…)
- John (ditto above)
- Thanksgiving (what we ate, where we went, who visited our home for the holiday…)
- Halloween (what the kids wore, how much candy they got, what the neighbourhood decorations looked like, special events at school…)
- Visit with Grampie (anecdotes and specific events…)
- House Renovation Update (ditto above)
3. Then I start wrapping things up with a discussion of more general items – little events that have happened that don’t necessarily fall under one of the larger categories. Finally, I’ll sign off by giving everyone a quick look ahead: “November will be exciting with Levi’s birthday, which also means it’s time to put up the artificial tree in the basement – a sure sign of the onset of the Christmas season and all that entails!”
4. I used to send pictures attached to this main e-mail but, for various reasons, I now send pictures (usually 10 of our favourites from the month, which will correspond to things I’ve discussed in the update) in a separate e-mail.
What do you do with All these e-mails?
After I send them off, I simply copy and paste the text into a master file within Google Drive. Eventually these will all get collated into a book.
I’ve already printed off the first decade or so. I didn’t have some of my current systems in place and it was a bit of a nightmare – mostly because I had to search through old e-mail archives to track down the various updates and, over the years, I had been sending unique updates to different recipients. Streamlining it all into a single e-mail AND pushing all the text into a master file is a huge improvement.
In addition to e-mails, I also included the text from my annual Christmas letters that I circulate with our holiday cards. I also had monthly summaries that I wrote up for each of the kids over their first 18 months that I wanted to incorporate (these were never circulated to family, it was just something I did so the kids could look back at details of their schedule, clothing size, and any particularly ill-timed diaper blowouts at each stage of infant/toddler development).
The resulting book (pictured above) is about 300 pages long. I have a handful of pictures printed at the beginning of each section, but mostly it’s just a lot of words! I printed it using the same publisher I’ve been using for photobooks over the last few years, Blurb.
I love that I have all this information printed off; it’s a lot like a journal, but there is nothing too personal. I curate the e-mails to not includes specifics about parenting challenges or work debacles. They’re detailed enough to trigger my memory on some less-than-ideal events, but don’t necessarily implicate anyone else. Make sense?
When I send these e-mails (or tomes, as my brother sometimes calls them) out to family and friends, I don’t expect them to read every word. I know some of them do, but I’m not offended if they skim through details of Levi’s encounter with poison ivy, or the itinerary of our family trip around the Cabot Trail. These e-mails – and the wealth of details they include – are as much for me as for them.
It does take time and effort and it is another to-do on my list. But, having identified the role as memory-keeper as being one my key values, it makes sense to invest time into this activity.
Life is short. Four thousand weeks or so? And sometimes, remembering the good, the bad, and the ugly of it all can help preserve memories and enhance – if not also prolong – time.