There’s a great Looney Tunes character by the name of Marvin the Martian. He was always trying, unsuccessfully, to blow up the Earth. Usually, his equipment would act as a dud, until he walked over to it. In a little nasal, strangled voice, he’d say, “Kaboom… There was supposed to be an earth-shattering Kaboom…” Then it would blow him up.
Whenever Barry and I send out a big important e-mail, one of us will say, “Kaboom… There was supposed to be an earth-shattering Kaboom…”
A big important e-mail can be a resume for a job you really, really want. You’re praying that you didn’t misspell your own name when you hit Send. It can be a party invitation for Friday the 10th, only half your friends show up on Friday the 9th and the other half show up on Saturday the 10th. It can be a holiday letter to 50 friends that says “Had a great trip to Fart Rock this summer.”
I’ve been volunteering down at the Bahia Street office for about a month now, and I’ve had several “Kaboom” moments. One of my first projects was sending out our quarterly update e-mail, a delightful letter written by co-director Margaret Willson. That went to about 575 people, mostly by e-mail. Then I wrote a brief e-mail to our Seattle area donors and volunteers, about 400 people, asking for volunteers for an event. I got a number of friendly and positive responses.
Yesterday, I worked on my most earth-shattering project yet. Once a year, we send out a real letter in the mail, asking for donations. I was brainstorming with Margaret Willson about it, since she has always written and signed such correspondence since we started in 1998. Somehow, we came up with the idea that I, as a founding board member, should write and sign the letter. It sounded like a fun writing challenge, so I said, “Sure!”
I sat down at the computer and mentally pictured a couple of friends who are on the mailing list. Then I started typing what I would say to them. It wasn’t all that difficult, and the letter was done in an hour or two. I showed it to Margaret and Nancy and Barry, and each of them suggested some good edits. I listened to each suggestion, thinking, “Would I use those words if I was speaking? Then I made changes carefully, being sure to keep the letter in my own “voice.”
That’s where a letter is different from an article or a book. As a professional editor, I believe everything written can benefit from editing. But a letter is a special case: If it’s too polished, or if there are words the author wouldn’t normally use, it can actually lose credibility. It’s the difference between having your name at the top of the paper, and having your name (and signature) at the bottom.
I didn’t give it a lot more thought until I arrived at the office yesterday morning, ready to do the actual mailing. Nancy had done all the printing, and boxes of envelopes were stacked three and four high on the table. The letters themselves sat nearby, a pile of almost 700 pieces of paper with my name at the bottom.
Stuffing envelopes all day was not like hitting “send” on an e-mail. It was much worse. During the hours of envelope stuffing, my mind was free to really worry. Was the letter OK? Would our supporters mind that I had written it, instead of the usual Margaret? Would someone find fault with my grammar or spelling? Would anyone be offended?
I suppose that’s one reason people are often intimidated by writing. There’s a fear of putting your words on the line, such that you can’t take them back or soften them. I’m never been intimidated by that before, but then, I’ve never sent a letter to 700 people.
Was there supposed to be an earth-shattering Kaboom, or is that just the sound of my confidence cracking?
By the way, if you aren’t on the Bahia Street mailing list, and you’d like to receive my wonderful letter, let me know. You can also go to the site and sign up for the mailing list. While you’re there, please make a donation — thank you!