By Laurie HertzelIt had been seven months since I’d retired from the Minneapolis Star Tribune after nearly 50 years in journalism, and, like retired people everywhere, I realized it was time to clean out the basement. On the metal shelves in the laundry room were stacked dozens of crumbling, dusty boxes of old tear sheets, photos, coffee mugs, mini cassettes and reporter notebooks from my years in newspapers. And letters! Oh, so many letters. Most dated from the 1980s, when I was a roving features writer for the Duluth News-Tribune in northern Minnesota.
They came typewritten on letterhead, scrawled on lined paper and hand-written in greeting cards. One — from a child — included a drawing of a wiry-haired woman, presumably me, clutching a reporter’s notebook and saying, “A ha.”
One letter thanked me for my “fine article” on a school bus driver. “ “It’s nice to see, especially on the front page, a positive story on pupil transportation.” I don’t remember writing a positive story on pupil transportation, but that’s not what’s important. What’s important is that my story meant something to this reader.
A story I wrote about a woman who crochets pleased her so much she wrote twice. In her first note, she told me: “A woman I don’t even know called to let me know that she found it interesting” Five months later, a second note: “I’m writing to thank you again.”
An anonymous letter thanked me for a story about abortion. “People don’t know what it’s like until they go through it,” she said. “I’m sorry that I don’t feel like I can sign my name.”
And one letter, from 1986, praised me while trashing my profession. “Everybody told me not to trust the news media,” the man wrote. “I was expecting a hatchet job. But I was pleasantly surprised after reading your report. Even my pastor said the article was good.”
The letters aren’t all filled with praise; one mentioned an error and several simply requested photo reprints or tear sheets. One pointed out, correctly, that if I had allowed anonymous sources my story would have been quite different. (That was in response to my poll of readers on who does more housework, men or women.)
I don’t remember most of the stories mentioned or any of the people who wrote me. But I saved all the letters. It’s good to be reminded that on the other side of everything we write there is someone reading it.
From huge issues like abortion to small issues like crocheting (and what, I now wonder, did this woman crochet?), the stories we tell touch people more than we will ever know. I wish that people still wrote letters; instead, we get emails, or comments online, or the occasional voice mail, none of which you can put in a box and rediscover 30 years later. More often, people are too busy to reach out to us at all.
But that doesn’t mean they’re not out there, paying attention. As one woman wrote,
“Thank you for listening to my story.” And that, I think, is why we do what we do. A ha!
Laurie Hertzel is a freelance book critic and teaches in the low-residency MFA program in narrative nonfiction at the University of Georgia.