Getting the Hang of Thank-You Notes

(Another post in honour of the Month of Letters)

Aunt Lillie

Aunt Lillie

      My Great-Aunt Lillie was a champion of the thank-you note. She expected us to have one in the mail the moment her letter or parcel was relinquished to her local post office. And once she had received our cards, she wrote us thank-you notes for the thank-you notes we had sent.

      There are still a number of Aunt Lillies in this world, but for many of us, the thought of writing a thank-you note causes anxiety and cold sweats. It needn’t. The thank-you note is an easy skill to acquire, and I am here to give you the secret formula.

     The basic thank-you note has six parts:

  • The date
  • The greeting
  • An initial expression of gratitude
  • A comment on the object or act for which one must express thanks
  • A final expression of gratitude
  • An appropriate closing

 That said, I should mention that my mother once received a one-word thank-you from a somewhat pretentious friend of the family that read merely, “Magnifiqué!” But generally, a thank-you message should go something like this:


Dear Aunt Lillie,

     I was so pleased to receive the letter you sent in response to my thank-you note. I am always amazed at how much family history you are able to pack into only five or six pages. The story about my grandfather was very amusing, and I am so happy that you shared it with me. I send this with



A slightly more formal example might read like this:


Dear Mr. Kenobi,

     Running into you in the desert the other day was a real delight. We should do it again soon. And I certainly was not expecting you to entrust my father’s old light saber to me. I can’t imagine a more meaningful gift. I’ve put it on the coffee table; it’s a real conversation starter.

     R2 and C3PO send their regards and ask whether you will come for tea next Tuesday? Allow me to add my voice to theirs, and to say, once again, how pleased I am to have the saber. I am

Deeply grateful,

Luke Skywalker


One to a good friend can be more casual:


Sometime in the Recent Past

Dear Bruce,

      I just had to dash this off to tell you how much I love the shorts. Where did you find something so trendy with that artful distressed look? With the right suspenders, I’ll be able to wear them with everything.

      I’m looking forward to seeing you at dinner this weekend. Tony says to ask if the Hulk will play on our team for the volleyball game.

      Thanks again for the shorts. They’re just smashing.




     Remember that even if your note is short and follows a form, it can still be sincere. The point is to let the person who gave you the lurid socks or wrote the glowing letter of recommendation for you know that you received the gift or are aware of the effort and appreciate the thought and time that was expended on your behalf. (It doesn’t matter whether you really appreciate the socks; while you are writing the note, you do.)

     A final admonition regarding thank-you notes: unless you have a true disability that precludes holding a pen (and some of us do), thank-you notes should be written by hand on paper and sent through the mail. All the e-mails in the world will not take the place of a holograph missive composed in the most legible manuscript the writer can muster. Handwriting still conveys a personal communication that nothing else can match.



*To be fair, I should say that Aunt Lillie was one of my favourite relatives and I treasure the several letters from her containing some very interesting perspectives on family history.

An Invitation to Danger and Daring: The Act and Art of Letter Writing and the Month of Letters

            It is a Dangerous and Daring Act to write a letter. I know this because I have been reading The Dangerous Book for Boys and its afterthought, The Daring Book for Girls,* and both treat means of properly engaging in this risky pastime. The boys’ book cuts right to the chase regarding the perils of committing one’s thoughts to a writing surface, warning that “The problem with hiding a message in the lining of a coat or tattooed on a scalp is that anyone can read it. It makes a lot of sense to practice ‘cryptography’” (p. 64). The dangers of letter-writing are also emphasized in the section on “Secret Inks” (page 149 tells us that “Secret inks allow you to send confidential information by mail,” after we are informed that “Milk, lemon juice, egg white and, yes, urine will work as a secret ink”). There are also instructions for “Grinding an Italic Nib” and improving one’s “Grammar” (three sections!).

            For inexplicable reasons, it is left to girls to brave the perils of conventional letter-writing, of daring to expose themselves by writing what can be read by anyone,** and to them the secrets of letter-writing are directly imparted. The Daring Book spells out how to compose a thank-you letter and lays out the essential facets of personal letters. In other sections it provides a “History of Writing” and a sampling of “Abigail Adams’ Letters with John Adams,” and while it sadly lacks a discussion of ink of any kind, it does explain how to “Make Your Own Quill Pen” — an endeavour so fraught with peril that parental supervision is required.

            Now that you have been duly advised, I invite you to join me in participating in this year’s Month of Letters. The basic challenge is simple: send one piece of mail every day the post runs. What with Sundays and holidays, that comes to a mere twenty-three pieces of mail. Now is the time to send out all the thank-you notes you owe, the letter that will make your mother so happy, the protest to the newspaper, the postcards to your siblings from places you’ve never been. And if you have all those bases covered already, there are plenty of people in the MoL community who are looking for pen-pals. The challenge is on; screw your courage to the sticking point, buy some stamps, pick up a pen, be dangerous and daring — write a letter.




* Conn Iggulden and Hal Iggulden, The Dangerous Book for Boys (New York: Collins, 2006); Andrea J. Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz, The Daring Book for Girls, (New York: Collins, 2007). The gender divisions are ridiculous. There is nothing in either book that shouldn’t interest all children.


** Ruth Calderon, in her book A Bride for One Night (The Jewish Publication Society; Philadelphia: 2014, p. 156, n. 10), notes that “Yochanan Muffs teaches that all conversations require the courage to reveal oneself to another. … ‘One who attempts to communicate with another endangers his own life, for to do this, he must reveal what is in his own heart. …There is always the possibility that the ear of the listener will be impervious. Any real communication, then, is a dangerous leap’ (The Personhood of God [Woodstock VT: Jewish Lights, 2005], 16).”

How to Say “Farewell”

31 December, 2014

Dear Readers,

        As 2014 slips away, I have been thinking about farewells and closings. There are final, momentous ones; others that may be less final but still of great moment; some that are a relief (admit it — we’ve all had guests we were happy to see depart); and the every-day ones of seeing a spouse off to work or saying “See you later” to a neighbour over the fence. And then there are the ways we finish our letters. Usually we write what we want to communicate, then slap on a “Best wishes” or “Yours truly” that we may or may not mean and set our name underneath the closing. And generally speaking, that approach gets the job done.

         But there’s another, more elegant way to end a letter. Closings used to be made part of the final sentence to leave the reader with a lasting, coherent thought. For example, if Cleopatra invited Antony over for a mid-day meal, he might write to her thus:

Dear Cleopatra

A more formal example might go like this:

Dear Mr. Shakespeare

        People no longer expect an integrated closing, and the surprise of finding one is a small gift of style that renders a letter memorable. And as an author, it is a satisfying thing to make an exit that is smooth and graceful, especially when one’s parting words are meant


Ruth Feiertag

small stones and the Month of Letters

   WOWH badge-14-300x300 In January, I participated in the Writing Our Way Home Mindful Writing Challenge. The challenge is to write one small stone every day. A small stone is a brief observation intended to connect the writer and then readers to the world in fresh and meaningful ways, or, as their originator defines them, “A small stone is a short piece of writing that precisely captures a fully-engaged moment.”  They are the brain-child of Satya Robin, an author, therapist, and Buddhist monk, and you can find out much more about small stones and Ms. Robin here:  Some of the participants write exceptionally moving observations. I offer some of mine below as examples of the poorer sort:

The gradations of evening slip behind the tree and sink through the clouds.

The wind stage-whispers to the house; its voice calls to and pulls the snow clinging to its wake.

Frost crystals on the barbeque – something like pearls before swine.

 The evening bruises darker against the slip of the moon.

Age creeps up on the dogs, seeps into their bones like the cold of deep winter, saps the colour from their fur, pulls their legs put from under them when they stand, and the poor mutts look in vain for their betrayer.

Layers of light – the sheen of the moon, the quiet reflections of the clouds, the insistent welcome of the homes below.

 The lights of the Nepalese restaurant are vibrant and gaudy and as enticingly welcoming as the sounds of a carousel.

 Awkward and ungainly with fish-wife voices, the Canada geese usurp a momentary majesty against the purpling sky.

The yellow spider, shocked by the mist hitting the rosemary, scrambles for the highest point of the plant and throws its front legs up in supplication to whatever gods watch over spiders, hoping for a life-line.

 The lone tree on the hill that shelters the cow has a new companion, one that also appreciates the rush of the wind through bone and feather, branch and leaf.

How to picture the wind? It is a vampire: I feel the swirl of its cape, the coldness of its blood, the bite on my exposed throat and cheek, but it eludes every snatch of my grasping shutter.

The snow falls with the ticking of thousands of infinitesimal clocks, with the patting of elves’ hands on the heads of sleeping birds.


Writing through this month of small stones provides me with an reminder to look at the world the way I look at language. It is not a perspective that comes naturally to me (as I think is apparent), but the stretch seems to air out neglected rooms in my head. (It also makes me get out of the house. I don’t find that I am inspired by my computer screen or want to look too closely at the dishes in the sink. I did get off a good phrase about my piles of paper being “tarnished with dust” but I decided one of those was enough).

LetterMo2014squareThis last month I was engaged in epistolary endeavours inspired by Mary Robinette Kowal’s Month of Letters Challenge. This is fun. The goal is to mail at least one item (not including bills and mass-mailings and the like) every day (one may skip Sundays and holidays) and to log what one has mailed. In addition to acquiring points for every letter mailed, there are a number of Achievement stamps that one can earn along with additional points. There are stamps for sending one’s First Letter first-letter, for mailing a Parcel parcel, for going forth boldly as an Explorer explorer and mailing in a box one has not used before adventurer. There are also stamps for worthy causes such as mailing to a Soldier soldier or other service person and for sending notes to be distributed to cancer patients through Girls Love Mail SUPPORTER. It is a game all players can “win”; participants need garner only forty points to earn a “winner” stamp at the end of the month.

One of my favourite Achievements is the Austen-style letter AUSTEN-STYLE1. Such a missive should be written with a dip pen IMG_0417 (ideally a quill IMG_0071), folded, and sealed with wax: IMG_0075. If one is friendly with one’s local postal-clerks, it is possible to persuade them to send the letter through the mail sans envelope. (I suppose if we were really to be authentic, we’d find folks with horses to deliver them for us. Perhaps next year.) spot-of-mail1

Although the challenges of January and February are in many ways markedly different, what they have in common is the impulse toward connection. Often that’s what writing is all about. We use it to connect with ourselves, with the world around us, with close friends, with the teacher giving us a grade, with authors who have lived in centuries long gone, with generations yet to come, with other seekers of knowledge we will never meet but who share our curiosity about Shakespeare or germs or hats or the germs that probably lived in the hats worn by Shakespeare. Writing is wonderful, alchemical, and transforms our lives and the lives of others. I never tire of what can be done with words.

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