Family Christmas Newsletters: Confessions and Unsolicited Tips

My cousin, Rachel, composed and photographed her perfectly lovely husband and cat to make this and win at Christmas cards.

My cousin, Rachel, composed and photographed her perfectly lovely husband and cat to make this and win at Christmas cards.

The year I moved house, finished construction on our basement, gestated and started raising my fifth son, I didn’t get much writing done.  The only thing I published that year was a Christmas newsletter all about my immediate family.

Some people hate reading letters like these.  I know that.  I don’t send them to everyone – like the person who once soundly told me off for “always bragging.”  He gets an empty card with a hand-scrawled inscription and just as much love as everyone else.  The letters aren’t meant to please me but the people on my mailing list — good will toward men, and all that.  I hope anyone who isn’t made merry by my letter throws it in a snowbank on the way home from the mailbox.

For letter-writers, there are lots of ways to approach the family Christmas newsletter.  An artsy friend of mine wrote hers as an acrostic poem.  My Manga-loving sister-in-law once included an original, hand-drawn cartoon in hers.  I have a family of cousins who usually aim for the absurd – cats and paganism and stuff.  And I have a friend from a town called Spring Coulee who doesn’t use any gimmicks but always manages to dash off a letter that’s hilarious and real and totally charming.

Don’t misunderstand.  I like conventional Christmas letters too — the blessing-counting, the press releases, the shine-a-grams.  If I stopped getting them, I’d be very sad.  I love them.  But I love the wacky letters.

To write, mail, or post either kind of letter is to run the hazard of spreading Christmas cringing along with Christmas cheer.  It takes guts to attempt a holiday year-in-review letter.  Sometimes, we all get it wrong.  With my husband’s job, I find it hard to write a letter without the words “rape” or “murder” and there might be people on my list who dread reading about it.

Still, here’s a list from imperfect, sometimes-offensive me sharing my personal preferences for Christmas newsletters — some tips on how to keep me smiling all the way to the “Happy New Year” at the end.

1)      Good News, Bad News – We’ve all got good news and bad news.  A letter that’s nothing but good news is not going to be seen as dishonest or deceptive.  We should all know enough about the human condition to be able to assume that the year had some crud in it that didn’t make it into the letter.  Bad news shouldn’t come from an ink-jet.  It’s for the hand-written note on the inside of the card for people we only communicate with through Christmas cards – and there aren’t many people like that anymore.

Often, bad news is embarrassing for the people involved.  That makes it embarrassing for readers too — like witnessing a public shaming.  It’s one thing to say the cat ran away or someone broke her arm in a heroic feat of sports.  It’s another thing to report that someone’s weight is out of control or that he has a court-date.  If telling bad news isn’t necessary, leave it out.  If letter-writers can spin bad news with the right kind of humor or hope or, if it’s already well-known, nod to it gently and obliquely, they might get away with sharing it.  Get an editor to confirm if this has been done successfully.  And when in doubt, leave it out.  For the love of all that is holidays, leave it out.

2)      Keep it short.  Christmas letters are an exercise in pith.  Don’t waste space waxing lyrical about snowflakes or telling readers how every bit of news should make us feel.  We can assume someone was happy about finishing the marathon without being told.  If we’re the kind of people who sat down to read the letter in the first place, we’re probably the kind of people who can empathize between the lines.

3)      Avoid the hallmarks of bragging.  Apparently, I haven’t been very good at this.  But may I suggest avoiding the braggiest of all brag words: proud.  For some people – and we can never be sure for whom – the word proud can’t be separated from implications of feeling superior.  Even if we are feeling this way, we shouldn’t admit it in the Christmas letter.  As we write about the best parts of our lives, we’ll probably find that the word “pleased” serves just as well as “proud” anyway.  It expresses all the happiness we’ve felt without running the risk of offending readers prone to feeling oppressed by other people’s good fortune.

4)      Make sure the news we share is rightfully ours.  This is about more than respecting privacy.  Even within families, there’s a hierarchy of ownership over news.  If my sister finds out the sex of her unborn baby, it certainly affects me as the baby’s aunt but I can’t mention it in my newsletter until my sister has had a chance to tell everyone first.  She’s closer to the news so her claim on it supersedes mine and I defer to her on how it’s spread.  The newsletter should be about our own small world where we are the experts and owners of everything.

5)      Avoid predictions.  It might be hard for readers to remember what’s actually come to pass and what we only hoped would happen.  It’s going to be awkward next year when we have to answer to past unfulfilled predictions and “un-tell” the good news we thought we’d be sharing.

6)      Illustrate.  Don’t use lists of vague adjectives to express something that can be told with an example or quick anecdote.  All journalism — including amateur holiday journalism — is essentially storytelling.  Good reporting makes the letter memorable and gives the people in it the character they deserve.  Concrete experiences and direct quotes make for a good newspaper and a good family Christmas newsletter.

I could add something like “be yourself” but, really, that can’t be helped.  Maybe a better parting idea would be that we might enjoy our letters more if they read like something we would like to receive ourselves.  If it’s wacky, so be it.  If it’s stodgy, that’s fine too.  People on our mailing lists already love us.  They’ll forgive us a few cringes.  And we’ll forgive them too.

Lessons in Vocabulary and Art from Publishers Weekly

Publishers Weekly Reviews My Novel

Publishers Weekly Reviews My Novel

This week, my little Canadian novel was reviewed in Publishers Weekly.  (I know, right?  Read it here.)  The review isn’t long but it is perfectly positive.  The reviewer isn’t credited by name in the online version I’ve seen but she or he was thoughtful and insightful enough to have me Googling a few of the terms used to describe my own work.

The first was one of those words that’s still vaguely familiar from my Arts degree days — those spellbinding lectures on Jungian psychology at the base of the Tory Tower.  Somewhere in scrolling through the fanciful vocabulary of archetypes scrawled on the overhead projector film, the meaning of this term slipped out of my consciousness.  It’s “psychopomp.”  It doesn’t sound like a nice thing to be called but, as I now remember, it means a creature who serves as a guide to souls — newly deceased souls in particular but also the newly born or anyone unmoored.  As the PW review points out, my novel’s main characters are psychopomps.  I had never thought of them that way before but it’s certainly true.

The second term I had to look up was completely new to me: mono no aware.  Though it’s tempting, don’t try to use an English or Latin vocabulary to decode it.  It’s a bit of Japanese philosophy and translates into something like “the pathos of things.”  The idea is that instead of the bittersweet knowledge that this world is transient making us morbid and jaded, it moves us to reverence our lives and experience them as poignant rather than mundane.  I’m no scholar of Japanese philosophy but I think it might be the opposite of the Western ennui that makes up so much of literary thought right now.  Whatever it is, I think I need to find my old, water-stained copy of The Tale of Genji and read it again.

There’s a lot to love about being an artist.  That anyone would read my work is great.  That they would look up and from my work and have something to say about it is even better.  And having them teach me something I didn’t know about what I, myself, have written makes me want to fall on my face and cry — especially when it’s something true.  Sometimes, it’s wonderful to admit, “I didn’t know that was in there and I don’t know where it came from.”

I’m usually fairly pragmatic and cringe at the conceits and the headier romance of writer-life.  I don’t have much of a stomach for elitist memes and other silliness bent on making embarrassing overstatements about writing and writers.  But there is something genuinely sublime about art — even the quiet, tappity-tap, within sight of my laundry hamper art form of my own.  At its best, art is a miracle.  And we bow our heads, grateful and baffled that whatever it is that makes miracles would stoop to involve people like us.

Mothers of All Brothers at the Mall

My sister had just posted a new picture of her baby on Facebook.  In it, my big-eyed, beautiful niece was wearing layers and layers of frilly pastel ruffles.  Beneath the picture, I wrote, “I didn’t know ruffles were the big thing right now.”  Even for idle social media chatter, my ruffle comment was pretty idle.  I didn’t expect anything to come of it.

But then, out of the vastness of time and space, through the miracle of post-modern social networking, another comment came answering back from an old friend of mine.  I didn’t know she and my sister were in touch.  I was surprised.  Frankly, they hardly know each other.  Frankly, my friend and I hardly know each other anymore.  We were closest during our early teenaged years, before I outgrew the worst of my hideous phase and started encroaching on her boy-chasing territory.  Things had been very quiet between us for a very long time.  But now that ruffles were on the table, she had something to say to me about them.

“That’s because you are the only girl in your home,” she told me, “And I don’t think that ruffles were ever your thing…”

She was right about that.

“…Little girls LOVE ruffles,” she continued, emphasis in the original.  “And sparkles, and tiaras, and glitter, and magic wands.  Maybe you should see if you can get a girl to balance out all of that boyness in your house.”

Maybe I’m crazy but it read like a smack-down.  It sounded like my family of nothing-but-sons was being called out as karmic.  She may as well have written, “You like boys, do ya?  Well, take THAT, boy-stealer.”

I replied by doing what anyone put in my position would have done: I quoted out-of-context Bowie lyrics at her.

“There’s only room for one and here she comes, here she comes.”

Unlike me, my old friend – the ruffle expert – has a daughter.  She goes shopping for tiny frilly dresses while I’m pushing a cart full of black and navy sweatpants.

I’ve heard people remark how tragic it is that mothers of boys don’t have as much fun shopping as the mothers of girls.  The idea is familiar enough to make it feel like everyone must agree.  But who actually makes this complaint?  I took a straw poll, pulling comments out of Internet parenting forums dedicated to mothers of all-boy families.  I was looking for any self-reports of mothers being disappointed about not being in the market for pretty dresses for anyone but ourselves.

Here’s what I found: hardly anything.

Every now and then, a long, sad venting post would appear where a mom of boys lists everything about parenting that hurts her.  Once she’d started brainstorming her disappointments, she’d usually toss in a line about shopping.  But in pages and pages of healthy, happy chit-chat about raising boys, it was nearly impossible to find any boys-only moms complaining about the lack of sparkles in their laundry.

So who keeps talking about how sad we must be?  It seems the people most likely to think shopping in the pink section is important are people who are actively enculturating a little girl with prissy, Western notions of acceptable gender roles.  These people care very strongly about it.  But guess who doesn’t care much about it?  Everyone else.

Groaner at the Scholastic Book Fair

Groaner at the Scholastic Book Fair

Shopping may be a strange and backward place for flagrant plays of gender politics but it’s a real one.  Most of the time, gendered shopping is a marketing tool meant to get parents with kids of both sexes to buy double the merchandise they need because pink bicycles burst into flames if boys try to ride them.  It’s got nothing to do with what’s good for the human psyche and everything to do with selling products.

When it comes to underwear and tampons, I can see the wisdom in dividing the marketplace between the sexes.  But when I walked into the Scholastic Book Fair at my kids’ school this winter and saw a table labelled “Books for Boys,” I got angry.  Thanks, Scholastic, for making sure arbitrary gender division in education and the arts stay staunchly and clearly defined.

And thanks, I guess, to everyone harbouring any compassion for women who only mother children of the opposite sex.  Go ahead and feel sorry for us.  In truth, there are reasons for boy-moms to feel a little lonely – a little empty.  They’re real and I believe they’re profound.  The reasons women might mourn for never creating another human in their own image are existential, rooted in our personal identities, our senses of our own immortality, and our fears about dying alone.  And that makes the suggestion that our feelings are all about vapid unfulfilled shopping fantasies outrageously offensive.