Matters of Opinion: Adventures in writing letters to editors, Part I
It never occurred to me back in 1992, when I dashed off my first “Letter to the Editor,” that it would become the avocation it has for me or the grand experiences it would bring me.
I don’t know how many such little opinion pieces I’ve written since then – well over a thousand for sure – but I do know that about 600 of them have been printed in various publications, to name a few: the Observer, The Plain Dealer, USA Today, Time, Readers Digest, The National Review, Cleveland Magazine, The Sun Papers, West-Life, the Nashville Tennessean and other local papers and publications.
My topics have included almost anything and everything. Once in preparing an introduction for a talk I give on my letter writing experiences, I calculated that – in terms of circulation alone, without regard for Internet distribution – that over 350 million copies of my words have been printed.
After saying that, I always add: “Of these, at least 9 or 10 have actually been read.” But in fact, it has surprised me over the years in different cities and towns, how many readers there are of the Letters pages in papers and magazines. I never know when I meet someone new, and they say to me: “Oh, you’re the guy who writes those letters,” what will come next. Agree, disagree? Most say they agree but some of those I know are just being polite – or maybe just afraid that I’ll write about them (never).
My first letter (against Ross Perot’s candidacy in 1992) was printed in the Nashville Tennessean. (My wife Elaine and I lived outside of Nashville for four years before returning to the Cleveland area.) The papers there print your address along with your name. This meant that readers could, and did, send their opinions on your words back to you.
I usually appreciated this feedback – the good and the nasty. The supportive letters were always signed while the nasty ones never were. I did not take seriously the one threat to kill me, although the State Police did, nor the offer to meet me somewhere so I could get beat up. My last “You don’t know anything” unsigned letter came from Texas a few weeks ago from someone who read my words on the Internet.
Perhaps the most notable responder to one of my pieces was the first President Bush. I had written a little piece recalling my childhood memories of the 1948 Truman election. After it was printed locally I sent a copy to the White House where it reached the president. He then wrote me a note from Air Force One, telling me: “What a great story. I loved it!”
I’ve also been concerned, based on responses, at how much some people read into my letters – assuming me to be liberal, conservative, a John Bircher, a woman (due to my name, “Mel”), anti this or pro that, etc. My good-bye letter to my readers in Greater Nashville pointed out this problem, telling them I was – and I remain – only a mouthy moderate.
I’m proud that my letters have garnered a crucial vote in the US Senate, a much needed vote in the Tennessee State House, advanced preservation of parks and historic sites, aided a number of charities and influenced political issues, candidates, and elections.
I’m most proud of one piece called “Picking up Bricks.” This led to the most and best responses I’ve ever received. “Bricks” seems to offer encouragement where it is needed. It’s been reprinted and copied in a number of publications. The first note I received on it – in 1994 – told me of how copies of it spread throughout a mental facility, somehow offering patients hope.
My experiences through my letters, which are ongoing, have included: becoming a political analyst for a local radio station in Tennessee, a stint as a cable TV talk show host in NE Ohio, the offer to lead a Grand Jury, moderating several Political Roundtables, some efforts to make me a candidate or garner my support, and work with a number of civic and charitable organizations.
The ability to make a difference is a wonderful thing. You also have that ability. In Part II of this series I’ll offer some advice to encourage you to express yourself in writing – public writing. The Observer provides us a great opportunity to do this, as do other Letters pages.
We, the people, need to have our voices heard.
Mel Maurer lives in Westlake and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.