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Notes From The Holiday Mail Bag: The Art And Artifice Of The Family Newsletter

Elizabeth Mehren: "Do you really want to read the annual report of Paul and Polly Perfect, filled with the amazing successes of their perfect children, Peter and Priscilla?" (Lotus Carroll/flickr)
Elizabeth Mehren: "Do you really want to read the annual report of Paul and Polly Perfect, filled with the amazing successes of their perfect children, Peter and Priscilla?" (Lotus Carroll/flickr)
This article is more than 3 years old.

The holiday season has passed, leaving floors carpeted with tree-needles, Everests of dead wrapping paper and enough holiday newsletters to circumnavigate the globe, maybe several times over. Oops, here comes today’s mail, stuffed with guess what? More newsletters!

I will plead guilty to having, on occasion, succumbed to the “my family is so fascinating” school of holiday correspondence. But with children long since out of college and on to their own lives — and, yes, their own newsletters — I no longer feel that temptation.

Social media keep me and most of the rest of the civilized world posted on who is doing what, when and where. On Facebook alone, I have vicariously experienced travels to exotic spots, promotions of adult children to glamorous jobs, births of grandkids, deaths of pets, replacements of body parts and completion of ultra-grueling athletic exploits.

Get it all out there. Spill out every single detail of every single thing that happened. Then put it aside. Come to your senses. Tear up that first effort and touch only on the highlights.

What I have not heard about are the pitfalls of normal life. No one’s grown-up kid gets fired, evicted or ejected from an eating establishment for possibly drinking just a little too much. No one, for that matter, gets so much as a parking ticket. If there are broken bones or other injuries, they occur in the course of heroic feats, such as scoring the key pass in a tense game of high-powered touch football. No one undergoes heartache. No one burns a meat loaf. No one’s tomatoes fail to come up. No one gets fancy new teeth or even fancier new hearing aids. No one gains weight. Without the plethora of accompanying photos, I might not even know about the bold new hair colors. Exactly when did my formerly brunette acquaintance in Washington go platinum?

True enough, holidays are meant for joy and celebration. December is a time for snowflakes and red-nosed reindeer, sugar cookies and candy canes. A holiday newsletter is just that, not an exercise in investigative journalism or a tell-all confession. But I am a professor, and sometimes I just can’t help myself. As I sort through reports so glowing they could replace incandescent light bulbs, I feel moved to offer a few friendly suggestions:

1. KISS—In this case, the acronym translates to Keep It Short, Silly. One page max. Meaning, not front and back, just front. My brother’s holiday newsletter/opus requires extra postage, not to mention what feels like hours of dedicated reading time. Bad idea.

2. Hint: Write a rough draft, or what we in journalism call a “vomit out” version. Get it all out there. Spill out every single detail of every single thing that happened. Then put it aside. Come to your senses. Tear up that first effort and touch only on the highlights.

3. Sometimes the highlights are lowlights: No one is required to write about tragedy, loss or profound sadness. But even with Jingle Bells playing in the background, your friends may want to hear about less-than-happy events.

4. Curb Your Enthusiasm. I like to tell my journalism students that they are limited to one exclamation point per lifetime. A bit harsh, perhaps, especially for a generation weaned on 140 characters and complete ignorance of something called basic grammar. But gushing seldom makes for good reading. Don’t embellish. Let the good stuff speak for itself.

Example: Fine to brag about a 6-year-old’s report card. Not so fine when it’s your 26-year-old’s law school report card.

5. Humility rules. We eagerly await the newsletter of two old friends who are more than willing to poke fun at themselves. Their annual missive is downright picaresque, reminding us that life’s adventures consist equally of glories and gaffes.

6. Hint No. 2: Do you really want to read the annual report of Paul and Polly Perfect, filled with the amazing successes of their perfect children, Peter and Priscilla? Probably not. Before you slip that thing into its envelope, read it as if you were the recipient.

7. Chill with the “my perfect dog” tales. No one’s dog is perfect—except mine.

Related:

Elizabeth Mehren Cognoscenti contributor
Elizabeth Mehren is an author, journalist and Boston University professor.

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