With Hope in the Mail, novelist Wendelin Van Draanen has written an inspirational and practical book for writers—one that would make an excellent supplementary text for a creative writing course or a “cheerleader” for any budding writer!  As both a teacher of writing and a writer myself, I found plenty of moments where I nodded knowingly or smiled wryly.  Despite this being a nonfiction book, Van Drannen brings her trademark humor to her writing.

As I read, I collected various tidbits of wisdom, not the least of which is that no matter how young you are, you have experiences, knowledge, feelings, and observations worthy of exploration. True to her subtitle, “Reflections on Writing and Life,” Van Draanen provides both writing advice and wisdom for living.  Whether in writing or in life, we can likely agree that grit and determination contribute to achievement.

From this “part memoir, part writing guide,” I share wisdom by the dozen:

  1. “It’s often the small stories with universal messages that touch us most deeply” (7).
  2. “Putting hope in the mail means putting yourself—your work, your wishes—out there however you can.  It means actively creating the possibility for good things to happen” (16).
  3. A good story cannot subsist without characters with heart.
  4. Reality shackles the imagination.
  5. Theme—“the rubber band on the end of the braid”—should unfold without sermonizing. “With it, everything stays tightly woven. Without it, the threads of your story may overlap, but they’ll have a somewhat loose or frayed feeling” (95).
  6. Know your ending before you begin.
  7. Sometimes it’s best to skewer and slow-roast a villain.
  8. “Setting plays a crucial role in the creation of your characters. Where you place them influences who they are, what they experience, how they react, and who they become.  . . . There are things we can never fully escape any more than we can escape ourselves” (82).
  9. Reinforce your story through structure.
  10. Find a balance between an action-packed plot and the grace of compelling characters and beautiful language.
  11. Revision is actually a writer’s best friend.
  12. Humor is the life raft that keeps us from drowning in the stress, helplessness, and heartache that can sometimes define life.

All of this wonderful advice for writing or for living an improved version of life boils down to a key message. Van Drannen encourages us to create possibility and to “keep putting hope in the mail.”

Another striking moment in the text for me was the line: “What would it be like to look back at yourself and see that the whole-bodied person you used to be was less than you should have been?” (195). Van Draanen encourages us to be our best selves.  She also reminds us that sparks need oxygen.  Although we all hold tiny sparks inside us, in order to bring them to life, they require oxygen.  Without plentiful amounts of oxygen, our sparks just die.  Van Drannen encourages us to be that oxygen for others and to find people willing to be our oxygen—to fan the flames of our hopes and dreams.

  • Posted by Donna

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