Recent articles reflecting on the potential disconnect between the media and their readers have inspired me to reflect on my experiences as a frequent and passionate writer of letters to the editor. I have had 275 letters published (that I know of) around the world. Probably 10 times as many were not published.
People tease me about my hobby. Some say it's a waste of time. But writing letters has enriched my life immeasurably. Not only have I improved my writing skills and confidence, but my letters have helped me forge bonds with new people.
I didn't used to enjoy writing. Despite taking AP English in high school, I had a horrible time in English classes, with one exception. I never gained the confidence to write and had to take a remedial writing course in college. I always had a latent interest in expressing myself on paper, though. My first published letter, jointly written with my wife-to-be, appeared in an alternative Boston weekly in 1992. What had begun as a letter-writing session became our first date as a couple. Little did my future wife realize the fire that she'd lit. After our first child was born, I wrote an op-ed about fatherhood that was published in a Santa Fe newspaper. My poor wife wanted to write a letter to the editor, too - asking how a new dad had time to write anything. Oops.
I am rewarded by seeing my name in print. I also feel a need to tell another side of a particular story the media seem to be silent about. By voicing my opinions on this topic and others, I've learned to welcome criticism and debate. I believe my letters have provoked extensive debates among newspaper readers. (Two examples: the benefits of rail transportation and NATO violations of international law in Yugoslavia.)
Over the past 12 years, I have also "met" many wonderful people through my letters. I have been invited to speak on radio and TV programs. I've been asked to lecture. I've even been invited to lunch by newspaper editors. A chemistry professor from Bristol, England, drove three hours to meet me when I visited Britain. One of my letters was reprinted in an introductory philosophy textbook. Writing has helped me to connect more with the wider world.
How wonderful to get a call, an e-mail, or a letter from a total stranger (even a letters editor!) thanking me or congratulating me. I've heard from native American societies, a fellow physicist running for the United States Senate, and many others.
I feel as though I have connected with Americans of many ideologies, ethnicities, and religions. I've been published in newspapers across the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. One of my goals is to compose a letter to a foreign publication in that country's language and have it be accepted for publication.
Politicians have opportunities to connect with many Americans every day. As a physics professor, I do not. Some years back I met a young politico helping the re-election campaign of Mayor Thomas Menino of Boston. He commented to the effect that if he didn't have political connections, he would write a lot of letters to the editor, too. Exactly!
Writing in the public domain is one of the few ways that ordinary Americans have to express their views and know that they will be heard. Too many newspapers have tiny letters sections and huge op-ed sections with very similar, polarized, ho-hum opinions. This may indicate a low level of concern or activism among readers, but I doubt it.
It's a commonly held view (accurate or not!) that you must modify your opinions - make them more sympathetic to a newspaper's editorial view - if you want your letter to be published. Yet the letters-to-the-editor sections of newspapers are among those most widely read. It's where ordinary citizens can debate one another.
Many of my friends chide me about my writing "hobby." They say that the views of ordinary Americans no longer matter, that the media publish only what they want Americans to hear, and that one letter will never make a difference. They warn me that I risk being persecuted for my viewpoints. I disagree. I write with the desire to contribute to our national debate, in which the best ideas should prevail. I encourage all Americans, particularly in this election year, to take seriously their duty to express their opinions and for the news media to publish as many of them as possible. Debate and democracy go hand in hand.
And remember that while you're supporting the spirit of democracy, you may make some new friends!