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Transactional Writing: Letters That Heal

Forgiveness, compassion, empathy, and gratitude are healing.

"What is healing, but a shift in perspective?” — Mark Doty, Heaven’s Coast

Transactional writing — or letter writing — gets you beyond what you thought you could not get over.

With all the other ways of communicating digitally, we may have lost touch with the power of letter writing to change our lives, but it is still a powerful tool, even in the form of an email. So ask yourself: Do you owe someone a letter? Or maybe you are waiting for a letter that is never going to come? Maybe you should sit right down and write yourself a letter.

Letter writing can be therapeutic for the writer as well as the recipient, and it may be just the thing to help you change perspective.

As described in Expressive Writing: Words That Heal, transactional writing is more formal than expressive writing, although the content may be as personal as expressive writing.

Outside the context of writing to heal, transactional writing often occurs in various professions or businesses and offers an exchange of some value, meets the expectations of another, or completes an obligation. For the sake of writing-to-heal, a guiding principle is that your transactional writing takes care of the business of your emotional life — whether it's new business or unfinished business — in order to express compassion, asking or granting forgiveness, empathy, or gratitude.

Purpose and Audience

The purpose of transactional writing is to complete an exchange of thoughts, beliefs, and feelings with someone else. Although for your transactional writing, you may also consider some aspect of yourself as an audience.

For instance, you may write a letter of compassion, empathy or gratitude to your former self, to your future self, or to another aspect of yourself. Many writers do this, but most write to someone else, whether it be a friend, family member, or significant other. Sometimes participants write to an authority figure; sometimes to a stranger who played an important role in a particular experience.

Observing Conventions

Unlike expressive writing, transactional writing observes some of the common conventions of letters, like a greeting and a closing. In the act of writing any letter, the writer intentionally becomes conscious of another person, and this awareness to a large degree, influences word choice, word order, even the punctuation and sentence structure. So, to a greater extent than expressive writing, transactional writing observes language and style conventions like grammar, spelling, and punctuation as much as the writer is able.

Unsent or Sent

Do not worry about sending the letters you write. In fact, it might be smart to not send the letters you write for this exercise. This exercise is ultimately for your mental health and not the intended recipient’s. If, after finishing the exercise and taking a few days off, go back and look at your letters and reconsider if sending the letters would ultimately be beneficial for others and for you.

Shifting Perspective

Keep in mind, a guiding principle of transactional writing is to become conscious of another’s perspective. A defining characteristic of transactional writing is to communicate a message. Don’t let a concern for conventions become your immediate or primary focus.

Instead, concentrate on communicating your thoughts, feelings, beliefs, opinions, and judgments to another. You are encouraged to write as many drafts of your letter as you wish, so don’t worry about writing a perfect first draft.

Read the five options below and choose the one that serves your purposes best. Or you may decide to combine elements from each option, but you only need to write one letter for this assignment. Of course, if you just can't resist doing all of them, then go for it.

Transactional Writing Choice # 1: The Compassionate Letter

Imagine if someone you love, your closest friend, your child, your partner, or your significant other had suffered some trauma or traumas

In a compassionate and respectful way, write a letter with what advice would you have for them from your experience? You might also:

  • Write about what you wish you had known but learned, and what you imagine that they might be able to learn from the event.
  • Write about what ways you are now growing and they may also grow.
  • Write about any way that there was a benefit to the crisis.
  • Write about what your loved one might have learned about himself or herself from going through this difficulty.
  • Or you may write about all the above.

As you continue to respond to your loved one, write encouraging words of hope, comfort, and advice.

Transactional Writing Choice #2: The Empathetic Letter

Symbolically take your leave of the past and move forward by composing a letter to yourself or to someone else involved in a distressing event. Try to understand why this person did, said, or acted the way they did.

You aren’t saying what happened is right, just or fair, but are instead trying to understand and empathize. Start from the assumption that the person isn’t a bad person, but just did something that hurt you or that you don’t understand.

  • What could they have been thinking?
  • What could have happened to them in the past to make them do what they did?
  • What could they have felt as they did it, and what did they feel afterward?
  • How do they feel now?

After you finish writing, go back and change or add anything you want. Rewrite as necessary until your letter is as good as you can make it.

Transactional Writing Choice #3: The Gratitude Letter

Write a letter to someone in your life that you would like to thank for something they gave you, or something they taught you, or something they have inspired in you. Get right to the point and don’t apologize for not writing before now. Imagine how the recipient may feel when they read your letter.

  • Describe your relationship with the person you are thanking and the context for this occasion.
  • Describe the gift that you received, the skill you learned, or the inspiration you received from knowing them.
  • Tell them what their gift meant to you when you received it.
  • Tell them how you felt about it then and now.
  • Tell them how you have been able to use this gift or the skill or the inspiration you received from them.
  • Tell them how your life has been enriched by what you have received from them and for their presence in your life.

Transactional Writing Choice #4: Granting Forgiveness Letter

Write a letter to someone in your life that you need to forgive for something they did or said or did not do or did not say. (Or write a forgiveness letter to yourself if there is something you did that you wish to forgive yourself for doing or saying. If you are writing to forgive yourself, write as if you were another person. Write in the second person, “you.”)

Before writing, think about the specific situation where you were treated badly by another person. Recall how you felt before, during, and after the event. Imagine how the other person felt and why they felt that way.

Work toward not demonizing the other person, remembering instead that they are humans with fears, insecurities, and stories of their own.

When you begin writing, write words that describe your deepest emotions and thoughts concerning this event in your life. Mention briefly what led up to the event. Focus more on the other person or people who are responsible for what happened.

What do you think was going on in their life at the time? How do you think they feel about it afterward? What will it take for you to forgive them?

Explore what being able to forgive them means to you and to them. As always, write continuously in an uncensored way.

Transactional Writing Choice #5: Asking Forgiveness Letter

Before writing, think about something that you have done in the past that caused someone else emotional pain. Think carefully about what led up to the event, what was going on in your mind at the time, and how you felt afterward.

Imagine how the other person felt and what he or she may have felt and what they may have thought. Briefly describe what happened, but focus on the other person’s thoughts and feelings.

If you can, express your sorrow and write out an apology. Don’t use your writing to justify your actions, but include if you can what it might take to make amends with this person, their family, and friends. As always, write continuously and write in an uncensored way.

A Paper Sacrifice

When your letter is as perfect as you can make it, it is a perfect sacrifice for moving ahead symbolically. Taking care for safety, create a ritual for burning your perfect paper sacrifice — symbolically releasing all that it represents.

Watch your letter burn. Watch the paper become ashes. Watch the smoke rise from the paper. Know that the materials of the ink and the paper have returned to the basic elements. No matter has been created or destroyed, its shape has changed, and that can make all the difference.

See the book, Expressive Writing: Words That Heal by James W. Pennebaker and John F. Evans.

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