An Open Letter On Open-Letters

Dear 20-year-old Connor,

I remember it vividly. I was driving home from track practice in my creaky black Ford SUV with my brother beside me in the front seat. My mind was focused solely on the stretches of double yellow lines in front of me. And then I heard it.

Confused? That’s fair—I probably could have done a better job of re-telling that anecdote. Regardless, I’m referring to the first time that I heard Jay Z’s rap anthem “Open Letter” on the airwaves. Released in 2013, the song is an “Open Letter” to Jay Z’s increasingly vocal critics, who, at the time, spoke out against his ownership stake in the Brooklyn Nets, his controversial anniversary trip to Cuba, and his new deal with Universal Music Group, among other items. In response, Jay Z unleashes a verbal barrage on his detractors, viciously attacking them for attempting “to start a revolution” with their critiques of his visit to Cuba.

While Jay Z’s “Open Letter” does not conform to the traditional conventions of the open letter genre, it maintains a direct tone similar to most open letters I have reviewed. I mention all of this—of course—because I have chosen to draft an open letter as part of my third and final experiment. As part of my open letter, I will be re-purposing a personally-relevant-style essay regarding the growing issue of academic-related stress and anxiety among high school students. I’ve chosen to experiment in this genre since it affords a significant amount of personalization and informality, yet is not overly casual or colloquial. I intend to use this increased flexibility to establish a deeper connection with my audience. While I have not decided whether I will address the open letter to a 17-year-old version of myself or to one of my high school English teachers, my addressed audience will be only a single individual in the style of other open-letters. Although my addressed audience will be somewhat limited, my invoked audience of any current or former high school student or teachers will be broader in scope.

Since I have only minor experience with this genre, I’ll need to analyze other, well-known open letters to better understand their conventions and limitations before I can begin composing my own open letter.

For the first genre model of my experiment, I reviewed an open letter from Marta, a member of the Brazilian women’s national soccer team, to her 14-year-old self. In the letter, Marta encourages her younger self to “just get on the bus” to Rio de Janeiro so she can begin her national soccer career and continue her fight “against it all – the boys, the people who say you can’t.”

Such straightforward and uplifting statements reveal that one of the conventions of the open-letter genre is its direct, personalized language, particularly if the letter is addressed to a younger version of oneself. Another convention of this genre that I observed in Marta’s letter is that open-letters begin by addressing their audience explicitly: “Dear ____.” This model also demonstrated to me that open-letters can adopt a less formal tone and involve humor—they do not have to be purely academic.

As part of my second model for this genre, I analyzed an open-letter written by a University of California student, Claudia Huynh. In her open-letter, Huynh addresses her future employer, explaining to them that she is not going to “pretend to be anything I’m not just to get a job,” and that achieving happiness—not professional success—is her ultimate goal in life. From Huynh’s frank open-letter, I noticed that the writing in this genre is often extremely candid, occasionally to a fault. I found that this genre often includes a sign-off from the writer, though this aspect is a convention, not a requirement. Additionally, through Huynh’s unique, non-traditional paragraph organization, I learned that, in this genre, the spatial mode of communication is critical and that working in this genre affords increased structural flexibility. However, reviewing Huynh’s letter also revealed to me that this genre is somewhat limited by the fact that open-letters seldom rely upon quantitative data or statistics to support their argument or overarching ideas.

My third and final model comes in the form of an open-letter penned by former Atlanta Braves player Chipper Jones to his younger self. In his letter, Jones offers advice to his teenage self and warns him of the numerous personal and professional issues he will encounter in his career, led by a mental dilemma over whether to take steroids in 1996, as several of his teammates did. From Jones’ honest open-letter, “Letter to My Younger Self,” I observed that open-letters are traditionally titled according to their audience as a “Letter to ____.” While this genre is constraining in its use of titles, it offers significant artistic freedom visually. Through Jones’ inclusion of pictures throughout his letter, I’ve noticed that this genre emphasizes the visual mode of communication. Although Jones’ letter includes graphics, it does not contain any videos or sound clips, leading me to conclude that this genre does not feature any aural modes of communication as a convention.

You can be funny, but probably not Larry David-level humor.

Now that I’ve analyzed each of these models, let’s review the open-letter genre conventions that I observed:
• Direct, personal language
• Begin by addressing audience as “Dear ____”
• Informal (even humorous at times) tone
• Writing is very candid and direct
• Includes a goodbye note from the author
• Heavily uses spatial mode of communication
• Do not (or, at least, extremely rarely) feature numerical data
• Titled according to the audience: “Letter to ____”
• Visual mode of communication emphasized
• No aural modes of communication included

There you have it—the open-letter genre. Now comes the hard part: actually writing it.


20-year-old Connor

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