A Letter a Day: The Power of a Compassionate Witness

Letter a Day (photo of author, Cat Saunders, and friend Marla Greenway)
Cat Saunders (left) and longtime friend Marla Greenway

“There is no better looking glass than an old friend.”  —Thomas Fuller

By Cat Saunders

One recent afternoon, I suddenly got an idea about how to chase away the blues in a new way. What if I wrote a letter to one of my best friends every day for 30 days?

I’d been thinking about doing another round of “morning pages,” as described in Julie Cameron’s wonderful book, The Artist’s Way. In case you’re not familiar with Cameron’s concept of morning pages, there is only one rule. You write a minimum of three pages every morning by hand. That’s it.

As much as I value morning pages, I realized that I didn’t really want to write to myself. I wanted a compassionate witness.

Despite my daily regimen of good self-care, I knew something was missing. I hadn’t treated myself to any “Marla time” in months. “Marla time” is when I sit down and write my heart out to Marla Greenway, a dear woman friend and treasured pen pal.

When I write to Marla, I sometimes whip out ten or fifteen handwritten pages at a time. Even then, the only reason I stop is because I get hungry or tired. Marla devours every word of my letters with gusto. And when she gets to the end, she wants more. How cool is that?

It heals me to write to Marla because it’s the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to writing to myself. She’s not just anyone else, either. She’s someone who truly listens, and she listens with love.

I remember taking another longtime friend, Joe Rahn, to my parents’ house for dinner in 1984, when I was 30. My older brother was also there. Afterward in the car, Joe asked if I noticed that my parents didn’t listen to me when I spoke. He said. “When you talk, everyone just ignores you and keeps talking. But when your brother speaks, your parents put down their forks and listen.”

I was stunned, not only because Joe was right, but also because I’d never noticed it before. What he described was simply “normal” family behavior for me.

Obviously, it’s disheartening when people who love you aren’t interested in what you have to say. Because of this early conditioning, I still struggle sometimes to believe that Marla and others who love me are genuinely interested in me.

Writing to Marla for 30 days was so healing that I decided to keep going. And yes, I write to Marla by hand—three pages minimum, just like Julia Cameron’s morning pages. But I do my “Marla pages” any time of day.

There is something magical about writing by hand. It slows me down and grounds me. It connects me more strongly to the physical world. Plus, I love knowing that the paper I’m holding in my hands will soon be held by the hands of a woman I dearly love.

Sometimes I still get blue, but writing about it to my friend Marla changes everything. Marla, my compassionate witness changes everything—her friendship changes everything.

This article was originally published by Evergreen Monthly (June 2004) and updated in July 2017.

Cat Saunders, Ph.D., is a counselor in private practice in Seattle, Washington. She is also the author of Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook: A Compassionate Guide for Being Human (available through Amazon). Contact Cat by emailing her or by calling 206-329-0125 (24-hour voicemail).