Letter Perfect

by Tom Bentley
Copyright 2003, Tom Bentley


That old phrase about hiding things in plain sight applies to more than just detective novels and movie scripts. Sometimes a story’s location is less a matter of struggling with your squirming consciousness than looking in your front yard—or to be more exact, your mailbox.

I was a regular reader of the San Francisco Chronicle’s Sunday Punch section in the late 80s. It was a wonderfully eclectic compendium of columnists, feature stories, and first-person essays on every topic under the sun—and even what happened after that sun set.

I’d published a few pieces in small magazines, but Punch seemed so quintessentially San Franciscan—a state of mind I aspired to—that I longed to place some witty disquisition within its pages. But the shadow from the ten-thousand-foot question mark loomed: what to write about?

A frolicsome piece on unusual skin conditions? A recipe for low-fat chocolate martinis? An imagined conversation between me, J. D. Salinger and Josephine Baker? I fretted, I fussed, I fumed. I came up with nothing. I studied the Punch’s pages, looking for the key to their charm, the essence that insisted on their existence. Dash it all—those pages had every type of story, from silly to sublime, and giving them my laboratory eye only gave me eyestrain, not an idea.

But then it came to me. Not an idea, but a letter. Actually the latest in a series of them, stretching 13 years, 5 cities and 2 states. I’d been receiving mail from the Jack Daniel’s Distillery over the course of thirteen years, and many of those mailings had been doozies.

It had all started when I’d innocently replied to a little card attached to the neck of a Jack Daniel’s bottle soliciting comments about the product. Divine inspiration—and a double-shot—brought me to reveal to the distillery folks that I thought that old Jack’s product was a balm for just about any ailment: an ointment for aches and pains, a zesty substitute for toothpaste, and a wart remover in a pinch.

Over the years, the Distillery sent a sheaf of kooky epistles and odd objects, including two sets of drinking glasses, a small bag of black-eyed peas, a buckeye, a rubbing stone, a record of “indigenous ethnic folk songs,” a small bag of sassafras root and the foulest plug of chewing tobacco this side of Satan’s farm. And a deed for some land (about two square inches) within the Distillery proper.

It might not be Griffin and Sabine, but describing those 13 years of correspondence (indeed I answered every missive) brought me two-thirds of a page in Punch, right below L. M. Boyd’s Grab Bag of whimsy and exotic facts. I had, as many writing teachers tell you, let the story come to me. Literally.

So, when the writing well seems dry, don’t rush into the neighbor’s yard for a drink—reach for your glass and give the home tap another twist. Let it flow.