"What the Living Do" Letter

In an interview on NPR (that you can find HERE), poet Marie Howe discusses writing about her brother’s death. She describes how shortly after his passing, she was writing poems all day long and at a certain point, she stopped and decided to write a letter to her brother instead. What came of that was her poem “What the living do.”


What the Living Do


Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably

   fell down there.

And the Drano won't work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes

   have piled up


waiting for the plumber I still haven't called. This is the everyday we

   spoke of.

It's winter again: the sky's a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight

   pours through


the open living-room windows because the heat's on too high in here and

   I can't turn it off.

For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street,

   the bag breaking,


I've been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying

   along those

wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my

   wrist and sleeve,


I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it.

Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called

   that yearning.


What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter to

   pass. We want

whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss — we want more and more and

   then more of it.


But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the

   window glass,

say, the window of the corner video store, and I'm gripped by a cherishing

   so deep


for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I'm


I am living. I remember you.



For this writing exercise, write a letter to someone or something you have lost. This could be a friend, lover, partner, or your former, younger self. What would you say to that person if you just called them up casually and told them the mundane details of your day? What might you complain about? What might you realize?

Write for at least 20 minutes. 

Let your words flow, see where they lead you, and just keep going with whatever comes to your mind. Let it out, without judgment. Remember to give yourself permission!

Name *

Let me know how this writing prompt worked for you!

I would love to hear about your experience responding to this writing prompt. What worked for you? What didn't quite get your words flowing? Do you have any suggestions for ways to approach this topic? Do you have any other comments, ideas, suggestions, or questions? Let's chat! 

You can contact me through this form or at abravespace@gmail.com. I look forward to hearing from you!

Liz Burke-Cravens, EdD