How to Write a Hardship Letter

by Nicole Simonsen Read author interview December 16, 2013

If you really want to save your house, do not tell the people at the loan workout team that your soon-to-be ex-husband has renounced all material pursuits or that he is living in the back of the revival movie theatre in exchange for running the projector and sweeping up the popcorn. They are in the middle of an F.W. Murnau retrospective. He invites you to come to the next screening of Sunrise, but you just don’t have it in you to watch the lovers reunite. He seems to have stepped into these old movies, to have turned into a black and white version of himself. He wears a black overcoat with an upturned collar, and a ridiculous fedora that sits low over his forehead to hide bloodshot eyes. You will have to admit that he doesn’t have a job, but do not tell the bank that he quit. And do not tell them what he told you the day he left, when you stood outside the house, the sunlight slicing your eyes like a razor, that he would never work again, that the 9-5 life was killing him. He didn’t need much to be happy; he could live like a monk. You didn’t believe him, but when you stop by the movie theatre because you are lonely and miss the old talks, he will show you his makeshift cot behind the screen. He has a pillow, a mat, and a crate with a change of clothes and a copy of Don Quixote and Les Miserables, the only things he has kept from your life together. The rest he has rejected. You don’t know him anymore. He might never work again or pay his fair share, but don’t tell the people at the bank.

If you want to avoid the filing cabinet of hopeless cases, do not tell them that your three-year-old son is on the spectrum, that he doesn’t make eye contact, that his speech is delayed and that at night when he is finally sleeping, you wish you could slip your fingers inside his skull and massage those neurons into the right places so that in the morning the two of you could have breakfast together and have a silly conversation about who would win in a fight—a killer whale or a great white, or why Santa Claus doesn’t visit the children of China, or why some birds eat other birds—and then when you drop him off at his expensive school and hug him tight and whisper in his ear that you love him, he will say the words back. That is something money will never fix.

Do not tell them about the other morning when you went to the river to collect water samples. You used to enjoy tracking pollutants because they were identifiable and measurable and could be contained in your tiny vials. But there, at the edge of the river, the water cold and fast and higher than usual, it all seemed a pointless exercise, the mere naming of things and nothing more. You noticed a lone seal, its black head bobbing on the surface. It seemed to implore you with its oily eyes; it had a message if you could just get to it. You thought that if you walked into the water you might slip out of your skin and become a seal, too, and that you would like that life, swimming up and down the river, dining on small fish, no mortgage, no job, letting the current take you where it may. You tried to summon your old childhood belief in shape shifters, but, as usual, you hesitated a moment too long. Your boss found you and wanted to know why you only had three samples—what had you been doing this whole time?—and you realized the spell was over, the opportunity lost.

Above all, do not tell them about your newly ambiguous feelings towards the house you claim you want to save. Do not tell them that you have considered packing whatever will fit in your car and driving to Mexico or even farther south to Chile or Peru where you could live in a hut with your son. Do not tell them that the house has become a jail, that it requires you to work for it like someone on a chain gang, like a modern form of indentured servitude, or that in French the word mortgage means death pledge. Ambiguity makes these people uncomfortable. They are bankers, after all. They like numbers and money and for things to add up.

Strike up a friendship with whomever answers the special 1-800 number the bank has set up for people like you. The woman with the Southern accent is a good listener. Get her extension. Call her often. You can tell by the timber of her voice that she is a smoker and has a good twenty years on you, that’s why it’s okay for her to call you “honey,” which she does often, followed with optimistic platitudes. Coming from anyone else, these pithy sayings would drive you crazy, but from her they are oddly reassuring. She knows, she’s been there. In 1982, her house was destroyed by a tornado, in 1993 a flood. Real biblical stuff, she says. Right now, you need stories about people who rebuild their lives from the rubble.

Remember to be brief. These people do not have time for your life story, nor are they literary critics, so you may use the occasional cliché—”I will get back on my feet”—you can write. There are conventions to this genre, and they expect you to follow the formula, not get too inventive or creative. That might signal an instability.

Don’t forget to sign your name. And for fun, because nothing about this has been fun, use the wild, fake signature you practiced in junior high when you were sure you were going to be famous one day.

About the Author:

Nicole Simonsen works as an English teacher at an urban public high school in Sacramento, California, Her work is forthcoming in Talking Writing and Brain, Child.

About the Artist:

Leslie June is a digital media professional and underwater photographer. She currently builds websites and takes photos in Asheville, NC.