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Good Letters

I’ve been writing letters to my friend Amy for five years now. We met in graduate school, and though we instantly liked each other, we hadn’t gotten to know each other very well before we graduated and moved away from Pittsburgh. So we decided to write letters, both out of an interest in letter writing, which we thought was a dying art, and an interest in each other.

Over the next few years, writing those letters became the most important writing of my life. They sustained me in the dry times of soul-sucking jobs, the doubts of new marriage and motherhood, in depression, death, and grief. What started as an experiment—a clever trick to get us to write—became a practice, like prayer or meditation, that we took very seriously.

This practice was interrupted over the last year, when by some stroke of luck or providence Amy’s husband came to the college where my husband works, and we got to live around the corner from each other in rural Virginia for nine months. We should have been thrilled by this turn of events, and the chance to have a more everyday friendship and raise our children together, but to our husbands’ amazement, we were tentative: What would happen to our letters?

We tried to devise a way to keep them up, even while we spent our days together. We could write about the books we were reading, or we could write during Lent as a penance. But we quickly realized that it had been the narration of our everyday lives that had made the letters so important to us. Now that we were experiencing our daily lives side-by-side, it seemed absurd to re-tell the same events for each other in a letter.

As we’d feared, without the letters, our daily lives lost some of the satisfying shape we’d been able to give them. Often, in writing a letter about a mundane day of pulling a three-year-old in a Radio Flyer wagon around the college campus, I would uncover some hidden beauty that would make it shine with new meaning. But now, Amy was walking alongside me as I pulled the wagon. And though we might talk about the beautiful things we saw, we talked more about how tired we were, or what we were going to have for dinner.

Amy returned to Chicago last month, and though we were sad to part, we each admitted to a secret happiness at the thought of having our letter writing restored.

Now, when I pull the wagon, I might see or hear a dozen things that I will share with her in a letter. Discoveries won’t tumble by in casual conversation, where it is impossible to convey the largeness and significance of something like my daughter’s interest in a flock of birds banking erratically overhead. It would have passed too quickly in the telling, and we would have said meaningless things like “that was amazing.” I could never express the poetry of such a moment in my everyday speech; it would sound ridiculous.

And what sort of response would I expect? “Yes, that was amazing.” In a letter, I don’t expect a response. Sometimes we respond directly to a topic or question, sometimes not. Sometimes we overlap and by chance discuss the same ideas at the same time. But usually our letters have no continuity at all.

Instead of a response, we each know that the other is simply reading, and entering the moment or thought described, in some way experiencing it, in all its significance. Then she folds the paper and tucks it back in its envelope and maybe sits for a moment in silence, or does the dishes, or picks up a pen and writes back.

This is what I love the most about letters: through them, we are a part of each other’s daily lives in a profoundly intimate way. We see what the other sees—think what the other thinks—in a way that would be impossible through any other form of communication. Different even than when we were together having the same experience, filtering it through our own perceptions. It’s a profound intimacy, profoundly comforting.

Sometimes I wonder if I’ve made a character of myself in our correspondence, and of Amy. I realize, returning now to the letters, that my voice there is different than anywhere else. The diction is a little higher; I use less contractions and slang. They are intensely personal, and yet strangely formal—another effort, made unconsciously, to elevate the contents.

But that elevation isn’t a writerly embellishment; it’s the dignity demanded by the subject. Sometimes in recreating and narrating an event for Amy, I’ve finished with my heart literally racing at the beauty and significance of the moment I’ve described. But it isn’t merely that I’ve enriched the moment’s meaning by writing it. No—in writing it to her, I’ve uncovered the meaning that was hidden there all along. In our letters, life, even in tedium, becomes a marvel.


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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