I have this thing with letters. Probably it’s partly generational: notes and letters were a big deal for all of us in middle school and high school in particular. We would write notes in classes, practice folding them up in fancy shapes (I was never any good at that part), and give them to our friends between classes. I also had a pen pal for many years: a girl with the same first name as me who lived in a state on the other side of the country.
I make my students write letters to me at the beginning and the end of the semester, prompting them to dig deeper into their feelings about writing and life. They are my favorite things of theirs to read. I write letters all of the time – though I rarely actually send them – and I love the way they allow me to write things in new ways. I’m fascinated by the act of letter writing, and I wish we all did more of it.
I also love to read letters of others. There’s something so intimate about epistolary narratives. The genre of the letter demands a certain voice and style that does something other genres simply cannot accomplish. Letters are emotional and often revealing, I think because they are so focused on one audience member, so there’s a certain freedom in how we construct our writing because we aren’t worried about how others might misconstrue our intentions. We then give care and attention to that one audience, showing hidden parts of ourselves and allowing for confession and passion in intimate ways.
When we read the letters of others, we know all about those conventions, and so it’s a lot like eavesdropping. It’s thrilling to read them, because we know it was not intended for us. And we can relish the lovely language and the peeks into the minds of strangers, identify secret parts of ourselves mirrored in others, and gain new perspectives.
I recently picked up a copy of Mary-Louise Parker’s new book, Dear Mr. You. I feel pretty strongly opposed to reading the memoirs of already-famous people, but I was intrigued by the premise: a series of letters written to various men Parker has known at various times in her life. I’ve only read a few so far, but I like it very much. I like the direct address and how that makes me feel like I’m being let in on a secret. I like the mystery that naturally comes from not knowing the exact circumstances she refers to. I like the way the letters allow for beautiful language in a way that a traditional narrative might stifle.
Collections of letters (like essays and short stories) are also excellent things to have around if you are a grad student (or any student, or anyone with little time to read) because they can be immersive but also read in bits. There’s no plot line to remember. You don’t have to know all the characters (usually). You can pick them up and put them down whenever and wherever, and still get a dose of story and loveliness.
I have quite a few “favorite” letters, epistolary novels, essays, and so forth. Here are a few I recommend:
Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
This is one of the first books of letters I remember reading. I felt, just as the introduction by Mark Harmon said I would, “as if these hundred-year-old letters were addressed to [me] directly.” With lessons on love, solitude, and poetry, it’s a stunning and relevant collection that anyone should read immediately.
A Literate Passion: Letters of Anaïs Nin & Henry Miller
First of all, we can all agree, I’m sure, that Nin has written some of the sexiest lines in existence. And the trajectory of the passionate, strange affair and friendship between her and Miller (and her obsession with Miller’s wife, June) makes for some steamy, intellectual reading.
Letters to Sartre by Simone de Beauvoir
Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre were the kind of couple who all the intellectual couples probably wanted to be. To get a look inside their relationship through their letters is pretty thrilling. I’ve read some of Sartre’s letters to de Beauvoir, but I’m much more infatuated with hers, so I’ve never bothered to pick up his collection. de Beauvoir shows a range of human emotion, from jealousy to devotion, and her extraordinary wit and intelligence.
Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters
Sexton was an astounding, gifted poet, and her knack for crafting heart-wrenching language and capturing madness lives on in her letters. I’ve never read this all the way through, front to back. Instead, I pick it up sometimes and open to a random letter and just sort of experience the words, the tragedy, and her.
Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed
I love this book. The advice letter is not quite the same as other letters, but there’s still something in the way the letter functions in the advice column – especially Dear Sugar. Strayed played the part of “Sugar” for the column, featured on The Rumpus, and this collection features some of her most quote-worthy, most human, most empathetic responses. (See also: Dear Sugar Radio, featuring Strayed and Steve Almond. I’m obsessed with this podcast.)
“Documents” by Charles D’Ambrosio
If this isn’t obvious already, I’ll just go ahead and say it now: I have a thing for D’Ambrosio. This particular essay is a tough one, as it deals with suicide, loss, fathers, and mental illness with letters. It’s a lovely read, and the addition of letters makes it especially affecting.
I Love Dick by Chris Kraus
This book is something. I can’t really describe it, but others have called it a “cult classic” and “cult feminist classic” and “revolutionary” and other smart things. I especially like it because of the letters.
So, go on, read some letters, and write some, too (send them to me if you do).