Letters are strange. They are written to a particular person at a particular time, but we also seem to hold onto them as if they speak to some larger significance, a wider audience. I have a friend who uses old letters as bookmarks, reading them instead of the book in her hands when the book doesn’t live up to expectations or she’s forgotten what the letters contain. I keep mine in a pile on my desk, the ones still requiring a response, and I keep the rest in a large, yellow envelope on my bookshelf. Some are important to me in obvious ways, while others are birthday cards or congratulatory notes, notes that matter because of who sent them and because of the many other words and thoughts behind the few letters that actually get written.
Some of my most important letters are between my friend Emily and me, from our years in college. When we weren’t on campus taking walks and classes together, we would write back and forth between our hometowns. When I think of those letters, I remember the feeling of writing them and knowing they would be read. I remember sitting down to write and knowing that, while they didn’t always need to be serious, they were always important.
In one letter, Emily included a quote from T.S. Eliot that struck through to part of the whole letter-writing experience. In a letter of his own, Eliot wrote:
The desire to write a letter, to put down what you don’t want anybody else to see but the person you are writing to but which you do not want to be destroyed, but perhaps hope may be preserved for complete strangers to read, ineradicable. We want to confess ourselves in writing to a few friends, and we do not always want to feel that no one but those friends will ever read what we have written.
Looking back, I’m thankful that I had an audience that cared for my words and for me as a person, and that I cared for them as well. I’ve always wanted to share Eliot’s quote with others because it seems to be at the heart of writing in general in a way that I haven’t quite fully understood, but it’s too long to remember most of the time. Now I have.
The other night, a few friends came over for wine and catching up. After a while, the poems and notes, the quotes and long-held thoughts started coming out, and I pulled out a book that I’ve been reading lately from next to the pile of letters from my friends: The Delicacy and Strength of Lace, a book of letters between Leslie Marmon Silko and James Wright. The two writers didn’t know each other, besides having met once at a writer’s conference in 1975. A couple years later, Wright read Silko’s first novel, Ceremony, and wrote her a small note thanking her for writing such a great work. A couple letters later, Silko responds with a scene about her rooster so well-written it’s as if it’s lifted straight from the Laguna stories of her fiction. In that letter, she writes:
I never know what will happen when I write a letter. Certain persons bring out certain things in me. I hadn’t intended to go off with rooster stories when really I wanted to tell you how happy I was to hear from you again.
As Silko goes on to say, she is able to write so freely because
I have been trusting another sort of communication between you and me—a sort of message from the heart—sent by thinking of you and feeling great love for you and knowing strongly that you think of me, that you are sending thoughts and feelings to me; and you and I, Jim, we trust in these messages that move between us… I cannot account for this except that perhaps it is a gift of the poetry, or perhaps it should be called ‘grace’—a special sort of grace.
This gift of the grace of poetry found in letter-writing influenced both writers’ work immensely. Throughout this slim volume they discuss the books they are working on and how they’re going. But even for those readers who aren’t familiar with Silko or Wright’s work, the correspondence shines with a kind of awareness and gratefulness of the shared appreciation for living and writing which these two individuals had found in each other. Reading their letters has reawakened me to the lives that words live beyond our own telling, to how our words affect others without our knowledge and to how writing can enact shifts in our understanding.
It was this kind of grace-filled care that stood up from the book and caught my attention, making me think back to Emily and my own letter-writing. In the same letter in which she passed along the Eliot quote, she wrote:
Jeremy, we’re doing something crazy here. You, me, our friends, and all of those other wonderful fools around the world who are just off enough to write and write honestly. I wish Eliot would have mentioned, and maybe he did, that by writing these letters complete strangers are reading us. I can’t help but think that your letters imprint themselves on me in some way and that I carry your lines to other people.
I think Wright and Silko’s words have left an impression on me in a similar way, and I have been carrying them around with me since I finished the book, sharing with others the awakeness their words lent me. Wright begins what he doesn’t realize will become a correspondence with the words “I trust you won’t mind hearing from a stranger. Not entirely a stranger though,” and I feel as if I’ve whispered Silko and Wright’s words to those friends and family members I’ve been with recently.
Letters don’t require the same kind of openness or forwardness that speaking in person asks of us. But when we write to a friend, each word reaches for a meaning and significance larger than mere information. Instead, we seek an understanding of how lives bend and curve in their daily iterations. I tend to agree with Silko, as she wrote in her last letter, that this significance stems from the feeling of knowing the other person, even when far away. We know each other through each other’s words, but that feeling extends to kinship between us. In letter-writing, we are not really talking, but the words represent the deep-heldness of our communication. We trust that the other person won’t mind hearing as if from a stranger.
Not entirely a stranger, though. As Silko writes to Wright as he lies on his deathbed, “no matter if written words are seldom because we know, Jim, we know.”