Love Letters

I’m not the first, and certainly won’t be the last, person to unhelpfully ask, “Why doesn’t anyone write letters anymore?” Some of the best and most interesting writing has been done for an audience of one, without pretension. Letters are intentional but rarely contain the guile of the novel or tact of a published essay. Nobody’s posing or at least not very well.

Letters mean, as Amy Hempel puts it, putting your cards on the table. As she writes in her 1997 novella, Tumble Home, “Trying to reach a person means asking the same question over and again: Is this the truth, or not?” Writing a letter, if you’re specific and truthful, means participating in a collective, offhand labor of love—creating a true historical record. Here’s a syllabus for falling in love with the mail.

No One Writes Back by Jang Eun-jin

In Jang Eun-jin’s 2013 novel, a young man travels South Korea with his dog for three years, writing letters to every person he meets along the way. A former postal worker, the narrator is in self-imposed exile from his town and his family for reasons that are unclear for most of the book. He wanders the country with no goals beyond writing one letter per day. His reasoning is plain: He is not fit to function in society, but, over time, he might figure out how to write himself in.

He eventually finds a travel companion, a novelist he calls “the woman” or “751.” (Almost everyone he meets is referred to by number instead of name.) 751’s defining features are that she smells terrible and is, for whatever reason, hawking her book (called Toothpaste and Soap) on trains and in town squares. A strange companion eases his loneliness, as does an almost-tryst with his ex-girlfriend. But what never ends is his need to write and mail a letter every day, which he does no matter what. The mail, he says, is better than email or text messages or even speech. “I feel that what’s slower could be better,” he explains. “Hope that’s alive and moving can keep a person going until he falls into despair.”

Motion Sickness by Lynne Tillman

Lynne Tillman's 1991 novel can be read as delightful privilege porn: It’s about a nameless young woman traveling around Europe and eating pastries. But there’s also all kinds of quiet danger in Motion Sickness—and a loud murder—and though the narrator rips up as many postcards as she sends, the only constant of the story is her finding, buying, and writing them. They sound magnificent: big square prints of Edward Hopper’s Girl with a Sewing Machine, or some caves in Belgium, or “a view of the room called Persephone’s Boudoir.” Her obsession with the possibilities these cards offer— and the way they almost always disappoint—makes her seem winningly romantic, as well as a bit doomed: “My postcard is not a vote, although these days, where I come from, it ought to be part of a write-in campaign, one meant to flood Washington, composed of postcards from foreign places or paintings by well-known artists that would flood the capital with desire for something different.”

Letters of E. B. White edited by Dorothy Lobrano Guth

E. B. White’s letters were mostly written from his farm in and sent to his friends in Manhattan—all the unlucky editors who had to report to the office while he mailed in essays about geese from an oceanfront locale in Maine. It’s clear he is in such deep and unexpected love with his wife — New Yorker founding fiction editor Katharine Angell—that he has a hard time not bragging about it. He’s a plain-spoken writer, but even in relaying the basic facts about weather and farm animals, you can feel it: a kind of happiness so wild that no one can exactly deserve it. To avoid a grisly karmic demise, it has to be used to buoy the faith of everyone around, which is possibly why, in 1971, White wrote to his good friend William Maxwell, then-fiction editor of the New Yorker and the father of two young girls: “My birds are shedding now, and I’m enclosing two feathers from the young gander; you can make them into pens for Kate and Brookie so they will grow up to be writers. Am also enclosing three snapshots, which can be thrown away.” There’s no trick, he’s just sharing the wealth, and since Maxwell preserved this note that White clearly saw as temporary, you can have some too.

Tumble Home by Amy Hempel

This epistolary novella is comprised of a series of letters written by a woman at a psychiatric halfway house to a painter she met once and became infatuated with. Her musings are often confusing and gloomy. “Writing to you, I am myself,” she says in one typical missive. “And what that self is I will tell you: a graveyard.” She berates herself throughout for having “no wiles or guile,” for being cursed with “earnestness,” for putting her cards on the table when “a woman should conceal, not reveal.”

On the surface, the goal of her letter-writing campaign seems to be persuading an intelligent man that she is worth loving and respecting. But over the course of her project, the writer ends up persuading herself of these facts, thereby pushing through her obsession with suicide. In the final moments of the story, she writes one final letter from the car that’s taking her back into society. She takes care not to drop it on the ground (bad luck), stops at a post office, and finally mails it even though it’s on notebook paper instead of “the good stuff.”

Dear Lil Wayne by Lauren Ireland

Though Dear Lil Wayne is sold as a poetry collection, the book is actually a packet of letters that poet Lauren Ireland mailed to Lil Wayne during his incarceration at Rikers Island in 2010. Ireland tells Lil Wayne about her daily life—regrets, dreams, sex, death, a few drunk nights and one bad haircut. But mostly she expresses her envy for all the things he is that she wishes she could be. “You wouldn’t understand, but it’s hard to be boring in a fascinating world,” she says. “I want to write like you do, right in the very burning air.”

He doesn’t respond to any of the letters, and there’s no guarantee that he even received them. If he did, though, maybe he thought it was just a little too presumptuous of a twenty-something white woman in Brooklyn to ask if he’d like to travel back in time with her and “invent music.” Writing a letter to someone with no obligation to care about your feelings may not be the prettiest example of what the postal service can do for you, but it’s not worthless: Ireland wrote herself as an artist, to an artist, as a way of becoming one.

Kaitlyn Tiffany is a tech reporter at's The Goods.