The Common Good
September-October 1998

Putting Pen to Paper

by Rose Marie Berger | September-October 1998

The intimacy and poignancy of writing letters.

A well-written letter once virtually saved my life. I was 21 and housesitting for my parents while they attended a family reunion in Nebraska. My only responsibility was to feed and water my dad's Leghorn chickens. (He had raised these 24 from chicks.) What followed was a tragedy worthy of John Steinbeck. The story involves Bubonic plague, the rare avian division of the local agricultural school, ipecac, and, ultimately, 24 dead chickens. My only escape from parental wrath was an explanatory letter that left him laughing so hard he forgot to yell. These many years later, distant cousins still know me as the one who wrote "the dead chicken letter."

Letters do not just convey facts and information, but reveal a sliver of our soul. A well-written letter requires self-reflection and intimacy that e-mail, faxes, and the Internet just cannot replace. "It's the physicality of the letters," says Irish writer Nuala O'Faolin, "the different weights of the paper, the blotting Spiro pen, the hastily scrawled pencil, the sloping loops of penmanship." While this physicality becomes lost in published anthologies, what remains is the unique way a person tells another who she really is while also giving us hints about the recipient.

The earliest collection of letters I read was the epistles of Paul—brilliant correspondence that made certain the word of Jesus' death and resurrection was not confined to suburban Jerusalem but went forth to ignite the world. Then I remember reading Illustrissimi, John Paul I's collection of letters to fictional characters and saints (including a letter to Pinocchio on having a crush), and Mohandas Gandhi's letters to Leo Tolstoy asking for more information on the idea of passive resistance.

Lately I've been reading Always, Rachel from environmental scientist Rachel Carson to Dorothy Freeman ("Love is such an expandable thing."), Vincent Van Gogh's Letters to Theo ("I have real kitchen chairs and a real strong kitchen table. I am going to draw it for you."), and German artist KSthe Kollwitz's letters to her sons.

RECENTLY THREE MORE worthy collections have been published, all deserving of a wider audience. Ben Alex's Best Regards: Recovering the Art of Soulful Letter Writing is a little kitschy in appearance but a gem in content. Despite the faux Griffin-and-Sabine layout, Alex brings together a remarkable number of personal, insightful letters from Christian artists, writers, and leaders as diverse as Wolfgang Mozart and John Wesley, Francis Schaeffer and Mother Teresa.

Alex's introduction draws from Thomas Moore's Soul Mates when he says, "in our letters we are recollecting and conversing with the soul, through both our friends and ourselves." This small collection is just right for providing prayer companions and sparking sermon ideas.

Constance Warloe has edited an extraordinary collection of letters written especially for her new anthology From Daughters to Mothers: I've Always Meant to Tell You (originally titled I've Always Meant to Tell You: Letters to Our Mothers). She draws together more than 75 well-known daughters—Ntozake Shange, Alma Luz Villanueva, Joyce Carol Oates, Rita Dove, Barbara Kingsolver—to speak to their mothers, both living and dead.

Though a mother is one of the strongest influences in a woman's life, often there is also an emotional ambivalence—for every moment she is the last person we want to see, there is an equally intense moment when her presence is crucial or her absence keenly felt. This collection is populated by women saying what is on their minds and hearts, and saying it with dignity, courage, and eloquence.

Finally, no home or classroom should be without Letters of a Nation. Editor Andrew Carroll is best known as the man whose American Poetry & Literacy Project matched the Gideons for putting poetry collections in every hotel room.

When I recently received a review copy of Carroll's Letters of a Nation, it included several yellow sticky notes marking letters he thought Sojourners would be particularly interested in—Helen Keller's to Eugene Debs, Joseph Fogg's to his parents on helping to evacuate Bergen-Belsen, Mother Jones' to Teddy Roosevelt, Dorothy Day's to the Unemployed, and Luis Rodriguez's to the Young Men of the Illinois Youth Center.

To these I would add Benjamin Banneker's 1791 letter to Thomas Jefferson on whether or not the statement "all men are created equal" included black Americans; Mark Twain's to the gas company on their "chuckleheaded" policies; Ita Ford's to her niece on finding in life "something worth living and dying for"; Malcolm X's after his trip to Mecca on the possibility of peace between the races; and Flannery O'Connor's to Alfred Corn on "losing and regaining faith."

On my last birthday, I received an envelope in the mail from my dad. It was smooth, cool, and had a few sweat stains from being carried in a shirt pocket. The letter was printed out neatly on his new word processor with all of his characteristic typos in place and the margins filled with last minute thoughts. It contained his memories of the day I was born and the events of my first year. I read parts of it aloud at a birthday dinner. Now it has a few tear stains as well. The pen is indeed mightier than we perhaps think.

Best Regards: Recovering the Art of Soulful Letter Writing. Ben Alex. Abington Press, 1997.

From Daughters to Mothers: I've Always Meant to Tell You.. Constance Warloe. Pocket Books, 1997.

Letters of a Nation. Andrew Carroll. Kodansha International, 1997.

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