Putting Pen to Paper

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.

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 1998
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