On Love and Letters: Writing for Those You Know


Though I write with terrifying frequency, I fail at an essential type of writing; letters make me fumble. They cause me to be tongue-tied and stuttery. Cards that I give to friends and family are inevitably filled with long spaces and smudges where I have paused to think or where I have decided that a word isn’t quite right.

It is tempting to blame technological advances for these things. Crafting a pithy Facebook post or a tweet requires a different skill set than writing a letter for a friend. There are differences in length, in intimacy, in vulnerability. With the increasing connectivity of the world and existence of things like video chats, we can talk to loved ones no matter how far away they are. People no longer need to know how to write letters in order to maintain relationships.

I regret that loss of knowledge. Part of that may be the historian in me. I have read correspondence that people wrote to one another centuries ago, and those missives do not much resemble the emails that I send to colleagues or friends. Of course I may simply be looking at the past through a rosy tint. I doubt that the contemporaries of those writers would have found the letters so extraordinary. They were simply the only way people could communicate.

Perhaps then my renewed interest in letters is more personal. I’ve seen letters that my parents wrote to one another when they were courting. I’ve read notes that my great-grandmother sent. Whatever romance I put in my fiction escapes my more private writing, yet other people capture the emotion with apparent ease.

Or perhaps my longing for letters is simply the result of too much reading. I recently stumbled across a letter from Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf and have become enamored with its beauty.

Milan [posted in Trieste]
Thursday, January 21, 1926

I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia. I composed a beautiful letter to you in the sleepless nightmare hours of the night, and it has all gone: I just miss you, in a quite simple desperate human way. You, with all your un-dumb letters, would never write so elementary phrase as that; perhaps you wouldn’t even feel it. And yet I believe you’ll be sensible of a little gap. But you’d clothe it in so exquisite a phrase that it would lose a little of its reality. Whereas with me it is quite stark: I miss you even more than I could have believed; and I was prepared to miss you a good deal. So this letter is just really a squeal of pain. It is incredible how essential to me you have become. I suppose you are accustomed to people saying these things. Damn you, spoilt creature; I shan’t make you love me any the more by giving myself away like this—But oh my dear, I can’t be clever and stand-offish with you: I love you too much for that. Too truly. You have no idea how stand-offish I can be with people I don’t love. I have brought it to a fine art. But you have broken down my defences. And I don’t really resent it …

Please forgive me for writing such a miserable letter.


I feel such a strange yearning to write letters like that (though perhaps ones filled with less misery and more joy). So I am promising myself that this year I will write more letters to people I have known. They don’t have to read them – in fact, I may never send them – but I want to have written them.

If nothing else, I think that writing in such a way is a skill worth having.

—     —     —

Bibliography: Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Wolf, “A Thing That Wants Virginia”, The Paris Review, Accessed 13 February 2017, https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2016/03/09/a-thing-that-wants-virginia/


25 thoughts on “On Love and Letters: Writing for Those You Know

  1. Having been brought up in pre-comuter times when my own relationship with people that mattered had to be by letter, I’m guessing you get self conscious when using a pen and paper. We simply spilt our emotions and feelings onto the page because that was what we had. If you simply forget you are using a different medium and just write, it will be fine:).

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Yes… it’s an ongoing issue for those folks who have been using keyboards for most of their lives. I’ve written several near-future novels where people who can actually handwrite are something of an oddity.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. What that is a lovely thing to do. It takes me all my time to write a bloody email. I take my hat of to you for keeping letter writing alive. And one day in the far-flung post-apocalyptic future (when emails are just something parents use to scare their children into being good and going to bed early) you will have the last laugh because your letters will be found and treasured as precious historical documents, while we languish on on decaying servers!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. What a beautiful post. I have often lamented the loss of the emotional freedom these letter writers must have enjoyed to write such correspondence from the heart. I think today we would never expose ourselves so fully, although I would do love to receive such a heartfelt letter.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Really enjoyed the letter from Vita to Virginia- 2 incredibly intelligent and powerful women with brilliant minds and challenging ideals. Their story would definitely be worth telling. And as for to the old adage “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?” – I’m afraid that would be me. Well she was the founder to the literary Bloomsbury set!

    Went to Vita’s garden in Sissinghurst last year. If you are ever lucky enough to get to the gorgeous Sussex Wold it’s well worth visiting.

    And thanks Kristen, your post reminded me there was a TV movie I wanted to look out for ‘Portrait of a Marriage’ concerning Vita & Violet Keppel. Here’s the Wiki link https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portrait_of_a_Marriage_(TV_series)

    It was Vita’s son who championed the release in Britain of the revealing biography saying that his mother…
    ‘fought for the right to love, men and women, rejecting the conventions that marriage demands exclusive love, and that women should love only men, and men only women. For this she was prepared to give up everything… How could she regret that’

    So 3 cheers for Vita Sackville West I say… and for her son too! Good on yer mate!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Writing letters is becoming a lost art. How unfortunate. When I read the letters of my grandparents, I am astounded at the depth of the content. But as you say, this was their only way of communicating. I am determined to keep letter writing alive in my preschool classroom. We have a good old fashioned pen-pal. Last year we corresponded with a Montessori school in Prague. This year we are corresponding with a soldier in Afghanistan. Letter writing is incredibly important.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I used to be a letter writer, but I stopped hand writing letters years ago. My style tended to be blunt and to the point. (due probably from taking communications and technical writing courses in college) I do however like letters and have most of those still that were sent to me by my mother and several friends, some who are here no longer.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Great post. I don’t know the last time that I sent a real letter. I do however write on every available piece of white space on the cards for my daughter. Normally it is a combination of decoration and silly lines. She has saved them all. 🙂 Maybe it is time to expand on that.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s