On Writing and Receiving Letters


photo via amazon


Among the many correspondences in Oliver Sacks’ memoir On the Move: A Life is an exchange of letters with evolutionary biologist, Stephen Jay Gould, whom he had not yet met.


Gould ends his letter:


   Funny how once you get in contact with someone you wanted to meet for years, you begin to see things you want to discuss with him everywhere.


Stephen Jay Gould


Gould and Sacks would only meet two years later for a series of television interviews. But when the producer asked Sacks if he knew Gould, he replied, “I’ve never met him, although we’ve corresponded. But nonetheless, I think of him as a brother.” (Gould said the same thing of Sacks when asked).



photo by Bill Hayes via newyorker.com


This exchange, and the excerpts of letters throughout this engaging memoir, reminded me of the handwritten letters I have written and received in my life (the fact that they wrote for two years without meeting reminded me of the blogging relationships we form).


Fortunately, I have kept some of those wonderful letters written by family and close friends. Occasionally, I will reread a letter my grandmother sent me. Just seeing her handwriting allows me to hear her voice, imagine her hands even.




This one starts off wonderfully simple: I am writing to you to give you news of no importance, but . . . it pleases me.  It’s about geraniums; …


In other letters, she recounts her morning visit (the new great grandson, how exciting!), her thoughts on life moving to the city after the death of my grandfather, and, of course, the books she was reading. She passed away a few years ago, and these letters transport me back much more than a photograph will.


I do like emails and texts, don’t get me wrong; there can be an immediate intimacy to a series of texts with a friend in another country that defies all time zones.


And yet, I think I will start writing letters again.


Correspondence is also a major part of my life. On the whole, I enjoy writing and receiving letters – it is an intercourse with other people, particular others – and I often find myself able to write when I cannot “write,” whatever Writing (with a capital W) means. I keep all the letters I receive, as well as copies of my own.

– Oliver Sacks


51 thoughts on “On Writing and Receiving Letters

  1. Writing letters almost, to most people, seem a thing of the past. Very sad. Growing up during the time when ‘snail’ mail was all there was I enjoyed writing. I was in the military in a far off place and later lived on an island in the middle of the Pacific ocean for two years and letters were the only means of correspondence. It was a real thrill to receive a letter from family and friends. I even carried on with my soon to be wife through letters for six months. We didn’t speak each others language so there was a lot of learning and translating, but it was those letters that kept me going. I do miss the intimacy of handwritten letters.

    Wonderful post, as always, Letizia!

    I also must say that now commenting to people I’ve grown to consider friends through social media is much like the letters I use to write. I get the same feelings of friendship.

    • I can imagine that the letters you received during your military service meant even more to you as it connected you to those far away. And I love that part of your ‘falling in love’ story included writing. Do you still have any letters from the past? I’m glad I thought to keep some.

      Isn’t commenting on blogs similar to letter writing in an odd way? At least, when I read about Gould and Sacks’ correspondence, especially before they met each other, I immediately thought of my blogging friendships, like yours and mine.

      Thanks for the tweet, my friend, and I hope you are having a good summer and have settled back into FL life.

  2. There is a elegant simplicity that appeals when we see paper with the flow of script. We know that the words were chosen carefully, without the interruption of texts, phone calls, news bulletins. My husband and I were discussing the art of cursive writing – how many hours we spent practicing, using fountain pens. Yes – fountain pens. We were not allowed to used ballpoint pens when I was in grade school. I have kept my father’s letters. When he was young, his hand was strong and his opinions reverberated with passion; when he was old, his hand was weakened, but his thoughts and insight held the wisdom of living. A wonderful post, my dear friend. And I am writing this on Saturday, even when it feels like Sunday. May you day be filled with joy and laughter.

    • It’s wonderful that you have kept your father’s letters. I remember you writing of him previously and of his love of books. It’s true that handwriting evolves, showing not only one’s age but sometimes one’s mood too. It’s as personal as the words we choose.
      Wishing you a wonderful Sunday on this Saturday… for, after all, some days have that Sunday feel regardless of the date, don’t they?

  3. Letizia those letters from your grandmother are precious and I can see how you could read them over and she would be in the room with you. There is nothing better than receiving a card or letter in the mail. It means someone took the time and thought about you. I have met so many wonderful folk online like yourself, whom I have never met, yet I feel like I know pieces of you very well.

  4. I’ve got old letters from my mother that I’ve kept and when she passed away I found all the letters I had ever sent to her in a box in her house. They are wonderful reminders of our relationship through the years. Fantastic post, Letizia xxxx.

    • Thank you, Dianne. It’s not only wonderful that you have your mother’s letters so that you can read and reflect on her words and writing, but the fact that you found your own letters to her is just delightful. Both sides of the correspondence (like Sacks).

  5. There is something so much more personal in a handwritten letter. The delayed gratification of holding the paper the other person held. You can see the ink splotches and curves of the pen. I find I’ve become so dependent on the Delete key that my thoughts struggle to flow with pen in hand.

    I’m reminded of a similar arrangement between the writers Elizabeth Gilbert and Ann Patchett. They only correspond through handwritten letters.

    • The ink splotches, yes! There’s something so human and personal to it all. I do most of my writing by hand and then type it up as my first editing process as handwriting works better with my thinking process.

  6. There is an intimacy achieved through handwriting, I think, that cannot be achieved through the typewritten page. The soul of the person flows onto the paper as an indelible mark. And I don’t think it’s only relegated to handwritten letters. It’s why documents like the Declaration of Independence are so moving to me. The signatures of John Hancock and colleagues are almost animated, breathing. I regret having lost or thrown out letters I received when I was younger. And now, I don’t receive as many. I try not to feel sad about this, but I do. I have very few letters from my parents.

    • I hadn’t thought about signatures, such as the ones on the Declaration of Independence, but that’s a good point. The handwritten gesture is so personal, where thought and body meet.

      It’s good that you have some letters from your parents.

  7. Adorable! Thank you for this wonderful post, and for prompting all the other letter-writing stories from your commentators – what fabulous reading it all makes. I have a letter from my grandmother – type-written because she had arthritis, but no less touching and personal. In it, she includes a story about a young girl in WWII that she made up for me (I was about 7 when she wrote it). The little girl is called Joy and I love to think about the importance of joy in one’s life these days – it always reminds me of my grandmother. 🙂

    • What a charming story that must be! She must have loved creating that story for her little granddaughter. And to think it is still in your thoughts to this day! I’ve loved reading everyone’s comments on the letters they have received too.

  8. A couple of years ago, I tried to start a letter-writing campaign among family and old friends. Only a few people indulged me and wrote me back. I agree–there’s something about a handwritten letter that bespeaks time and attention, far more than any other form of correspondence. Love this post and would love to see society return to the old art form of communication. 🙂

    • What a fun idea to start a letter-writing campaign! Even if only a few people came on board, that’s still a break from the usual emails and texts. I sometimes think that letters will come back in vogue but perhaps it is wishful thinking on my part. Postcards work too and they are easier!

  9. I miss reading the handwriting of the people I know on the envelope and trying to guess who was writing if I did not recognize the handwriting ….. Yes letters were great and it shows the personality of people so much. By the text and the handwriting.
    I wonder if we will keep some famous emails in the future…. Like the letter of Mme de Sevigne in the XVII century…. And of course the letters of our closest friends and family are treasures….

    • How interesting to think about what emails will be famous in the future, and if they will be. Some are transcribed in books, so they achieve some permanence that way. We should perhaps print out our favorite ones from people we love.

  10. Great post about something near and dear to me, Letizia. I’ve written in a journal since my teens, daily. There was a short stint where I stopped but I would say, I’ve written letters for most of my adult life. Friends know to give me good writing paper or note pads as gifts. They will be cherished like good books! I still love sending cards and though I don’t write many letters anymore, I enjoy writing a note card when I send or give a gift.

    I’m going to send a gift of one of my books to you, called “Unlocking the Mystery.” It’s an erotic novella about letters. I won’t be offended if you choose not to read it and purchase something else with the gift. It’s totally your call and comes along with the territory for me as a writer.

    On a different note, I have not been receiving notifications of your blog posts, bah! I am positive I used to get an email notice. I don’t want to miss any posts! eden

    • I remember reading in one of your posts about your daily journal writing. It’s something that I admire in others but can never seem to do myself. I do love to write postcards when I travel and notes with gifts that I send too, though!

      Thank you so much for sending me you novella; I am so touched! I read and enjoyed your first book and the next two in your trilogy are in my ever growing TBR list. I love that you wrote a novella with letters at its center!

      Sometimes that happens to me too – suddenly not getting email notifications from a blog – a glitch in the WP system. I hate that as I don’t always notice, assuming the blogger has taken a break.

      Wishing you well with your book launch (exciting times!)

  11. My new fountain pen arrived last week. It has been 15 years since I last owned a fountain pen. Will I write letters? I don’t know, but the boxes of letters in the attic attest to a great letter writing tradition in my family. I have yet to find a letter written by my grandmother though. What a treasure you have in your grandmother’s letter.

  12. Letters are a wonderful thing, a piece of personal history, a physical feeling of time past. The wait is always nice and to see handwriting as well, blogging is the modern day equivalent but less personal, although we meet so many people so quickly through it.

    It is true about seeing things all over the place we wish to tell our blogging friends about, it makes the world richer even when the day has ground us down.

  13. I used to write lots and lots of letters to penfriends all over the world – I’m still in contact with one of them, who I started writing to when I was eleven – 35 years later we’ve met twice and now catch up by email, but I still have all the letters. I still get one letter every year from a German woman I went to university with – the letterbox is a poorer place now as it’s mainly just bills that come through it!

    • I love that you are still in contact with your childhood pen friend, how charming! I do think something is lost now that we mainly use the post just to receive bills. When we do receive a postcard or a gift via post, the pleasure is just something!

  14. Gorgeous, honey! I miss letters so much. I was recently sorting through my keepsakes and found SO many, including a love letter from Mr. H! All this electronic communication is just not the same. Though it is useful for meeting beautiful strangers in the blogging world.

    • It’s so great that you have kept some letters. I have a feeling letter writing will come back in style just as micro brewing at home and vegetable plots have come back into style. Or maybe it’s wishful thinking.

  15. Ohhh, I missed this with all the excitement of the 4th holiday around here. So glad I read it – INSPIRING!! I always send out ‘snail mail’ cards, and I save special ones sent to me – my pile is way too large in my bottom dresser drawer. But you reminded me here that I need to include a letter in my cards, a message about my life, the recipient’s life, our hopes and dreams. Thank you.

  16. There is something incredibly personal about hand writing a letter. About taking the time to put pen and thoughts to paper and send them off. That excitement of receiving a letter is one that I miss.

    When I was younger I had a bunch of pen pals around the world that I would write. I met them online in chat rooms and we decided to write letters instead of just talking over the internet. I still have most of those letters saved, including many of the letters I’ve received over the years.

    Sadly, almost none in the last decade.

    • How wonderful that you decided to write letters instead of continuing to write in the chat rooms. Now you have those letters to reread. There’s something to be said for tangible objects. Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment (sorry it took me so long to reply, I only just saw your comment!).

  17. Letter writing is a lost art and text messages are just not the same… Of course, nothing comes close to the intimacy of face-to-face conversations 🙂 Perhaps writing letters is like penning small novels… Great post, Letizia!

  18. I love this! I, too, have letters my grandmother wrote to my grandfather in 1945. It was the only time in their 64 year marriage they were apart. He was stationed at Pearl Harbor (post bombing) and she was in California. It is amazing to delve into their world in that space and that time. Their historical references mark one of the most anxiety-filled periods of American history; yet, they share universal concerns of young newlyweds. It’s amazing to see them at that stage of their life together. 😊

    • How wonderful that you still have these letters. Not only do they give you an insight into their relationship, but, as you say, into the time period as well.

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