“Our correspondences show us where our intimacies lie,” writes Terry Tempest Williams. “There is something very sensual about a letter. The physical contact of pen to paper, the time set aside to focus thoughts, the folding of the paper into the envelope, licking it closed, addressing it, a chosen stamp, and then the release of the letter to the mailbox — all are acts of tenderness.

“And it doesn’t stop there. Our correspondences have wings — paper birds that fly from my house to yours — flocks of ideas crisscrossing the country. Once opened, a connection is made. We are not alone in the world.”


I write blog posts now, and compose e-mails on my laptop. I can hardly remember the last letter I mailed. I do still receive letters often, but they are soulless things, offering me 5.9% interest. Pre-approved.

Williams wrote her words in 1991, a millennium past. What would she think of the changes wrought by the information superhighway? Would she appreciate the strange new phsyicality of writing e-mail, the soft touch of springy keys under one’s fingertips? Or would she mourn the lost folding and licking and releasing? Would she celebrate the new conversations so readily available online? Or would she note with a shudder the ease of forming facile and artificial online friendships, devoid of real depth or connection?

Williams ultimately celebrates not letters themselves, but the potential for human connection that letters foster and nourish. How much of that connection remains, in today’s unlettered generation?

15 comments for “Unlettered

  1. I don’t think she would bemoan more frequent communication, but I read a sense of bemoaning the ease with which impersonal messages can flash across the world – breaking down the restraint that can influence a letter that will take days to reach its recipient. It’s a little harder to slow down and put deep thought and care and “tenderness” into a message when you know you can write a response a few minutes later.

    I read some comments in this type of forum and see quite easily those that resulted from just a quick and cursory skimming of the preceding comments – those that seem to have been written in the heat of the moment without careful reflection and consideration – that might have been worded differently if the author had known that there would be no way to take it back or clarify a few minutes later. Many of us participate in the midst of the other activities of our frenetic lives – and, all too often, there is little “tenderness” in that frenetic environment.

  2. I don’t know what TTW would think, but I know my own communications have become more frequent and more careful today than they were when I depended on letters. The ability to revise easily is as useful in private communications as in other forms of writing.

    We can’t have too much private literature and I think we are moving into a golden age of that. I read more than ever and write more than ever. Sure, the quick and thoughtless and banal is more plentiful than the careful and wise, but that’s nothing new.

  3. I remember following some of the great correspondence stories from the past. When the mail was picked up, and delivered, twice a day. In many ways, the internet and e-mail has brought a return to that sort of immediacy, something that had become lost.

  4. There is human connection through electronic media in a way that paper letters couldn’t have, because there is such immediacy. In times of trouble, “I heard — I’m here” comes when you need it the most. But there are at least two ways electronic media can’t match up to the connection that comes through paper letters:

    Evidence of invested effort — A young woman in my ward wrote me a thank you note in March. A real honest-to-gosh paper-and-pen thank you note. It’s still here on my desk where it astonishes me every time I see it. Part of that is because it was so unexpected and unnecessary. But mostly, it warms me because it required so much more effort than a quick 20-second email. She found paper and pen, and wrote out her words by hand, and licked the envelope, and found a stamp and stuck it on, and took it to a mailbox, where other human beings picked it up and sorted and delivered it to me. That’s a lot of human effort — maybe unnecessary, you think, but she did it, and that investment of effort means something to me.

    Permanent intimacy — You can store your email in your computer, of course, and you can print it out. But while the printout may be as permanent and as physical as a paper letter, it lacks the intimacy of a paper letter — it holds your correspondent’s words, but he never held your letter. You can print hundreds of copies of the same note with a couple of keystrokes, too, each “original” and identical, which somehow cheapens it so far as intimacy is concerned. But the last letter I have from my father — who only wrote me three letters in my entire life — is one of a kind. He held it, his hand rested just there, and he addressed the envelope in his shaky, old-man’s handwriting. When I found it in my P.O. box a week after his death, it was like a caress from beyond the veil. It still feels that way whenever I rest my hand just there, where his hand rested on the day before he died.

  5. I write letters every week. They feel more permanent and more important and they’re more physical. Sunday is a good day to write a letter or two.

  6. I’m reminded of a comment made in a business writing class taken decades ago that in Thomas Jefferson’s day people averaged writing 1000 letters a year. That’s about 3 per day. I guess that coincides with the number of e-mails or phone calls we have in the modern world.

    I am embarrassed, sometimes, to write a personal letter because I usually type them on the word processor, no matter how intimate they may be. My frequent use of the computer and a case of genetic arthritis has rendered my once reasonably attractive penmanship almost illegible so I choose to type it.

    A short while back I discovered, almost a year after the fact, that my favorite professor had passed away. It had been years since I had talked to him and I was sad to learn of his passing. Using the computer, ;-), I tracked down his widow’s address and wrote a letter containing my heartfelt thoughts about the professor. I had never met his wife but he would talk about her sometimes and so I felt something of a connection. I expressed my respect for her husband and how I come to understand, long after I left school, how much he cared for each of us. This love was sometimes manifest through his biting humor and sarcastic remarks but we felt his great love for the profession we were about to join and his hope that we succeeded.

    I printed the letter, sign and folded it, licked the envelope and dropped in the mail. A few weeks later I received a return response from the widow with her expressions of appreciation. She also included some information I had never known about his past and how he came to be known as “Doc Sloan.” It had nothing to do with his academic degree. In fact as a professor of architecture he did not have a PhD in architecture as only a handful have achieved that status offered at only a handful of universities. A week later I received a similar letter from his daughter expressing similar feelings. These two women, who I have never met, provided joy in my life and I hope I provided some for them as well – all because I decided to write a personal letter. I won’t forget that experience anytime soon.

  7. Today’s age of instant information, instant communication, and instant connection; has both its positives and its negatives.

    I love the ability to connect immediately with someone I need important information from. This most often happens when I am at work. Instant Messaging is a great tool for picking the brain of a colleague. But I always use it to connect with someone I already know and am familiar with.

    On the other side, though, I don’t like the anonymity of this new form of communication – specially on forums or blogs (similar to this one). People hide behind that anonymity, and often act or say things they would not do or say in person – or even in a letter. Not only is that form of communication non-personal, but it is often nothing more than a facade.

    To be honest, I am much more likely to type an email to an extended family member than write a letter, but I still miss the days of the “Cards and Letters”.

  8. Due to handwriting skills that have been described as “nasty”, “disgusting”, and (my personal favorite) “atrocious”, I long ago made the conclusion not to physically handwrite my letters. Many rejoiced to be able to finally understand what I was writing.

  9. My wife and I are slight anomalies for our generation in that we dated (rather we courted) through letters. In the summer before my mission (1988-1990) I wrote to every girl I knew or met my freshman year at the Y. My purpose was to inform of my mission call, but also to see if I could get people to write me while I was there. One of the responders was a girl I had gone to one dance with. Over the course of the summer and my mission we exchanged over 100 letters, in as much that when I returned home I informed my parents that there might be something more to this relationship. I asked them if they could fly her out for a visit (she lived in San Francisco and I in London). So two weeks home she came out for a visit and within 1 week we were engaged, and a week later she went home. Three months later we met again 2 days prior to the wedding. Now that has been 17 years and 5 kids ago, but every time I see our box of letters it serves to remind me in vivid detail of how we got started. I am sure our kids and their kids will also treasure our sloppy prose as time goes by. Anyway, it is rare the email that can stir those sort of emotions even a few months later, let alone a few generations.

  10. Seth,


    Terry isn’t writing about sex. “Sensual” — despite the unfortunate recent popular trend to use it as a synonym for sexual — is _not_ merely a synonym for sexual. (Look it up: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/sensual ).

    The word refers to experiences (of whatever sort) that gratify one’s senses. It seems clear that Williams means it in this sense — she talks about different senses like touch and taste.

  11. I could forsee in a near future someone writing something like the following:

    “Our correspondences show us where our intimacies lie . . .There is something very sensual about an email. The physical contact of fingers to keyboard, the time set aside to focus on who is in the “To” line and who is in the “CC” line, the pressing of the “Send” button, watching the Outbox counter countdown, and then the release of the email into the Old Internet— all are acts of tenderness. . .”

    That shouldn’t take away from what you are saying, that now, and forever, a letter would be even more intimate than an email. However, we are talking about perspective. Two hundred years ago, someone might have written “There is something very sensual about traveling to a friend’s house to converse in person. . .”.

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