Discovering Inspiration in a Trunk Full of Letters

Years ago, I discovered a trove of letters in my backyard. I had just become the owner of a broken-down old house and when I went to clear out the weed-choked yard, I found a steamer trunk, hidden away in a rotting garden shed. When I opened the trunk, treasure spilled out: hundreds and hundreds of handwritten letters.

Most of the letters had been written by a boy to his mother, from the time he was just learning cursive (from 1899: “Do you think my writing has improved any?”) through the time of her death in the 1930s. When the boy, James, was at Princeton from 1908 through 1912, he wrote to his mother almost every day, and sometimes twice a day: “I am getting a good college education, developing like a film, apologizing to the grass every time I step on it, scrambling like an egg, yelling like a bear, telling the upperclassmen to go to @#$ ….”

4lQbZ.jpg.gif

When I first read the letters, I developed a bit of a crush on James. He was so funny and sweet, and affectionate. Every letter was signed, <em>your loving son</em>.

I wanted to write a book about his letters and the boy I’d fallen for, but I didn’t know what to write. And I was a young mother then, with three children under the age of six, a job, and an old house to renovate. I had no time to write. The letters were stored away, to be read in stolen moments.

When my oldest son was leaving for college, I went back to the letters James had written. I found that my feelings for the young man had changed. Now I felt a maternal pride –  what a good boy, to write to his mother so often–  and also a tiny surge of anxiety: would my son write letters to me? We live in a digital age, and I know I could expect texts and the occasional email. But letters?

I knew then the book that I wanted to write. I set off on a quest to understand why I valued the letters of James so very much, and why I looked forward to receiving mail from my own son. I researched back through thousands of years of letter writing, going through my own saved correspondence, dozens of archives in universities and historical societies, and the personal letters lent to me by friends and found in published collections of letters. I set about defining the exact qualities of letters that make them so special.

When my energy flagged, I went back to the letters of James. What had inspired me once would inspire me again. And then I got a letter from my own son away at school, signed with love. I worked even harder.

I wanted – I needed – to tell the stories of letters and of letter writers, going back through the centuries. Inspired myself, I wanted to inspire others: write a letter! The magic is in the written word, in the shared experiences, in the private and singular moments created with pen and paper between one correspondent and the other. From the Ancients (the Egyptians wrote thousands of letters, amazing given that most of them couldn’t read or write – they went to the local scribe) through to our modern times (James Joyce wrote the bawdiest letters ever), we humans have been writing letters. There is no reason to stop now.

Every letter we write starts a connection, creates a history, lays the first stones of a bridge, extends a hand. And who knows what inspiration may spring from the letters we write?

The publication of my book, Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing, is now just one week away. The inspiration discovered over fifteen years ago has finally come to fruition. James’ letters are on their way to Princeton, to become part of that University’s archive and maybe to stimulate another writer and spark an idea for another book. Because we never know where inspiration will come from. For me, it was in my own backyard, a trunk just waiting to be discovered.