This past weekend NPR’s Code Switch ran a piece I wrote about letters and Black history that you all may find very interesting. In it I suggest several collected letters books, mainly by African Americans, and talk about different ways of understanding and exploring history. I find letters to be one of the most valuable.
Reading other people’s letters inspires me to make my own more eloquent and engaging. Plus, I was never a regular letter writer when I was young, so I find myself in need of great examples of how good letters flow.
The other side of the coin is that reading letters from fabulous people can be seriously intimidating. Could I ever write a letter as beautiful as some of Emily Dickinson’s? As passionate as Anais Nin’s? Yipes.
I have to look at it the way I look at my fiction. Becoming a great writer is just as much about writing and writing and writing some more as it is about reading, reading, and oh look more reading. Samuel Delany says that a writer can only write a book as good as the last book they read. Continually feeding my brain good books makes me better able to write one. Same with letters.
Beyond improving your letter game, there is something wonderfully delicious in reading the private words of a public person. Getting a glimpse into their inner selves. It’s a bit voyeuristic, and I feel no shame in indulging!
In my NPR piece I restricted myself to letters relevant to Black history, but when I first started I was thinking about collections of letters in general. I got several great suggestions for collections across the spectrum and wanted to highlight several that I like or were suggested to me. Since I couldn’t get them all in that piece, I’m sharing them here.
Add your own favorite letters and collections in the comments!