Literary Hub

Do Printed-Out Emails Count As Letters? (Yes)

Lifting the lid from the thin gold box, I found my anniversary gift: a stack of papyrus-style paper on which my husband had printed the email correspondence of our early courtship.

Well, half of it. During the 90s, emails were not yet recorded in conversation threads; he’d been able to recover the emails he’d received from me, but not his responses.

As a joke, he added a title page, The “Best” of Dheepa. Back then, rather than “Love” or “Sincerely,” I closed my correspondence with the word “Best,” which I’d adopted from a college professor. I thought it was refined and sophisticated.

My husband thought it was ponderous and formal.

Though his title page was intended as a gentle jab, it had some unintended accuracy. In many ways, that correspondence really did hold the best of me from that time.

*

During our mostly long-distance courtship, my husband and I communicated more often by email than by any other means. There were no smartphones, and pricey long-distance rates limited our telephone calls. And as two graduate students, we had little available time for visits.

Being a bit shy and cautious, I doubt I’d have been as forthright in person, at least until many more months had passed.

To fill the gaps of time between those visits, we agreed to write letters, using email to speed the process. However, obtaining an email ID from my school was a clunky process back then, requiring paperwork and procedures, and I wondered whether establishing an e-correspondence was worth the bother.

It was.

Due to my love of reading and literature, I’d always believed that writing was more than a mere vehicle for information. Indeed, writing was also a means and a commitment to uncovering truth, and doing so with sincerity and elegance. And given that I was embroiled in law school at the time, I also felt that the act of writing carried a certain responsibility. What I committed to paper had to be reasoned and considered, accurate and clear.

As such, I brought an attentive mind to my emails—more so than if I’d been journaling for myself. Because I sought a connection with someone I liked and admired, I also brought an open heart. As writers know, when mind and heart join on the page, the magic happens—insight and understanding bloom and emerge.

Committing our thoughts and feelings into letters grounded our relationship in substance and authenticity—something that may not have occurred via today’s quick texts, which surely would have become our primary means of communication. And this grounding happened swiftly. Being a bit shy and cautious, I doubt I’d have been as forthright in person, at least until many more months had passed.

My spoken words were slower to flow, but written words allowed my inner irreverence and snark to spark.

I remember the nebulous quality of that time, as I teetered on the cusp of real life. I was completing my education and about to enter the world of work and possibly marriage, while not feeling like an adult at all. As I wrote my letters, though, the outlines of my adult self began to fill in. As I articulated what was important to me, what I believed in, what experiences had shaped me, I underwent a process of self-discovery and revelation.

Some of those discoveries surprised me. I’d never before unleashed (fully) the word nerd in me. As we verbally sparred about news and ideas, linguistics and lexicography (yes, really), I learned that I might be a little witty. My spoken words were slower to flow, but written words allowed my inner irreverence and snark to spark.

While I regret not being able to see my husband’s responses to my correspondence, it is intriguing to see a time capsule of myself crystallized on paper—the best of my earnest, idealistic, expectant, 20-something self.

*

Though telegraph technology developed in the 1830s, and telephone technology later that century, letter writing was and has remained a common practice until rather recently. It was certainly a part of my own childhood and even college years.

I believe those written exchanges, though occurring at a snail’s pace by today’s standards, carved channels of connection and relationship between individuals, and space for the development of collegiality, friendship, and, of course, love. They allowed rich marination and percolation of ideas over extended time and long distances—and between those who might not otherwise have encountered one another.

Catherine the Great of Russia exchanged letters with the French writer Voltaire about politics and political theory for a period of 15 years without ever meeting him. Albert Einstein communicated with Sigmund Freud about human nature and brainstormed with him methods to reduce violence in the world.

Mahatma Gandhi corresponded with Leo Tolstoy over a period of years regarding the discriminatory treatment of Indians living in South Africa and the use of passive resistance strategies to bring awareness to the situation. Though their initial letters seem formal, particularly on Tolstoy’s part, their communication warmed over time. While they did not agree on certain matters of a philosophical and spiritual nature, they were clearly aligned with respect to a moral imperative to resist tyranny.

While re-reading Pride and Prejudice recently, it struck me how prominently correspondence figures in all of Jane Austen’s work. Of course, news and information traveled mostly by written letter in Austen’s time due to limited communication options. From a cultural point of view, though, letter writing was also a primary means to cultivate and maintain relationships, making it an obligatory part of social life, at least for the leisure class.

Of course, the ever-present human struggle to manage emotions made such letters the site of misunderstandings both in literature (oh, that letter of Darcy’s!) and life. But, as today’s Twitter wars and Facebook battles demonstrate, such misconceptions and misjudgments will continue to occur as long as people commit words to the page, whether paper or digital. Regardless, letter writing has long provided a format—and adequate space—for substantive and genuine connection.

One correspondence that used that format to its fullest potential is Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, a collection of ten heartfelt letters to a younger poet who sought out Rilke for a critique. Rilke discouraged the younger poet from seeking such a critique, and instead advised referencing the poet’s own inner wisdom and judgment. Rilke further recommended engaging in the world and reveling in experience as precursors to writing poetry.

Rilke is already a poet whose work elicits a gut-and-throat reaction in me, but this record of his long-term mentoring of another with such candor and integrity overwhelms me. In fact, some words from this correspondence hang above my desk and that of many other writers I know: “I beg you to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves . . . .”

*

New Yorker Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road is a collection of her letters to an antiquarian bookseller in England in the 1950s. Over the course of decades, Hanff becomes acquainted not only with the bookseller, but also with the bookseller’s wife, friends, and colleagues, due in large part to Hanff’s friendly and generous nature and her refusal to write with the expected business formalities. Eventually, this correspondence culminates in a trip to England, where Hanff is welcomed like family, as well as a follow-up book, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street.

That we can simply reach out in this way and engage with others, even those we don’t yet know well, in a thoughtful, substantive way, revives me when I witness the seeming lack of desire to do so—a lack that feels particularly acute in today’s divisive discourse.

When I was 10 years old, a visitor to our family home in Ohio informed me that he knew a girl who shared my first name—apparently, she was about my age and living in another state. Back then, with far fewer Indian families in the country and no Internet search tools, such a discovery was unusual and exciting.

With the address the visitor provided, I wrote the other Deepa a letter, and she responded, becoming my first pen pal. She and I maintained a written correspondence over the ensuing decades, which dwindled gradually to holiday cards and the occasional email. During all of those years, we met only twice—once as children, once as adults.

About a year ago, though, I received a text from her: “I’m driving through your hometown and thinking of you.” I felt touched that I’d been in her thoughts, and it occurred to me that our connection had been entirely a choice. Without knowing anything about one another, we’d simply decided as children that we would include each other in our respective lives. We’d decided we were friends.

I often forget connection can be as simple as that.

*

Though my various childhood pen pal relationships all fell by the wayside, my high school English teacher and I continue to correspond occasionally (it still feels weird to address her by her first name as she insists). It’s a pleasure to see a letter in my mailbox—such a rarity these days. And I love revisiting the process of letter-writing as I respond—thinking through and relating the developments and events in my life, my thoughts and impressions.

I’m glad there is a vestige of letter writing in my life, as my communication has become entirely digitized and abbreviated along with everyone else’s. I certainly appreciate the convenience of texting my husband, though I know, if I were writing him a letter, I’d never ask him to check the dehumidifier.

Other than thank you note requirements, I don’t recall specifically advocating letter writing to my kids. However, my older son will occasionally write a letter to me or his father on special occasions. And he has recently adopted the practice of sending a quarterly newsletter to friends and colleagues, relating not only his activities, but also his ideas and intentions, his reading lists and reflections. While a newsletter format is not a new one, his willingness to share meaningfully and authentically across a large group does seem like an update on the practice of correspondence for these times.

It’s a delight to read these honest and thoughtful written pauses in his journey through his 20s. Interestingly—though I stopped the practice long before he was born—he closes all of his letters with “Best.”

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