What’s the most important letter you’ve ever received?


You know, something written on paper, possibly even written carefully in ink by hand, folded into an envelope with a stamp on it…?

kim letter

This lovely object was a going-away card made by my friend Kim, a former colleague and close Toronto friend, when I moved to Montreal in September 1986.

For a generation or two, and possibly future generations, a letter on paper may soon be, if not already, some odd artifact of the ancient past, like cuneiform carved into stone or hieroglyphics painted on papryus.

For historians and writers and researchers of all sorts, letters are gold, a direct and unadulterated conduit into how someone, possibly someone we’ll never meet, maybe centuries dead, was thinking at a particular moment in time.

What did Chopin or Livingstone or Emerson think? Here’s a link to books with their letters.

Do you follow the phenomenal blog Brain Pickings? You must! Here’s her 2012 post on books of letters, with several lovely and moving excerpts.

Here is Friedrich Engels, writing on Nov. 12, 1875:

The whole Darwinian theory of the struggle for existence is simply the transference from society to animate nature of Hobbes’ theory of the war of every man against every man and the bourgeois economic theory of competition, along with the Malthusian theory of population. This feat having been accomplished – (as indicated under (1) I dispute its unqualified justification, especially where the Malthusian theory is concerned) – the same theories are next transferred back again from organic nature to history and their validity as eternal laws of human society declared to have been proved. The childishness of this procedure is obvious, it is not worth wasting words over.

Some of the most life-changing messages have come to me by mail, like the letter from Paris that arrived in my Toronto mailbox in June 1982. I had just turned 25, and became the year’s youngest fellow in an eight-month journalism fellowship that would base me in Paris with 28 others from 19 countries, from Togo to New Zealand to Japan to Brazil. We would travel alone to report stories all over Europe, (and fall in love, break hearts [sorry, Carlo!], and discover ourselves and the world in ways then impossible to imagine…

When I was 12, at summer camp, I wrote to Ray Bradbury, a writer whose work left me awestruck and envious, urging him (!) to not stop writing. I was in Northern Ontario and mailed my letter to his Manhattan publisher, Ballantine. Within a few weeks, I had a hand-written reply, on a blue custom postcard with his address and signature, from Los Angeles.

It was magical and improbable as finding a unicorn in the mailbox.

A writer, thousands of miles away in a foreign country, a man of tremendous accomplishment and repute, had bothered to make the time to write back to me, a young girl. Writers were real people! They had hearts, and postcards and pens and stamps. They care what we think!

This early success later emboldened me, and I wrote, in my early 20s, to the late John Cheever, another giant of American literature. My first was a fan letter, (to which he replied), about Falconer, an astonishing novel. But I wrote again, from a long trip through Europe alone, to ask him to explain an expression he has used in his earlier stories. He wrote back again.

(I now live a 10-minute drive from his home, his daughter reviewed my first book and I met his son at a local authors’ event. How odd, and unlikely.)

My mother, with whom I no longer have a relationship, lived most of her life very far away from me — in Peru or New Mexico or Mexico or England or British Columbia — but wrote me typewritten letters almost every week for many years. I have only a few of them now, and they have a poignancy that is almost unbearable in their chatty, loving desire to stay in touch with me, her only child.

I cherish a few personal letters in particular, two of them photographed here. One is from a former assistant minister at our church, which he wrote to me when my first book was published to thank me for sharing my talent. Another  — with no year’s date on it — is from a man whose vision and humor and affection changed my life, the late Philippe Viannay, who founded my fellowship (and a newspaper, and a home for boys and a sailing school and…)

I cherish the last line of his letter: “Thanks again for the way you played the game.” (More precisely, the spirit with which…) It was important to me, then as now, to be so appreciated by someone I so deeply admired.


For all you Indigo Girls lovers, here’s one of my favorite songs: Burn All The Letters.

What letter has changed your life?

29 thoughts on “What’s the most important letter you’ve ever received?

  1. The letter that said I would be going to Ohio State University in Fall 2011. That letter led to so many oppurtunities, and I was so scared I wouldn’t recieve it because my application had to go through a second round of evaluation to see if I was up to scratch. Now that I’m here at Ohio State, I can’t imagine myself anywhere but here…and that includes if I go to graduate school someday.

  2. I wrote to President Clinton when I was about 6 and got a letter back from the White House, which thrilled my tiny body to my soul! To this day I still exchange letters with my friend Scarlett who first encouraged my writing ambitions, wild and fanciful ones with doodles down the sides and peppered with quotes and inside jokes. I love receiving packages from her, they always come at the moment I need a buck up. I also got birthday cards from my godparents every year, even when my own grandparents had nothing to do with me, which is what bolstered my courage to connect with them when I went to university and allowed me to discover my true extended family. And I have a box full of letters and postcards from friends who did study abroad programs, missionary work, adventures, and foreign travel. I love letters. Email is convenient but nothing replaces something a friend wrote you.

  3. I can’t think of a particular important letter received in my life. There have been a few. I lament, however, the potential demise of ‘the letter’ – a written, physical object created by the hand of someone for the information or emotional satisfaction of another – in our modern and all-too-disposable e-world.

  4. Ray Bradbury wrote you back? Whoa….that is gold.

    I can’t say that I’ve received a letter that changed my life (it’s usually emails that do), but I’ve certainly received letters that have made me smile, weep, clutch to my chest in soapie-melodrama fashion, laugh out loud. So I suppose you could say they’ve all changed moments in my life.

    I am a rabid letter writer and I’d love nothing more than to write someone while I am on my travels…except everyone demands emails instead, because they need to know i’m ok, now.

    Hmmmm… would you like to receive a letter from me?

  5. I have saved a couple of letters from people that meant a lot to me, and all the letters from another person I cherish, but the one that really got me was the one I found on my mom’s desk after she died, with my name on it, dated a few months previously, with instructions for her memorial service. Without it, I would never have known what she wanted. She and my dad died two weeks apart, so we were able to work in the music and poem she wanted with other things pertaining to both of them.

  6. A lovely trip through the impact and meaning of letters. I have boxes…and am slowly weeding. I have always kept a letter from my grandmother, father, first love (a poem) and 6th grade teacher… In my desk drawer… I find them by accident and they remind me from where i have come and whom i love. Letters are powerful. Thanks for the trip! Renee

  7. mhasegawa

    I met my husband when we were college freshmen many years ago. We lost track of each other for almost 25 years. Then two things happened. First, my mother found a box of letters in her basement which included some he had written when we were both camp counselors and two, his address appeared in the college alumni directory for the first time in years. I wrote telling him about the camp letters. He wrote back. We exchanged letters, about one a week for a several months before we finally met again face to face. We’ve been married 19 years now and we still have all the letters.

  8. When I was 15, I had recently moved to Florida from Virginia when a boy I loved “back home” was struck and killed by a car while riding his bike home from his summer job. I wrote a letter to his parents telling me how much their son had meant to me. Their letter back, full of grief but reaching out, will always be the most meaningful letter I have ever received.

  9. I just finished a book called 84, Charing Cross Road. It’s a compilation of correspondence from about 1945 – 1970 written by a sassy New York freelance writer and a London rare book dealer. They never met in person. As I read, I marveled at the depth of their friendship. I can imagine how excited she would have been to open her mailbox and find a letter from him.

  10. I love Brain Pickings (ha ha–I at first typo’ed and wrote BRAN pickings! Definitely wrong blog…). Yeah, totally. Grad school acceptance letter was pretty awesome. I also tend to send cards and letters out (handwritten) my own self. I just like the personal feeling of them. Kinda cool.

  11. Oh, and when I first started submitting fiction back in the early 90s for consideration for publishing, I submitted to an anthology put together by Marion Zimmer Bradley. She sent me back a typed letter that she personally signed. It was a rejection, but she told me what I was doing wrong and, more importantly, what I was doing right. It was probably the most encouraging rejection I’ve ever received. I still have it.

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