In an insightful article for the Chicago Tribune, Julia Keller considers the literary value of letters — they “can meander along for a while, sounding routine and even a little dull, and then suddenly shimmer with insight” — and provides some brief but memorable snippets. Here’s a self-flagellating excerpt from a letter Joseph Conrad wrote to a friend in March, 1899:
The more I write the less substance I see in my work…. It is tolerably awful. And I face it, I face it but the fright is growing on me. My fortitude is shaken by the view of the monster. It does not move; its eyes are baleful; it is as still as death itself — and it will devour me. Its stare has eaten into my soul already deep, deep.
And from a November 17, 1956, missive included in The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor (Vintage, 1980):
You are right of course about not understanding the ordinary emotions any better than the extraordinary ones. But the writer doesn’t have to understand, only produce. And what makes him produce is not having the experience but contemplating the experience, and contemplating it don’t mean understanding it as much as understanding that he doesn’t understand it….
See also: “Sincerely Yours, LOL!” by Clay Risen.