The Dying Art of Letter Writing

Some of Isabel Allende’s best fiction has been inspired by private correspondence. Yet as Twitter replaces the letter, she fears that we’re losing “the beauty of language.”
  • Transcript


Question: Why did you base “The House of the Spirits” and other books on letters you’d written?

Isabel Allende: Although in the book it doesn’t appear like a letter, I think in terms of letters because I write to my mother every day.  And I have been writing letters to my mother for... I don’t know, 40 years?  So, I have a closet full of her letters, and she gives me back my letters at the end of the year.  So, I have a record of life, day-by-day, in these letters.  So, for me it's so easy and natural to start telling a story to my mother, having in mind that we are, like, in the kitchen, and I am writing to my mother.  It’s much easier than if I think, "Oh my God, this is going to be published and millions of people are going to read it."  No, that’s scary.

Do you write to your mother at the beginning or the end of the day?

Isabel Allende: It depends.  It depends on the circumstances.  Generally, I do it at the beginning of the day and I tell her about the previous day.  That gets me in the mood of starting the day.  So, I have my coffee, and I go to my casita in the back of my house, and there I sit down and light a candle.  The first thing when I open the computer is my mother's letter.

What are we losing as letter-writing grows less common?

Isabel Allende: The beauty of language, to begin with.  Language has become... everything is summarized, contracted, and it is... the idea is to pass information that sometimes is useless.  Why do I need to know that you had a hamburger for lunch?  Who cares?  And so, Twittering and blogging and all that is fine, but there is no idea of how to phrase something beautifully; how to use language to create an emotion.  It’s just passing information and sometimes very superficial information. 

So in letter writing, it was an art.  You would learn handwriting beautifully, it had to be clear and beautiful, choosing the paper, you had... your mind would work with your hand to create a sentence that was balanced and beautiful, and my mother writes like that to this day.  I can’t do it anymore.  I can’t write by hand.

Recorded on May 3, 2010
Interviewed by Priya George