In Praise of Writing Letters: Sam Shepard on the Irreplaceable Splendors of the Epistolary Art

An ode to the art of relationship sculpted in time.


In Praise of Writing Letters: Sam Shepard on the Irreplaceable Splendors of the Epistolary Art

“A letter should be regarded not merely as a medium for the communication of intelligence,” advised a nineteenth-century guide to the art of epistolary etiquette, “but also as a work of art.” Virginia Woolf made a beautiful case for letter writing as “the humane art” and Lewis Carroll proposed that it be governed by a set of rules which, if applied to today’s dominant communication media, would make the whole of modern life kinder and more humane.

A century after the golden age of the epistolary art began to set as the letter commenced dying its incremental death by telegraph, telephone, and email, the polymathic playwright Sam Shepard (November 5, 1943–July 27, 2017) both enacted and explicitly extolled its unsetting splendors in Two Prospectors: The Letters of Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark (public library) — the magnificent volume of his correspondence with his dearest friend, former father-in-law, and spiritual brother, which also gave us Shepard on love.

Johnny Dark and Sam Shepard in 1982, Mill Valley, California. (Photograph courtesy of University of Texas Press.)

In the late summer of 2010, four decades into their correspondence, 66-year-old Shepard writes to Dark:

Dear John,

One thing I realize I love about the ‘letter’ as a form is that it’s conversation; — always available. You can just sit down any old morning & have a conversation whether the person’s there or not. You can talk about anything & you don’t have to wait politely for the other person to finish the train of thought. You can have long gaps between passages — days can go by & you might return & pick it up again. And the great difference in all other forms of writing is that it is dependent to a large extent on the other person. It’s not just a solo act. You’re writing in response to or in relationship to someone else — over time. I think that’s the key — over time. We’re very lucky, I figure, to have continued the desire to talk to each other by mail for something like 40 years. But then again, what else were we going to do? It is probably the strongest through-line I’ve maintained in this life.

Counting his letters as not only a part of his body of work but an essential part of the same meaning-making that animates his art, Shepard adds:

Everything else seems to be broken — except, of course, my other writing which has been with me constantly since about 1963. I’ll never forget the elation of finishing my first one-act play. I felt I’d really made something for the first time. Like the way you make a chair or a tale. Something was in the world now that hadn’t been there before.

He ends the letter with the very thing that makes the epistolary art so singularly powerful — its ability to transport the recipient to the sender’s world and welcome one consciousness into the felt experience of another:

Another beautiful morning here. Dew on the pasture. Horses grazing. It’s a ‘Kentucky Bluegrass’ postcard. Just a hint of fall in the air, the humidity has lifted & it’s like somebody just pulled a big heavy blanket off yr shoulders.

Two Prospectors is a magnificent read in its entirety. Complement this particular fragment with the illustrated epistles of great artists, then dive into my ever-expanding library of uncommonly beautiful letters.


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