Epistolary anxiety

I'm a writer, so is it OK to write my girlfriend a letter telling her we're through?

By Cary Tennis
January 23, 2004 1:27AM (UTC)
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Dear Cary,

I have a question for you that I thought, as a fellow writer, you would perhaps relate to. Here's the scoop. I've found my relationship dwindling with my girlfriend. Over the past few months it has deteriorated and is now slowly flickering and fading. I love this woman and she loves me, but we understand that attempting to keep our relationship is proving difficult (we both just graduated from college, don't know what we're doing). We care for each other as friends so we both agree that recognizing a time to break it off is important, in the hope that in the future we will maintain a friendship and mutual respect.


I find myself writing a lot of letters (letters not e-mails). Perhaps sometimes I write letters too abruptly, before I've had a chance to truly digest an issue. Granted many of these end up in the trash but some do end up with a stamp. I just wrote one to her (a "goodbye, I wish you well" letter). In a way, this offers me some conclusion to our romantic relationship, but perhaps it could be seen as getting the last word. Honestly, this is not what I intend, but writing a letter just seems to mark a space in time for me. It makes an occasion real.

What are your thoughts on letters? Do you find yourself writing letters just to throw them away? Does it help you add some kind of closure to a failed relationship? Should I just drop the pen and leave it unsaid?

Writing Again


Dear Writing Again,

Writing letters is a fine habit for a writer. But breaking up with a girlfriend is best done in person. Breaking up in a letter, even a well-written letter on good stationery, might strike her as just a little impersonal. That is, unless the relationship is epistolary in nature.

As to getting the last word, there is something about being a writer that is about power, and so if you suspect that one of your hidden motives may be to have the last word in the relationship, then consider whether you may be missing what a relationship is. A writer's relationship with a person must be different in kind from the writer's relationship with the world in general. The writer, or the aspiring writer, especially one who seeks to use writing like a sculptor's dremel to reshape the world as he sees fit, stands in a high place and surveys; he walks up close to the world and squeezes it roughly, impersonally, like an appraising merchant, to gain knowledge of its qualities. The writer's stance toward the world is the stance of a taker.


But in a relationship, a writer is as helpless as anybody else. A writer's got to be just like anybody else. He doesn't get to use his privileged position to rummage through his lover's drawers, looking for scents and images he can use to good effect. The relationship is something he's a part of. Put it this way: If you're a writer and you're in a relationship, you're just another character in somebody else's book. In fact, you're a character in your lover's book. And to the extent that you're trying to use your pen, your epistolary footwork, to get over on her, you're missing the whole point. Plus you're wasting imaginative energy better spent on your craft.

Sure, every writer wants to use his pen to rule the world. But the uncontrollable other in an actual relationship confounds your imagination because she is profoundly, monstrously real. She is not a product of your imagination. She is not a character in your head. She is a body, a physical presence, and it's that miraculous sculpture of mineral, muscle and blood that is your subject.


So you don't write her a letter. You tell her in person.

After you break up, after you've been apart for a while, maybe then write a letter. Tell her what you're doing in all the spare time you have now that you're not studying together in the student union. Tell her how sad you are, how much you miss her, and how you are putting all the mementos of your relationship together into a little book.

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Cary Tennis

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