Epistle to the Readers

The history, and the future, of Dead Letter Office

Dear you,

Remember when I was the editor of Swink’s online edition? We’d been publishing original fiction, poetry, and essays there for several years when I decided, in 2007, to add three new departments: You Are Here, pieces about place; Wit’s End, a humor department; and Dead Letter Office, conceived as a venue for highly personal, even confessional writing in epistolary form — the letters you’d wanted to write but had never written, the letters you’d written but had never sent.

One of the inspirations for Dead Letter Office was Paul Tough’s erstwhile Open Letters, which published not conventional open letters — those written ostensibly to an individual recipient but intended for an audience — but, rather, and better, letters written by one very particular person for one very particular other, intimate missives that seemed almost incidentally revealed to other readers. Another inspiration was PostSecret, a project so exceptionally lovely and worthy that I won’t say anything else about it except to say that you must experience it. (I didn’t know, at the time, that for over a year The Guardian had been publishing their excellent A Letter To series, described as “the letter you always wanted to write,” which is still running letters weekly.)

The muses laugh at a plan, so Dead Letter Office, which I had imagined as a nonfiction department, rapidly became a genre-defying free-for-all: truth and untruth, poetry and prose, email and fan mail, business memos and personal ads. We published a letter to a man who sexually abused the writer as a child, and one to the wife of a man with whom the writer had (almost) had an affair; a missed connection to a Trader Joe’s cashier and a Dear John letter to the CEO of Whole Foods; a letter to the metric system and a letter to Franklin Planner; a letter to global warming and a letter to God.

It was, secretly but consistently, my favorite department. And when I decided to start The Offing, I couldn’t bring myself to leave it behind; it came, along with You Are Here and Wit’s End, to join us here. (The archives remain intact at Swink, but the departments are being retired there, and revived here.)

Nearly a decade after Dead Letter Office launched, tweets and texts and chat have made much of our communication ever quicker, briefer, more ephemeral. Perhaps in response, the art of the letter, the letter as artifact, and the possibilities of the epistolary form, are on the rise: McSweeney’s brilliant, mordant, often ruthless Open Letters to People or Entities Who Are Unlikely to Respond; the lovely letters-from-writers subscription service created by The Rumpus; the much-praised Letters of Note and its life off the page and on the stage; the breathtaking facsimiles of Emily Dickinson poems handwritten on faded envelopes, collected in The Gorgeous Nothingsthe More Than Words archive of artists’ letters now on view at the Smithsonian.

We’re humbled and delighted to be in such inspiring, inventive company — in correspondence, if you will. And we hope to receive your letters, very soon.

Ever your faithful scribe,