I recently returned from Toulouse, France where I gave a presentation on resilience, specifically on how Zelda Fitzgerald was able to survive almost two decades of being incarcerated in mental institutions. Entitled "Letters From Oblivion," the talk examined her correspondence from five sanitariums and how letter writing contributed to her well being.
What her letters illustrate is that the foundation of her extraordinary resilience stemmed from her never believing in the initial and hasty diagnosis of schizophrenia. Then, immediately setting out to comprehend how the hospital system worked and never relinquishing her sense of self by remaining creatively productive. Perhaps, most importantly, they show how she maintained an optimistic view of the future by developing a strong faith in God and the belief that there was a higher power to which one could turn in difficult times.
In the 18th century, the personal letter was an important form of self-expression with little distinction made between poetry and novels versus sermons and correspondence. There was no disparity between public and private writing with letters often circulating within a small group before being made public.
This tradition continued in 19th century Southern culture, where women enthusiastically cultivated the art of letter writing. Embossed stationary became a must for young ladies from good families. Zelda and her mother had identical monogrammed letterhead: Minnie Sayre with MAMA embossed across its top and Zelda with her first name centered on the page.
That tradition continues to the present day with "Southern Living" magazine advising women just last year to have three types of stationary at hand: the folded note, flat correspondence card and monographed memos.
But Zelda's hospital correspondence served a different and therapeutic purpose. Apart from other forms of her writing, their intention was to express precisely how she felt about her situation and obtain clarity over it. Being able to share her authentic emotions impacted her on the cellular level and held powerful psychological and physical benefits.
Writing letters reduced stress, improved her overall sense of well being and helped foster a more positive outlook on life. Putting pencil to paper, (she almost always wrote in pencil) focused her on the present, forcing her to slow down and calm her whizzing brain. Words have power: letters were her lifeline to the world.
You can read excerpts from her letters below alongside the images that accompanied the presentation in Toulouse.