Recently, I discovered a letter my late husband, Kevin, wrote to me but never delivered. I found it in a box of his things that I had avoided dealing with for a decade. In the letter, he admitted reading my journals but also said he missed the passionate writer who left so much emotion on the page. He wondered where she had gone. Kevin had written the letter ten years before he died. In the years after its writing, I too missed that woman and determined to earn an MFA. Finding Kevin’s letter now, ten years since his passing, was an emotional blow.

I processed this information as I often process difficult knowledge—by writing about it, this time in the most distilled way: crafting a one hundred-word piece for The New York Times’ Modern Love Tiny Love Stories. It was a demanding exercise to tell a story that took place twenty years earlier about a letter written by my husband now also gone many years. There was the letter’s content, my response, new grief, old pain, so much to delve into within such a minimal word count. Once finished, I became attached. This piece was therapy, release, discipline, and acceptance, perfectly wrapped in exactly one hundred words.

I wrote:

Ticket stubs, photos, foreign coins. Life’s ephemera tossed into a wooden box that sat atop his dresser. After my husband died, I packed it away, unopened, with other favorite things: running shoes, a silver pen, his comb. Now, years later, it was time. I didn’t expect to find a letter, never delivered, confessing he’d read my old journals; saying he missed the young, passionate woman who’d filled their pages. Wishing he had her back. My own realization of her absence still years away. A violation, yes. For which there’ll be no apology. Also, a reminder: he always knew me best.

Yet, after workshopping this draft with my writing group, the essay shifted considerably for such a short piece. The first suggestions helped me understand that I was too close and had overlooked the obvious. In an MFA workshop years ago for a different piece, the instructor asked, “Who’s missing in this?” The essay detailed how my marriage was bookended by three years of home renovations and three years of cancer. The answer to the instructor’s question was Kevin. As my writing group considered my new essay about Kevin’s letter, someone asked, “Where is he?” I hadn’t named Kevin or provided details about him. I was too close to see what was missing. Of course he’s there, I believed. But he wasn’t.

In version two, multiple writing group members voiced their misunderstanding of events and timing. When did Kevin write the letter? How long had he been gone? When did I have my own understanding of the need for writing in my life? Basic questions that I thought were insignificant. Indeed, reading the piece again, I found I liked the ambiguity of the timeline as its terseness highlighted the essay’s brevity. But my readers did not. Though we may write alone, publishing our writing means creating a pact with the reader. Our writing must be clear for them, or they’ll be turned off. I added dates.

The next question was about the list of items included with the box when I packed it away. Noting these other items, I felt, highlighted the importance of the box and set the scene. Readers, however, felt that it slowed the pace and prevented forward movement away from the real interest: my response and feelings about the letter. Although my purpose had been to show how difficult the situation was, action showed that better than description. Tight word choice forces us to weigh each word and the direction in which they take us. The list of Kevin’s belongings came out.

Next, a writer friend asked perhaps the most important question: What about this really hurt me? The journal violation, or what Kevin subsequently said about me in his letter? This, as workshopping often does, raised therapy-level questions resulting in significant shifts. Memoir writers tell what happened, what we feel about it, and what we learned. We hope our lessons are universal. We must always look beyond events to the layers below. I added that the letter contained both “an admission and a plea,” bringing complexity to the characters and the essay with five words. The best revisions reveal deeper truths.

One writer friend emailed a complete rewrite. What to do? Do I even read it? If it was fabulous, I’d be crushed. I certainly couldn’t submit it. Reading the entry, I saw how she brought her journalist’s eye to the story. It was streamlined, straightforward; it contained all five W’s. Balancing her skill at making things in the story more orderly, with my need to write creatively, I revised yet again. While I didn’t want to write a news story about the letter, reading her version showed me the benefit of creating a beginning, middle and end. I exchanged and rearranged for further clarity.

By the last revisions, suggested by the Times editor, I had stepped back and began to feel the tone and implications shift. Embracing the story as being about my relationship with Kevin, I completed a journey from powerlessness against a past event to embracing my response today. I carefully considered who that person was who had set aside writing for her family. Though Kevin wrote the letter years ago, my realizations are present-day. At the editor’s suggestion, the essay ends with a verbalized, current statement: Thank you for always knowing me best. Finally, there was redemption, even if there couldn’t be resolution.

I published:

Ticket stubs, foreign coins. Life’s ephemera tossed into a box. After my husband, Kevin, died of cancer at 49, I packed it away on a shelf, unopened. Now, a decade later, it was time to look. I didn’t expect to find a letter, never delivered, from 2001, in which he admitted that he’d read my journals and said he missed that passionate writer. He wanted her back. An admission and a plea. If I could, I would tell him this: I missed that writer, too, and found her again with your help. Thank you, Kevin, for always knowing me best.

Once published, I delighted in seeing the essay out in the world. I assessed my sense of “possession.” I felt I had ninety-six percent ownership of this essay. Of the hundred words, four percent were offered by others or reworked at someone’s suggestion. Is that alright? Too much? Is there a right or wrong amount? What do we owe ourselves as writers, or reviewers, through revision? Understanding my own limitations, I released the story; it returned as a changed work. We share in groups because we believe something better will come from this reassembly. I now know certainly: As I revise, I learn.


Lori Tucker-Sullivan’s writing has appeared in magazines and journals, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Manifest-Station, Motherwell, Now & Then, Passages North, The Sun, The Cancer Poetry Project, Midwestern Gothic and others, as well as the anthologies Detroit Neighborhood Guidebook, 100 Words of Solitude: Writers on the Pandemic, and Red State Blues. Her essays “Detroit, 2015” and “Time, Touch and a Whale’s Grief” were nominated for a Pushcart Prize. “Detroit 2015” was listed as a Notable Essay of 2015 in Best American Essays. She holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Spalding University. Her book, I Can’t Remember If I Cried: Rock Widows on Life, Love and Legacy, which profiles the widows of rock stars who died young and what they taught her about grief, is forthcoming from BMG Books in 2023.