The Art And Necessity Of Love Letters
Right now, on my desk I've got a stack of 500 love letters. Just a few more than 500, if we're being exact.
It's a huge ream of paper. And because I'm an idiot, I never bothered to number the pages. Every time I pick up the stack, every time I move it around, I hold my breath. I'm terrified I'll drop it. That the pages will splash on the ground, scatter all over the place, and that's it. My whole love life, all scrambled to pieces.
Dear Reader, this stack of papers represents a lot more than the money dropped in a machine at Kinko's. It DOES represent that, let me tell you. But there's more to it. There's time, the two years spent writing these short letters. There was the work of posting them online under the banner Pete's Unsent Love Letters, queuing them up to post automatically every few days. There's the brain power spent deciding whether something posted online is truly "unsent." There was editing and all that, hours of editing. There were nighttime hours spent awake, scared. Scared and wondering which letter was going live the next day. Scared that I was revealing too much about myself.
Really, this stack, it's my love life. Which is my whole life.
Dear Reader, the stack looks a lot less thick when you think about it that way. It doesn't look thick enough to be a whole life.
Dear Reader, my love life is nothing to imitate. I have a small scar on a very sensitive area. This should be all the proof you need that my love life is nothing to imitate.
If that doesn't do it for you, how about the fact that I've broken up with someone by phone? I met this person's parents, and then when it was time, broke up on the telephone.
I've had my successes, my failures. I also refer to past relationships as "successes and failures" which means I have a ways to go.
Dear Reader, you should not even consider imitating my love life. I haven't worked it out yet. I have, however, worked out one little part of a love life. I've worked out love letters.
Dear Reader, I'm here to tell you about the art and necessity of love letters. The how and the why. After writing over 500, after editing them over and over, after holding a lifetime of breaths while I move that damned stack of paper, I have some things to share. Consider these pieces of advice as love letters straight to you. Because that's what they are.
I wanted to touch this woman's coat. That's where my stack of love letters started. There was a woman I worked with, and her coat hung in the back room all winter. Most nights, I'd walk past it and want to touch it. It was this impulse I had. To touch a woman's coat. To touch this woman's coat.
I didn't. But I wrote a letter about it. The first of 500.
The feeling I had, it was hard to describe. It still is. Whenever I explain it, I feel like a weird creep. And start to wonder if I may actually be a weird creep.
That's why the letter I wrote, it was about touching her coat. Not about the feeling I had.
A great love letter, it needs to do more than talk about a feeling. It needs an event. A thing has to happen. Your love letters, they should tell a little story, or at least a little bit of a story.
Don't use a feeling to tell your story. Don't start with how much you love someone. Don't spend pages explaining to someone what love is, or what it is for you. Don't use a feeling to tell your story. Use a story to tell a feeling.
Do it. Write the stories. They'll keep you from fondling someone else's coat in the back room at work. Which is a decidedly, deeply creepy behavior.
One of the best love letters I wrote was to my brothers. And it was about the game Super Contra.
I'll explain. In real life, it happened a little different than it did in the letter. The real life version was a lot nerdier.
I downloaded an app that let me listen to Nintendo music on my phone. Which was fantastic because I could plug it into my car stereo, which is a great way to listen to Nintendo music because the sound...you know what? That's probably enough explanation of that.
When the songs shuffled around, after my fill of Castlevania and Mega Man 2 (best Mega Man soundtrack - FIGHT ME!), I got the Super Contra theme.
Just a little ways in, I started bawling. My eyes were filled with tears. I was on the interstate. 75 MPH. I could picture the officers on the scene: "Crashed into a median. Seems the guy was listening to Nintendo music, which got him crying pretty good. Haha, sorry, okay. I almost made it that time. Seriously, let me practice a couple more times. The news truck is gonna be here any second, and I gotta get through this without laughing."
The reason I cried, that music made me think of my brothers. The place in our basement where we sat in front of the TV and played Nintendo together. For years. For us, for the three of us, that was the soundtrack of growing up.
I don't know if it's normal to write your sibling a love letter. I definitely know it's not a common thing to write a love letter to your brothers. We're not used to talking that way. To saying that stuff to each other.
Dear Confined, when you write love letters, you have to trash what you think of as the right kind of love letter. Your love letters don't have to be to your best gal or your biggest crush. They don't have to be to someone you love in a romance way, or someone you love in a handjob way (handjobs being the sincerest form of flattery, I'm told). You can write to someone you don't know about the relationship you wish you had. You can write to someone you've never met. You can write to your brothers. You can write to your brothers about Super Contra, and you can tell them how much you love them.
Dear Confined, there are people in your life who need to know how you feel. And to a lesser extent, how you feel about Super Contra.
I met a woman who had only one leg. Well, one leg, plus part of another leg. Actually, I'm not sure how much of the other leg, either. I didn't know her that well.
You can see where the "oaf" part of this comes in.
I wrote her a love letter. Because I had questions about her leg. Questions that I could never ask her. We weren't remotely close. But she laughed at a few of my jokes, and that made me happy, and I couldn't help but wonder about her and about her leg.
The questions were all wrong. They were clumsy. They were insensitive. They were the kind of questions that a person doesn't want to answer, I imagine. The questions that reduce someone down to some plastic and metal. Or rubber. Or, I don't even know.
Dear Oaf, you don't have to be fair in your letters, or nice. You don't have to be culturally sensitive. You might want to TRY, but in your letters, in that world, it's okay to fail. I'm giving you permission to write about something that might seem wrong. To ask a question that your real-life self, that you might not be proud of.
Your letters are you. Your love is you. And that means the part that is nice and polished and pleasant, the part that will listen with good posture to a lecture about social mores. And it means the part of you that is maybe curious about an artificial limb or what it's like to be pretty or ugly or how it works for a man to run with a scrotum hanging right there. If you're curious, I have no idea either. It just sort of does.
You don't have permission to badger people with these questions. You don't have permission to hold a person in your heart as being only one thing. But in your letter, in that little story you're telling, Dear Oaf, you have permission to be wrong and ugly and honest, if that's what helps. Don't step on someone, don't take something away from them. Don't say, "I'm, just being honest" when what you're really being is factual. Learn the difference between honest writing and factual writing.
In the world of your love letter, it might be okay to wonder whether someone removes an artificial limb on Friday nights and whether that feels like a relief or a loss of some kind. It might be okay to be an oaf in some of your letters.
There's a character in Marvel comics that hasn't made the movies quite yet. He's called Black Bolt. He's a king. And he can never speak.
The reason he can't speak, his voice is so powerful it can destroy entire cities. Whole worlds. If he yelled, he could crack the world in half.
I wrote a letter about Black Bolt. Somewhere in that stack of paper there's one sheet devoted to a third-tier Marvel character.
I was nervous about posting that letter. It was so specific. It wasn't the most relatable topic.
It turned out to be one of the more popular letters I posted.
Dear Inhuman, it's okay to be specific in your letters. No, I take that back. It's required.
Think how you might describe what it's like to sit in the passenger seat of your girlfriend's car. You can leave it there, say nothing else. "I was in my girlfriend's car." Or you can say how it smelled like cigarette smoke because her brother used her car every weekend. You can say how on Monday it smelled the most like smoke, and then it faded a little as the week went on, or maybe you didn't notice it as much. You can say how the heater buzzed loud, so on cold mornings it was hard to talk to your girlfriend with all the noise.
That won't be everyone's exact experience, but sitting in a crappy car is. It feels like most of my teens were spent in crappy cars that someone shared with a sibling. Specific details shine bright enough to illuminate memories, yet not so bright that they blind readers to their own. Your details make me remember my own, and that, Dear Inhuman, connects me to you and to myself. And that connection, that's a need.
Don't be afraid to get micro. Don't be afraid to throw in an inside joke. Don't be afraid that the richness of your inner life will turn me away. Let me in. Make me feel like you're opening a door to a secret room, that you want me to be here. Do it with detail. Real detail.
I sent copies of my love letters to some editors. Friends, really. People I know and people I know from online. I sent out about a dozen copies. And it was months before I saw the typo on the top page.
Yes, Dear Editor. A fatal, tragic misuse of "you're" on page 1 of 500.
This, Dear Editor, does not make a person feel very good at all.
There are people who will tell you that love letters are better when they are raw. When they are from the heart.
Do you know what "raw" means? Unprepared. Unfit for consumption. Swimming with bacteria.
Your emotions are powerful. No doubt. And that power will come through the way you want it to if you give the emotional, heartbroken writer a chance to take a Swiss Cake Roll break while the editor steps into the room.
I have two Skype appointments a month with a writing teacher. Every other week we meet on Skype, and I read out loud to him.
I do these appointments in my apartment. I can hear people outside my door, in the hall. They wait for the elevator right outside my door. I can hear them talk to each other or talk on their phones. Even when they're not loud, I can hear them. The clicks of their thumbs spelling out a text. I can hear that.
Which means they can certainly hear me. Hear me read the fiction I've been working on. Hear me say phrases like "Fart Factory."
The thing is, when I read out loud on Skype, I read louder than I do to myself. Loud, clear, and slow. With some emotion, when I can.
When I read that way, when I read so someone else can hear me, I catch a lot of shit. It's easy to skip over mistakes when you edit. It's a little harder if you read out loud. When you read loud enough so the elevator people can hear you, that's when you know you're reading loud enough.
I'm not the first person to tell you to read out loud. But I don't hear a lot of people emphasize the LOUD part of out loud. Read loud. Too loud to be in public. Too loud to be in private even, if your version of private is like mine, right next to a goddamn elevator. When you read your love letters loud, you'll hear what's right and what's wrong. More than that, you'll hear what sounds like you and what doesn't. What sounds like some other person sneaking in.
Dear Orator, you need to read your letters to yourself. You need to read to yourself, and love letters are a great place to get in the habit.
Also, unrelated advice, don't lease a ground floor apartment next to the only elevator. Dumb. Dumb, dumb, dumb.
One last story.
Dear Reader, there were some really bad times during the writing of these letters, during the time it took to fill that stack of pages without numbers. It wasn't easy.
There was this morning I remember. It was the morning after my birthday. I drank. And drank and drank. I drank, and I vomited. I vomited in front of a friend's house. Then rode a block in the car before getting out to vomit again. I dropped a good $25 in quarters while I was sick. And I couldn't make it all the way home. Some friends were nice enough to let me stay at their place.
The next morning I woke up, and I made sure I hadn't puked on myself or in the bed. I put my clothes on, and I carried my boots downstairs. While I carried them, I saw they were spattered with vomit. I carried my boots, sprayed with vomit, down the stairs at my friends' house. Their staircase, the walls are lined with pictures of them and their families. Nice people in the sun doing nice things. This was a real, grown-up house. A place for adults. Not for a guy who drank too much and vomited all over his boots.
It wasn't a great moment. But the upside, even in that dark spot, was that I had a secret. I knew I had something to say about this. A love letter to write about it.
Dear Reader, I'm done talking about how to write love letters. I just want to make sure you know why you have to start.
After my letters were finished, I went back through and edited them. Over and over.
People will tell you that writing is good catharsis. Which is a fancy way of saying that you take your feelings and get rid of them.
Dear Reader, I'm here to tell you, that doesn't always work. It didn't work for me with love letters. Sometimes, especially when you write about old, hard love, sometimes it's more like living it all again than it is exorcizing some kind of demon.
People will tell you that it's good therapy to write something down. To have a physical, tangible version of whatever bothers you. That once you can put that between covers, you can see it's just this stack of paper. That you have some control over shit.
Dear Reader, I'm here to tell you, that didn't prove true for me either. There's no putting it up on the shelf. There's no control.
Dear Reader, there are things that can make me cry so fast. Let's not discuss "Nightswimming" by R.E.M. right now. Let's just not.
Dear Reader, none of that stuff worked for me. Which isn't' a great endorsement for writing love letters.
Dear Reader, Dear Friend, I'm not here to tell you what works and what doesn't. That's up to you. That's what you'll have to figure out.
What I am here to say is that love letters gave me something. Something to look to at the worst moments and say, No matter what, this is going to make a damn good love letter. I can turn this into something.
Catharsis didn't work, mastery didn't work. But you have to do something. You have to try. Dearest Reader, Bestest Pal, you can't just let this stuff sit. It might not be cathartic for you. It might not put everything you felt into nice little boxes. It might not fit between a leather binding, not ever. It might not give you something to look forward to the way it did for me.
Dear Reader, there's no guarantee. Except the guarantee that doing nothing, that's the worst. That's the worst thing you can do. This shit is hard. And writing can save you. Love letters can save you. Looking for love in your life, even if it doesn't work out, it will save you.
Dear Reader, I'm going to end this by addressing you one last time.
Dear Writer, it might be okay. It might not. But either way, any way it goes, you can make it work. Spin the straw into gold, spin the shit into gold. Spin the gold into BETTER gold.
Dear Writer. Thanks for reading this letter. Love you.
All of My Best,
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