Back in college, one of my history professors once observed in class, “Nobody writes letters anymore.” This was late 1994. My professor, a nice Jewish lady who actually admitted she grew up during the 1950s, was probably referring to the telephone instead of the Internet, which at the time was still in its relative infancy. Why take a few minutes—or even a few hours—to sit down and write a letter (which then has to be mailed and take its time getting to the recipient) when you can pick up the telephone and instantly reach out and touch someone?
The explosive growth of the Internet since the mid-1990s has brought back writing. When we email, chat, instant message (IM), text, and now tweet, we obviously have to write. But it’s not quite the same as old-fashioned letter writing, which many people consider a lost art. In an article for Slate (July 30, 2007), Prof. Anne Applebaum discussed the difference between composing an actual letter and an email. “Effort was exerted to make [letters] discursive, amusing, and readable,” she wrote. “E-mail, by contrast, is intended to convey instant thought and to evoke fast responses. Theoretically, there is no reason not to write a long, elegant e-mail, but the medium works against it. Personally, I’m inhibited by the mental image of the recipient scrolling impatiently to the bottom, trying to get to the point so that he can get to the rest of his mail.”
For those special occasions, even the most compulsive of emailers and texters still rely on professionals to do their writing for them in the form of greeting cards. In (500) Days of Summer, my favorite film of 2009, Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a greeting card writer, spirals into depression a short time after being dumped by his quirky girlfriend Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel), whom he believes is the girl of his dreams. During a staff meeting, Tom, who once studied to be an architect, has a meltdown and decides to quit. “We are liars,” he bitterly tells his boss and co-workers. “Think about it. Why do people buy cards? It’s not because they want to say how they feel. People buy cards because they can’t say they feel or are afraid to. And we provide the service that lets them off the hook.”
To celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, and important holidays, many people buy cards and gifts for their families and significant others. But how many people take the time to compose an actual love letter (which can be emailed, faxed, sent in the mail, or even delivered in person) for their special someone? In this digital age when teenagers and even some members of Congress prefer to engage in “sexting,” the art of writing a love-letter has been lost.
How exactly do you go about writing a love letter? The clichéd advice you are likely to get is “just say what’s in your heart.” Writing is hard enough. Finding what’s in your heart and then translating it into a coherent message that you hope has the intended effect on the recipient are greater challenges. Even if you succeed in writing the greatest love letter in the history of love letter writing—as I have managed to do a number of times—there is no guarantee that the other person will respond as you would like them—as I have learned more than once.
So what do you if you can’t write from the heart? Start at the bottom. Do what people have been doing for perhaps thousands of years:
steal borrow. When learning to write a proper love letter, it’s acceptable to draw from famous literature and even pop cultural sources. From Shakespeare’s sonnets to the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”), everything is fair game. After all, your happiness and the rest of your life are at stake.
In my own case, here is an actual experimental love letter I sent to my last girlfriend. Those of you who came of age between the 1960s and 1980s should be able to recognize from whom I
I can’t fight this feeling anymore.
You’re every woman in the world to me.
You fill up my senses like a night in the forest.
One look at you, and I can’t disguise that I’ve got hungry eyes.
Get outta my dreams; get into my car.
I can feel it coming in the air tonight.
You bring meaning to my life; you’re the inspiration.
I can dream about you if I can’t hold you tonight.
And now it chills me to the bone; how do I get you alone?
I want to know what love is; I want you to show me.
Anything you want; you got it.
If you’re lost, you can look, and you will find me time after time.
I get the joy of rediscovering you.
We’ll meet ‘neath that giant Exxon sign that brings this fair city light.
Oh and when you held my hand, I knew that it was now or never.
The search is over; you were with me all the while.
Many of you have probably deduced that the young lady whom I emailed this
heavily plagiarized cleverly composed, romantic missive is now my ex-girlfriend. Unfortunately, when I sent it, she was under the weather and missed the references. I was actually hoping to generate amusement on her part since, like me, she was quite fond of the music of the 1980s.
A couple of months later, she dumped me via email. (In sending me walking papers, I don’t think she
plagiarized borrowed from any lines from films, books, or Jimmy Buffet tunes she fancied.) I admit that we really didn’t have much else in common. In fact, she found me boring. Looking back, I also may have used the expression, “Oh, don’t flatter yourself” one too many times. In retrospect, it was probably a mistake to ask her to indulge me by reenacting together my favorite episodes of the classic sitcom, Married With Children (1987-1997).
In all seriousness, love letters don’t have to be poetic or reveal profound insights into the human condition. All they really need to make them good is simple honesty behind the feelings you want to express to that important person whom you are thinking of spending—or are spending–the rest of your life with. And yes, if you need to, there is nothing wrong with
stealing borrowing to help you convey your romantic feelings. After a little—or a lot—of practice, you will get better at writing love letters and eventually compose original ones.