P.S. <3 XOX 143: The Lost Art of the Love Letter

I’ve had students come to me to edit their papers. I’ve also had those who came to me for love advice. But never did I have both — no one ever asked for help in writing a love letter. It’s a private thing of course, but never have I confiscated one in class too. I was hoping for a revenge of sorts; I’ve written a lot during my student days. Where has it gone?

I wrote my first love letter when I was in the fifth grade. It wasn’t bad but I wouldn’t know for sure — she never got to read it. Nor was she meant to. I just met her for a four-day leadership training in Baguio and I never saw her again. Not knowing what to do when I got to Manila (she went back to Laguna), I sort of decided to write down what I felt and mailed it to an imaginary place in my heart. I lost it unfortunately — the letter of the place in my heart? Both. We get over the fifth grade quickly. (Though we met again in Friendster about two years back. You do outgrow it.)

High school wasn’t the best time for writing love letters though. I attended an all boys school and there was something wrong with having stationery in your bag. But after you outgrow the freshman and sophomore queasiness of bringing flower-scented paper to school, it becomes rather standard issue upon entering the prom-fevered junior year. I wrote quite the number back then to my secret crush in our neighborhood (apparently the only secret part was that I didn’t know everyone knew) but only sent one a month before prom. She declined, saying that she wasn’t allowed to attend proms. The week after that, I asked her how the other prom went — every guy asked her out, you see. Apparently, we don’t have many secrets in our neighborhood.

College was a different beast. I wrote my last girlfriend quite a lot, and this time I was relatively more successful. I was lucky to meet someone who actually read what I wrote and though we may not talk these days, she has the full license to publish them in the future — Letters from the Weird sounds like a good title. About a year back I reread everything (thank heavens for that ‘Sent’ folder in the e-mail) and saw how my letters went from the vomit-inducing to the cringe-inducing. There are a few really inspired ones though, and any of them bring even my best essays to shame.

Looking back at the art of love letter writing, I realized that it helped me a lot with writing in general. Writing your heart out requires a lot of honesty but also a lot of moderation. You can only say “I love you” so much without sounding too campy or cheesy. It’s the ultimate cliche — but cliches, as much as they should be avoided, can deliver quite a punch when used right. This next tip may be a matter of style, but learning to use that cliche is a good exercise in irony and resonance. I don’t want to give too much away, but “I love you” is best used as a contrast. It is best preceded or succeeded by statements which are contrary to it as long as they do not overpower it. But enough with the tips! I am currently single (“by choice” as my generation likes to say) and thus I can’t be on any romantic high ground to give you “tips”.

Suffice to say, writing a letter trains one in thought articulation. Emotions are tricky to reel in; they often contradict and can color — or discolor — things which are otherwise plain to see. Thus, balancing them with logic and reason is a skill to be learned. And trust me from experience, writing for a beloved is good incentive to learn quick.

The same principle applies in writing about issues that matter. As a student of the social sciences, I often grapple with issues and events which I think about one way and feel about another. This is most evident in my latest piece on People Power, Battle of the Righteous, where I articulate this ambiguity between heart and mind rather well. Nonetheless, if you read the essays that follow, you can see how my thoughts and emotions eventually reconcile with neither side completely giving in to the other. Learning to strike this balance is necessary in order to inject a piece with enough resonance to be relevant to a reader. Don’t just write about what you know but why you know.

This is why I express a mild alarm in seeing the virtual death of the love letter among my students. In retrospect, I haven’t really encountered much outside of those love letters English teachers require their students. Through my conversations with students, I discover that the text message and the instant message are their media of choice. Compared to the brevity and speed of text and IM, the love letter just seems too “snail mail” for this younger generation. Love however, isn’t as instant.

Nonetheless, there is hope. Not everyone has abandoned the fine art of writing. In some way, it has evolved. Blogging seems to be a great avenue for a lot of them. However, I see it as an amazing compromise: they get to write down everything they feel but they don’t feel the compulsion to have their beloved read it. Instead, they hope that their beloved gets to read it accidentally which they’ll [choose to] see as a deliberate act and in turn feel that they are actually being sought. It’s an interesting dynamic which eventually culminates in some romantic exchange that leads to other things. Just don’t expect them to exchange envelopes; they deal in URLs, e-mails and Google.

So in a large way, I am not surprised that the notion of relationships these days is more fleeting; love is more elusive. Partners are as interchangeable as textmates, and anything less convenient than that is already too difficult to be love. This has implications now on the nature of commitment. While I don’t want to go into the psychology and sociology of that right now, I could say from experience that letter writing helped form my notion of commitment. There is just something so powerful with the written word — I call this the weight of the word — that anchors not just our heart on the page, but to the person we write to.

This entry was inspired by a past student who dropped today. She asked me candidly, “Sir how do I write better?”

I answered, “Read a lot. When you’re done, read more.”

“But I already read.” She raises her hand to show me a book.

“Fall in love then.”

She falls silent. “Sir, I rather read.” And she turns away.

The book was Twilight.

If I can’t blame instant technology for the lack of love letters, I’d blame Edward Cullen, Harry Potter or David Archuleta. Or even Jane Austen.


13 thoughts on “P.S. <3 XOX 143: The Lost Art of the Love Letter

  1. Hahaha! Yes blame Harry Potter! The last time I wrote a love letter was way back in highschool. It was a bit of success and disaster. But overall, the desired effect was achieved.

    My word, this post sure does bring back a lot of memories.

  2. Sir Martin,I think writing love letters would help more than just a person’s writing in general.For me love letters specially unsent ones tell so much about who we are and what we are capable of being in the name of love. Of course time and experience change how we look at love.And i guess that’s the fun (or painful) part in re reading those love letters we wrote in the past.

    The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm is my favorite source of inspiration when it comes to love matters.

  3. i think i have a book stashed somewhere back home on winning pieces in a love letter writing contest. don’t ask me why i have it. my dad bought itXD i’ll bring it when i get the chance to visit, sir^^

  4. sir, i’m a firm believer in love letters ❤

    probably because one of the leading ways to confess “kokuhaku” in japan is through love letters. ahahahahaha yes, my reasons may not be very good, but i do see your point in this entry.

    you see, in japan, love letters are very meticulously made. it’s a part of school life in general except usually you insert them in the receiver’s lockers or shoe lockers or you stand in front of the gate and wait for them and give it to them personally -cue japanese onegaishimasu bow- so yeah, i have nothing against them. .>

    sorry for my very shallow comment sir XD

  5. …late comment. T_T

    anyway, sir, i have to agree — the art is indeed dying. sad, isn’t it? personally, i’d still prefer an actual handwritten letter over an email any day. but i know for a fact that it isn’t dead.

    “However, I see it as an amazing compromise: they get to write down everything they feel but they don’t feel the compulsion to have their beloved read it. Instead, they hope that their beloved gets to read it accidentally which they’ll [choose to] see as a deliberate act and in turn feel that they are actually being sought.”

    this one, however, i have to disagree with. haha. personal experience, actually — i used to write blog entries for a particular someone. used to. X_x

    anyway, sorry for the long comment. haha.

  6. Love letters and SMS are not irreconcilable. SMS is a misnomer; a long letter can be sent via several SMS’s. However, I must admit that letters sent this way diminish in value since they all get deleted ASAP. Bits and bytes don’t give the permanence of ink against paper. But then again, I expect that all the letters I’d send will be burned in the same way Internet or text messages are deleted, simply because I think that people treat physical messages like they do digital ones.

  7. *blinks* why on earth should reading be blamed for the lack of love letters? Sorry, I didn’t get the connection. D:

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