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Love Letters are Stupid

Tuesday, June 11, 2013
Where, I wonder, do girls get the idea that love letters are a good idea? Are there love letters in Little Women? Or do we associate praise and acceptance with writing because our early efforts are so praised and encouraged by elementary school teachers? Or are we ourselves so moved by the written word, we assume boys must be, too?

I suppose sometimes they are, but then there are these lines by the Polish poet Tadeusz Dąbrowski about a character who is cleaning up his computer: "...ten, posyłący do sieciowego  nieba/kilka do bólu otwartych koleżane ze studiów (the one sending to internet heaven/ some painfully open girlfriends from uni)". "Painfully open." Ouch.  "Girlfriends." Girlfriendsss. Ouchy ouch.

In the old days you really had to work to make an ass of yourself through writing. You needed the right paper, and the right envelope, and the right stamp. You needed the right pen--not too scratchy as Anne of Anne of Windy Poplars might say (aha!). You needed to take your deeply honest outpourings, your creation so beautiful that it made you sniffle a bit as you reread it, to the postbox. As it was usually dark by the time you finished, you had to wait until morning. If you were really lucky, when morning broke you changed your mind and ripped up your paper darling into a million pieces.

"I hope you know that So-and-So," said my friend Jackie, mispronouncing So-and-So's excitingly exotic surname, "is running all over [his] school, showing everyone your letter."

Oh, the humiliation. But I had almost learned my lesson. Every time I broke up with a guy, I demanded my letters back. And, no, of course I shouldn't have written them in the first place. Writing a guy a love letter is the equivalent of sending him a page from your diary, and let us now all ponder our teenage diaries in silence.

Email makes it easier, of course, and if you are like me, you are waiting eagerly for the Great Wipe that will erase the hard drives of the world, sending bureaucrats gobbling to their paper files and card catalogues, and bringing the world to the brink of nuclear catastrophe but, thank heaven, obliterating that extremely stupid email I wrote in 1997.

Agatha Christie novels are charmingly full of love rats with imprudent letters for sale. Lady Marjoribanks, her white hands clutching at the pearls around her still-unlined throat, has always written these letters when she was a young girl, just out of school, and her husband would never, ever understand. "Please help me, Hercules Poirot. You're my only hope."

You would think that this would teach us never to write love letters, but alas. But unless you become a woman in public life, it is much more likely that your love rat will not try to extort money from you, which is illegal, but merely hit "Forward All," which isn't.

Of course men write love letters, too, and unless you love the men, their effusions can be pretty dull. I have a policy of not reading the love letters men send to my friends because I felt so awful reading an eight page love letter a boy I knew sent a girl I knew when we were all 15 or so. It was not a great letter. All I remember about it was how long it was, and how dull, and how horrible that I was reading it as its only intended audience sat beside me and smirked.

But in general I associate letter-writing as just one more way in which we women try to rid ourselves of the painful burden of unexpressed love. And this is why we really have to watch ourselves and ask ourselves, as we were writing, "How would this sound if it were read at my funeral?"


Niche-blogger Seraphic McAmbrose was run over by a Lothian bus Monday as she ran across the street to buy a pint of milk. To celebrate her lamentably short career as a writer, at her funeral selections were read from her email account. "My darling Fred," read the late author's husband, Benedict Ambrose, "I will never, ever forsake you for another. How could you suggest such a thing, my angel, when the sun rises and sets in your eyes? When I come back from my holiday in Scotland, I will put on that teeny-weeny itsy-bitsy dress you like so much."  The widower was seen to wipe a way a tear as he read, "This is the kind of provincial narrow-minded yahoo **** I expect from your brand of New England thuggery, Father Reilly."   

I made those up. Actually, when I have tense business correspondence, Benedict Ambrose edits my replies before I hit send. I know another foreign lady whose British husband edits her tense business correspondence, too. I am not sure this works so well when writing to Americans, however, as Americans tend to prefer terse honesty to proper British lah-dee-dah pussyfootery. Which brings me to my next point.

Know your audience. This is one of the most important rules in writing. The problem with love letters is that if you are dazed by love, you are not writing to the guy but to the image of the guy you have in your head. That is one reason why your letter sounds so stupid later instead of like a 21st century version of Shakespeare's Sonnets. (Incidentally, a man once wrote to me, "My baby's eyes are nothing like the sun" completely oblivious to the fact that Shakespeare meant it as a teasing insult. IDIOT! How dare he rip off Shakespeare in a letter to ME? Pretentious mumble mumble mmmggggmmmgggmmm.)  And if you really know your audience, i.e. male, you will realize that you have no business writing a love letter to a man who has not declared his love first.

Second, know your motive. What is the purpose of your communication? Because, in general, men only communicate to exchange information, to create a self-serving impression, to make someone laugh, to frighten a perceived attacker or because they enjoy the sound of their own voice. Therefore, you really shouldn't bother even talking to them unless you know what your motive is. This is why questions are so useful, in speaking to men, and monologues about your feelings so dumb.

Woman: ...and so I told her I wasn't sure I could do that and of course it is always so tiring after an entire day of washing test-tubes to pick up someone else's children and although I really love the children it makes me feel sad to see them in a way because of not having children myself and..

Man (thinking): What do you want from me?

Personally, although I very much enjoy writing letters, I think of them primarily as gifts, to keep the friend abreast of news back home. And I am very pleased when I get the gift of a letter back, as it shows my letter-gift was appreciated.

Third, forgive yourself for past stupidity and pledge to be more prudent in future. If you wouldn't say something over the phone, don't write it in an email or letter. And if it's something lovey-dovey you would say over the phone, but you're not actually engaged or married to the guy, don't write it in an email or letter. And if you are writhing in humiliation over some thing you did write, go out at once and get Simone de Beauvoir's love letters to Nelson Algren.

Ah, Simone, Simone the arch-feminist who let Jean-Paul Sartre walk all over her. Thank heavens for Simone, for from Simone we learn that even bestselling arch-feminist French authors can be pretty stupid about men and write such broken-English stuff to their other lovers as:

It is very bad never to come in my dreams in night, and then to come all day long [into my thoughts], smiling to me, looking at me, speaking to me or kissing me in the most inconvenient circumstances... Let me kiss you a very long kiss. Je vous aime, mon amour.
                                                                                        --Your little frog and own Simone.