Have We Lost the Art of Love Letters?
by Kiersten Hallie Krum
Love letters were top of my mind this week after reading Cara McKenna’s Hard Time, winner of the Reviewers Choice Best Book Award for erotic digital romance from RT Book Reviews. In Hard Time, inmate Eric Collier writes letters to prison librarian Anne Goodhouse. Mind you, this is not some twisty episode of Oz. These letters are deeply intimate and not in a sex-crazed way–OK not entirely in a sex-crazed way. Mad vulnerability is on the line here, partly because Eric has nothing to lose, but also, I think, because it’s liberating to write down how you feel, alone in a room with no one to judge you, no one to reject you, only the raw intimacy of the exposed yearnings of your heart.
And Eric, well, Eric does not hold back:
I missed you since our last visit. A few minutes a week with you is almost more cruel than it’s worth. I miss you every minute we’re apart, and watch the clock every morning when I think I might be seeing you again. I miss how you smell, like spring and grass. There’s not much grass here. I miss your face, and the way you smile sometimes. I want to make you smile like that. I miss your voice. The way you talk. I wish I could see you, away from here. I wish we could be together, in ways I haven’t been with a woman in five years. Sometimes, when I see you. . .sometimes I can’t even listen to what you’re saying. All I can do is watch your mouth. I watch your lips and I think about kissing you when I’m alone at night. Though I’m never really alone, here. But I imagine I am. Alone with just you. I think about your mouth, and about kissing you. And other things. Sometimes I watch your hands. I watch your hands and imagine them on me.
(McKenna, Cara. Hard Time. Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition. 2014.)
The first time Anne writes a reply to Eric, she spirals into a pit of fear after sending it, freaking out for days over a variety of negative fall outs from her acknowledgement not only of his ardor but her own equally strong emotions: What if they got caught? What if he’s playing her? What if he’s a horrible person? Too right, I thought reading it.
I took a straw poll on Facebook and Twitter asking who, if anyone, had received or sent a love letter. An overwhelming amount of those who responded said “Yes” often to both, but definitely to sending one. Author Beth Yarnall even shared her high-school yearbook inscribed love letter in which her earnest beau promised to find her even in the midst of a nuclear holocaust.
Now that’s love.
Such a large positive response surprised me (though it can be argued that those who might have said “No” didn’t bother to answer.) I’ve sent one love letter in my life and I’m pretty sure I was about 14 years-old when I did it. Possibly younger. I received only one too that I remember, but that was in first-grade, so I’m not sure it counts.
Fear. Fear is what I think of when I think of love letters. The fear of exposing oneself to another’s derision by confessing outright to such powerful emotions. Committing things to paper limits what you can take back. The simple truth is that words have power and writing thoughts and emotions down makes them–and us–vulnerable. And yet, it is within the pages of love letters that the most divine declarations can be made.
During my last year as an undergraduate, I interned at the Gloucester Stage Company in Gloucester, MA. For the theatre’s landmark anniversary that year, the management threw a gala event, which included a one-time performance of Love Letters, a play written in the late 80s that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In it, a man and woman sit side-by-side and read the letters and notes they’ve written to one another over the 50 years of their relationship. “The play’s means may be economical,” wrote The New York Times last year about the Love Letters revival on Broadway, “but it etches a deep portrait of life’s painful vicissitudes.” Love Letters is, perhaps obviously, the first thing that comes to mind whenever I think of love letters.
The second is inevitably 84 Charing Cross Road. My mother made us watch it when we were kids–under protest, I assure you–but we quickly fell for it. 84 Charing Cross Road is a movie (based on a book, naturally) about a writer in New York who stuck up a deep friendship with a British bookseller in London. They never met, but instead spent just short of twenty years writing letters back and forth, beginning in 1949 and lasting till the death of the bookseller in 1968. While not lovers, a deep non-romantic love is evident between the two. The movie, with Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins, is a delight, no small amount thanks to the very letters that form the original book, which are read as the script and dramatized. To this day, 84 Charing Cross Road is a beloved favorite in my film collection.
The epistolary nature of these two products fascinates me. Words are my profession, which means I likely place a higher value on word choice, on the page and off, than most lay people, a dedication to semantics that has been known to occasionally aggravate my family.
We commit things to the page when we want to remember them. What writer hasn’t wished she or he wrote down the brilliant thought had just before dropping off to sleep? Committing to the page helps commit it to memory and occasionally absolves us of the need to do the same.
Professor Henry Jones: I found the clues that will safely take us through them in the Chronicles of St. Anselm.
Indiana Jones: Well, what are they? Can’t you remember?
Professor Henry Jones: I wrote them down in my diary so that I wouldn’t *have* to remember.
—Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Yet I have to wonder, in a world of sexting and texting and emails and IMs and Snapchat and The Twitter, a world where we’ve been trained to condense thoughts and feelings into 140 characters or less, where many intimate details of ours lives are shared in flashes of TMI self-exposure for attention, is there even a place for a love letters, even as a sticky note of affection left between spouses or lovers as the pass by in the midst of their busy lives? The letters in Hard Time generate from the clandestine nature of their existence due to Eric’s circumstance of incarceration–without being allowed access to a computer or a cell phone, old school becomes the new school–but in the regular world , is there yet room for oldf fashion love letters?
Follow Lady Smut. Everything thing we write comes back to love–in one form or another.