HOW TO WRITE A (GREAT) LOVE LETTER
I must confess something to you.
In an age of intellectual elitism and pop-culture supremacy, where sarcasm is the modus operandi of the day, I am a Romantic. A capital “R” romantic. I love love! Valentine’s trumps the Super Bowl, birthdays, maybe even some family holidays. I watch Pride and Prejudice every Christmas (the A&Efive-hour classic). I’m teaching Romanticism to Modernism at Cal Poly in the spring. I’ve even placed chocolate hearts on my own pillow (Once. Only, once.). I read and write poetry. I fantasize about discovering trunkloads of love letters, opening them one by one as sacred documents of the human heart.
Though still searching for that actual trunk, I count it one of the great gifts of my life that I have given and received love letters. They differ in form: scribbled notes on a cocktail napkin passed back and forth for hours, a shared moleskine journal shipped from Michigan to California, a traditional letter on cream cotton paper handwritten in black ink. They differ in content. From far-flung declarations of can’t eat, can’t sleep infatuation to shared throwaway thoughts on books, friendships, the amount of snow or sun filling the picture window. They’re from different people at different periods of my life. What’s the same, however, is an effort toward true sentiment—not Hallmark echoes of prefabricated love songs but something risk-taking.
When we write a love letter, we’re earnest, vulnerable. We try to use the best words in the best order to say what we feel. To compliment. To commit. To admit that words sometimes fail. Yet, they leave a mark on the page, and, if well received, the person reading. “Use black ink,” says John Biguenet in his article, “A Modern Guide to the Love letter, “because it’s serious, elegant, and stains more deeply and permanently than anything else. So should your words.”
A letter is rare in our fast-paced, email/text/snapchat communication culture. Our words on a tangible page—one that can be held, folded, read, and reread—are gifts of attention. They show time devoted, thoughtfulness, as well as mark a moment in history.
Letters help create a record of your relationship that you can always revisit. Feeling lackluster? Read how you once described him, how he so earnestly complimented and celebrated you. They also give your story cohesion, which brings you closer, knowing you can always change the plot because you’re creating it together.
Alright, you say, I’m on board. Let’s write a letter. But how? What makes a great love letter?
After browsing David Lowenherz’s The 50 Greatest Love Letters of All Time, C.H. Charles’ Love Letters of Great Men & Women, and more contemporary perspectives from writers for The Atlantic, The Huffington Post, Psychology Today, and The Art of Manliness (yea, seriously), I’ve culled together my favorite and most useful tips. I hope to inspire and empower you to do a brave thing—write a love letter.
1. Take the risk. Be Brave.
A good love letter is earnest, intimate, and vulnerable. Full of whispered anecdotes and tender expressions. That’s why we like receiving them. Writer and philosopher Alain de Boton says, "A good love letter should be embarrassing if it were discovered by an enemy.” But no fear! In all likelihood your audience will appreciate this courageous display of heart, so write about real things that matter to you. Be yourself.
2. Utilize your own language.
I’ve been reading the famous love letters of passionate Abelard and Heloise, tortured Jack London and Anna Strunsky, devoted Civil War soldier Sullivan Ballou to his wife Sarah, Keats, Goethe, Woolf, and others. Seriously
eautiful letters. While I revel in their expression and could model my letter after their fine examples, what I see again and again are insider details shared only with this community of two. Each couple has their own story, made of their own memories—their own words. That time when… they way you… my favorite place on your body, where…. You don’t have to be a poet. Use couple-speak. Your unique, idiosyncratic words. Again, be yourself.
Notice the honesty in Johnny Cash’s letter to his wife June on her 65th birthday:
We get old and get used to each other. We think alike. We read each others minds. We know what the other wants without asking. Sometimes we irritate each other a little bit. Maybe sometimes take each other for granted.
But once in awhile, like today, I meditate on it and realize how lucky I am to share my life the greatest woman I ever met. You still fascinate and inspire me. You influence me for the better. You’re the object of my desire, the #1 Earthly reason for my existence. I love you very much.
Happy Birthday Princess.
3. Embrace the body.
It is a privilege to know your lover in all ways possible—through your mind, your heart, your body. Write about how you worship his body as a shelter and a playground. How you worship her body as a temple, a home. Lean more toward erotic than pornographic, paying attention to words and their connotation (It’s her “scent” not her “odor” that you love lingering on the sheets.). The more you celebrate your lover’s body, the more she may feel seen, comfortable, and open to connecting with you—the way only lovers can.
4. Be complimentary.
In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet asks Mr. Collins if he compliments by prepared form or spontaneous impulse: “Do these pleasing attentions proceed from the impulse of the moment, or are they the result of previous study?” To which he replies, “...though I do sometimes amuse myself with arranging such little elegant compliments, I always wish to give them as unstudied an air as possible.” Basically, many of his compliments are readymade and shuffled out at the next (in)appropriate social opportunity. Mr. Collins speaks by rule. Don’t be Mr. Collins. (Remember, Elizabeth called him “odious” for a reason). Don’t’ just give a compliment; give the right compliment. Say the quality that makes her stand out from others; write something unique to him and only him.
5. Concision is best. Leave your lover wanting more (of you!).
A few of us diehard Romantics want long love letters. The longer the better. Feeling is great. More feeling is even better! But many (most?) people prefer shorter letters. We live in the age of tweetables and fortune-cookie aphorisms. Maybe we don’t have the attention spans we once had. Or, maybe we want to seduce knowing less is more. Make your letter more of a truffle than a king-sized Hershey bar. Potent and sweet. Your goal is to “intoxicate," not inebriate (Bigurenet). Also, in keeping with tip number one (be brave, which means earnest and vulnerable): sometimes, despite our best efforts, there are no words. Sometimes, saying nothing is exactly the right thing to say.
6. Some notes on Style.
Okay, you’re probably not Austen or Hemingway, but you do wield a pen, and your words matter. So, comb your hair, check your spelling, and dab a little scent along your neck before signing and sending your letter.
~ Grammar matters. Period. It just does. Check your spelling. Make subjects agree with verbs. No piddling passive voice—ASSIGN agency! You want your love to pay attention to your expression, not wonder about your confusing pronoun reference (stick with “I,” “You,” “We”).
~Use Metaphor not Innuendo. A metaphor is a comparison of two unlike things to gain a new perspective (ex. “You are a city of lights.”); innuendo is off-handed insinuation, often slightly slimy (ex. “Can I butter your muffin?”). Sure, sexual innuendo can be playful, but more so, it veers toward cheesy or, worse, creepy. Recap: innuendo is slimy, creepy; metaphor is creative, insightful, meaning making.
~Practice the art of ellipses…because pauses can be beautiful. In conversation, we pause to hear one another or to better listen to ourselves. When making love, we pause to read the other, to sink into a shared energy, to feel. It’s the same in letter writing. Pause. Let her breathe. Pause...let him feel. Remember, sometimes words are just not enough. And the ellipses say so.
8. Conclude extravagantly, not politely.
You’re not writing a business proposal, an email to your kid’s guidance counselor, or your last will and testament. You’re writing a love letter! So close with an emotional ring—be it a beautiful sparkler or a lit-up Fourth of July sky. Consider “Cordially Yours” versus “I am, as always, incessantly and completely yours, G” (Goethe). Which would you prefer read?
9. Sign. Seal (kiss, perfume, incense, personal stamp) and deliver. Post it. Leave your letter in her purse. Put it in the visor of his car. Place it somewhere s/he’ll see it before leaving for work. Let the discovery be a part of the gift.
10. A New Opportunity.
I must make another confession.
In the nine years since my divorce, I have been single on Valentine’s day more often than not. (Or, my date refuses to participate in what can only be referred to as “the capitalization of romantic love.” Yea, I get it. Whatever. Audible eye-roll.).
I know this “Hallmark Holiday” can be polarizing, putting a spotlight on one’s relationship status. I know it can bring up icky feelings. I also know this Heart Holiday can be a great opportunity to practice self love. (Remember, the chocolates on my pillow?). What is sweeter than showing up for yourself?
This Valentine’s write a letter to your love, yourself, or both!
Listen to your own voice, your own soul.
Write a love letter you would most want to receive. Use the words you want to hear. Authentic. Svelte. Integrity. Elegant. Sexy. Rare beauty. Share the stories that make you feel most desired, valued, seen. Take risks. Be specific. Use metaphor. Worship your blessed body. Use thick, cotton paper with black ink. Be yourself. Conclude extravagantly. Say the thing you’ve never heard but always wanted to…Write it.
Then keep the love letter. It’s yours.
Or, if you’re feeling brave, ask a friend—someone who knows you, with whom you feel safe—to read it aloud to you. Repeat: Have a friend read it aloud to you. And listen. Practice receiving love. Take in your letter, word by word. This may be the greatest Valentine you’ll open. Feel yourself open to more acceptance, grace, beauty, romance, and love.
(Bonus: Listen to your letter while eating chocolate.)
May you know your heart; may your heart be known.
Love, ardently and always,
If you like this blog--or know someone who might need a Valentine's lift or nudge--please share.