When the administrators at a local writers’ centre asked me to teach a daylong course on composing love letters, my first impulse was to laugh. I write creative non-fiction: travel pieces mostly, plus profiles and other forms of narrative journalism. I’ve written about refugees in the Sahara Desert, death along the U.S.-Mexico border, a Nigerian boxer in Calgary and traditional wrestlers in Iran.
Over the years I had penned a few Valentines for my wife, Moonira, but that hardly qualified me. My most romantic attributes are the vowels in my name. Still, I’m in no position to turn down paid work, so I agreed. And then I did what any modern-day Cyrano worth his salt would do: I Googled.
One website advised me to include a small photo graph of myself so that my beloved might “reflect on [me] with fondness.” Another reminded me that “specialty paper adds major impact to your letter” and suggested I find a secluded space with dim lights and soft music to “stimulate a romantic mood.” One website even advised giving the object of my affection a nickname based on her interests (“If the girl is a diehard dancing fanatic, you can name her Shakira!”).
I started to panic. I hate this stuff. My entire career has been a battle against sentimentality and cliché. What had I got myself into? To spur interest, the writers’ centre invites instructors to a registration night during which they briefly introduce their courses. I began by sharing a quote by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. “To write a good love letter,” Rousseau advised, “you ought to begin without knowing what you mean to say and to finish without knowing what you have written.” Then I told everyone we would be ignoring Rousseau’s advice.
We would behave like writers, not mindless lovesick teens. Three days later I learned the class had sold out. I was shocked. What kind of person would willingly give over a Saturday to writing love letters? The female kind, it turned out.
My students-nine in all-ranged from 20-somethings to retirees. I recognized a young woman, Jennifer, who worked at the centre. Another woman attended a travel-writing workshop I’d given the previous year. One told us she wrote erotic fiction. (I wondered why she hadn’t been asked to lead the class.) The lack of men surprised me, until I admitted to myself that I’d probably steer clear of a love-letter workshop, too. Perhaps because, deep down, I believe that sort of serenading is too personal to “workshop” with strangers. Men boast about their sexual skills, but I’ve never heard any of my buddies count the ways in which he displays affection. Men talk conquest, not intimacy.
My female charges, on the other hand, were game. We laid down some ground rules. Love letters, I argued, have one job: to seduce. Expressing love isn’t enough; your sentences need to kindle desire in the recipient. At their root, love letters should be another form of good writing-they can be artful in their expression, their embellishment, exaggeration and selective memory. The literary form might seem obsolete in the age of emoticons and “sexting,” but we still express love best in real words. The better we can write, the better we can woo.
To put these ideas into practice, we spent much of the day on exercises. I had my students recount brief histories of their past relationships, then mine those stories for details to expand on. I urged them to be precise and to use their own voices, not some exalted romantic tone. I had them compose billets-doux to their grade-school crushes. I even had them dash off letters to their lunches. I wanted to shake up their sense of what was possible. I read aloud a profanity-laced epistle sent by a heartbroken Bigfoot to Santa Claus. You might call it a bromance gone bad.
Once close pals, the two are estranged, and in the long letter-“ghostwritten” by author and illustrator Graham Roumieu-Bigfoot tries to make amends: “Bigfoot heart sad like kitten who choke to death on pretty ribbon.” The letter made the group laugh and, in doing so, underscored how love tends to be a solemn subject. Even the word itself emerges only after great hesitation, if uttered sincerely. But by adopting the monosyllabic grunts of Bigfoot, Roumieu knocks love from its perch and reminds us that being smitten can be silly and fun.
Another letter was a short, breathtaking note painter Frida Kahlo wrote to Diego Rivera: Nothing compares to your hands, nothing like the green-gold of your eyes. My body is filled with you for days and days. You are the mirror of the night, the violent flash of lightning. The dampness of the earth. The hollow of your armpits is my shelter. My fingertips touch your blood. All my joy is to feel life spring from your flower-fountain that mine keeps to fill all the paths of my nerves, which are yours. I needed to show my students that a good love letter could be written without vapid expressions, boilerplate adjectives or even the all-important word itself.
Kahlo, I joked, might have authored the only love letter in history to effectively employ the word armpits. But that very word also revealed something essential: When in love, we see everything through a new prism. The most unromantic objects-damp earth, blood and yes, armpits-become the source of unexpected beauty. Love reintroduces us to the world; it beautifies the banal.
My favourite letter came from Israeli author Etgar Keret, who imagines a perfect birthday for his beloved. The day, he writes, will begin with a pleasant bus ride-“The bus stops, the driver smiles at you, the windows are gleaming and there’s plenty of small change”-and will continue with a surprise party attended by all the people she loves. “The funny ones will entertain, the smart ones will enlighten, even the melancholy ones will give a genuine smile.” Her night will end with lovemaking, if she wants, or a massage with oil “specially bought in an old Bedouin shop.” Keret’s letter, structured with a beginning, middle and end, reminds us that love weaves a narrative. Too often we define love in moments, as if love comes in tender capsules. Love is marketed to us this way, especially in February. Love as a rose passed from one hand to another. Love as the untying of ribbon and unwrapping of a gift. Love as the opening of a tiny velvet box. Outside of Valentine’s Day fantasies, however, real love stretches through real time. It grows and endures and strengthens. Occasionally it wilts. Sometimes it dies. Our love affairs are not rhyming lines on pink greeting cards. They are thick dog-eared novels we write to ourselves.
I am not sure what my students gained from the hours we spent together. I can only hope they learned a little about writing well. I was surprised by what I felt: re-energized. It was a literary coup de foudre. I had fallen in love with the art of writing love letters. I rushed home, dug some “specialty paper” from the back of a desk drawer and began writing: “Dear Moonira….”