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How to Write a Love Letter

Bill Radke

Angela Kim

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Sweet Words
(Courtesy Clarkson Potter/Publishers)
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Bill Radke: Some of these letters are outright painful. One example is someone who wrote the word "liar" 183 times. Why did you include that stain of pain?

Bill Shapiro: Because we all feel that. I would say this is a really fair and accurate representation of love. Most of the time when you see a collection of love letters, it's all really rosy and everything is up and glorious. But that's actually not what happens to people who are in a long relationship. I think anyone who's been in a long relationship knows that there are difficult parts, and you can still love somebody through the difficult parts. And then there are the really difficult parts where you reconsider your love and maybe your write a letter during those moments. And to me they're still love letters. They're just not what we usually think of when we think of love letters.

Are you talking from experience? Did you come to this in mind?

Oh, you're good. Yes, I do come to it from experience. I was divorced not that long ago and there are a lot of emotions that go hand in hand with that. It makes you re-examine the love letters that you had written and that you had received, and both the lasting nature of the letter itself, that piece of paper, and the ephemeral nature of the sentiments written on the letter.

What's a theme that jumped out and surprised you from these letters?

There are letters going back to 1911 and there are text messages written at the end of 2006. And what really comes through is that people so badly want to be understood.

I can argue that one of the dominant emotions in this book is insecurity.

Well, yeah that's definitely there. I think it's a scary thing being in love because it could be over. There's also some letters here that I think are full of confidence. There's one that comes to mind, which is a woman whose relationship ended in a divorce after some years. It's a long letter, but one of the things she writes to her ex a year after, to me, is full of confidence. She says, "One more thing you did for me. You left. And I had to get through it. I have learned this year that my ability to handle what happens to me greatly exceeds my expectations. I thought I would die if you left me. I had this idea that I would crumble. I thought I would have to live with my mom and curl up in my bed for months. This is so untrue and I have some amends to make to myself for thinking so little of my strengths."

Does this letter lose anything for you because it's an e-mail?

Not at all. The timing is so perfect because you get it the moment that somebody is thinking about you instead of three days or more for it to get to you.

So let's say somebody is thinking this weekend, "Oh my God, I've got to compose something and it's got to work, but the timing is official." The timing is practically government mandated: Feb. 14. What advice do you give someone composing this weekend?

Well, I would start now. And you've got a tool for everything in your tool kit. And sometimes the long, handwritten letter is the one and sometimes it's just the "I want you now" text message. The best ones are really honest and it's the same thing that makes a good lover is what makes a good love letter: knowing when to be strong, knowing when to be vulnerable and definitely getting the person's name right.

That is key. Bill Shapiro, thanks a lot for the letters and having this conversation.

Thanks so much for having me and have a great weekend.


Excerpt from "Other People's Love Letters," by Bill Shapiro

The first time I read a love letter that wasn't addressed to me, my heart danced a guilty little dance.

A confession: Not only wasn't the letter mine, but it was written to a woman I was dating. She was in her bedroom, deciding on shoes; I was killing time in her kitchen, nibbling almonds. On her counter, the usual mess: a few photos, an address book, small piles of bills. Perhaps I looked a little more closely than I should have, but atop one pile, seated like a king, was a love letter.

I picked it up, I did, and I can't say I'm proud of that. But once I did ... well, there was no turning away. That love note, rough-edged and wrinkled, had a curious effect on me. Confusion, yes, and a hint of vulnerability, but something else too. What her other man had written -- a year ago? ten years ago? I had no idea -- felt strikingly similar to a note I'd scratched out to her only a few weeks before. Not the words, exactly, but that flood of emotion, the playfulness, the optimism. It all seemed so familiar. A question twittered in my mind: Was our relationship as special as I had thought? At the same time, his note was clearly his own, with its inside jokes and (vividly) spelled-out desires. In fact, I could hardly believe it was written to the woman I thought I knew. I read it twice.

Three times, actually.

I wondered why she had left it there. It was probably by accident. But it also could have been by accident-on-purpose, in which case what was she telling me? Had he touched something in her that I hadn't? Did he mean something to her that I didn't? And then the bigger questions swooped in: What role did this letter play in her life? Was it something she had unearthed to remind herself of how good love can get ... or how fleeting it can be?

Why, in short, had she saved this nine-line scrawl? And was she so different from everyone else? I began to consider what these much-folded pieces of paper might symbolize for us, emotionally; why some we toss within moments, why we hang on to others for decades. Is it because each letter from an ex represents a road not taken? And each letter from the person we're still with reminds us of what brought us together? Or could it be because a love letter recalls that moment in our life when someone saw our best self?

So I started collecting other people's love letters. I contacted everyone I knew, and asked if they would send me any they'd been keeping. Eventually, I even assembled a team of researchers to do more legwork (these brave souls went so far as to call their exes ... who called their exes) until the web expanded far beyond our own circles.

I wasn't interested in the kind of correspondence typically found in love letter collections. Not the quill-tip pen variety that Ben Franklin sent to Mrs. F during their courtship. I sought love letters, e-mails, text messages, and postcards written by regular people in relationships probably much like yours. And who wants to look only at letters that present bouquet after bouquet of love's red roses. Modern love is complicated. It bobs and weaves, takes two steps forward, one step back. I wanted letters that not only captured the whispered promises of endless love, but also candid moments of uncertainty, bitterness, and regret. The thorns.

Envelopes began to arrive, each holding what, until the moment I opened them, had been a very private message. Inside the first, a tender apology. The second brought two single-spaced pages of triple-X lust. After that: "I'm not feeling what you're feeling." In the end, I had hundreds and hundreds stacked in my living room.

Here's something I learned about love letters: most die an ignominious death. They're torn up, tossed out, and fed to the dog. Burned, buried, and flushed. The letters on the pages that follow are the survivors. They were saved and savored. And, now, they're shared: Every letter here is printed with permission from its writer.

Who wrote these letters? You name it: helicopter pilots, musicians, sociologists, sales reps, students, retirees, housewives, computer programmers, consultants, construction workers, architects, teachers, kids, lawyers, store clerks, filmmakers. The faithful and the adulterous. Maybe someone you know. Maybe your lover.

Gathering these letters provided me with a rare opportunity: the chance to freely poke through other people's intimate correspondence and not feel the least bit ashamed about it, as you might one day should you let your eyes wander for too long on someone's kitchen counter. After all, while almost everyone will get a love letter at some point in his or her life, it's unlikely to be passed around the dinner table. More often it will be squirreled away in the back of the file cabinet in a folder falsely labeled "auto insurance." (Note: If this is where you've been hiding yours, now might be a good time to rethink that.)

Like those still-hidden letters, the notes collected here were written only for a lover's eyes; they are unflinchingly honest. Reading them is like picking the lock on a stranger's heart and peering inside during the most intense moments of his or her life. But the fascination here is more complex than a simple case of voyeurism. Because, on a deeper level, the heart you're looking into is your own.

Reprinted from Other People's Love Letters by Bill Shapiro. Copyright © 2007. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, a division of Random House, Inc.

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