Why did I start writing love letters?Noella Chye

In the year I turned sixteen I became obsessed with other peoples’ letters. I read the correspondence of Wilde, Keats, and Dickinson with the same greedy excitement as if I was eavesdropping in a confession booth, or sneaking a look at someone’s diary.

Published letters and journals present a licit kind of voyeurism: serious bodies of work often framed as sensationalist tabloid entertainment. This commercially cultivated hint of taboo was likely part of the teenage attraction, but far more exciting was the girl I was writing to. This felt like a kind of taboo in itself; we were both new to this, and searching for a kind of language to describe the feelings two girls could have for one another.

We wrote to each other copiously, non-stop, pages and pages every night, despite seeing each other every day at school

Reading love letters between Woolf and Sackville-West, or Owen and Sassoon, I recognised the same unexpected joy. This wasn’t a love that dared not speak its name but a love that found its way through words; by the time we finally got together we had spent the whole previous year dancing around each other in a verbal flirtation that neither of us was able or willing to recognise for what it was. We wrote to each other copiously, non-stop, pages and pages every night, despite seeing each other every day at school.

Our letters were clumsy and often trying comically hard to impress, interspersed with references cribbed from Wikipedia. Most of all they were fervent with an overflowing enthusiasm and a barely concealed awe in each other that was very, very real. Only a few months earlier while helping my mum clear out the attic, I had found a letter to my brother from an ex-girlfriend. I promised there and then that I would never, ever write a love letter. I didn’t want to be caught out by a paper trail.

I found myself faced with the irony of a degree that dealt in words and language, the tools of communication, when I couldn’t seem to stick two words together to express myself

There’s a presumed formality that’s become attached to letter writing, and a self-consciousness involved in putting the words on paper – we’re always wondering how we look, written down. Love letters are often seen as both romantic and kitsch, a perceived inauthenticity that prioritises gesture over expediency. At best, it’s regarded as outmoded and impractical, and at worst, self-indulgent and nostalgic. With instant messaging available at the click of a button, surely there’s no sense in deliberately taking the longer route? Before I left for university I had promised my girlfriend I’d write. At home, we met at least once a week and texted throughout the day. It wouldn’t be a problem.

The high octane frenzy of freshers’ week with all its accompanying havoc can be especially difficult to navigate around additional hurdles. Arriving at Cambridge after a gap year spent not in Europe or Thailand but bouncing around the waiting rooms of doctors’ and psychiatrists’ offices, addressing long-standing mental health issues, I was optimistic but spectacularly unprepared. The idealised picture I’d expected crumbled somewhere around the end of the first week when I called my parents at 3am begging them to take me home. I returned to Cambridge a week later, persuaded to ‘give it another go’.

Over the next few months as I struggled to cope, I found myself faced with the irony of a degree that dealt in words and language, the tools of communication, when I couldn’t seem to stick two words together to express myself. I lacked a template for the kind of work that was expected of me. I lacked a template for the kind of living that was expected of me. I spent the eight weeks of first term splintered between two places, feeling alien from both. I felt far away from the people I sat next to. The people I felt closest to were far away. I had managed to tangle myself in knots trying to reach both.

Writing to my girlfriend, I always began with her name

Writing to my girlfriend, I always began with her name. Anything else seemed like a digression or misdirection. She knew she was dear to me. I wanted to talk to her. Writing her name was the next best thing to saying it. I started hundreds of letters to her that first term. There were pieces of paper all over the floor with her name written on each one. But more and more frequently this was as far as I got. Sometimes it was the only word.

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Miscommunication is the most common fatality to long distance relationships, yet despite the ease of communication instantly available – texts, phone calls, video chat – the anxiety of getting it right, with these stakes, became all-consuming. With all the letters I didn’t write, I tried to imagine new kinds of communication that would somehow catapult myself across the distance I couldn’t seem to bridge: smoke signals, carrier pigeon, ESP, shouting really, really loudly. My silence felt stupid – I knew many overseas students separated from friends and families across far greater distances, geographical and cultural divides. Many came to Cambridge with English as their second language whereas it was the only one I ever spoke and I couldn’t even manage that. Unable to communicate, I became afraid I didn’t exist.

Letters give us something to hold on to.  To have and to hold

Among the books I hauled with me to Cambridge were Katherine Mansfield’s Letters and Diaries and Plath’s Letters Home. I read these habitually as some kind of comfort; they sat on my desk most of the year, cluttering the space I needed for work. These two volumes became talismanic – even just clutching the book was enough, flicking through at random and landing on a letter to a mother, lover, husband, friend. Letters give us something to hold on to. To have and to hold.

Letters are a kinetic experience; tactile and sensory, even sensual. We’re touching what someone else has touched; a proxy holding of hands. We fold letters, seal them with wax, stitch them up with needle and thread – even now, many envelopes still use a dextrin adhesive, or ‘lick ’n’ stick’. They have to be unwrapped, peeled carefully, layer from layer, in a motion reminiscent of undressing, a taking off of clothes. These are labours of love: there’s tenderness in the ways we hold our words.


Mountain View

Love in the age of Crushbridge

My girlfriend and I broke up halfway through my second term. It was messy and complicated like all breakups, and mostly my fault. This summer, while looking for a postcard stamp, I found a letter I wrote to her before I left for university. It was the kind of relic I’d once dreaded but holding it in my hands it felt welcome.

Love letters are never written without a distance or separation involved. I used to text my girlfriend ‘miss you’ from the room next door while she was in the shower. There can be a strange comfort in this distance, and beauty found in an absence that takes the likeness of the loved one. I want you/I miss you/I wish you were here. It’s a simple reaching for another person, turning in the direction. Direct address can be much like a caress, naming a kind of beckoning. It’s the oldest act of invocation; a word that conjures a body into being. An intimacy then, in beginning, in starting with a name. Look, how I’m reaching for you. How I write your name.