The art of the billet-doux is not dead (and neither am I)
Words & images © Paul Ransom
NB: This piece was first published on freeloveletters.net to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the author’s ongoing love letter blog.
You may well ask – with some justification, I might add – why anyone would dedicate themselves to the writing of over 600 love letters across a ten year period without sending any of them. You may also wonder for whom these unmailed missives were intended.
Suffice it to say, the reasons for such an extensive exercise in one-sided romance are highly idiosyncratic and, at times, contradictory. Not merely quixotic but potentially self-sabotaging, they have effectively archived an alchemical decade of optimism and despair, of rationalised incentive and stubborn faith. They are like the phenomenon of love itself. Beautiful, but somewhat bonkers.
Psychodramas notwithstanding, I began freeloveletters.net in flames. In freefall. By November 2010, on the cusp of 45, I was doing the mid-life crisis thing with gusto. Though this did not entail a sports car or a young blonde, it did involve a relentless and systematic unpicking of self. In hindsight, it was a full blown, existential, coming-of-age epic, complete with a sweeping re-write of long established narratives of self, a re-calibration of core objectives, and a liberal side serve of suicidal ideation. For most of my 40s I was engaged in a deliberate (if risky) flirtation with self-destruction. It was both intellectual and emotional, pragmatic and spiritual; and the love letters were a part of the process. Healing, catharsis, discovery…beauty, danger, obsession.
Today, from the relative comfort of happy survival, these are easy things to recount. If they sound like neat encapsulations, it’s because they are. At the time, the terrain was anything but tidy. When I posted the first letter on November 15, 2010, I was doing so in hope; not so much that the girl in question would read and respond, but that the writing would somehow prove useful. Medicinal.
- Read said letter here.
Free Love Letters was always about the writing rather than the sending. Indeed, the billets-doux were simply the form of the exercise. The axis was, and remains, the act itself. For there is something joyous and transforming, grounding and transcendent, about writing love letters. And if tears flow or my heart lurches to the brink of apparent breakage, the attendant euphoria is even more intense. While this will strike some as indulgent and ridiculous, it is now a predictable side effect. (Kinda like a high.)
For me, the act of writing love letters I will never send – and which are increasingly not even about or for any one person – is one of the most beautiful experiences available. Its mix of revelation and mystery remains intoxicating.
The writers and artists amongst you will likely identify. The creative process is reliably beguiling. The way it appears to merge opposites – to blur either/or into and/also – is a big part of its apparent magic. Those much talked about ‘flow moments’ have a mystical quality, as though actor and watcher were one, as if the normal boundaries of self, (I, me, ego, etc) dissolve in absolute presence. Moreover, in that moment of presence what is revealed, to me at least, is a central absence. This egalitarian emptiness, this compassionate silence, is as near to what we commonly think of as ‘the divine’ as anything I have ever known. It is the quiet background, against which the whisper of love letters can be clearly heard.1
However, ten years ago – despite already having a strong sense of the mysteries and power of art and art making – I was not necessarily looking to mend myself with heavy doses of menopausal metaphysics. Rather, I simply had an inkling that, via the mechanism of churning out love letters, I might find a path out of ruinous, habitual behaviours and seemingly inevitable misery. Also, I was hoping to bleed the ghosts of a girl out of my system.
In my case, the cliché of unrequited love and the melodrama of the disastrous affair both applied. Yet, for all the amplified emotion and forensic, circular over-thinking, I knew that the intensity of my experience did not match the observable evidence of the situation. Exaggerated woe aside, it was clear ‘the issue’ was mine. She was merely a trigger, an iteration and escalation of pre-existing proclivities.2
Thus, come late 2010, I was wondering how best to channel the excess emotion. Surely there was something I could do, other than drive myself mad with relentless and repetitive dissections of the same basic information.
Why not pour your dammed up love into letters she will never read? That way, you can say what you want without fear of further rejection; and the river of words keeping you from sleep will have somewhere else to flow.
It is telling that the first such letter I composed began with the line: You won’t read this so I won’t lie. I wrote it in a tumbling rush. It emerged as though I were taking dictation. All I had to do was type it out.
- Read said letter here.
The arrival of what I would later call Love Letter # 1 was exhilarating. Somehow vindicating. It was, I realised, also the most honest and unaffected prose I could recall writing.
A few weeks later, duly inspired, I launched the Free Love Letters blog. I figured that although she would not read them, others might. They would perhaps find solace, courage or recognition in them. They may even wish to borrow a line or two. After all, I had not invented desire or heartache – and exceptional though I sometimes believed myself to be, the rational part of me understood that my experience was common enough to connect. If the lady in question was not about to receive my love, maybe internet ‘randos’ were the next best option.
A decade and 600 letters later, nearly half a million anonymous recipients3 have shown themselves worthy of the attention.
Meanwhile, the girl has gone, and with her the swirl of unsustainable feeling. She is a memory now. An evocative one at times, but safely contained. A candle in a room rather than an all-consuming wildfire.4
All of which begs another question: why do I still bother? Given that the psycho-emotional drama has receded and that survival and relative sanity have prevailed – and there is neither money nor status points attached to continuing the project – what is the pay-off ten years down the line?
- Belief is better. In other words, despite the evidence of lived experience (and everything we know about hormonal and other evolutionary mechanisms) I still choose to indulge the idea of romance. It seems like a better alternative than bitterness and ugly reduction, and it allows me to retain a modicum of hope that not all human interaction is crudely transactional. This maybe delusional, even superstitious, but the cost to exactitude is worth the benefit in functional optimism.
- Perspective is priceless. By maintaining a connection with the deep-feeling side of myself, I retain an honest awareness of my many vulnerabilities and am reminded to give thanks (daily) for the fortitude and good fortune that have enabled me to survive potentially catastrophic meltdowns. In a way that seems counter-intuitive, writing love letters is a bulwark against conceit and complacency.
- Authenticity is amazing. Before embarking on Free Love Letters my writing was riddled with falsehood, imitation and self-censorship. To a large extent it was a pukesome, try-hard, approval seeking pose. I was playing the part of the writer, as opposed to simply writing what was true. In fairness, much of this artifice was unconscious. The love letters simply blasted their way through the many layers of denial and pretence, as though an authentic voice, long hushed, had seized the mic in a coup de plume. A decade later, the revolution continues to guide and astonish, inspire and reveal. What better benefit than to be gifted the sound of your own voice.
However, beyond (and before) any of the above, there is something in the ‘moment and process’ of writing love letters that continues to move me. When I write them, I feel them. More than magic approximation – than simply feeling as if I were in love – it is as if the act of composition is the act of loving. As though, in a flow of syllables, the form of the verb to love is being enacted.
While some will regard this as pseudo-spiritual waffle, and others as self-performative vanity, I have thus far shied from going too far down the rabbit holes of self-analysis and reductive critique. Because, in the end, who cares? So what if I’m just a loser from Blogville trying to justify himself to his virtually non-existent readers. Does it really matter if freeloveletters.net is the offspring of obsessional determination or simply the result of a denialist refusal to let shit go? It could be the biggest crock on the internet for all I care – because, in the end, whatever it is that happens when I’m in the flow is enough. More than enough.
For, in a world riven with tribal bias, declinist dread and the commodified imperatives of narrow self-interest, posting hundreds of royalty free love letters love seems like a delightful and deliberate antithesis. More than mise en abyme or ardent refusal, Free Love Letters is a form of flowering. The blooms may one day wilt, but in the meantime…the delicate, ephemeral wonder of spring. In spite of the fall, still the season of hope.
PS: Do I ever wonder if she reads them? Of course I do. Not often, and mostly at a certain time of year or on particular anniversaries. Although I am sure she would cringe and think me ridiculous, I suspect she would understand that I have not done this to court her favour or seek revenge. Mostly though, I write in the spirit of the very first line. She isn’t reading, so I’m not lying to her.
1: Though I am not a religious person, nor typically ‘spiritual’, I do experience what mystics and others sometimes refer to as awe. There is an oceanic and overwhelming quality to it, and in that a sense of surrender and transcendent nihilation. It is, as others have called it, a ‘death of ego’ thing. Contemplating the void – or observing the central emptiness – almost always gets me there.
2: I am no longer in contact with the woman in question but if I were I would apologise. While true she played her part, and our entanglement was a shared conflagration, I nonetheless projected onto her a lifetime of frequently delusional narratives.
3: At the time of writing, freeloveletters.net has clocked up a little over 450k views. Not big numbers in internet terms, but then again, the exercise was never about the stats (and similarly lame-arse excuses for abject failure to connect with a wider audience).
4: Friends have wondered whether or not I am ‘over’ her. My reply is usually that ‘over’ is not the right word. Part of me will always bleed for her, but the blood loss is minor and the bleeding is often voluntary; by which I mean, when I choose to think of her, to linger on the explosion of our affair, I am reminded that the distance between equanimity and crazy imbalance is all too easily traversed. Indeed, to this day she reminds me what it means to be both alive and to contemplate with serious intent the prospect of not being so. She is, as she always was, a channel to something wild and sublime, a window opening onto a mystery of such beauty and awe, that the workaday rationale we employ the keep the ship steady can seem pale and diminishing in comparison. So yeah, not sure ‘over’ is the best fit.