One True Thing

Life's questions, big and small

Cynthia Gray: Keeper of The Love Letter Collection

Passion, frustration, obsession, fantasy, friendship, loss, lust… Love.

Perhaps the only thing more difficult than committing words of love to paper is then to actually sign, seal, and deliver those words. That's what makes The Love Letter Collection, an online vault of anonymous and sometimes heart-breaking declarations of love, so fascinating. Here's more from founder Cynthia Gray:

Jennifer Haupt: When and why did you begin this project?

Cynthia Gray: I started the Love Letter Collection in 2001. I wanted to explore what love actually is through how we write it to each other. Not just the warm, happy, uplifting side of love, but also the sad, difficult and painful parts. Since I was interested in the feeling of love itself, not its object or fulfillment, I made the project anonymous.

On a more practical level, I wanted to provide a place for emotions we might not otherwise express. Love can be very isolating if for some reason we can't express it. At the Love Letter Collection we describe our most private emotions and send them out to the public to witness. This can provide some distance and relief.

JH: The art of writing letters is, some say, becoming a lost art. Do you agree?

CG: No, I definitely don't agree. The proof is in the quality and quantity of submissions I receive. Yes, language changes, the way we write changes, and now we write love letters on screens. But as long we feel love, we'll try to express that, and writing is one technique we'll use.

JH: What kind of response have you gotten? How many letters? Are you surprised by how many people responded?

CG: The response has been consistent and great. Over the past 10 years I've probably received thousands of letters. Although I can't see who is submitting, I can see where they're coming from - South America, India, Europe, Africa, Japan - literally from all over the world.

I'm not surprised by the number of submissions I receive as much as I am by their quality. Maybe because of the longevity and reputation of the Love Letter Collection, the letters just seem to get better. What's most surprising is that after reading thousands of submissions, so many letters seem unique, and they still move me.

JH: Have more women or men submitted letters? And do you notice differences between the letters from the two sexes?

CG: Because the submission process is anonymous, I don't know if the writers are men or women. I can only guess if there are clues in the letter, or sometimes people will include names. From what I can guess, the ratio is close, with just slightly more women than men submitting.

In terms of emotions expressed, I don't see a lot of difference. Letters from women are sometimes a little longer than submissions from men. I've also noticed men's letters can be more romantic, while women seem more willing to write about conflicted feelings of love.

JH: Love e-mails? Yes or no.

CG: Yes, of course. But since it's so easy to hit send, I think the 24-hour wait rule is a good one (although I've broken this rule myself many times).

JH: Are you a letter writer? Is there someone you regret not sending a love letter to?

CG: I'm a poet, and in a way I feel like I'm always writing letters to people through poems. I also write a lot of conventional letters to people, almost all of which are sent over the internet-waves.

There are people I've loved in various ways that I've never sent love letters to, but I don't have any regrets. Some situations make it impossible to send a love letter, and sometimes it's just not something a person wants or needs to hear. But writing a letter to them, well that's another thing - that's what the Love Letter Collection is for.

JH: Lust letters, or are some things best said over the phone?

CG: I think all love has something physical to it. Some of my favorite letter writers weave strong physical desire into more ethereal expressions of love. This can be intense and explicit or it can be devastatingly simple. A hand touching an arm - just once and only once - can seriously change a person's life.

JH: What's the one true thing you've learned from collecting Love Letters?

CG: Love isn't always what we expected. It's much more interesting than that.

JH: How can people submit their anonymous love letters?

Please send love letters at collectiveexperience.org/love.html. The deadline for the next Love Letter Collection is August 15, edited by artist and writer Paul Madonna.

Cynthia Gray is a poet and artist. Her collaborative writing project, The Writing Machine, will be hosted this fall at Poetry Project, NYC. She's exhibited work at galleries and museums including Sculpture Center, NYC, the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia; The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Hiromi Yoshii Gallery, Tokyo; The Contemporary, Atlanta; the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Ongoing public projects include the Love Letter Collection and free 'don't give up' magnet distribution. She lives in Brooklyn, NY and works at collectiveexperience.org.

 

Jennifer Haupt is a writer based in Seattle, Washington. She has written for O, The Oprah Magazine, Readers Digest, and The Christian Science Monitor.

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