Love Is a Verb: Why We Write Letters About It (Not At All a Cheesy Post)

Breaking news: I’m a little afraid of getting stuck in the adulthood trap of being boring. Thankfully enough, I’m not yet there—I’m still greatly able to take pleasure from writing fictional love letter series on my other blog lately. One of them (To Philosophy, from Religion) actually embodies what I’ve been meaning about ‘presenting a non-fictional notion through fiction’ so if you happen to enjoy Conundrum of Paradox, that piece might as well amuse you. Although, as weird as ‘enjoying your own writing’ sounds, this one is my personal, self-written favorite.

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This post, by the way, will cover the rather unemotional fragments of love letters:

1. It Started with the Princes and Princesses

Interestingly: if we go back to visit the earliest generation of mankind, we would discover that the existence of affection toward another human being did not really involve a piece of paper (papyrus was only invented long after the first homo sapiens felt attracted to one another), let alone writing it down. No, ladies and gentlemen, love letters as a platform to express emotions were not popular until, what, late 12th century or something, when parchments and quills become one of the traded goods. The first individuals who put this into fashion were, I suspect, the royal people—mainly because someone from the lower class wouldn’t have possibly been able to afford it.

Quite reasonably, many of the most important phenomena in history were recorded by, if not triggered by, love letters. Long before youth started romantic conversations through trivial text messages while finding slots to flatter and finally ask their counterparts out, our Sultans and Putris and Gubermens sent letters—beautiful, lengthy letters—to write which they needed to actually sit down and take a couple of hours before sending them in a sealed envelope. Slipped between these handwritten, fondly sentences, were plausibly information on their kingdom’s latest development and the economy of their people. I recall there was a book about it—Love Letters of Great Men or something?

Today, unfortunately, we bother not spending more than 10 minutes to compose a text-formed message—we are used to limiting our elaborative capacity to short emails, less-than-140-characters tweets, or even less through real-time chat services.

One of the main reasons why I think I belong to the 20th century is my ridiculous enjoyment of writing long (and by ‘long’ I really mean ‘long’) emails—possibly a consolation price to my not being able to write long letters on real parchment pages.

2. It Engenders an Entirely New Writing Persona

Remember one of my old posts assessing Goenawan Muhamad’s theorem of a spectrum of author’s personae, triggered by different forms of writing? He mainly argues that an open article for the public captures a different personality from what a personal journal or a private letter does.

To reiterate how they are different from one another:

  • Writing a public article is like singing out loud up on a stage in your own concert—you are very self-conscious about how people would judge you, etc.
  • Writing a personal journal is like entering a private capsule rocketed to the space—absolute nonsense might appear and people don’t have to be able to relate to it.
  • Writing a letter, on the other hand, stands somewhere in between these extreme ends: you know who’s going to read your letter (usually a good friend except when you’re trying to introduce yourself to a stranger), thus your words and perspectives are tailored in a certain, self-conscious way, but it also has a loose filter system.

That’s what I admire the most about letters—especially love letters: they invite a brand new writing persona that wouldn’t have been known at all otherwise. On top of that, it is far more exciting to swim into the happy thoughts of people in love than reading the story from an outsider audience, 3rd person point of view, or simply knowing exactly what’s going on inside their head from a
1st person’s perspective.

Instead, being a reader of letters means putting yourself on the shoes of the actual addressee,
having fun assuming these letters were written for us, or visualizing how the writer and receiver correspondence with each other in the real world.

Because who does not love reading Darcy’s letters to Lizzy, really?

3. The Best Are the Most Honest Ones

Do you have to be in love to write good love letters? Yes and no.

Trained writers, who develop an instinct to see the beautiful side of almost everything, tend to find it easy to fall in love. Whether or not the feeling is real, is another matter (a very tricky one to prove, too), but such perspective is enough to produce nice, heartwarming love letters regardless.

Writers with shorter airtime might possess a narrower storage of vocabulary thus find it hard to make an enjoyable, descriptive letters—but this does not make their feelings any less beautiful. In the end of the day, I think the best love letters are the most honest ones—it being short or long, grammatical or not, does not really matter.

4. Everyone Has a Secret Yearn to Write One

Sometime during the Lebaran holiday, I impromptu-ly came up with this Love Letter Series holiday project. It started with Fadlan Mauli’s deliberate act of posting a love letter with a similar tone to my earlier series—and I thought, “Wouldn’t life be a little nicer if more people write love letters—to strangers they meet on a train or friends believing in different gods?”

I believe that people need to know—no, they need to understand and answer their natural call of expressing affection through words. They need to dwell in the hardship of finding the adjective to describe how the person sitting next to them means so much, that it is okay to let them know how they make us  feel or become. That it is relieving to expose that tiny vulnerable part of us that is inevitably there.

Surprisingly, the project received a very warm welcome with over 60 submitted letters and 19.000 views throughout August. This just makes the case even stronger: that each of us has that undeniable emotional spark inside, no matter how hard we try to ignore it. I am so happy to have, among others, Ryan Adriandhy, and many other unexpected names (who wouldn’t otherwise be writing love letters) also participating in this project. Browse through those awesome love letters here.

I may or may not have to give some credits to Sarah Kay’s spoken words series (watch one From Toothbrush to the Bicycle Tire—one of her greatest pieces), as well as Aan Mansyur’s proyek surat cinta (which I just learned recently). Both of which are awesome.

5. Because Feelings Are Like Words

Feelings are like words: just because you don’t know about them does not mean they do not exist—sometimes even in your own language. I’d like to think that writing love letters is like looking them up in dictionaries, exploring the undiscovered pages, and realize that you might have been wrong about how you (think you) feel all this time.

P.S. I’ve been enjoying the editing process of Love Letter Series holiday project so much I find it hard to decide if I enjoy being a writer more than being an editor.

P.S.S. In case you haven’t: write one, it’s deliberating.

P.S.S.S. Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s Buru Tetralogy and Ayu Utami’s Bilangan Fu are two over-the-top examples of how fiction can be very, very powerful in sending thought-stimuli. (Not that you did not know about this.)

Goenawan Mohamad’s (Modified) Spectrum of Writing Personae

Among the most worrisome people I know are writers—yours truly included.

First, they (we) worry about an issue—say, Iman aims to maximize youth involvement or Alanda and her noble idea of dream power. Second, they worry if the audience will actually get their message right—Marx is the least Marxist person on earth, remember? The published ones worry if their books can’t get to the second print because the public are simply not interested in buying them. Then they worry some more—about possible rebuttals, the kind of language they should’ve used (Why the hell am I writing this post in English if most of my readers are Indonesian?), the gender of diction that will sound best (Shouldn’t it be more cheerful? Would this bore my visitors?), and the list goes on.

This tributed post, my fellow writers, is an antidote to the endless stream of concerns that surround us (both professional and amateur) writers: the story of what actually takes place in our very primitive stage of writing.

So earlier this week I started reading Goenawan Mohamad’s Indonesia/Proses. Despite being greatly impressed by his eloquent elaboration on the profoundly misunderstood concept of identity, I will highlight something else—my most favorite part of the essays, in fact:

Dengan sendirinya, medium [menulis] sangat berperan penting dalam terbentuknya persona itu. Korespondensi, kita tahu, berbeda dengan catatan harian. Catatan harian adalah ibarat sebuah kapsul pesawat antariksa yang berisi seorang astronaut di dalamnya. Dalam catatan harian, seseorang masuk dan diam di sebuah ruang komunikasi yang paling intim, tapi juga berada dalam ruang pikiran dan imajinasi yang hampir tanpa batas. Tak ada orang lain. Atau orang lain itu (seperti dalam catatan harian Anne Frank) diciptakannya sendiri dan berada di bawah ampuannya: teman bicara imajiner itu tak bisa menjawab.

This particular paragraph strikes me. Hard. Finally, the answer to all those confusing inputs that people throw at me (“Menulis itu harusnya untuk dimengerti orang banyak, Fu. Percuma lo mikir ribet-ribet kalau nggak ada yang baca,” or Pramoedya’s “Bangga memang, menulis dalam Belanda. Tapi orang yang menulis dalam bahasa pribumi lah yang bisa meninggikan derajat bangsanya.”) appears: there are options of writing-mindsets! Your writing medium plays a pivotal role in the creation of this (your) persona. Of course!

I then took the liberty to create this spectrum of writing personae:

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Basically, Goenawan postulates three distinct examples of writing personae (Anne Frank’s diary, Kartini’s correspondence with her Dutch friend, and a journalist’s report)—but then I added a complementary element of targeted articles. Here’s how they’re different from one another, in his own words:

Personal Journal

Kecuali bila seseorang sadar bahwa catatan hariannya suatu ketika akan dibaca orang lain, ia praktis secara mutlak menguasai ruang komunkasi itu. Ia bisa bicara apa saja. Catatannya bisa berperan seperti sebuah curahan konfesional, semacam pengakuan dosa yang tanpa pastor.

Public Journalism

Bila catatan harian adalah ekstrem yang satu, media massa adalah ekstrem yang lain. Bila catatan harian ibarat sebuah kapsul pesawat antariksa, media massa ibarat sebuah konser di alun-alun. Ruang komunikasi di sini hampir sepenuhnya publik. Menjangkau sebuah audiens yang besar, berkat teknologi Guttenberg dan kapitalisme-cetak, media massa mengandung paradoks. Ia kuat dalam potensi mempengaruhi, tapi juga rentan.

Letters to a Friend

Dibandingkan dengan kedua ekstrem di atas, surat-menyurat bisa dilihat sebagai sesuatu yang berada di tengah-tengah—antara ruang komunikasi yang intim dan surat kabar. Dalam korespondensi, ada orang lain yang nyata, yang bisa bertanya dan bereaksi. Tak hanya itu: orang lain itu secara konsisten dapat diidentifikasikan.

Briefly (yet articulately) explicated in less than two pages, this theoretical framework helps me understand that it is okay to be different personae in different writings—because there is no right or wrong in pouring our thoughts into words; what matters is you feel comfortable in doing so. I myself have three (or probably four?) separate blogs where I express myself dissimilarly. Because hey, what is writing if not a personal ritual and powerful remedy to the restless minds?

Here’s to being more open to who we are and what we like writing about the most.

What Aboriginal Paintings Can Tell You

This lengthy post has actually been hanging around my draft box for almost a month (when plenty important events conspired to take place at the same time, that is). A week in Melbourne plus three more being inside the government’s system taught me a great deal of lessons, and so do Aboriginal paintings. You will see my attempt to link both of them in this post.

For the record, the following indigenous illustrations of Australia were mostly inspired by Dreamtime, a sacred era when, according to the animist framework, ancestral totemic spirit beings created the world. This includes how the birds got their colors, babies their spirits, and so on. Faith developed from the simplest things can turn out to be the most beautiful, don’t you agree?

1. A wonderful trip and a good home are both about being with the right person(s)—the place never matters.

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When did the concept of ‘home’ first appear? Was it after the nomads decided to stay and lead their life in a single area forever, or was it about being where their family lived? I would go with the latter hypothesis: a journey can also be a ‘home’ when you are with the people you care about. This painting portrays the crossed fate between three different creatures, to symbolize my overall adventure in Melbourne: 1) Bu Iim—a motherly host, by whom I was treated like a daughter for more than 6 days, 2) AMUNC kids—wonderful children, really, who patiently listen to whatever inputs I choked them with, as well as 3) Fika and Eno—two cordial friends who volunteered to take me around the city! With these people around, I hardly felt like I was away from home.

2. Every mankind was born with a disease of caring too much about themselves. Life is then a quest to find the only cure: to fall in love.

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“We’re all a little weird. And when we find someone whose weirdness is compatible with ours, we fall into mutually satisfying weirdness.” —Robert Fulghum

The geckos above depict the Aboriginal belief that each of us has a soulmate—or someone destined to accompany us for the rest of our life. That’s not where I am going, though. If anything, I simply believe that every mind is under a subconscious quest to discover another mortal whom they can care about so much—that they can forget their own ego for a while. These mortals, they might not always love you back and you can get disappointed every now and then, but believe me: any sane individual will appreciate one’s company and kindness, although they have different ways to express such gratefulness, and sometimes you just have to read between the lines.

Putera shared his magical ‘Rule of 3 Years’ to me after our Finale Ball dance:
“When you fall in love with someone but not sure if you’ll ever going to end up with this person, just wait until 3 years. You’ll be surprised by what destiny is capable of, Fu.”

3. “Everything is a process of a process of a process. The outcome doesn’t matterit might not even exist.” @darlol

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See how tangled this web of circles are? Well that’s probably what’s going on with life. Today’s failure, tomorrow’s success, yesterday’s stupidity, they are all simply bits of a bigger scheme: the grand design that God has assigned to us long before we were even born. So stop wasting so much energy on regretting what you have or have not done—focus on enjoying today. Carpe diem, they say. Oh and remember that both good and bad luck are earned; they materialize as a result of something you have done in the past.

4. All encounters are meant to make us thankful of what we havenot to be sad of what we have not. And it’s only a matter of perspective.

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This painting, entitled ‘The Meeting Point‘, depicts one of those Daydream stories where the spirits meet each other at one spot—before departing and start their own stories afterwards. What I learned from meeting Australian students and, in particular, my highschool friend Eno, is that one can either be a pathetic whiner and mourn over the good things in life that she missed—or she can opt for being thankful of things that she actually possesses. Eno conducts a high-end, happy life in Melbourne: she rents her own apartment, explores many interesting places in the city, and gets the best education she can put her hands on. On the other side of the globe, I have to survive with whatever my lecturers provide throughout courses, in a hot city where all you can really do is, basically, struggle.

But let’s change the perspective: despite all the sucky things I have to deal with, I do have a lot of things to be proud of—amazing talking partners, lessonful organizations, and spicy foods at its best. And of course, Eno can be more grateful to her so-called ‘monotonous’ life, having listened to how I wish I could go abroad for my undergraduate study.

5. Whereas knowing ourselves is one of the main keys to success, most of us are the worst judges for ourselves.

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Human minds are like these abstract lines: they’re terribly winding and incomprehensible. The process becomes twice harder when we have to take a closer look at our own heads. But really, one should first understand him/herself before
he/she can help anyone else.

Being an intern in President’s Delivery Unit for Development Monitoring Oversight, I realize that there is a wide gap of difference between creating changes slowly from the bottom (as what we’ve been doing in Indonesian Future Leaders or other organizations) and doing it rather efficiently quick from the top. My point would be this: regardless what people say about losing your idealism once you got trapped into one of those governmental institutions, do what suits you best. If you think you have what it takes to overhaul the system altogether, then go for it.

What’s important is to be a great person wherever you are, but don’t forget to look down and feel powerless. Today’s common mistake, as hig
hlighted by Pak Kuntoro Mangkusubroto himself, is to feel important when you’re around important people. There’s one message that remains in my head from him: “Jangan sombong. Di sini, kamu akan bertemu banyak orang hebat, tapi kamu bukan salah satu dari mereka.” (“Stay humble. Meeting a lot of great people does not turn you into one of them.”) Powerful words from one of the most respected men in the country, indeed.

6. Humility versus ‘Sungkan’

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Despite its unquestionable virtue, humility can sometimes be misunderstood as ‘kesungkanan‘ (you see—I can’t even find the English word for a concept so cultural in the Sundanese and Javanese tradition). The bird in this painting is keeping her head low, but it does not mean that she will let any predator belittles her speed to flee. Don’t get humility wrong: it does not mean feeling like you’re worse than everyone else—it’s acknowledging your strengths while humbly admitting that they will not last forever, and that there are contribution from other people to your owning such talents. And remember: although haters will always find a reason to hate someone, the vulnerability of being disliked because you’re smart is higher than if you’re kind—so stay alarmed. Alarmed, but not conceited, and neither ‘sungkan‘—because it only takes all the chances away.

7. If there’s anything you should never let go, it’s the little kindness inside your heart.

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As much as it’s hard for certain people to move on, they change very overwhelmingly quickly. Someone you know from two years ago has become someone else today, and the bad news is, it’s not always towards a betterment. (But then who are we to judge what’s good for everyone in this planet?) So move on, and believe that there’s something better—although unknown—waiting for us in the end of the tunnel. Leave everything behind—except that little kindness inside your heart, for that’s what makes you human.

Mikha once told me, “A powerful picture is not taken with expensive cameras; it simply makes you wonder about how they were shot.” The same premise applies for humans—powerful ones are not wearing the most expensive clothes—but rather thoughts that inspire you to wonder.

8. …Because every mind is a collection of stories.

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I love meeting new people not because I’m some network freak who secures her future by befriending cool folks—but more because every individual has a unique story carried at the back of their head. Be it embarassing mistakes they somehow did, the fear they never dared to tell, or failures they managed to bounce back from. It’s always interesting to listen to people’s stories—and share your own in regards. I think that’s how we should live our lives: as storytellers.

I know you’re very much confused with what I’m trying to say in this sloppy, jumpy post—believe me: I am just as puzzled. But I’m glad that I finally managed to post this. Have a great week!

Movies That Inspire

As a (formally) international relations student, I have always been interested in discussing ‘power’ as a concept. I believe that Indonesian females are (mostly) Renaissance women by nature, who see ‘power’ and ‘influence’ as two different things. According to Forbes’ 11 Most Powerful Women, power is something that you earn over time, (like) getting a better seat in restaurants, the ability to set agenda, and most important of all, the opportunity to be able to help others. I myself define power as being hierarchically higher but horizontally equal and contributive–with the relationship of students and teacher in a class as the best example in particular. As you might have understood, I’m an aspiring professor, mainly inspired by these two scenes from my all-time favorite movies:

1. Mona Lisa Smile (2003)

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Betty: What is that?
Miss Watson: You tell me.
Class: [silence]
Miss Watson: Carcass by Soutine. 1925.
Betty: It’s not on the syllabus.
Miss Watson: No, it’s not. Is it any good?
Class: [silence]
Miss Watson: Come on, ladies. There’s no wrong answer. There’s also no textbook telling you what to think.
Class: [silence]
Miss Watson: It’s not that easy, is it?
Betty: All right. No. It’s not good. In fact, I wouldn’t even call it art. It’s grotesque.
Connie: Is there a rule against grotesque art?
A girl: Aren’t there standards?
Betty: Of course there are. Otherwise a tacky velvet painting could be equated to a Rembrandt.
Connie: Hey my Uncle Ferdie has two tacky velvet paintings. He loves those clowns.
Betty: There are standards, technique, composition, color, even subject. So if you’re suggesting that rotted side of meat is art…much less good art, then what are we going to learn?
Miss Watson: Just that. You have outlined our new syllabus, Betty. Thank you.
Class: [silence]
Miss Watson: What is art? What makes it good or bad, and who decides? Next slide, please.

2. Dead Poet Society (1989)

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Keating: “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may. The Latin term for that sentiment is ‘carpe diem’. Does anyone know what that means?”
Meeks: “Carpe diem. Seize the day.”
Keating: “Very good, Mr…?”
Meeks: “Meeks.”
Keating: “Seize the day. Why does the poet write these lines?”
A student: “Because he’s in a hurry?”
Keating: “No, No, No! It’s because we’re food for worms, lads!”
Keating: “Because we’re only going to experience a limited number of springs, summers, and falls.”

Being a professor gives you the fullest authority to drive people’s minds, to startle them (and be startled) with (their) new ideas, as well as the scary risk of turning them as world’s most vicious haters. Most of us wouldn’t prefer the last point, but it’s just one of those calamities that might happen. Still, having watched the abovementioned movies, having known Mr Nurhadi/Mbak Evi, and having tried the blackboard-thrill myself, I’m convinced that I was born to join their league. One day. Amen.

Quote Unquote

Although massively used and majorly ubiquitous, words would never, never rust or become obsolete. If we treat words as stocks, their graph of growth would most likely be close to that of my life: unpredictable. Some words may vanish, extinct ones may rise after some time, and a certain group of them can always have higher value than the rest of their folk. The main key is to have it well-structured and carefully-composed, thus powerful enough to send a chill to the readers’ spine. I write this post as an additional archive to complete this one, also to the fact that they’re all too beautiful to waste:

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“So avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy. A man is not very tired, he is exhausted. Don’t use very sad, use morose. Language was invented for one reason, boys–to woo women–and, in that endeavor, laziness will not do. It also won’t do in your essays.” –Dead Poets Society (1989)

“The English language is like London: proudly barbaric yet deeply civilised, too, common yet royal, vulgar yet processional, sacred yet profane: each sentence we produce, whether we know it or not, is a mongrel mouthful of Chaucerian, Shakespearean, Miltonic, Johnsonian, Dickensian and American. Military, naval, legal, corporate, criminal, jazz, rap and ghetto discourses are mingled at every turn. The French language, like Paris, has attempted, through its Academy, to retain its purity, to fight the advancing tides of franglais and international prefabrication. English, by comparison, is a shameless whore.” –Stephen Fry in The Ode Less Travelled

“So I kept reading, just to stay alive. In fact, I’d read two or three books at the same time, so I wouldn’t finish one without being in the middle of another — anything to stop me from falling into the big, gaping void. You see, books fill the empty spaces. If I’m waiting for a bus, or am eating alone, I can always rely on a book to keep me company. Sometimes I think I like them even more than people. People will let you down in life. They’ll disappoint you and hurt you and betray you. But not books. They’re better than life.” –Marc Acito

“There they were, two highly analytical mind, presumably immune to irrational infatuations—but somehow, while they sat there discussing linguistic morphology and pseudo-random number generators, they felt like a couple of teenagers—everything was fireworks.” –Digital Fortress

“Science is beautiful when it makes simple explanations of phenomena or connections between different observations. Examples include the double helix in biology, and the fundamental equations of physics.” –Stephen Hawking

Iactura paucourm serva multos. Sacrifice the few to save the many.” –Deception Point

“I do not want a husband who honors me as a queen, if he does not love me as a woman.” –Queen Elizabeth I

“A politician needs the ability to foretell what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month, and next year. And to have the ability afterwards to explain why it didn’t happen.” –Winston Churchill (Didn’t know he could be that hilarious!)

I am a person of faith. But sometimes I like to step outside of faith and just think about things rationally. Usually this oscillation between faith and skepticism serves me well, with faith giving reason its moral bearings, and reason keeping faith, well, reasonable.” –David Hazony

 

“I think my ideal man would speak many languages. He would speak Ibo and Yoruba and English and French and all of the others. He could speak with any person, even the soldiers, and if there was violence in their heart he could change it. He would not have to fight, do you see? Maybe he would not be very handsome, but he would be beautiful when he spoke. He would be very kind, even if you burned his food because you were laughing and talking with your girlfriends instead of watching the cooking. He would just say, “Ah, never mind.”” –Little Bee