Say it with… words – getting love on the page

Recently I’ve found myself drawn to write about love.

This is a new departure for me. My stories have most often been about sin, shame and secrecy. My imagination seemed to find it easy to take root in the gap between who my characters wanted to be and who they knew they were.

I would justify this preference by citing Tolstoy’s wonderful opening line to Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  Surely it was obvious that “real” writing concerned itself with the misery we create for ourselves through the choices we make.

So why do I now find myself wanting to write about love?  I think it’s because I’m getting old.

At fifty-four, I’m old enough to know the pain that comes when someone you love dies. I’ve started to understand that every important connection I have to someone-else is cemented by love or its shadow, hate. I’ve realized that the only achievement that really matters to me anymore is to find a way to express the love that I feel. The more of life that I see, the more astonishing it is to me that love exists at all and the more I value the achievement of those who find and sustain it.

I now see that my “only misery is real” argument is flawed. If you accept the concept of “real” writing, as an authentic attempt to explore the experiences that define us, then love should be high on the lis. The capacity and need for love is a fundamental part of who we are.

But that doesn’t mean Tolstoy was wrong; from the outside, everyone’s love looks the same. We live the clichés, generation after generation. The words to describe love are old and time-worn, so rounded by constant handling that they slip through our conciousness leaving no wake behind.

No wonder the slogan goes, “Say It With Flowers”, the words are too washed out to do the job.

So, I’ve been struggling with how to use weak words to evoke strong emotions.

I decided to go back to the basics.  Go to any creative writing class and you are likely to be sold three messages: write what you know, show don’t tell, and structure your writing around a central conflict that will make the characters real to the reader.

Write what you know: I’m trying to write about love as I have experienced it, not as I have seen it in others and not as it is expressed in the various romance tropes. I am someone who loves deeply but not often. Love is the exception not the rule. Love is a surprise, an un-looked for blessing, the butterfly of hope that escaped from Pandora’s box.

Show don’t tell: love is in what we do, not in what we say. Love is something other people recognise in us before we see it in ourselves, love is a dance to music only the lovers bear.

Central conflict:we do not get to choose who we love, we do not always act on or express our love, we cannot always tell love from hate. All of these things are well-known. That’s what makes them perfect as story devices; we see them, the characters do not. In romantic comedies, the central conflict often comes from the “cute meet” some memorable meeting that sets the characters who should be lovers in opposition to one another. In classic romance, the would-be couple have to overcome obstacles before they can reach their happy ever after. My interest lies in the conflicts that come from having to choose between love and something- else: money, duty, honour.

So, I’ll be trying out these building blocks as I attempt to write about love. Let me know whether you think I’m getting it right and tell me if you see any others ways of getting love to the page

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