Valentine’s Day is tomorrow (also Ash Wednesday. I shall resist the easy joke; I recommend that you do too). If you haven’t finished your love letter(s), it is now time to hunker down and put some words on paper.
Sir Philip Sidney, the sixteenth-century poet, began his sonnet cycle Astrophil and Stella with a love poem about the difficulty of writing love poems. If you only read one Sidney poem in Survey of British Lit, it was probably “Loving in truth, and fain in truth my love to show.” After listing the various ways the poet has failed to find inspiration (mostly by reading other poems), the sonnet ends with this memorable couplet:
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,
“Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart, and write.”
I appreciate Sidney’s reminder that looking to other writers can only get you so far. Eventually, you’ve got to stop reading and face the blank page or the blinking cursor. But I’ve got some things to say about that advice, “Look in thy heart, and write.”
If you find that looking into your own heart yields consistently good writing, I don’t have much to say to you on this Valentine’s Eve. The Lord bless you and keep you, and make his face to shine on you. For my part, looking in my heart tends to be the cause of my love-letter writing problems, not the solution. I usually don’t know what’s going on in my heart, and the more I do know, the less I’m able to put it into words. There are plenty of heart-related cliches ready to form up and march out, but my beloved deserves better than that, and so does yours.
Here’s my advice to the love-lorn writer: stop trying to describe what’s going on inside you, and instead depict what you see when you look out from your eyes. I am forever telling my writing students to use language that is concrete and sensory instead of abstract and emotional, and that advice is just as relevant for love letters as for any other kind of writing. In fact, I would say that the more emotional your subject matter, the more important it is that you keep to the discipline of concrete, sensory writing.
In both my online writing classes and my live writing workshops, I have my students depict a highly emotional scene without using any emotional language. You’d be amazed at what comes out of that exercise; almost without exception, the effect is more sentiment with less sentimentality.
Last week I held a couple of workshops in South Carolina. One of my attendees was an accounting professor who told us that she wasn’t a writer and didn’t quite know what she was doing there. But she proved herself to be more of a writer than she knew when she read a short piece about putting her dog to sleep. On the way to the vet, she stopped at the McDonald’s drive-thru and bought her dog a last meal of chicken nuggets. When she read that, everybody in the room gasped; the look of surprise on her face was one of the best things I’ve ever seen in a writing class. This writer hadn’t even tried to put her deep emotion into words. She didn’t have to. The emotion was all right there in that gesture of feeding chicken nuggets to a dying dog. She simply told what happened and let the emotion take care of itself.
On NPR’s Morning Edition yesterday, there was a feature about love poetry (you can listen to it or read the transcript here). Consider this beautiful bit of love poetry by Jennifer Gresham:
The blue cheese dressing rattles
inside the refrigerator door, half-empty.
I thought about opening it,
drenching each red-green leaf,
just to fill my mouth
with something that you loved.
You don’t write that kind of poem by looking in your heart. You write that kind of poem by paying attention to what you see when a heart like yours looks out on the world.
A Last Word of Encouragement
A love letter or love poem is a daunting task. You feel that your beloved deserves better than you can give. If you don’t feel that way, you either underestimate your beloved, or you overestimate your writing ability. But beloveds are very forgiving when it comes to these things. They’re just glad you tried. A bad love letter is a whole lot better than no love letter at all. You’d better get writing.