It’s February 9, the last Tuesday before Valentine’s Day, which means it’s time for my fourth-annual Tuesday letter about love letters and poems. In 2018, 2019, and 2020, I ended up giving more or less the same advice to the love-letter-lorn. Now that it’s 2021, I’m going to give the same advice. I make no apologies.

Start with Memory, Not Emotion

Here are two counterintuitive truths about writing:

  1. It’s hard to evoke emotion when you speak of emotion directly.
  2. Your feelings aren’t original. In fact, they are among the least original aspects of your experience. We all feel the same emotions.

Expressing (and evoking) strong emotion is the whole point of a love letter or love poem. And your beloved deserves something as original as he or she is. So what is a love-letter-writer to do?

I have good news for you, love-letter-writer:

  1. While it’s hard to evoke emotion by speaking directly of emotion, your chances of evoking emotion improve greatly when you depict the scene or situation that originally evoked the emotion in question. (Remember, in real life, emotion is often—usually?—attached to memory.)
  2. While your emotions aren’t unique, your particular experiences are.

When you write that Valentine, consider starting with a memory. Write about the specifics of the memory, and in concrete terms. If you want to speak directly about the emotions that you associate with the memory, that’s fine, but don’t expect emotional language to carry the freight. Watch how Jane Kenyon does it:

Coming Home at Twilight in Late Summer

We turned into the drive,
and gravel flew up from the tires
like sparks from a fire. So much
to be done—the unpacking, the mail
and papers…the grass needed mowing….
We climbed stiffly out of the car.
The shut-off engine ticked as it cooled.

And then we noticed the pear tree,
the limbs so heavy with fruit
they nearly touched the ground.
We went out to the meadow; our steps
made black holes in the grass;
and we each took a pear,
and ate, and were grateful

This isn’t flashy, I realize. It’s not going to find its way onto a greeting card. But as a love poem from one woman to one man, this is pretty potent stuff. This is what intimate poetry looks like: Here’s something that you and I experienced; nobody else was there to see it. And I was paying attention.

Again, when you start with memory and experience, originality takes care of itself. Nobody else could have written this poem (except possibly Jane Kenyon’s husband) because no one else was there. Imagine what this poem shook loose in the husband. The poet didn’t have to conjure up emotion. She only had to depict a scene. The scene conjures up the emotion.

Start with things, not metaphors (Because things ARE metaphors)
Another, related approach to Valentine-writing is to write about some inanimate object that is associated with your beloved. Articles of clothing are the low-hanging fruit here. My wife has some gardening clogs and a sun hat that she wears in the garden, and even though neither of those items of clothing is supposed to be sexy, I could watch her all day while she digs and plants in the garden, nurturing life, cultivating beauty, and wait a minute, this love letter is writing itself!

The things of earth contain meaning. They can’t help it. The daffodil shoots pushing up out of the ground mean something, and the fast-food wrapper blowing down the ditch means something. Everything is metaphorical. So if you want to use figurative language in your writing, the trick isn’t to sit down and try to think of some good figurative language. The trick is just to pay attention to the things right in front of you until they start to give up their meaning. See how Rita Dove does it:

His Shirt

does not show his
true colors. Ice-

blue and of stuff
so common

could have bought it,

his shirt
is known only

to me, and only
at certain times

of the day.
At dawn

it is a flag
in the middle

of a square
waiting to catch

chill light.
Unbuttoned, it’s

a sail surprised
by boundless joy.

You’ve probably read Robert Burns’s poem that begins,

O, my love is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June.
O, my love is like a melody
That’s sweetly played in tune.

You get the feeling that Robert Burns sat down and thought, Let’s see…what does love remind me of?

On the other hand, you get the feeling that Rita Dove sat down and thought, Let’s see…what does this shirt remind me of?

Either approach can work, but I have found the question What does this concrete thing remind me of? to be more helpful and productive than the question What does this abstract noun remind me of?

Three Writing Prompts
Okay, let’s get even more practical and task-oriented. Here are three writing prompts derived from the ideas I’ve articulated above. See if one of these shakes something loose for you:

  • Complete the following sentence: “Remember that time we…?”
  • Consider an inanimate object that you associate with your beloved. What does it remind you of?
  • What is something you would have never known (or perhaps a place you would have never been) if you had never known your beloved?

A Final Word: It’s not about you.

We writers are so often bedeviled by the desire to make a certain impression, to make sure the audience thinks about us the way we want them to think about us. This bedevilment can be magnified in the writing of Valentines. One wants to put one’s best foot forward. I want to challenge you to forget about yourself this time. Your goal is to say, “Here’s what I think about you,” not “Here’s what I want you to think about me.”

I asked the folks at The Habit Membership about their experience with love letters, and I loved what Reagan Dregge had to say:

My beloved has been writing me notes on his breaks at work. He writes about specific things we both love, and he also writes about the ways we have shaped and complemented each other through our differences. Sometimes he writes an apology if we had a fight. Every time he writes an apology I find it impossible not to forgive him. His notes are not flowery or poetic, they are smudged and scrawled as if he had been thinking about me all morning in the machine shop, where he is earning our living with his sweat and blood, his willing spirit, his steadfast good nature. Maybe most of all, I treasure his notes because he took the time to think about what would bring a smile to my face, and then he did it, whether or not he was good at it. He gave out of pure love.

There’s a man who knows what a love letter is for. May we all be inspired by the example of Mr. Dregge.

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