Writing About Love

Writers, as I compose this note to you all, I’m listening to a trivia contest about celebrity micro-marriages, unions that lasted all of 72 days or nine days or even just 55 hours. Love, it seems, can go spectacularly wrong.

As can our writing about it. You know what I mean—the over-flowery, purple, cringe-inducing paeans to amore; the clinical descriptions of looks or worse, body parts. (Quelle horreur.) The clichés.

We trip ourselves up when our focus is too narrow, trying to evoke a single feeling, where love is ephemeral, and when you’re in it, it’s a state of being. Maybe, what we need to do is think of love as an environment. 

The best environmental writing, says nature writer Aurora Bonner, starts with the five senses—and keeps going.

“You don’t want to focus only there because we should be using all of our senses anyway,” Bonner says.

Once you’ve observed your environment through sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch, Bonner suggests bringing in:

  1. Scientific or historical research;
  2. Human or social connections;
  3. Observations of the self.

“I grew up poor, in the woods, in a cabin with an outhouse and no running water. I write about trees a lot because we lived in the trees,” Bonner says. “I write about broken families, runaway parents, addiction, unemployment, because it’s the environment I grew up in.”

Applying these techniques to love stories, you might start with a description of your beloved, observing something you see or hear or touch. And then…

“San Francisco nights are always more vivid than the days. The sunlight, for all its color and clarity, added to my sense that the city was an illusion, and the nights when everything seems its true self and color. Peter felt much older than me that night…All night he’d been taking drops of astragalus, and he did again as we sat on my bed.”

—Alexander Chee, “After Peter”

Or…

“It is hard to believe when I’m with you that there can be anything as still
as solemn as unpleasantly definitive as statuary when right in front of it
in the warm New York 4 o’clock light we are drifting back and forth
between each other like a tree breathing through its spectacles…”

—Frank O’Hara, “Having a Coke With You”

Chee and O’Hara know love colors everything, “like a tree breathing through its spectacles.” When writing about love, you want to be an astronomer charting your celestial environment, your telescope cranked as wide as it will go. After all, isn’t that how we fall in love, with our hearts wide open?

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Kelly Caldwell
Dean of Faculty

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