It is Thursday, which means it is Writing Tips Day. And it is Valentine’s Day, so today’s tips are going to be about how to write about love. I’ll start with a true story.
Years ago, when I was living on the upper West Side of Manhattan, an ad used to appear regularly in the personal ads. It was posted by an anonymous male and described a type of woman for whom he was searching.
He longed to meet someone tall and lithe, with sleek blond hair and clear blue eyes. A woman in her late twenties with super-model legs and flawless skin. Not only would his dream woman have these superlative physical characteristics, but she would also have impeccable taste, a cool, smooth voice, a graceful bearing, and the ability to converse about a wide range of topics knowledgeably. Furthermore, she would never lose her chic, polished sophistication for a moment, no matter what happened. The ad appeared for months and months, possibly years.
Every time I read that ad, I felt sorry for the poor deluded chap. No one with a brain thought he’d ever meet the woman he was describing, but my thoughts always went to, what if he did? I kept picturing him dating that flawless Barbie-doll of a woman, falling in love, marrying in a wedding of exquisitely understated elegance, and moving into a tasteful home in Connecticut. And I always thought, “Sooner or later, she’s going to get food poisoning and he’s going to find her on her knees hugging the toilet and heaving her guts out. And then what’s he going to do?”
I could go on and on about Mr. Head-in-the-Clouds ad guy and about various less extreme examples I’ve seen of people setting impossible or irrelevant standards when looking for love (“I can only date someone tall.” “I can only date someone young.” “I couldn’t possibly be interested in a kindergarten teacher.”) But instead I want to make a point about how we write about love. Because that old ad in the personals reminds me of the # 1 problem beginners have when writing about romance: They make their lovers perfect.
For some reason, inexperienced writers think that writing about the person they love means writing only wonderful, positive things. Their sweethearts must come across as good-looking and smart, kind and funny, successful and generous and thoughtful. Their men must be heroic and romantic. Their women must be beautiful. (Sorry: sexist but true). It is as if they think that to come across as truly in love, they must blind themselves to their lover’s every flaw.
Of course, it’s a fine and important thing to sing your lover’s praises, but if you really want to write believably about being in love, you have to go deeper, truer, and more honest than that. Because few depictions of love sound less authentic and compelling than when we’re writing as if our lovers are perfect.
If you want to make your writing real, write about your lover’s flaws. I don’t mean be cruel or critical. I mean write about the imperfections you love, find endearing, or simply accept because they are part of the person you care about. Write affectionately about their failings, sillinesses, and peccadillos.
If your sweetheart is a little messy or forgetful, getting a paunch or a few wrinkles, cranky in the morning or a teller of long-winded, pointless jokes, you either don’t care or you love them in spite of it. Sometimes, we even love our lovers because of their flaws.
Here’s the kind of thing I’m talking about: In War and Peace, Tolstoy has a character—I think it’s Lise Bolkansky, but honestly there are, like, 2,000 characters in that book, so who knows?—who is self-conscious about her smile because her lip curves up oddly. Ironically, it is this flaw in her looks that men find charming. She is more attractive, the narrator tells us, because of her oddly shaped lip.
The same thing happens in real life. A friend of mine once secretly told me how cute she found the little bald spot forming on the back of her husband’s head, even though he despised it and worried about it. Another friend of mine was married to a woman who forgot her purse somewhere at least once a week—something that never failed to bring an affectionate grin to his face. And I once knew a guy who admitted he felt all the more tender toward his fiance because she struggled with her weight—he was fine with the way she looked, but her sensitivity about her weight was part of who she was, and he loved the whole package.
Weaving your lover's warts and weaknesses into your writing can be risky to your relationship, of course. It requires skill, kindness, and an awareness of where you’re lover’s boundaries lie. But, for your writing, it is pure gold. It gives your work something absolutely crucial: honesty. Writing only wonderful things about the person you love will not make readers believe you are actually in love. It will make readers believe you are lying.
Causes Jill Jepson Supports
Humane Society of the United States, Defenders of Wildlife, Interational Society for the Protection of Burros and Mustangs, National Wildlife Federation,...