How we write about love

Helga’s Post #104:  Love is of course the theme du jour. Chocolates, flowers, kisses and all manners of other romantic gestures abound. But Valentine’s Day is also fraught with dangers: husbands and boyfriends, and girlfriends too, beware, you will be judged! Relationships are known to have blossomed if you do the right thing.

Or soured if you failed. Frequently worse. Much worse.

So how can I write about love today without repeating clichés and boring you out of your wits? I hope to do so by sharing with you an article about love that relates specifically to writers. It offers some surprising insights about this most basic and precious of all human emotions.

I am presently on the road to southern California all the way from Vancouver (with my own Valentine), so am deprived of time and technology to write my own post. That’s why I am taking the easy way out and quoting someone else’s words of wisdom. The article is by Daniel Jones of the New York Times. The picture is compliments of the talented Brian Rea.

Sweet Valentine’s Day to all of you and may the miracle of love last all year.

Brian Rea-Love

Credit: Brian Rea


A few months ago, I read several articles touting the health benefits of writing in a deeply personal way. Studies had shown that writing introspectively on a regular basis can lead to lowered blood pressure, improved liver function and even the accelerated healing of postoperative wounds. The study’s subjects had been told to write for short periods each day about turbulent emotional experiences.

I bet a lot of them wrote about love. As the editor of this column, I have spent much of the last decade reading stories of people’s turbulent emotional experiences. They all involved love in one way or another.

Which isn’t so surprising. Who hasn’t been stirred up by love? But these writers had spun their experiences into stories and sent them here, where more than 99 percent must be turned away.

Although the would-be contributors may be happy to learn of the surprising health benefits of their writing, I think they hoped for a more glamorous reward than improved liver function.

Lately I have been thinking about those tens of thousands of passed-over stories and all the questions and lessons about love they represent. When taken together, what does all this writing reveal about us, or about love? Here’s what I have found.

First, and most basic: How we write about love depends on how old we are.

The young overwhelmingly write with a mixture of anxiety and hope. Their stories ask: What is it going to be for me?

Those in midlife are more often driven to their keyboards by feelings of malaise and disillusionment. Their stories ask: Is this really what it is for me?

And older people almost always write from a place of appreciation, regardless of how difficult things may be. Their message: All things considered, I feel pretty lucky.

In writing about love, the story of how we met looms large because a lot of us believe, validly or not, that a good meeting story bodes well for the relationship.

What do we consider to be a good meeting story? When it involves chance more than effort. You get bonus points if the chance encounter suggests compatibility, like mistakenly wheeling off with each other’s shopping carts at Whole Foods because your items had so much overlap, you got the carts mixed up.

“I get those beets all the time!” “You like Erewhon Supergrains, too?”

Pretty soon it’s time to get a room.

It seems the harder we work at finding love, the more prone we are to second-guessing the results. High-volume online daters worry about this, along with those who routinely attend singles events.

The fear is we may force things or compromise after pushing so hard for so long. We may admire hard work in most endeavors, but we admire laziness when it comes to finding love. (If you manage to stay together over the long haul, however, it will be because of effort, not chance.)

When some people write about love, they can’t find the right words to capture the intensity of their feelings, so they rely on stock terms that are best avoided. These include (but are not limited to): amazing, gorgeous, devastating, crushed, smitten, soul mate and electrifying.

Popular phrases include: “meet cute,” “heart pounded,” “heart melted,” “I’ll always remember,” “I’ll never forget” and “Reader, I married him.” Then there is everyone’s favorite stock word regardless of subject: literally. As in, “our date was literally electrifying.”

Women and men may feel love similarly, but they write about it differently.

A lot of men’s stories seem tinged by regret and nostalgia. They wish previous relationships hadn’t ended or romantic opportunities hadn’t slipped away. They lament not having been more emotionally open with lovers, wives, parents and children.

Women are more inclined to write with restlessness. They want to figure love out. Many keep mental lists of their expectations, detailing the characteristics of their hoped-for partner with alarming specificity and then evaluating how a new romantic interest does or doesn’t match that type.

They write something like, “I always pictured myself with someone taller, a guy with cropped brown hair and wire-rim glasses who wears khakis or jeans, the kind of person who would bring me tea in bed and read the Sunday paper with me on the couch.”

Men almost never describe the characteristics of their ideal partner in this way. Even if they have a specific picture in mind, few will put that vision to paper. I wonder if they’re embarrassed to.

Another list women frequently pull together is “The List of Flawed Men,” in which they dismiss each man they have gone out with over the last year with a single phrase. There was the slob with the sideburns, the med student who smoked too much pot, the gentle Texan who made felt hats but couldn’t commit, and the physically affectionate finance guy who always dropped her hand when he saw his friends.

This series of bad encounters has left them exasperated to the point of hopelessness, so they try to see the humor in it.

Men rarely compose that kind of list, either. In this case, I wonder if it’s because they’re afraid to, not wanting to be seen as belittling women. In general, men write more cautiously about women than the other way around.

Love stories are full of romantic delusion, idealizing love to an unhealthy degree. But in the accounts I see, men and women delude themselves in opposite directions.

A woman is more likely to believe her romantic ideal awaits somewhere in the future, where her long-held fantasy becomes a flesh-and-blood reality.

A man’s romantic ideal typically exists somewhere in the past in the form of an actual person he loved but let go of, or who got away. And he keeps going back to her in his mind, and probably also on Facebook and Instagram, thinking, “What if?”

I don’t know if men are worse than women when it comes to romantic rejection; they are clearly worse when it comes to literary rejection. Even though only 20 percent of submissions come from men, they send more than 90 percent of the angry emails I receive in response to being turned down. To these men, no does not mean no. No means the start of an inquiry as to how this possibly could have happened.

One man sneered at me: “You didn’t even read it, dude.”

To which I replied, sincerely: “Dude, I totally did.”

Writing about love can be similar to falling in love in that we must be as vulnerable on the page as we are in person when revealing ourselves to someone we hope will love us back. That means exposing our flaws and weaknesses and trusting we will be seen as more appealing, not less, for having done so.

Good writing about love features the same virtues that define a good relationship: honesty, generosity, open-mindedness, curiosity, humor and self-deprecation. Bad writing about love suffers from the same flaws that define a bad relationship: dishonesty, withholding, defensiveness, blame, pettiness and egotism.

It has been remarkable to watch the evolution in stories I have received from gay and lesbian writers. A decade ago, their stories focused on issues of marginalization, identity, coming out, and of strains with family members. Within a few years, their focus had turned overtly political in the fight for equality and marriage.

Today, gay writers have largely shed that baggage. They write about looking for love, marrying, starting a family, being a parent, even getting divorced. Sexual orientation that had once been central is now incidental. Which seems like a nice change.

With Valentine’s Day near and the right words about love always so hard to find, let me close by simply wishing you an amazing celebration of electrifying romance you never forget and always remember.


May you live in interesting times


Helga’s Post #65 — It’s curious how something so mundane as a jump from one day on the calendar (December 31st) to the next one (January 1st) can call forth so many weird emotions and memories of years past. Memories we might not think much about during the year, but on that particular day, they rise from somewhere deep in our cranium, their images crystal clear.

Take this one, end of year 2013. I reflect and recall previous end of years that were vital, that changed the course of my life. It’s the end of 1983, thirty years ago. That’s when we married – again – this time to each other, thanks for that. A thirty year roller coaster ride, almost entirely on the high points, when you scream out in anticipation of the heart-racing drop, only to rise again to new heights.

I believe few would disagree that marriage and relationships have much in common with a wild roller coaster ride.

But it’s what has been leading up to that very special day, those years before, that keep playing in my mind, like an LP stuck when the needle hits a damaged groove on the vinyl.

A big house in Vancouver. A really big heritage house in the city’s east end near the harbour, inhabited by an intellectual communal family. A house that welcomed me, newly divorced, and two young sons, into their midst. It was like a warm blanket engulfing the three of us after the confines of a too rigid family structure. Under the protective umbrella of this new community, we collaborated raising children, taking turns cooking and cleaning, taking care of pets, bandaging bloody knees, drying tears, and generally just hanging out on those rare occasions when all of us happened to be in Vancouver at the same time. Talking philosophy and politics long into the night, listening to Creedence Clearwater Revival and B.B.King. It might add flesh to the story to mention that this was a progressive Jewish household that welcomed visitors from such diverse backgrounds as First Nations leaders, Rabbis, Christians, Hindus, atheists and anyone in between, as long as they cared for the planet and believed in fairness for all. Some frequent visitors from that time are now very much in the public eye; one of the most respected Canadian human rights lawyers from Toronto; Members of Parliament; Deputy Ministers; and yes, poets and aspiring writers who have since become bestselling authors.


Photo credit: Flickr

I recall the holiday season in particular. First, Hanukkah in early December. We all participated in the Festival of Lights. It was magical. I still remember the vast amounts of latkes we consumed. Then, Christmas. Just as we all celebrated the Festival of Lights with candles on the menorah, everybody enjoyed candles on my Christmas tree. My old-country baking of stollen, vanilla crescents and lebkuchen proved very popular. I still remember a Christmas Day morning, when my adopted Jewish family put on an LP on the well-worn turntable: Handel’s Messiah. I can still hear the scratching sound from the smear of peanut butter that somehow got lodged on the precious vinyl. It all added to the charm of our multi-cultural laissez-faire household. A memory I still treasure more than 30 years later.

Fast backwards long before that. A young woman in Vienna, longing to see the new world. Leaving her family’s fold. Getting on a slow boat to Canada. Meeting a young man on that very boat who would become the father of her two children, in short succession. A marriage that served one partner, but unfortunately shackled the other. A recipe for failure.

The woman, still young, escaping by taking up writing. Short stories, poems, diary entries, and later, essays required to graduate from Simon Fraser University. Two young sons watching their mother’s graduation. An admirer among the crowd. A simple wedding ceremony to follow not much later. This time without a veil, but in a blue, just below the knee-length chiffon dress, to a man I still to this day think is way too good for me.

Fast forward. A rewarding career, with the emphasis on that word. Career. Good money, new skills and lots of professional training. Climbing the steep career ladder, pushing against the glass ceiling, occasionally breaking it. But no time for nurturing my creative side. My yearning to write. Not even time for exploring if I had it in me.

Back again to that yearning, ever since I was bed-ridden after a foot surgery as a kid in Vienna: Writing. Illustrated detective stories, drawn and written with a stubby pencil on note-book sized paper, pages sewn together with thin cotton string, recovering in bed. A child’s way of coping, of escaping a dire post-war existence.

A kid on a trip without borders. No TV. No cell phones. No Internet. Only dog-eared books from the local library to keep me company next to the coal-fired stove. Stories like Pippi Longstocking, Robinson Crusoe and Karl May’s Winnetou took me on trips that were every bit as good as modern day kids’ holidays to Mexico or Hawaii with their parents.

Later, much later, I learned to speak English. I had the choice of taking Russian or English at secondary school – I chose wisely. I was hungry to read in my new language: Steinbeck, Graham Greene, Daphne duMaurier, A.J.Cronin, William Somerset Maugham. These were names that enticed me to eventually leave my native Austria to explore the new world.

I haven’t looked back. But I love going back, visiting, challenging myself to call forth my roots, laughing at jokes that we would consider ludicrous over here because no one would understand their context.  Shedding a few tears when a melody awakens those deep-seated memories of early years.

No experience is ever wasted. Well, at least not the ones that don’t damage you permanently. I feel fortunate to have a well to dip into as a writer. We are supposed to write what we know. I’m not sure how much truth this holds. Research can go a long way. But at some point you really do want to write what you have experienced; be that a setting that involves all the senses – sight, smell, sound and feel – a culture, but more than anything, an emotion. How can you write about love without knowing this strongest of all human emotions? Or perhaps it’s hatred that’s stronger than love for some writers. If so, then a story focused on that emotion will be more powerful if you’ve lived through it, if you are a victim of foul play, or abused childhood, or a betrayal beyond any writer’s imagination. This quote by Kurt Vonnegut sums it up well:

“Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.”

So I am trying to express some of the feelings I’ve experienced in my own life, those emotions that shaped me who I am today, and reflect that in my writing. If I care enough, perhaps I can create a story that will resonate with my readers.

But I will not write a simple romance. Because there’s no such thing in real life. There will be some happy scenes though, deliriously happy even, maybe happy endings, some sweet, some bitter-sweet, and some open-ended that beg for a sequel.

Like life’s journey, the options for us writers of fiction are endlessly exciting.

But here’s the thing: options are endless, but the writing still has to take place. Those ideas have to make the journey from the brain to the fingers on the keyboard, hard as it may be. As Robert Hass so aptly put it:

“It’s hell writing and it’s hell not writing. The only tolerable state is having just written.”

And that’s the state I want to be in right now. So I had better get going. Happy New Year, dear friends and loyal followers!

May You Live in Interesting Times

Confessions #2

Joe’s Post # 51

After the post about writing sex scenes, I realized that I may have another problem. A bigger one. (Stop giggling!)

Maybe the challenge with writing sizzling sex scenes is connecting to the actual EMOTION of the scene. 

Oh, boy. Emotions… that’s ah, feelings, right? I think so. 

It’s not that I don’t feel things. If I cut my finger, it hurts and that’s a feeling, isn’t it? If it’s cold, I feel cold. See… feelings. I have them.

Manga_emotions-ENOk, I know there’s more. I certainly feel more. Guilt. Sorrow. Happiness. Anger. Hate. Love. Usually I have all those emotions on a drive into town. Or after a good taco. But I know if there’s one thing I need to work on when writing, it’s living inside the emotional being that is my character. 

Oddly enough, it seems that we don’t live our real lives by plot points (as much as I would love to.) So why should my characters? By knowing how they feel, what they hope for, what they fear, what they want and why it really, really matters to them, that character becomes someone we can identify with, someone with a bit of depth.

I know these things. But I just rewrote a scene that had a character starting a quest for her brother and sister who were lost in, well, let’s say, a river. Ok, that’s a good goal (being a guy, I LOVE goals.) My character wants something (and this makes me personally happy.)  But how can I make it better?

Emotions, baby, emotions. What if she feels guilty because she couldn’t hold on to them as they were swept away?  What if they had always counted on her to save them?What if she feels their loss? What if she hopes that they will be all right, but fears, oh god, she fears that they’ve died? Because of her. Because she was weak. 


But it’s tough to feel things for your characters and maybe that’s why I shy away from them. Maybe it’s because I’m a guy and we aren’t exactly the most evolved creatures when it comes to expressing our emotions or taking out the garbage.  Maybe it should surprise no one that this is an issue.

witBut let me tell you, feeling that fear, that loss, that joy, that betrayal, that emotion can be draining. It can even be painful. If I feel it strongly enough, I can even cry. Imagine what the writer would have gone through to write something like Wit.

But through that pain, something great can be born. Something that really connects with a reader.

And that’s the real point here. Emotion in writing makes the reader feel something. I’ve always been super happy to see someone laugh at my writing, (wait, no that came out wrong… when I see someone laugh at something I wrote!) 

But here’s my dirty little secret –  I love seeing someone cry when they read something I wrote. Then, I know that I’ve connected with them on a deep level. I know I’ve made them feel something powerful.

Sometimes I just forget this. Or avoid it.




A delicate truth

Helga’s Post #45 — In a previous post, Karalee raised the question of whether a writer can convincingly write about fear if he/she has never experienced it. Or sorrow, hatred or any of our emotions.

At first I thought the answer should be obvious, because we are all capable of a full range of emotions. Not only capable, but experiencing all these emotions along life’s path.

But the more I thought about it, the less obvious it became. It’s an interesting debate, and a philosophical one as well.

Let’s start with the emotion of fear. We all know what it feels like. It’s part of our DNA, a survival mechanism. Fear is an emotional response to actual danger (as opposed to anxiety – the response to imagined threat) Without the capacity to feel fear we would be dead. Fear warns us of danger and if the brain gives the signal it produces adrenalin to give us sometimes super-human strength and capacity for fight or flight.  It’s probably the one emotion (other than love) that most authors can convincingly put down on paper.

But it’s not that simple. There are many nuances of fear, such as fright, dread, horror, panic, anxiety, acute stress reaction and anger.

This is where talent shows through, where wheat separates from chaff, even if a writer has not experienced the full range. Take Stephen King’s ‘Misery’ as an example. Did he ever feel naked fear in real life the way he made his character Paul Sheldon feel when he was held captive for weeks by Annie Wilkes who eventually chopped off his foot? Not likely. It’s King’s vivid imagination and impeccable research that make him such a great writer. He can put himself in his characters’ mind as if he’s living their life. Without having lived through all these challenging emotions himself.

Kathy Bates in 'Misery'

Kathy Bates in ‘Misery’

Love is another feeling that most people have experienced in one form or another. Not only romantic love. Mother’s love, love for your kids, love for a dog or cat, love for one’s country or a deity. We know what it feels like, so we are able to convey it in our stories. But it won’t guarantee we can do it well. Not by itself. That’s where writing skills and passion are needed.

There are many more emotions, a veritable alphabet soup from A to Z, from affection to apathy to worry and zeal. Some recurring themes in novels, are desire, guilt, grief, joy, regret, and hatred.

Back to the question of whether we have to experience something in order to convincingly write about. I don’t believe so. In certain situations, it definitely helps. Like in describing settings. I have never written about a location that I have never been to, because I want to convey how I experienced the place with all my senses. Not a postcard-like description, but the whole package. The sound of traffic or human voices, the smell of food, people, nature, the feel of humidity, the colour of the sky. All of it.

But for other scenes, research alone can take me a long way. And that includes those emotions my characters feel that I have not experienced myself. I cannot think of a time in my life when I truly felt hatred. Resentment, sure. Loathing, yes. Outrage too. But pure hatred? I am sure most people haven’t in its most passionate form. And yet, hatred is the emotion that often provides the motive as well as the motivation for our protagonists and antagonists. It most often drives the plot and keeps the fire of the story burning. That’s where we writers have to reach deep, use our imagination and passion to make it sound real. To nail the story and have readers remember it long after they finished reading the book.

All to say, good writers can invent a great deal. As Silk said in her last post, ‘Trust your instincts.’ We don’t need to have experienced the full range of emotions we are writing about. I don’t have to suck a lemon to know it tastes sour.

Other emotions however are more difficult to simply invent. Like the feeling of outrage. It’s difficult to write passionately about it if the writer doesn’t know what it feels like, if he/she cares little or none for the issue. Here is an example of a quiet but burning outrage that clearly reflects the writer’s own values:

“Our power knows no limits, yet we cannot find food for a starving child, or a home for a refugee. Our knowledge is without measure and we build the weapons that will destroy us. We live on the edge of ourselves, terrified of the darkness within. We have harmed, corrupted and ruined, we have made mistakes and deceived.”

That is passion. That is outrage. It’s the power of the written word.

Can you guess the writer?