It’s February, which means that Valentine’s Day is only a few days away. As I mentioned on Friday, the big topic this month is love. This theme has been a central concept in literature, philosophy, psychology, etc. It’s probably the most central concept in art. While the concept has permeated through multiple disciplines of academia and art, itself has by no means been constant. Love, in a sense, while thought to have a rigorous definition is fluid, and the more we try to define it, the more it eludes us.
Now I can go on and on about the philosophical origins of love, going all the way back to Plato. I could even talk to you about the origins of Valentines day. But that would take forever and it would probably bore the pants off of you. So let’s bring the discussion closer to home, shall we? How can we express love in our writing? This question almost hurts me to ask. Why you ask? It’s because young writers seem to have a certain image of how love should be expressed in their writing that is so cliche that whenever I see someone commit this crime against love I promptly return their piece and say, “try again.” Now that may seem mean but I do have a good reason for doing it. Most young writers today don’t have reasons for using the images and words that typically are associated with love. They just believe that if they can reasonably regurgitate a few buzz words and images then they will produce good writing. This method is dishonest, and it insults the very emotion that it intends to depict. The problem with today’s young writers is that they never have an answer to the question, “Why?”
That’s the big question, “why?” If a character in one of your stories does anything, even if it’s as simple as going for a run everyday, there has to be a reason for them to do it. Most young writers give their characters certain traits, not because it’s necessary to the story or to the character, but because they think it will automatically make their writing better. For example, I cannot tell you how many bad short stories I have read about character who smoke. Apparently they think that good writing needs a certain amount of “raunch”. In fact, almost the opposite is true. A lot of the best writing I have ever read is about the dull and mundane. When it comes to literature and it’s themes, it’s not the ‘what’ that’s important, it’s the ‘why’.
So what does this have to do with love? I’ll tell you. If you are writing a story or a novel, or even writing a paper about the love between two characters, you need to know the ‘why’ before you do any writing. Why are these characters in love? Why do they express their love in such and such a way? I’ll make this clear with one of my least favorite movies of all time. The Star Wars prequels. I know it’s not literature, but screenplays are a type of writing and therefore this example is relevant.
In the movie, Anakin Skywalker and Princess Amedala fall madly in love. This causes Anakin to turn to the dark side and become Darth Vader, blah blah blah. Great, I get all that, but why are they in love? Go back and watch those movies again with a critical eye and you’ll see that these two characters are in love for absolutely no reason other than it works for the ending of the story. Anakin is a self-absorbed maniac and Amedala is a boring monotone Senator,who is always terrified of her husband. George Lucas failed to grasp some basic rules from creative writing 101. He forgot that the audience needs to care about the characters and their love first and foremost. Otherwise we have no stake in the relationship and how the story ends.
This is one of the reasons I cannot stand modern day depictions of love, that are deemed, “real”. Somehow, post-modernism has infected our sensibilities into thinking that love needs to be full of cynicism and angst. We seem to have forgotten that love can have some emotional levity, in fact it should be joyous. Cupid shouldn’t be torturing his clients, he should be releasing them from their shackles.
That’s why I think the best portrayal of love these days can be found in romantic comedies. You probably didn’t see that one coming.
Now I’m no fan of romantic comedies but you’ll be surprised to find that they have some depth to them. People often say that they are petty and shallow depictions of what it’s like to be in love in the twenty-first century. True, quality of the writing isn’t always worthy of Melville, but at least they have the basics covered. Most romantic comedies follow the same structure: a strong independent woman, usually working in a fast paced job that takes up all of her time, meets a guy, she starts to have feelings for him, she’s worried about getting hurt, finally she let’s herself be vulnerable, she experiences a minor heartbreak which makes her retreat back into her career, which forces her to shut down her emotional identity completely, then after an impassioned speech about love, and they ride off into the sunset.
Sure it has a “factory made” written all over it, but I think it actually makes a really deep metaphysical point about love that is particularly relevant to the time in which we live. The message is this: in a world where superficiality and celebrity pop culture rules the landscape we have retreated more and more into ourselves and our careers. We have shut ourselves off from having any sort of real emotional connection to the outside world and the people who inhabit it. People are seen as means and not as ends in themselves. However, the one thing that can give meaning to our lives is love. Romantic comedies remind us that, yes, love means opening yourself up to the possibility getting hurt. That level emotional vulnerability is scary to everyone. But in the end it’s worth letting yourself be vulnerable is much more rewarding than retreating into your own ego.
So for all the post-modern cynics that believe that love is dead because of our fast paced modern sensibility, I say nay! It can be found in some of the cheesiest writing that has ever been produced. But corny writing doesn’t entail untruth. I argue that more truth can be found in Jerry Maguire than can be found in any Chuck Palahniuck book.
So this Valentines day, when you are snuggling up with your significant other to watch a movie, take a page out of Kurt Vonnegut’s book. Just stop, look around, and say,” if this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”