I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that falling in love is the single most delicious kind of panic available to us as human beings. “Panic” not only because when you’re in love you’re in a constant state of “Holy smokes what shirt will I wear what’s going on how can I form a sentence?” (or, after a time, “How could I possibly get so lucky that this person understands me so deeply they don’t mind—they actually enjoy—when I sing depression dirges to the cat on Monday mornings; what would I ever do without them?”), but also because the feeling itself is so big and unstoppable that it extends well beyond our own mental hard drive capacity (kind of like picturing the size of the universe!), and when things feel this big, it’s a little overwhelming. In an awesome way.
If there’s anything that comes close to the excellent panic of love itself, it has to be the frantic need to consume and create art that follows love. Music sounds more incredible than ever before; faces appears in modern art paintings at the museum like one of those hidden image optical illusions; and words—be they in a sonnet or on a street sign—drip with meaning.
From a writing perspective, love is at first incredibly useful. First of all, when you love someone, your brain turns into a superhuman love-words beast frothing at the mouth for a piece of paper to list and describe every last tiny detail about this emotion, this person, this experience. There’s just. So much. To say. Writing all of the feelings down, it seems, will preserve them, immortalize them for the ages (especially if you’re Shakespeare), and most importantly, give you a chance to process them in your limited-hard-drive brain, which always seems to turn to language first as a way of computing the un-computable.
And, if you’re lucky enough to be loved back mutually by the apple of your eye (more on clichés soon), your access to new and honest language material is unparalleled—in the safe harbor of this other human’s beautiful, safely familiar ears, you can truly be yourself and say whatever comes to your mind, no matter how nuts it is (for example, that cleaning out your inbox makes you feel like Sisyphus doomed to forever roll a boulder up a hill that inevitably comes crashing down only moments later. Not that I’ve said that to anyone I love recently).
But at the same time, when you’re a writer and you’re in love, you’re always wearing this hyper-critical, panicky, Kurt Vonnegut “kill your babies” self-revision hat. “Did I just sound like a total idiot?” you ask yourself after talking to the person you love, questioning each word that poured out of your idiot mouth into their beautiful ears. Then there are the added self-critical layers of clichés and sentimentality. We want to use the clichés—after all, they’re cliché for a reason, namely that they feel accurate—but we know as artists that we shouldn’t. We know we shouldn’t use the words “heart,” “rose,” “soul,” or “lips” in the poem, because Shakespeare already did that 500 years ago so it’s old news now. We know we shouldn’t gush on and on about “love at first sight” or “butterflies in the stomach” because those have been used a million times before and they’re trite. And yet…
It’s these dual impulses—to say and to not say, to gush and to self-efface, to generate and to look back in panicked horror at how over-the-top everything you just generated is—that writers face each time they tackle the subject of love. And it’s these dual impulses that I’m most interested in. How can we keep writing about love—the single most timeless emotion on the planet—in new ways? How can words achieve this impossible goal?
My point here is this: love is a powerful, potent, radioactive spider that, if it’s bit you, can turn your writing into the most brilliant, charged, surprising work you’ve ever produced OR the most melodramatic, cliché, overly sentimental drivel you’ve ever produced. How on earth can we harness this feeling into the former while avoiding the latter at all costs? As a poet who primarily writes love poems, I often think that this question is my life’s work. And I want to explore this question—and offer you my take on it so far—in the one-day “Burning with Love” craft workshop through 49 Writers.
The Greeks were smart enough to invent names (eros, agape, philia, and storge) for all the different types of love we experience with all the many different people we meet in our lifetimes. Sappho put it even simpler: “you burn me.” Join me in the “Burning with Love” class for tips on how to write about all these types of love without making yourself blush (except the good kinds of blushing), without treading into cliché waters, and without worrying that you sound like a total idiot (except the good kind). Harness the power of the radioactive panic spider! Tame him and make him your emissary—or better yet, your muse.