Anyone wishing to write starts with an empty paper or blank computer screen. No one escapes the usual moment or two of nothingness in mind. When such occurrence lasts for a considerable time, and the deadline to finish writing is fast approaching, panic sets in. But this does not concern me a bit. Not that I always have something to write about, for certainly I suffer the same predicament, but that I keep telling myself: I am not alone. All writers — great, poor or new — encounter the same. All one has to do is to whisper a little prayer and hope that the mind at any second would be bestowed with a simple thought to start with. Perhaps, a lead for a story, at first fuzzy or misty like a dream, with some amount of concentration, would take shape and develop with one detail then another, until it blossoms into a first draft. Of course we marvel when we finally get to this point, but then a new task is before us: to check what we wrote piece by piece, perhaps erase and replace word for word. Repeating this process of writing and killing, which is called editing, a piece of writing worth reading is expected to be born. Therefore, in starting to write, one should never fall short of hoping that something beautiful or at least adequate would come about. Never running out of supply, “Hope springs eternal,” says Alexander Pope.
Some writers prefer to write about material objects like a place, for which the task of writing could be much easier than writing about an emotion which is so abstract and complex. So how should we write about a place? Would the answers to this question reveal ways to write about emotions like love? Would it be the same? Maybe not.
The mission of the writer is to put into words, not just what he sees, but what he experiences while in the act of seeing. As almost always the case, there is motion or movement in these experiences; whether through minute steps or great leaps of thought, both writer and readers are on a forward motion, something closely akin to taking on a journey; it has a start, an interim and an end. This journey could be what neighborhood boys day-dreamed about, that once in a lifetime travel adventure, perhaps the Stand-By-Me kind. Regardless what kind it is, or how perennially or rarely it occurs, a writer must have some kind of experience with the place, journey or adventure he is to write about; even the most bizarre product of one’s imagination has to be first experienced by the writer — in his mind of course — to turn this experience, real or imagined, into a story worth telling.
Think of the readers as guests in a tour, say, inside a huge mansion with the writer as the tour guide. He takes them from one scene to another; teases them by advancing information of what would happen next; or, chooses to go straight and delve into the details that surround them. He must lead his guests inside the mansion one chamber at a time; he must write one thought at a time as well. Since some chambers are lighter or darker; sweet-smelling, foul, neutral or of some other scent; perhaps, with aisles that may be narrow, wide, crooked, or twisted; walls or ceilings that are short, tall, rough, smooth or full of holes; with fixtures and furnishings of various colors, textures, chemistries or brands — regardless of all these, the nuances must be apprehended not just by reading, but, more, by showing. The readers would then find ways to experience the same, through their own senses and imagination, as if they were exactly there inside the mansion.
Well, this advice would indeed help facilitate writing about a place. But it is definitely a tall order when imposed as a way to write about love. Writing about a place or adventure, whether of a Stand-By-Me kind or not, is hardly the same as writing about love, especially in my particular experience that involves love, one that is of the Forrest Gump kind.
For when love is to be described and written about, there are no counterparts to the rooms or chambers that come in sequence inside a mansion. Adjectives about emotions in the dictionary pale in numbers compared to adjectives available to describe material objects. Colors, graduations of gray, material make-up and numerous other multi-sensorial descriptions are plenty to depict the vividness and varieties of material objects. But with emotions, we do not have enough to go by.
Writing about what we see is indeed an ocean apart to writing about what we feel. This is particularly hard, especially for those who are too young to love — outside the love that comes from family that they are all too familiar with — or too old to even bother to describe, let alone, write about love; the latter’s enjoyment and anguish from love could be too private to talk about.
Fortunately, literature especially poetry is richly endowed with valuable examples of writings about love. Those great writers who passed on ahead of us, who had credible and luscious encounters with love, produced literary pieces that stand to be the most enduring and moving in all of romantic writings. Elizabeth Barrett Browning is one, with her poem entitled: “How do I love Thee?” So visible in her style is her choice to enumerate her feelings that she claims to be under the purview of love:
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
Her enumeration of ways of feeling love goes on. If this technique is adopted, one could endlessly go and go on, to which the only limitation is fatigue in the exercise of one’s imagination. For certainly, there could be a thousand ways of loving thee. A thousand quotes in a style like hers would animate and romanticize a thousand Hallmark greeting cards.
Cristina Rossetti, on the other hand, dramatizes the excitement and anguish of a love that is so human that it has to die, but quite immortal that it can live on — surprisingly, only through acts of forgetting and remembering:
When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget
I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on, as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.
This poem entitled “When I Am dead, My Dearest,” combined both sweet and stoic messages. At certain points, the writer asks her audience to mourn for her; at another, she resists any form of sentimentality. It says, “I shall be dead and feel nothing” yet another line cites a nightingale that “sings on, as if in pain.” She brings up standard and special items about love only to dismiss them from her lover’s or audience’s mind. The writer doesn’t just tell her audience about love, but shows concretely love’s preeminently unique nature: its poignancy in life and its permanence despite death, marked by the fickleness of language of the one dying, who wishes to be both forgotten and remembered, makes that love all the more immortal and, befittingly, divine.
Of course, we all can’t be Browning or Rossetti, and be gifted with, or possess, their extraordinary literary talents. But we can always try.
My own way of writing about love, given my incompetence in this subject, is to merely say what to me love is not:
“The opposite of love is not hatred, anger, trickery or betrayal. These don’t amount to anything that is deeply repulsive or ugly or iniquitous, as to be worthy to be crowned the opposite of love. Perhaps death, its pangs of horror and utter darkness, can equally match the immense joy and sublime power that love brings. No wonder lovers, forced to stop loving, would rather stop living; To them, death is sweet; and to die together, even sweeter. Those who never truly loved never really lived. And those who lived and truly loved, though eventually died, remain still alive. For love is eternal and lovers immortal.”
Indeed, we can always attempt to mimic the great writers like Elizabeth and Cristina, but it would be almost impossible to be as gifted as them. Through their works as our models, we, lesser mortals, could begin to dream that we could somehow approximate their greatness someday.
So, my friends, obviously, writing need not always be immaculately original. We can build on the words of the masters, and use their themes and techniques, perhaps, even their thoughts.
I should say in conclusion that the more seeing and feeling that I do helps me enjoy the phenomenon called living. But writing about what I see and feel makes living even more enjoyable. So, hope a lot when your start writing, enjoy seeing in detail what surrounds you, and feel the emotions that visit you. Do all these and, next time a blank paper or screen is before you, you may find it less difficult to think of something — perhaps, beautiful and inspiring — to write about.
Note on style:
For those who like to know which style of writing is used, tried to be used, here, it’s that of Michel de Montaigne: exploratory, digressive, irregular, seemingly unstructured, essayistic (as “loose sally of the mind:” Johnson). “One damned thing after another” is how Aldous Huxley described the essay: “a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything.”
Please make some comments here: