Love is arguably the emotion that matters most. We are born loving, reaching out blindly for our mother’s love, and continuing to search for love our whole lives, bending toward its warmth like a flower swiveling its face towards the sun.
Love is universal, but the key to writing about love successfully is sink down into the details. To say, “I loved him,” or even “I loved him passionately,” doesn’t tell us much. Any number of people could say the same. What we want to know is what made your love of that specific person so memorable.
Tell us about one memorable day you spent together, letting that one day stand in for many others. Where were you? What was the weather like? Who else was around? What did it feel like to be close to this person you loved? What did you talk about? What did you do together?
The same questions could apply to any type of love, not just romance. What was it like to spend time with your child? With a beloved parent or relative? With your middle school crush? With a dear pet? In each case, take us to the feeling place of that love, and give us a finely drawn sense of the context, the scene in which your particular memory of loving is set.
For many of us in midlife, love is often tinged with loss, as we remember people we loved who are now no longer in our lives, whether because of death or relocation or divorce and other estrangements.
Even if what you want to write about is the loss—the grief, the anger—that you feel now, you still need to take us back into the time when your love was strongest, so that we can fully understand the depth of your current emotions.
In my own memoir, it was a joy to write about the early days and years of my romance with the man who would become my husband, even though I was writing in the wake of a heartbreaking divorce. Revisiting those early memories was a bittersweet reminder of a happiness now gone, and essential background for the reader to understand my post-divorce sadness.
Memoirists are often concerned, and justifiably so, with the question of revealing the details of other people’s lives. We don’t want our memoir to descend to the level of gossip; and most of us are not writing to hurt others—we’re writing to better understand ourselves and our experiences.
Sometimes, to tell the truth is to reveal an unpleasant side of another person, a side that they may have kept carefully hidden from public view. Perhaps your ex was a closet alcoholic with a violent streak. Perhaps she presented herself as a model of virtue, but was secretly cheating on you from day one of your relationship.
You may have to make some uncomfortable decisions about how much of the truth about others to share. Even if you change the names in your memoir, people who know you will know who you are talking about.
Here are some thoughts about how to deal with this thorny problem in the heart of the rose of love writing:
- Remember that most people who will read your memoir will not know you and the others you’re writing about. They will be reading to discover the universal truths that are revealed through the particulars of your experience.
- Don’t let yourself be silenced or stifled by the fear of telling too much. In your early drafts, tell it all, just as you remember it—the good, the bad and the indifferent. Later, in the editing process, it will become clear what needs to be told in order to achieve the full power of your story. A thoughtful editor, preferably one who does not know you or the people in your memoir, can help you discern which details and scenes are essential, and which may be gratuitous and unnecessary.
- Get clear on the purpose of your memoir. Assuming you are not writing out of anger or vindictiveness, why is the story of your love, whether for a parent, a child or a lover, so important to tell? What do you hope others will learn from your experience? If you write out of a sincere desire to have your story make a positive difference in the world, then whatever negative experiences and emotions you share will ultimately be transmuted into the positivity of your intention.
This month, in honor of Valentine’s Day, I’ll be offering a memoir workshop in Great Barrington called “Looking for Love.” Come join me if you’re in the region!
Or check out the February chapter of my Writer’s Companion for memoirists, for some thought-provoking prompts on the ways love has shown up in our lives.
Here’s a poem from Rumi, which offers another angle on love:
The minute I heard my first love story,
I started looking for you,
not knowing how blind that was.
Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere.
They’re in each other all along.