My mother will be eighty on February second. Recently, a life-threatening bout with cellulitis posed for the two of us–usually articulate women–an interesting problem. We’d thought we were communicating thoroughly, but during this crisis, we struggled for the right words, the right way to express the love we feel for each other.
It’s not an uncommon dilemma. Think back to the last movie you saw, romance novel you read, or valentine you wrote or received. I’ll guess that in one or more of these, the words seemed flat and uninspired compared to the feelings they were meant to represent.
One issue is the overuse of the same words and phrases. I remember, at 17, my boyfriend and I repeating the mantra, “I love you, I need you, I want you.” Even then, the platitudes fell hollowly on my ears. What exactly did they stand for?
The solution to this quandary, whether in movie scripting, a novel’s dialogue, or in a conversation: to give specifics. “I love the way you close your eyes when you laugh.” “I love your gentleness with animals.” “Your quick wit still amazes me after all these years.”
That’s a start. My husband (also a writer) lifts love declarations to a different plane with his poetic phrasing. In one note he praised my ability to exude “an Xmas atmos,” and in another, he suggested a chore-sharing solution to me his “dear garbage co-creator.” Even a common compliment worded uniquely sparks the listener’s curiosity and deepens impact.
Engaging audience attention is only a part of getting the message across. Equally important is clarity. Much of our “love talk” is still influenced by Victorian era novels, which relied upon curling and twisting euphemisms that brushed lightly across topics, instead of directly addressing them. “He appears a man of ardent demeanor with powerful limbs and intense gaze.” Is he a hunk or a skunk? “I deem it unseemly to address him concerning my most intimate feelings and thoughts, and so plead with you, my cousin, to intercede on my behalf.” Does she love him or hate him?
In What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Raymond Carver goes beyond dialoguing and illustrates a number of ways clearly to “show rather than tell” about love through choices, actions, body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice.
And, finally, convincing “love speak” reveals the writer’s most vulnerable feelings, without holding back. This takes courage, whether it’s done in letters or novels or poetry. During my mother’s recent health challenge, we were able to get down to specifics, find new ways of saying things, stay clear, and own up to our feelings–difficult but worth it.
I’d love to hear the best love-lines you’ve received or written. (150 words or less, please.) Contact me at email@example.com. (Subject line: Reader.)Ariele Huff: I wrote this column in February 2001, when I was first doing Writing Corner for Northwest Prime Time. It twangs my heart with memories of my mother, who lived another seven years that we used profitably to talk more openly about our affection for each other. The first photo is of my mother with me, my daughter and her son and daughter at Mom's last Christmas with us. The second photo is of my husband and me.
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