My fingers blister holding a particular photograph. It shows Pearl and Max the first time they met. I don’t know if it was love at first sight but I learned to juggle holding that photo – hot pic – burning fingers – juggle – hot pic – burning fingers – yikes! Chemistry, fate, the lobster effect – it’s so obvious even in 4 X 5 format, you’d have to be stationed on the moon not to see it. They were a couple, but each of them already coupled with someone else. Five years later Pearl and Max wed each other. Five years hence they are still married, a perfect match, though exhausted what with several kids to wear them out. It’s the happily ever after we all yearn to live, though I could do with a bit more guaranteed sleep.
Max and Pearl have entered the blah-blah zone – for story purposes they are as interesting as beans in a can. They are now happily ever blah blah.
The writable, the readable story exists in the tension between them as they explored their initial ill-timed relationship, got separated from the first claimants on their hearts, worked out all the kinks and obstacles, and finally declared their first attraction was real and long lasting. I only know Pearl and Max from the sizzling photographic evidence but I could make up a story about the first five years. The subsequent lovey dovey decades – who cares? It’s the love affair we all want for ourselves, but snuggled up in bed at night, we want to read drama, conflict, unfaithfulness, and secret assignations. Maybe a bit of sex.
February seems a perfect month to talk about love. That is, in between the kisses and chocolate. Not like anyone needs incentive to talk about love – we’re surrounded by the evidence of our obsession with it. You and I would be blips in the nebula nursery without it, not even a star’s glitter to mark our tenuous entry here on earth if our parents hadn’t – you know. So many writers capture the passion and intensity of playing footsie and sharing hearts. Why is that?
We love to read about love, and legions write about it. Love stories sell: scandalous, sexy, unrequited, toxic, lost opportunities. All the juicy passion, poignant missed chances, betrayals, and mixed messages make for exciting reading. Everything in moderation, maybe in real life. In stories, lots of excess, extreme to the nth degree, keeps us reading late into the night.
We could start with Lady Chatterly’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence. I read this in college. Who didn’t? And then I read everything else Lawrence wrote because he seemed to understand everything about love and I still didn’t understand a thing. I mean, I was in college but first year. Who understood anything back then? I read Vladimir Nabakov’s Lolita, also in college though a bit older, and found myself shocked but intrigued. I couldn’t figure out whom to like, whom to despise. Well, gee whiz, of course. Read all the classic love stories, from Pride and Prejudice, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Wuthering Heights, The Great Gatsby, Dr. Zhivago, The Scarlet Letter, a hundred more, and realized that books about love were also books about life. I learned how to make choices, how to live with integrity, what to grieve, what to celebrate, when to move on, when to look back. In theory I learned. In practice I’d learned nothing but it didn’t stop me from reading.
When I started to write stories, I started to write about love and this is where my writing stopped cold. Not good when you’re trying to write. With no intention of writing gymnastic details, I needed to discover the kind of extraordinary insight that marks great literature. Where did Bronte and Hardy get their ideas? If it came from personal experience, I had little to draw from. Did I want to write about the loves in my life, when I’d lived nothing like the adventures and passions of Heathcliff and Catherine or – or –like anyone I’d read about? My life was more parallel to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with so many lovers and buffoons, players and kings, and one poor soul who falls asleep and wakes to find herself in love with a donkey. Well that would be me, young and in love with donkeys and scoundrels but lacking the poetry. So how to write about love? Maybe I could not.
Then it happened. From a place where my young self yearned and my older self finally learned, I wrote about love. I wrote of people in love, even in lust, people betrayed, confused, longing, unrequited, even satisfied. I thought about how it felt to be in love and realized it corresponded to being alive. No matter one’s age or culture or orientation, what I wrote about is how to get from one day to the next, trying like crazy to keep my character’s sanity from launching into orbit and their dreams one step closer to achievement. Kinda like me. For me that’s what it means to love, to be in love. It’s to be in life. And that I can write about.
I can’t say it any better than this from the Song of Songs, written by King Solomon: I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine. Looking again at the photograph of Pearl and Max, I see what they knew from the very first moment they saw each other: they belonged together.