I confess: Valentine’s Day is my absolute least-favorite holiday. (You can read HERE if you’re curious as to why! ) I don’t like overly-sentimental novels or schmaltzy love cards, and romantic movies have to work really hard at avoiding cheesiness before I’ll watch them. I think I’m allergic to sappiness.
Now that I’ve perhaps painted myself as a crusty anti-romance Scrooge, let me also confess: even I am not immune to the February explosion of hearts and roses. All the Valentine’s Day hoopla reminds me that it’s important to make a record of our love stories of all kinds—the romantic sort, of course, but also the love between parent and child, between siblings or parents or friends.
But, holy cow, have you ever sat down to write about how you feel about someone? It’s hard to write it without sounding mushy! (Which makes me admire even more the writers—of novels, screenplays, poetry, and yes, even cards—who manage it.) For example, think about how you feel about your husband. How do you put it into words? Writing "I love you" doesn’t really convey what you mean, and adding modifiers ("I love you SO MUCH!!!) doesn’t change it. So sometimes we go to cliched language: "I love you so much my heart just wants to burst!" And then your pinkie’s reaching for the backspace key because that doesn’t really say it either.
Here’s the strange thing about writing about emotion: one of the best ways to do it (without getting trapped in sentimentality) is to not to describe the emotion. Instead, try writing about something specific and concrete that evokes the emotion. Let’s go back to how you feel about your husband. You love him, but "love" is pretty generic. So, get specific: the emotion that fills you up when you see him doing something altogether ordinary for you, like taking the garbage can to the curb. There’s not really a word for that emotion, but something specific about the emotion can convey what you feel: you could write about how it builds on pieces of your history (that fight your once had about the garbage can, maybe) or what he knows about you (you’re just never dressed early enough to get it out on time) or what it reveals about him (he’d never let a Tuesday go by without dragging the can to the curb), and you’ll have written about how you love him without, possibly, ever even having used the word "love." The concrete (things we can see, hear, touch, taste, smell) and the specific (not "I love you because you’re helpful" but "I love you because you make sure our garbage can always gets dumped") bring emotion to real and sincere expression.
So! Here area few specific and concrete ideas to help you write your love stories:
1. Write about something you say that expresses emotion.
Whenever my teenagers leave for a night out, I send them with a little cash, a hug, and this admonition: "Don't kiss any girls!" (or boys, as the case calls for!) Those four words stand in for the 5-minute-long talking to I'd like to send them off with, something about not doing anything stupid and trying to make good choices and not drinking anything they shouldn't and definitely not smoking anything at all and not getting in cars with drivers they don't trust and be good and strong and oh yeah, have fun and I love you. None of which they want to hear but all of which must be conveyed, and I've said my "don't kiss any boys" phrase for so long it stands in for everything else.
We all have things we say in our relationships that stand in for what we really feel but might not be able to say. Recording them on a layout is a great way to express how you feel about a person without getting too mushy. Here's a layout about a little ditty I still sing to my now-7-year-old son:
2. Write about something your relationship is teaching you.
I believe that the shape our relationships take is formed by the experiences we have within them, both good and bad. If we pay attention we can always learn something about improving them. What is something you are learning right now in one of your relationships? Here, I journaled about my marriage and its current knowledge:
3. Write about a memory that is a touchstone in your relationship.
Love is also built on memory, and some of those memories we return to over and over. Because we revisit the important ones, they take on even more significance. Writing about the memory and why it is important to you is a form of expressing your affection. What memory is particularly important to you in one of your relationships? Francine shared this layout about the last time she nursed her son, with a photo of one of the first times:
And I wrote about a memory from a trip that continues to remind me of what's important:
Christa wrote about the contrast between her memories and her reality:
4. Write about a habit the other person has that has become endearing to you.
Sometimes habits are annoying. Sometimes they just don't get noticed very much. But they definitely help to define a person, and you taking notice of them is a way of making them important.
I wrote about my daughter's tendency to make puns:
5. Write about one small and specific thing that the person does which you love.
Remember: specific things express emotion better than emotional words do. What is something one of your special people does right now (these things are sometimes fleeting!) that makes you feel loved? Journal about it!
Here, I fully intended to write about how my son Nathan is always willing to let me have a bite of what he is eating. I ended up feeling like writing about something completely different, so I went with the inspiration instead of the goal:
Lisa wrote a list of specific things she loves about her daughter:
While Aliza wrote a paragraph of them about her son:
6. Finish this sentence: I love you as much as _______________.
This prompt comes from the children’s book I Love You as Much...by Laura Krauss Melmud. It uses specific things (animals and the things they love) to express how the mom feels for her new baby. It's really a sort of magical prompt if you let yourself get carried away with it—the concreteness of the objects you're using bring a vividness to the journaling because we can imagine them in our heads. This was one of my kids' favorite board books, but Kaleb loved it especially. I used the rhythm of the book to infuse my silly rhymes with a similar beat:
(Instead of Melmud's animal images, I used objects that are common to our autumn experiences.)
And Valerie finishes us up with this layout that also makes a comparison:
Make sure to share with us one of your love stories.