Earlier today, I read one of Raymond Carver's great stories, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” The title of this story always amuses me, and with Valentine's Day steadily approaching, it seemed appropriate to discuss it.
In Carver's story, four friends drunkenly sit around and swap their accounts of love---horror stories about suicidal exes, words of affirmation to their current spouses, philosophical descriptions of exactly what love is to them. By the time the gin runs out and the story ends, the characters sit in silence, unable to produce any further thoughts on the matter. It's a quiet, dignified exit that sticks with me as much as the title.
And this silence, my friends, is exactly what we talk about when we talk about love. It's a glaring inadequacy to generate the words to describe exactly how love makes us feel.
But my god, don't we as writers try our best? In fact, I'd go as far to say that every story revolves around love. Sure, they aren't all dripping in romantic moonlit walks and roses, but I believe that every author pours so much of their soul into their work, no matter the genre, that the sheer passion makes every word pulsate with love. At the heart of all literature is a writer who longed to let a story free. The person at the beginning of those words wrote everything they knew, experienced, or dreamed about---and they dedicated months or years of their lives trying to perfect the words. If that's not love, I don't know what is.
And it's not necessarily all for the reader. In my experience, the entire act of writing is inherently selfish. There is something inside of us boiling so fervently---fear, passion, betrayal, insecurities---that it must be unleashed or we'll likely implode.
Reading stories through this framework makes them so much more interesting to me. Faulkner's As I Lay Dying transforms from a tale of calamity to a migrating love story of husband and wife. Ginsberg's seemingly random poems become monolithic odes to the writers and countries he loved, and the family torn away from him. Even Horton Hears a Who by Dr. Seuss is a loving nod to all marginalized and forgotten creatures.
Even if they're not explicitly discussing romantic themes, love lies in the subtext. Did they capture those feelings successfully? That's up to you as the reader to decide.
What do any of us talk about when we talk about love? We experience feelings so intense that people dedicate lifetimes assigning words to them. And even then, language often fails to capture what's in our hearts. But it's our mission as writers, and more importantly, as humans, to never stop trying.
“I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone's heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.”
- Raymond Carver, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”
Writer, editor, and storyteller living in the Twin Cities.