The belles-lettres of love

Poet offers advice for valentine writers

February 14, 1999|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

Listen up, Valentine's Day celebrants.

The roses and chocolate are well and good. But what's the card going to say, apart from the sappy printed message? How to begin that short but heartfelt note slipped onto the breakfast table? How to express that tastefully passionate message you're going to tuck beneath the pillow?

And don't even think about any variations on "Roses are red ."

Barbara Diehl, a local poet, knows this sort of quandary -- the brand of writer's block that can afflict the world's once-a-year romantics. So yesterday, she offered free advice on the topic to about 25 takers at the Bibelot bookstore in Timonium.

"You can do this kind of love," Diehl said, disdainfully holding aloft a couple of Looney Tunes Valentine's cards. "Or you can look at love with a lot more depth. You can write something with sensory detail, something to really make it your own."

She then handed out red ink pens -- "I want to inspire passion in you today" -- and put her audience to work. After all, there was still a full day left to practice.

And practice they did, writing their way through a page of exercises that Diehl handed out, tasks designed to limber up even the stiffest of emotional makeups, and get the words flowing onto the page.

"There will be no editing today," she added, lest anyone fear they'd be forced to read their writings aloud, "unless you really like what you do and feel like submitting it to a literary journal, or submitting it to your lover."

The women outnumbered the men more than 2-to-1, even though yesterday's crowd had people of both genders who are regulars at writing workshops.

Men, who tend to need more practice on matters of communication, often don't realize they're in need of improvement until about 5 p.m. on Feb. 14.

The women who already have this stuff down cold -- the ones who will articulate their innermost feelings after two minutes in line at the grocery store -- are usually the first ones to sign up to burnish their talents.

Love lists

The exercises began with lists -- people, places and objects you associate with love. Then they moved on to greater degrees of difficulty, all the way to the grand finale of a love poem. Along the way there was an evocative exercise in sensory stimulation. Diehl passed around some perfumed lingerie, ranging from a grandmotherly white slip scented with potpourri to a skimpy item in black lace liberally doused with musk.

Along the way, those in the audience shared a few of their writings, such as the writing of a "web" -- a cluster of words and thoughts spun off from one of the objects selected from the "love list."

Gender differences were again instructive. One woman's web began with a wedding veil and artfully meandered past lost loves and members of her family to end with a dead iguana buried in a box for long-stemmed roses. A guy sitting nearby began with snow and ended with snow.

As the exercises deepened, one woman spoke movingly and at length of a poem of sorrow she'd written about the end of her first marriage. The women seated around her looked her in the eye, nodding knowingly. Most of the men looked at their shoes or folded their arms -- wasn't this getting a little, well, personal?

The men weren't a lost cause at rendering their emotions, however. One, seated toward the back, spoke of the double blind date he and a friend had long ago with two nurses from a mental hospital. His date that night was a dud, but he sort of took to his friend's. She took to him, too. Later they got married. And yesterday, with his hair gone gray and his belly a bit larger, he wrote about it all once again.

Don't get sappy

He was heeding the advice Diehl advocates most when counseling the writers of love poems and letters.

"The big pitfall is that people get sappy, like a generic greeting card," she said afterward. "Particularize it instead. You want to make the person feel like it's particularly about them. Use nice, concrete sensory details, 'cause you do need details."

Words to the wise, especially for today.

Pub Date: 2/14/99

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