Have you ever wanted to send an email, write a blogpost or even just a Facebook update, but decided not to? I once sat in a train across from a guy who was completely absorbed in the writing of a letter. It was clearly a love letter: the feverish focus on his face, the insecure scribbles crossed over and rewritten, and the first line that I could read from my seat:
(I love you)
I can’t remember the rest of the text but the first line struck me and I still wonder why he wrote ‘I love you’ in parentheses. Was he not sure he should tell the girl he loved her? Or were the parentheses to stay in the final version, meaning “I love you, but you already know that.” Did he write it at the start, knowing he would insert it at the best place once he’d finished writing the letter? I had a feeling the parentheses meant: maybe I’ll write that sentence, maybe I won’t.
I got weirdly obsessed with it and told the story to Nick and Andrew to try and understand why the guy had written the three key words of his letter in parentheses.
Nick said that the guy might have written ‘I love you’ at the top not to forget to include it in the letter at the most opportune point. His answer frustrated me: how could the guy ever forget the point of the whole letter? It’s not like he was going to write a mind blowing letter, send it, and then realise: “Oops! I forgot to tell her I loved her!”.
I asked Andrew through What’s App and he wrote: “He was leaving that space for a more eloquent, heartfelt version of ‘I love you’. Something not cliched.” I replied that I didn’t see how else you could tell someone you love them without just saying it. He went on to give me examples of how to say it differently: “You’re the apple to my pie”, or “you complete me”, or “if I could change the earth, you would be the sunlight in my universe”.
To both Nick and Andrew, it was clear that the guy would declare his feelings one way or another. I, on the other hand, think there’s a fair chance that the guy wrote a long confused letter and simply crossed out ‘I love you’ for fear of revealing his feelings.
I can understand why he might have decided to do so. Writing anything that will be read by anyone is like going on a limb. What if they don’t get it? What if they find it ridiculous? What if I hurt someone’s feelings?
My friends and family sometimes ask me how I can reveal so much of myself on my blog. It’s true I wrote openly about having taken Anti-Depressants, stealing drinks in the supermarket, and crying in toilets. But I keep total control over what I reveal or not. I could and would like to write about many more personal topics, but I sometimes chose not to, usually because of one of these five risks:
- Not good or interesting enough
- Hurt someone’s feelings or violate their sense of privacy
- Threaten a relationship
- Make me lose credibility professionally
- Potential judgement from other people, or worse, misunderstanding
The “Not good or interesting enough” sanction is a necessary filter for any piece of writing. I also find it important to respect other people’s feelings and right to privacy. However, the fear of what people will think or how they will interpret and react to my words should weigh less in my decision. So far, two of my friends got upset about one of my posts, my mum got mad when I mentioned her in another post, and some other friends got worried when I posted about feeling sad or moody. Over 95 posts, only 4 caused mild and manageable problems. But worrying about the consequences of what I write still makes me ditch one in five post ideas.
When I look back, the only pieces of writing I regret are the ones I wrote and sent or published while I was angry, sad, or emotional. They were confused and said things that were only true in the heat of the moment. Interesting material comes out of emotions, but time is necessary to polish it. I feel relieved not to have written certain emails, blogposts, or love letters. But I also feel like some of the stories or feelings I have in stock are worth being told.
As Maya Angelou wrote, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Keeping stories or feelings to myself feels like grabbing a smoking hot potato: it burns, and the only way to stop the burning is to let it go. Writing allows me to let go of all the hot potatoes cluttering my head to leave a serene, empty space… Until I grab the next hot potato.
When I think of the love letter guy, there’s no doubt to what he should have done: write the damn “I love you” and get on with the letter. In other words, be bold and say what it is you want to say. If the girl doesn’t like it, or laughs, or ignores it, it’ll be her loss. I can see that for him. But when I assess something I wrote, I don’t always go for the bold option.
Maybe it’s just a matter of craft. The more I write, the more I’ll find the right words to say what I want to say, avoid misunderstandings, and find the line between too much information and a valuable story. As Nick suggested, finding the right place in the piece to express your idea forcefully might be as important as the idea itself.
Andrew has a point too: finding a way to say ‘I love you’ to someone that’s so extraordinary and fresh and surprising makes it easier to say it. There’s no way to control how people will receive your piece of writing. But you can make it so good that it’s worth the risk.
You might also like: