Our book-of-the-month continues with the one that started it all, Boy Meets Boy, which is discounted this month to $1.99 on all e-tailers (Amazon, bn.com, iBooks, et al.) and is of course available in an anniversary edition in print, at your local bookstore. In honor of this, I ponder the book’s origin, and the role of love stories in this day and age. . . .
As my friends and many of my readers (the ones who read the acknowledgments) already know, every Valentine’s Day for the past 27 (?!?!) years, I’ve written a story for my friends. This is a deadline I know I have every year – and, almost without fail, I wait until the last two weeks to start on the story.
This year’s story has been harder than most to start. Not for a lack of ideas, but because the tone of the news and the tenor of my thoughts have not leant themselves readily to the formation of a love story. I think every writer I’ve talked to in the past month has been facing the same existential question: In a time when there is such a need for engagement and protest, how can you create stories that do not in some way engage with what’s happening and protest it?
It’s certainly something I’m wrestling with. And when at a recent reading night I hosted, the authors were asked if our writing has changed since the election, my kneejerk response was to quip, “Well, I can’t say I’m in the mood to write a romantic comedy right now.” And then the other knee jerked, and I thought, Wait, no. I just fell into a trap with that answer. Better get out of it before you sink too far.
The trap I fell into is the simplest kind to create: an either/or. Either my writing must engage against the current threat or it is frivolous. Either I am giving everything I can to protest the remarkable harm Trump is causing or I am doing nothing. Either my words fight the good fight or they are not worth being said or written.
This is a dangerous trap.
No single pair of shoulders can support the weight of the world. We know this . . . and yet I feel that many of my friends are feeling like they have to take on more than their share right now. Which will only sink them, rather than lift the world. In order to get through this, a whole lot of shoulders have to come together to rise that weight – and that is, I think, what’s happening, around the world. We have to be a part of it, but save enough of ourselves to live our lives while being a part of it.
I feel that Trump’s insidious barrage works best if it manages to eclipse us with despair. If we think of victory against him as the thing that matters most, it will make any defeat even more dispiriting, and it will lead us to neglect the things we are fighting for in the first place. While fighting for the right to love, for example, it’s important not to let the fight diminish how much we feel the love in our lives. This is both obvious and incredibly easy to forget in our temporary fearblindness.
At the reading, I corrected and said that there was absolutely room for romantic comedy – “We all need our La La Land escapes,” I said with some assurance. Meaning: We all need our flights of fancy to balance out the fears of the present. There was much nodding in agreement.
But damned if I wasn’t falling into yet another trap. I was no longer caught in an either/or, but I had created a false diametric. I had somehow positioned joy as different from truth. By presenting a love story as an escape, I made it seem like the opposite of a reality check. I had tidily handed the narrative over to my enemies, and made happiness the exception rather than the rule. No, worse – I had made both romance and comedy seem like delusions and side roads rather than actual routes to hearts, minds, and change.
What makes me mad is that I should know better than to do this – I have nearly fourteen years of evidence to the contrary. Boy Meets Boy was very much designed as a romantic comedy that, sheerly by being a romantic comedy, would push for change. When it came out, and in the years since, I have often talked about “radical acts of happiness” – that one of the ways we can bring about change is to show our joy as well as our pain, our strength as well as our fight. The reason the book succeeds cannot be separated from the fact that it’s a love story – it succeeds because it’s a love story. It engages because it’s a love story; it is not saying that two boys loving each other is an escape from reality – it works because it is saying that two boys loving each other can be and is and will continue to be reality. There is such power in that. I have seen that power at work. And such is the power of the soul-crushing distortion of this current administration that I almost managed to forget it. But I’m remembering now.
Yes, reading a love story may feel like an escape from reading the news. But it’s not an escape from truth or reality. It’s just a step into another part of truth and reality. And that break, that reminder, is just as important to our lives and our strength as protest and vigilance. We have to speak out, but we also have to remember to breathe. We have to be wide awake, but we also have to remember to get some rest. If you’re fighting all the time, you’re not going to be a very good fighter.
I almost never write about a story while I’m in the middle of it, but I will give this much away now: I ended up deciding to set this year’s valentine story at the Women’s March in Atlanta (where I was on January 21st). So it certainly acknowledges what’s going on in this country right now. But still . . . it’s a love story. A romantic comedy. If I pull it off, it will show that even at the most intense moments of uprising, it’s important to look for love and feel love and share love.
As Valentine’s Day approaches, I will no doubt have to continually remind myself: A love story is not an escape; it’s a reminder. Love is not a bystander to this fight; it is our center. As writers, it is important to write something meaningful – but we don’t have to put the burden of meaning entirely on current events. There is a range of meaningfulness for us to write about. And as readers – sometimes we have to step outside the gyre and give ourselves permission to think about other things. It will make us better for when we must wrestle shape from chaos again.
Read “We” by David Levithan, 2017’s valentine story.