What I Learned Ghostwriting Your Love

Arts reporter Evan Williams breaks down the necessary aspects of writing heartfelt messages for love ones based on personal experience of writing poems for other people’s partners.

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God, y’all love each other.

By Evan Williams

Over the course of the last three years, I’ve written dozens of poems for other people’s partners on Valentine's Day. No, this isn’t the plot of a romantic comedy (though Her comes close), and yes, they paid me. January has seen me working feverishly like some sort of cupidic North Pole employee. I love love. Who doesn't?

What began during 2019 as a relatively generic rhyming couplet format became intimate, fast. Here’s how it worked:

First, tell me, who am I writing for? Who is the apple of my mediating eye? My customer base typically split into a few categories. There were those who wanted a simple expression of affection for their significant other. There were those who wanted an ode to their cat, their lizard, their long-lost dog. There were those who wanted a poem of self-love written from their own perspective, about them.

Great, now what? Tell me the most significant thing about your partner, your pet, yourself. Tell me what I need to know to dip past the superficial and dive into the personal. Give me inside jokes, give me relationship history, give me prominent dates, moments when you looked at your partner and thought there could never be anyone who made you as you as you were in that moment. Tell me your struggles, what you wish you could say sorry for, how you’ve fallen short in your relationship. And be specific. Specificity makes for a better poem, which makes for a better Valentine’s Day gift. And you, you want a good Valentine’s Day gift. You’re not like other partners, you’re not like other pet owners, not like other friends.

Wonderful. Now I’ll write your love out of you and hand it over on a piece of paper.

I tried really hard not to think about the intimacy afforded to me in this process. I wrote a lot of poems for friends, but more for half-acquaintances, adults in my life, and folks I didn’t know who’d seen my posts about CUSTOMIZED VALENTINE’S DAY POEMS on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter. The more I wrote, and the more I refined my process—which, by the way, only became more probing as the years went on, because it made the writing easier and the results better—the more I came to reflect on just how much trust it must take to let me, a mostly-stranger, into your most cherished relationships. I’ve thought about this around Valentine’s Day every year since I began, and this year is no different. Here are some things I’ll hold with me:

  1. The rules to the game of cribbage are incomprehensible. Cribbage is not a game so much as it is a mental exercise designed to keep the minds of the aging sharp. It is as intelligible as the game “Whack-Bat,” featured in Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. Muggins? Canadian doubles? Single and/or double skunked? C’mon. As a metaphor for a sustained relationship, however, it works quite well. Find yourself someone who’ll devote the same energy to you that it takes to learn the game of cribbage.
  2. Hallmark has absolutely swindled us all! Their holiday movies aren’t camp, they’re just bad! Love in rhyme schemes isn’t sweet, it’s a cop-out and you deserve better! And for the love of all things sweet, heart-shaped, and sugary—Violets! Are! Not! Blue!
  3. God, y’all love each other. Don’t take this lightly, and please don’t forget it. It isn’t just Valentine’s Day sappiness, either. I believe that you love the people I’ve written about for you. I don’t know how many of you are still with your person, how many of your pets are still meowing/woofing/lizard-style-lamp bathing, or how many of your first-year friends stuck around. What I do know is that when you reached out to tell me about your loved one, your speech quickened, music played, and it was so loud even I could hear its thrum. Try to take that with you. Keep it somewhere Hallmark can’t find.

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I’ve taken Valentine’s Day off this year for other poetic purposes, but will take orders again next year. And hey, in the meantime, if you love someone so much you have to tell them in verse, or if you just want a weird poem to keep for yourself, yell from the rooftops (or send an email) to let me know.