Now and then people ask me, "What is the biggest mistake writers make when they're writing a romantic comedy?"
My answer is: They put too much emphasis on the obstacles—the things that keep their protagonists apart. Because actually what's more important, and in my view, the primary job of a rom-com writer, is to convince the audience that these two people must become a couple. What's going to make us root for the leads in a romantic comedy, what's going to make us care about whether or not they hook up in the end, is a keen sense that they really do belong together.
Which brings us to an age-old query: Why do two people fall for each other? What makes a relationship work? What is this thing we call love?
Curiosity about this subject has impelled John Bowe (editor, journalist, and co-screenwriter of Basquiat) to publish Us: Americans Talk About Love. This treasure trove of a book, a follow up to Bowe's Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs, offers up a myriad of takes on the What We Talk About When We Talk About Love issue. Relevant auteur Judd Apatow has graced its jacket with a That's what I was thinking! quote: "Every story is a small movie I wish someone would make."
Right. Because another mistake that aspiring rom-com writers make is that they try to write Movie Love, as opposed to love as it's found in real life. The real-life stories told here easily trump half the cinematic love hooey I've seen in recent years.
The key to Bowe's success is diversity. In his preface to this collection of "oral reports from across the United States," Bowe acknowledges the effort he and his collaborators made to find a representative sampling of this country's panoply of people - young, old, black, white, et al (a Salon interview with Bowe elaborates on their methodology). One of the big kicks in reading it comes from the jaw-dropping contrast between one person's experience of love and another's.
For example, here's a moment from the tale of Colorado's Jeremy Vanhaitsma, age 30, who staged an elaborate proposal for his beloved that included bringing her into a small rural church, where he'd prepared a basin of water and a towel:
I asked her if I could wash her feet. It's just a symbol, an example of the love the Lord gave to show the full extent of His love. This was completely new. She had never had anybody wash her feet. I shared my heart about why I wanted to do it: so that our relationship would be sealed, so we could serve one another, and so that we could go out and do that to others.
Jeremy's story is directly followed by that of Dominic Sclafani, age 30, from Arizona, which begins:
I like people who play. People who are fun and who punch me at random moments and who do weird shit. The first time I met Chyna, we were at a rave. She bit me. I was totally into it. I'm like, "Fucking bite me harder!" And she got all excited and I got all excited, because I like being bitten and scratched up. That was orgasmic.
Diversity, dude. It's typical of this shrewdly organized collection, which moves from stories told by people who've been in love a relatively short time to people who've loved for a lifetime. And some of this stuff is harrowing - brutal, scary, painful material, smarting with truths that are worlds apart from your typical rose-colored gift card homilies.
There's something about people telling their stories out loud - people who aren't writers - that pierces the fabric between storyteller and audient in a uniquely compelling way. Like Celia Menendez, 17, of San Antonio, who starts with: "This is the first time I've ever been in love and I'm still feeling miserable." Later on, she unloads an observation topped with a casual throwaway line that would turn any novelist or screenwriter I know green with envy:
I would never have stayed up on the phone until one in the morning, just talking about nothing, with anyone else - even my best, best friends. But him, even if I couldn't physically be with him, I could sit on the phone with him for hours. I think it's part of the reason I failed calculus.
These oral reports are like short stories, like movies, only more incredible, in that they really happened. Ultimately, that's a big part of what you're left with: the wonder. There are reasons upon reasons here for "why I fell in love" and "what love means to me" - if you're writing a romantic comedy, dramedy, or tragedy, I can't think of a better contemporary source book for such thoughts - yet in the end, the fundamental mystery remains. As one Shawn Whitworth of New York, New York concludes:
I would like to choose to believe that I have loved or that I can and am capable of love. I'm almost sure that it exists. But if it slapped me in the face, I couldn't tell you what it was.
Us can be as bracing as a kick in the head, and it tells us a lot about what love is.
[Photos from: lovescape.org, 101lovetips.com, timpaphotography.files.wordpress.com, piratesandfireflies.wordpress.com]