Not long ago, I sat in a half-empty wine bar with a friend, listening patiently as she described a relationship that had been steadily deteriorating. This was not our first conversation on the topic, nor was it the first time I heard her say, “I just don’t feel in love anymore.” Maybe it was the wine or maybe I had just heard the story too many times, but something drove me to interrupt her and ask politely, “have you done anything to love lately?”
There’s a difference between being in love and loving. Love can be expressed as a noun–an intense feeling of affection–as in, “when she first touched my hand I felt so much love.” While a powerful sentiment, this definition of love is passive. We don’t have to do anything. It’s a feeling that washes over us; a powerful feeling at that. But love is also a verb–a verb that is usually connected to an object–as in, “don’t judge me. Love me.” I was first hit with this semantic distinction when I was in college. I went through a phase where I read a lot of self-fulfillment literature that eventually led me to the work of Stephen Covey. Most of Covey’s work felt preachy to me, but while reading Principle-Centered Leadership I stumbled across a phrase that changed my point of view so strongly I wrote it down and look back at it every so often.
Marriage is a courtship requiring continual deposits in the form of gentleness, kindness, consideration, small courtesies, pleasant words, and unconditional love.
I am not at all a religious person, but I grew up in a house that went to church every Sunday. When you are forced to sit through sermons year after year, some of the priest’s “greatest hits” sink in. At least once a year they would reference 1 Corinthians. You’ve probably heard it, too. It’s a favorite at weddings–even the secular kind–because it reminds the betrothed what marriage requires.
Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Far from being a Sunday sermon to my readers, I thought about this in-love vs. love dichotomy this morning and decided to share for two reasons. First, it contains an important lesson for writers. I often counsel my clients to avoid nominalizations. As described in Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, Joseph Williams’ invaluable and timeless treatise on better writing, nominalizations occur when we take perfectly good verbs and convert them into nouns. Williams waged a crusade against nominalizations:
No feature of style more typically characterizes abstract, indirect, difficult academic and professional writing than lots of nominalizations.
It’s easy to make nominalizations. Take the word discover, for example. It’s a verb that can serve a dual purpose of indicating an action while also providing a very descriptive reference. To discover something is different than finding something. We find our keys. We discover a new species. But when you nominalize discover, you end up with discovery. There’s nothing wrong with the word discovery, but which sentence below seems better to you?
The doctor’s discovery of the new species is changing conventional views about arachnids.
The doctor discovered a new species that changed conventional views about arachnids.
Most readers prefer the second sentence. It has a character in action–someone doing something. The first sentence is much more passive. Whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, your writing will be better when you avoid nominalizations. You’ve probably heard this advice dispensed to you in an archaic grammatical phrase: use the active voice. I know a lot of smart people who don’t clearly understand what that means. In short, it means to put characters into action. Don’t have them passively dangling behind an is or a has. Make your verbs do the work and never, never trivialize them by converting them to nouns. Let your subjects resist, rather than describe their resistance. Fly with an aviator, rather than ramble about her love of flying. And love, rather than wait for the feeling of love.
That brings me to my second point, which has to do with our work as creative professionals. I’ve lost count of my many conversations with my team about dream clients and dream projects. Truthfully, dream clients and dream projects are a ruse. They’re the equivalent of my friend waiting to feel in love again. You have to love your work. If you can’t find it in yourself to love your subject, change jobs. I know that sounds overly simplistic, but it is so true it bears repeating. You have to love your subjects.
The thing that you see in my pictures is that I was not afraid to fall in love with these people.
When asked the secret of her many iconic portraits, Annie Liebovitz said “the thing that you see in my pictures is that I was not afraid to fall in love with these people.” When we are a creative-for-hire, we cannot produce great work without discovering the greatness in the client. To be fair, for some clients it is harder than others. But the dream project we covet is often already in our grasp. We can stop looking for it and instead love it. When you invest yourself in a project or a client, the work is always better. And, it usually leads to better projects–those that are perhaps easier to love. We owe it to our clients and to ourselves to be active, not passive; to bring our passion and creativity to every assignment. If you cannot do this, prepare to spend many nights in a bar lamenting the love that got away.