The Quick and Easy Guide to Writing a Love Song

Travis J. Perkins

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Writer's comment: “The Quick and Easy Guide to Writing a Love Song” was a product of encouragement—unspoken—by Dr. Kerry Hanlon and Ms. Julie Zwack:

You have the capacity to produce something valuable and meaningful, because you yourself are valuable and deeply meaningful. Allow me to provide you with the foundation of education, the framework of direction, and the encouragement of criticism, so, as you work, the onlooker sees your wonderful creativity and eloquence in what you produce. Put as much of yourself as possible into what you do: your life, your humor, your fiction, and your irony. Take this opportunity to demonstrate your strength and proficiency, and to exploit your weaknesses. Let your brilliance be your inspiration.

All great mentors have their own way of saying it, all great students strive to repeat it.
—Travs J. Perkins


Instructor's comment: The prompt that sparked Travis’s essay asked students to write a parody of a how-to guide. I gave them two sample essays for inspiration: Lisa Gabriele’s “Guide to Being a Groupie” and L. Rust Hills’s “How to Eat an Ice Cream Cone.” I encouraged students to invent a narrative voice that was psychologically complex and to make their how-to guides suspenseful by crafting a strong narrative arc. What impresses me most about this essay is its irony. Travis masterfully allows the reader to be one step ahead of his narrator, to cringe at his mistakes well before he knows he’s made them. I also love that while the narrator believes he is climbing toward an ideal and altruistic love, the reader sees he is actually spiralling downward toward lovelessness and denial. Travis’s details are terrific—he clearly took the time to pick the perfect stupid thing to say, the perfect blunder, the perfect idiotic thought. Finally, I like the fine line he walks between realism and wackiness. Even though the narrator behaves ridiculously, the essay doesn’t seem over-the-top.
—Kerry Hanlon, English Department; University Writing Program


B e in love. Be so much in love that you forget your name when she enters your field of view. When she speaks to you, fumble with your things and say “uh, um” or “mmm hmm” every third word. Despite your abounding vocabulary, be inarticulate, oafish, and dumb whenever you make contact with her. When she leaves, let the poetic things you “should have said” spread like wildfire in your mind. Let the passionate prose overflow your consciousness and stain your face red with embarrassment. Feel the shame and awkwardness of missing your last chance. Write poetry about these experiences late at night when you can’t sleep. Write them in a green sketchbook that your aunt gave you two Christmases ago.
      Think of U2 lyrics when you see her. Repeat Bono’s words And you don’t know my name when she pays attention to some other guy. Start to invent new lyrics to the melody: and you and I are the same, and you have a beautiful mane. Write these down on a special page of your sketchbook, saving them for the song you are planning to write. Make a list of songs that banish every thought from your mind and leave only her face: “I Won’t Forget You, Baby” and “Every Rose” by Poison. “Nothing Compares” by Sinead O’Conner. “Let Me Touch You for a While” by Alison Krauss. Burn these love songs onto a CD and label it Hardcore Mix. Tell your friends that it is scratched when they see it in your car and want to spin it in your stereo.
      Feel your confidence crumble when she enters your social circle. Before you see her, discuss Kant’s Categorical Imper-ative with your philosophy cronies. Don’t let them know about the poetry of Pablo Neruda tucked in between the pages of your Ethics textbook. Begin to win over their minds with your criticism of European meta-ethics. Then, when she arrives and tells the group that she is taking Intro to Philosophy, and that she is interested in it, respond by saying, Oh, Aristotle and “Soccer-tees” are pretty cool. Did you know Socrates com-mitted suicide? That sucks. Watch her give you a peculiar look, and just keep grinning like a moron. Ask her where her class is and what time it starts. Let another guy save her from your clutches by offering to go over notes with her and giving her his phone number.
      Ask your mutual friends about her. Tell them that you think that she is nice, when really you are mesmerized by her every word. Tell them that you are impressed by her clarity of thought, when your every thought is obscured by her. Mention her name in every subject that comes up: Oh really? Jessica saw the same movie. Wasn’t Jessica in your class too? Sure, it’s over there, just past Jessica’s car. Tell them that you named your new guitar “Jessica” after the lead singer of your favorite lesser-known indie band—that doesn’t even exist.
      Be sure to sit by her best friend Marie in Art Appreciation class. Flirt with her a little bit so she will pay attention to you. Tell her that she is very sensitive to artistic subtleties. She will think that you are hanging on her every word. Ask about Jessica in casual conversations and carve the details she di-vulges into the surface of your heart. Run home and write down her favorite color, her horse’s name, and her favorite country music song in the addendum to your rhyming emotions on blank paper. Practice the four-chord progression that you composed for her, trying to use the color red, the name Jack, and words from “One More Ride” by John Michael Montgomery.
      Tell Marie that you are writing a love song and forget to tell her that it’s not about her. Talk about how there’s this girl that you’re really stoked on, but you don’t know if she likes you back. When Marie smiles and says something about spend-ing some extra time studying in the library over the weekend, tell her you will probably come in too. This will be a great time to ask her some more things about Jessica.
      Think fondly on the only day you didn’t make a fool of yourself in front of Jessica. It was when you had a few sips of gin before school. Tell your friends that Mike Ness from So-cial Distortion drinks gin, y’know, when you see the Social Distortion patch on her backpack. Tell her that it has been ten years and a thousand tears since you’ve seen her. When she smiles and recognizes the lyric, think that you are getting somewhere with her after all. Ask her if she wants to hear you play “Ball and Chain” sometime? Laugh when she says that she doesn’t know that song and walks away.
      Find yourself always needing study material from Marie when she is meeting up with Jessica. Nod too often when Jessica is talking, even if she is not talking to you. Tell her that she and Marie are together every time when you mean that they are together all the time. Drift off thinking Every time I see you, you look perfect. Decide to name the song “Every Time I See You.” As Marie says that she’ll see you in class, just say Yeah, ok, sounds good or I’ll be there, with a goofy wink and a nod.
      Ask Marie if she is going to the end-of-the-year bonfire on Saturday. Tell her that she should come. When she says you’re the only person she would really know there, suggest that she bring a friend. Tell her that Jessica fits in pretty well with the group, so she has no excuse not to come. Offer to meet the two of them there and introduce them to the people you know, so they will not feel left out. Make sure you know someone who is interested in Marie to introduce her to; this way you will get a chance to sing Jessica your love song.
      Friday night before the bonfire, tell the guys that you have to be home early. Tell them it has something to do with obli-gations to your mom, or having to clean up the garage, or something like that. It does not really matter. Go to your old wooden computer chair as soon as you get home. Promise yourself that you will approach Jessica tomorrow, and fumble through your sketchbook for your latest draft of “Every Time I See You.” When you finally find it, copy it down for her on a 3x5 card in your best script. Trash the first try because your script sucks and write the next one in glittery blue pen. Write in tall skinny block letters with fancy serifs that you saw on one of your favorite album covers. Stow it away in the pocket of your jacket that you are going to wear the next night.
      When Marie calls, answer the phone and tell her Hey, I was just thinking about you. Hear her reply as if it were your inspiration on the other end of the phone. Practice your suave tone and smooth vocabulary for your true love with her. Before she hangs up, confirm: So you two will be there, right? Promise. Don’t stand me up now. It is settled. Just make it through the night. Do not die. Don’t do anything, just sleep, get up, check your jacket for your song, and then check again. Do not practice words in front of the mirror. Do not get too involved in what is on TV. Just do not worry about it. Make sure your poem is in the pocket where you left it.
      Get to the beach early; help with the bonfire; move some wood; talk to the people who are there. Wait for Jessica and her friend to show up. Maybe walk down to the water and throw a shell or two into the surf, then get back to the picnic table closest to the beach entrance.
      When Jessica gets there, meet eyes with her and go over and talk to her and Marie. Tell them It is so cool you decided to roll out. Introduce the two of them to a few people and then forget about your plan to keep Marie occupied. Ask Jes-sica if you can talk to her alone. Leave Marie by herself, let-ting her think that the two of you are talking about her. Take Jessica down to the waterfront and recite the first line of your song before you hand her the card. Be sure that it is the best way to show her how you feel, because you cannot remember any other words right now: Every time I see you . . . you can’t tell me that my eyes deceive me, and baby believe me . . .
      Hear her say What are you doing? and keep going . . . that if I could only say . . . Find yourself, for some reason, having to explain: I’d really like to get to know you. Now that we have some time alone, I thought . . . She’ll say, I thought you liked Marie! What is this?!? Watch her fumble for words the way that you do. Anticipate a change of tone. Listen. You flirt with her all the time, and you even begged her to come tonight. Have no idea what she is talking about. Watch her go back to Marie and see her sneer at you. Watch Marie start to realize what is going on and see her visage change. Overhear the words Don’t worry; he’s just a dick anyway . . . Let’s go.
      Get in your car and watch Jessica drive out of your life. Look at the image of the waves crashing into the rearview mirror. Feel your heart crashing and breaking like the surf against the rocks. Tell yourself She must have recognized the country rhythm, as you break the love song compilation, using the might of both hands. Think of the effort that you put into the research and development of your work of art. Let the memories and the countless hours of late night revisions infuriate you. Look through the windshield in the direction that she fled and cry You’ll never find anyone else that will sing to you in stupid twangy uptalk. I loved you. Say it as if the words would follow her all the way home and everywhere she would go in the future.
      Go home. Work on the blues scales on your guitar while sitting on the old computer chair that used to be for writing poetry. Laugh. Think to yourself, What is her problem? God! They got all bitchy all of a sudden. Know that she missed the greatest love she could ever have imagined. Throw the latest Guitar magazine over your green sketch-book and tell yourself that you are going to invest in a Gibson Les Paul, rather than some stupid chick. Don’t write any more love songs. Feel her words knock your fingers off the right strings whenever you practice. Turn your amp up louder and louder to drown out the word dick! from your mind. Play the chords to “Forever Young” that your guitar teacher transcribed for you. As you read the music, substitute your own lyrics: You’re not the one, you’re not the one, in every way, and with you I’m done.