I don’t have a Valentine this year. (Well, I do, but he’s four feet tall, and he’ll come home from 2nd grade today bearing an adorable cut-out red heart with gluey glitter spelling Mommy and his name.) I’ve been through many a Valentine’s Day without a significant other. When I was sixteen and secretly in love with the boy who wore a black leather jacket he’d spray-painted with the names of punk rock bands I’d never heard of. When I was twenty-nine and heart-broken over the serious boyfriend who didn’t want to marry me, after all. When I was thirty-four, and the equity analyst I quit smoking for (“I don’t know, Melissa, maybe I can’t see a future with you because you smoke”) ended up literally drawing me a diagram of where we overlapped and underlapped and why we couldn't possibly stay together. (We broke up an hour after the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Day 2000, after running the Y2K Midnight Run in Central Park, and then stopping in a diner for pancakes and coffee. He drew the diagram on the back of the paper place-mat. That was some spectacular break up—and ended up being one of the greatest things that could have happened. More on that later.)
I have had many a wonderful Valentine’s Day with a significant other. Many! But I’ll tell ya, if I’d known back then, even at the advanced age of thirty-four, that writing a novel—writing the novel I’d always wanted to write but never thought I could because of this lack or that—would be its own Valentine, would fill big and small holes in my heart in the most wonderful and mysterious ways, I would have started much sooner. I’d always known that reading accomplishes this. I found that out fast with the Ramona books when I was in 2nd grade and my parents split up, and Ramona’s life made me forget where I was. With Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret at eleven when I had scary questions about faith and my body and my friendships that I didn’t feel comfortable asking my mother or older sister. With Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights at twelve that started a love and fascination with all things Bronte and set me on a path to studying literature and writing.
My list of life-changing books could go on and on—but a Valentine of a life-changing book came in the form of Bridget Jones’ Diary—which I was reading at age thirty-four during that place-mat diner break up. I don’t think I’ve ever had an A HA! moment quite like that before or since. Aside from helping me through my broken heart in ways no one but messy, honest Bridget could, I realized in chapter one of that touching, funny, true, voicey book that I could write the novel that had been poking at me for years and years. I’d abandoned all writing efforts in my early twenties because of discouragement from a writing teacher I’d admired, a literary author who I’d tried to emulate instead of developing my own voice, which I didn’t think was worthy, didn’t think was good enough. Chapter one, page one of Bridget Jones’ Diary—and it was as though someone handed me my future: I could write in my own voice, which was sometimes funny, sometimes wistful, sometimes light and sometimes serious, but always very me, always very commercial.
By July of that year, 2000, I had a complete manuscript. 92,000+ words of my very own. I wrote THE END on the last page without having smoked a single cigarette (the second biggest accomplishment of my life then). Take that and that, Place-Mat Jerk. Anyway. You know what they say about when one door closes. When life hands you lemons. Reader, I sold that manuscript.
I found my voice in more ways than one back then, and 10 novels later, I’m still finding it, as life is beautifully ever evolving. The publishing industry is ever evolving. I’m ever evolving. My latest novel, The Love Goddess' Cooking School, is very different from that first novel, See Jane Date, in so many ways--in tone, from experience, both in writing and living. But Bridget Jones Diary will forever be special to me, a Valentine I'll always treasure. In fact, writing itself is the only Valentine that can come close to those sweet cut-out hearts with their gluey glitter.
A very happy Valentine’s Day—in all its many and varied forms—to all of you! I’d love to hear about your "Valentine" books--the ones (or one) that had a big impact on your heart. Share in comments and a virtual little box of chocolates will magically appear in your hand!
Mini bio: Melissa Senate is the author of 10 novels, including her latest, THE LOVE GODDESS’ COOKING SCHOOL, which Library Journal says is “the perfect book to read this Valentine’s Day as it celebrates not just the possibility of romantic love, but all the kinds of love that fill a life well lived.” Melissa lives on the coast of Maine with her son and two witchy black cats.