writing life


Around three years ago, after almost six years in graduate school, I defended my master’s thesis in poetry. Out of everything I tried to process that day about craft and the creative process, one comment particularly struck me. My panelist, Dr. Isabela Banzon, remarked: “You just want to be loved.” This was after commenting on several poems with themes about relationships and struggling to find a sense of belonging.

It was a strange thing to hear during a thesis defense. Of course, it felt like an overreading, a kind of subtle accusation. But I guess as readers, we can’t help but project how we feel about creative work. And these ideas are inevitably anchored back to the author, even when they’re dead. Anyway, I wondered exactly what she meant.

Fast forward to 2020, after more than seven months in quarantine (with brief occasional trips to appreciate the world outside), I had a lot of time to think about what it means to be loved. Not by how others define it, but what exactly I was expecting. While we have this grand idea of love and how we want to be loved, often, we only know what we want out of a relationship when we’re in it. Or, experience wise, when it’s no longer there. I haven’t really pondered on the difference then.

I revisited the films Lost in Translation (2004) by Sofia Coppola and Her (2013) by Spike Jonze. A couple of reviews mentioned Her was Jonze’s response to Coppola’s Lost in Translation. Sources say Coppola wrote and directed the film around the time she divorced Jonze. These types of cinema seem to expand on real life, not merely mirror them. In many ways, they strike me as an alternative expression of what people have been through, and how they tried to make sense of disconnection and feeling lost.

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Lost in Translation (2004)

Lost in Translation shows the main character Charlotte (Scarlette Johansson) feeling alienated by her husband. She tags along his photography projects where they end up staying for weeks in Japan. Many scenes show she’s mostly alone in the hotel while her husband goes on photoshoots. The culture shock further heightens her estrangement. One of the opening scenes dramatize how she tries to call a friend to talk about her predicament. But the person on the other line just asks her to hold. When she does get a chance to converse through the static, she’s met with innocent indifference. We sense the frustration of being misunderstood, with the character feeling lost and invisible. When Bill Murray’s character arrives, she has an honest conversation for the first time.

Her (2013)

In Her, Theodore’s character is depressed and heart-broken over his divorce. It’s apparent he hasn’t gotten over his ex-wife. Throughout the film, we realize why his marriage eventually fell apart. Theodore wasn’t emotionally present in the relationship. He had this idealization of what their marriage should be, but he didn’t share the emotional load of carrying one. In contrast, when he fell in love with an AI named Samantha (also the voice of Scarlette Johansson), Theodore had to rediscover what it meant to connect on an emotional level. Samantha’s lack of body simply demanded a higher, more focused form of expression. Though the relationship is doomed (as the AI seeks a higher world beyond the physical human plane), Theodore comes to an epiphany. He does two things: He accepts reality and lovingly says goodbye to Samantha. Then, he writes a letter of apology to his ex-wife. Finally acknowledging what he’s been trying to avoid all along.

(Of course, these are just simplifications I fixated on. I’m sure both films had much richer messages. I’ll leave that to other audiences and critics).

Watching these films again made me realize the importance of being seen. The part where someone truly understands. What we seek in a relationship is so much more than a person committed to obligation. Though, of course, the commitment is still important. But beyond this, we wish for our person to genuinely make an effort to reach us. Not because they have to, but because they desire to. Are you with me? You’ve seen my message, read my words. But did you understand?

We hope that after several years, they still care about us, without presuming they know everything there is to know. After all, we all change. I guess a huge part of a relationship is growing together. Now, the question remains to be seen: whether you grow together or apart.

Perhaps when Dr. Banzon called it, she sensed this feeling of disconnection in my poems. Someone who wants to be heard. Being understood is perhaps one way we know we are loved. And despite years of wanting to disappear, writing is how I try to be seen.

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