The Literary Art of the Lonely Heart

Let’s look at Personal Ads differently.

Not as despondent pleas full of acronyms and cliches, but as literature, tiny poems. Look at them as the entirety of a person and everything they desire, stripped back and condensed into 25 words. Instantly, they become feats of imagination and craft.

30 years ago, my mum sat down with a good friend and a bottle of wine and wrote a 24-word sentence which would change the course of her life forever. It didn’t feel so important at the time – it was fun, she tells me – but squeezing everything that matters into a 25 word limit, that was a push.

Her friend’s ad started with a declaration of her beauty. She received over 100 replies, none successful. My mum took a different approach. She felt it was important to be frank. It seemed pointless to embellish or exaggerate, even if it made for less appealing copy.

When I asked her, three decades later, if she felt embarrassed writing a Personal, she said no, but at the time she used up 5 precious words claiming she was “abashed at placing this ad”. There does seem to be a disproportionate sense of shame surrounding these tiny texts. Placing a Personal seems like a kind of failure, a sign that you’ve given up on spontaneous romance. Maybe she felt like she should be ashamed mum reflects, but really, writing the ad was empowering. She was taking her destiny into her hands one, word at a time. And it worked – she got 6 replies.

Her ad was placed in a weekly listings magazine that no longer runs. If her subsequent dates had gone badly, she probably would have thrown it away. But one date went well, so she kept hold of the clipping.

She’s kept it now for 30 years, tucked away with other treasures – old photos, diaries and family heirlooms. She can recite the text by heart. What should have been a throwaway snippet of writing has become saturated with meaning that grows as each year goes by. When I ask her now, she calls her ad “the most romantic piece of paper in the world”.

Looking back at those 24 words, with 30 years of history, 3 children and a wedding band, it appears completely different. What followed the publishing of her ad, has transformed it from back-page trivia, into literature, full of depth and meaning. The reception to her ad – and its success – turned it from practical, deliberate copy, into words which, with context, ring more poetic.

For years, my parents lied about how they met. It wasn’t the most romantic story, it felt too organised, they tell me, too calculated. Now they get a kick out of telling the story – my mum is proud of her brave literary act.

I’m the product of 24 carefully curated words. Personal Ads deserve more credit; if they work, they become the opening lines of a much longer story.

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The original clipping – 30 years on

By Sophie Lincoln

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