on being young and in love–or on writing memoir and selling yourself out

Last week I was out to dinner with some friends when one asked me, “Does it bother you that J might read your blog?”

My first response was instinctive: “No. He knows what I’m writing about. He’s always known, since I started this project. And he’s read big chunks of it.”

But, as I let the question settle in, I wasn’t sure that was a good answer. I thought of Joan Didion, who I seem to be quoting often these days, and who famously said that “writers are always selling someone out.” I tried explaining what I’ve mentioned here before, that I don’t know how to write about love stories without writing about our relationship. So, despite the fact that, in the many years we were together, J was generously supportive of my writing, I think carefully about what I post here whenever it also implicates him. I said that I tried to write from a place of honesty and kindness, though I’m often not sure if honesty and kindness can co-exist that easily.

“No,” Jen said as we finished our sushi, “I mean, does it bother you that he can see, you know, what an effect he’s had on you?” No one had ever asked me this before, but in a round about way, I guess I have thought about it.

Cheryl Strayed, when asked at the recent Associate Writers Program conference about embarrassing her ex-husband in writing about the end of their marriage, said, “If you’re going to show anyone’s ass, it’s going to be your own.” And I tend to agree with this idea about memoir. The memoirs I like the most don’t have an agenda or anything to prove. They’re motivated by genuine inquiry, starting with the self.

Jen’s question reminds me of a photograph I came across a few months ago. In it I am sitting on one of the leather couches at the Hirshhorn Gallery in Washington, DC. When we lived in the city, J and I often rode our bikes to the Hirshhorn, but this photo is from our first visit, when I lived in Florida and he lived in Ecuador.

I remember riding the narrow escalator upstairs, standing on the higher step so I was eye to eye with him, and staring into his face as if I might die if I stopped looking. I remember thinking that the people around us could see how I was staring at him, and him at me, and that for the sake of decency, we ought to stop looking at each other like that. But we didn’t stop. We spent the afternoon whispering, and gazing at the art, and then at each other. That we would soon be apart again made the whole experience all the more poignant in my mind, because that’s how you think about love at twenty-two.

And as we sat on the old leather couches, staring out at the Washington Monument, and all the people milling about, he said, “look at me,” and snapped my picture.

A few months ago, while I was writing, I remembered the picture and I opened the file on my computer, named couch.jpg, thinking it might help me remember those feelings of being in love. But I could barely stand to look at it.

Maybe it was my eyes, too bright to contain even a hint of cynicism, or my half-smile. Or maybe my fingers, the way they rested delicately on my arm, as if the sweater I was wearing was the softest thing they’d ever touched. Or maybe it was the camera’s close gaze–each pore can be accounted for–or my blue eyeliner, a bold choice. Looking at the picture, I understood why cartoon characters are drawn with googly eyes when they’re in love. How could anyone be so hopeful and willing and earnest at once? I feel myself frowning even now, as I type this.

But I remember that girl well. She earned only $10,000 that year, and still saved enough money for a flight to South America. She ate spongy, $.89 loaves of brown bread, with peanut butter and jelly. She babysat and taught English and went to class, but rarely went out with friends. She spent a lot of time checking her e-mail. The photo is difficult to look at because it is alarming to remember how willing I was to give myself completely to someone else. That year, I existed for him.

When I went home for Christmas, I lost my hard drive, and thus the digital copy of the photo. But even if I still had it, I wouldn’t post it here.

It is difficult to write honestly about being in love for the first time. To remember love, to really remember that first wild longing, the hot thrill of looking someone straight in the eye, is to be truly, utterly embarrassed.  Remembering that kind of love is not pretty. It’s not even sweet. And though it was glorious, in its way, I am not nostalgic for it.

Remembering that kind of love means temporarily abandoning the parts of yourself that you rely on from day to day. The part of yourself that has a job, for instance. The part that buys groceries and rides the bus and, in my case, the part that’s writing a book. When we tell our own love stories, we are really telling stories about the cooler, more rational versions of ourselves. Not the version who was so eager to lie down on the tracks at the first sight of Love heading toward the station. Not the one who spent an entire year sitting on her bedroom floor listening to Coldplay’s “Green Eyes.” And not the one who went to see Cold Mountain alone, sitting in the front row of the movie theater, waiting for Jude Law’s character to die so she could feel a loneliness that wasn’t hers for once.

It’s hard to resist the temptation to change the story, to make myself appear less desperate or hopeful or clingy. But writing about the end of love is much, much easier than writing about the beginning. There is little I can write about J’s role in my life that would surprise him. We dedicated as many months to deciding to split up as we did to first getting together. In the last year of our relationship we’d talk about it until we were exhausted. And then we’d do it again the next day. I wonder though, what it might mean when I start dating someone new, that I am not just remembering and making sense of my last relationship in my head, or in the weird dreams in which J occasionally appears, but in this public place. I am selling myself out, I suppose, but I don’t know any better way to do it.


2 thoughts on “on being young and in love–or on writing memoir and selling yourself out

  1. Hello, I’m a sell-out, pleased to meet you. If I knew a better way to write about my new love and budding new identity without first addressing the abrupt end of my 20+ year marriage, I would…but I can’t. All the best to you, it will all work itself out in the end.

  2. Thanks for reading, T. I think we can’t help but understand the world through our own experiences, and yet, we don’t exist in a bubble–there’s no way to write about your view of the world without roping others in. So we do our best, scary as it may be. Good luck!

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