A failed attempt at rejecting true love

When I teach memoir writing we spend a lot of time talking about truth and Truth. Memoir, unlike some other forms of nonfiction, allows for a bit of negotiation between verifiable facts (truth) and larger, more abstract notions of How the World Works and What it Can Mean to Be Human (Truth).

Because memoir is based almost entirely on memory, things can sometimes be True without being verifiable. If I’m writing, for example, about a conversation I had with my mom when I was ten, I’m aiming to accurately capture the spirit of that conversation even if the dialogue can’t possibly be exact. But even when the class gets to a pretty good working definition of these two concepts, truth still feels a little slippery. Even in a genre nominally and practically dedicated to the investigation of truth, creative nonfiction, it still isn’t always obvious what qualifies as true. And maybe this is why I find myself increasingly resistant to notions of Truth in Love.

We throw around references to “true love” pretty casually, but what exactly is it? Seriously. I do not pose this as a rhetorical question. I’d love to know how people define true love and how(/if) they separate it from other forms of romantic love.

In my own efforts to process the idea, here’s what I’ve come up with in terms of our collective notion of true love: it happens once and with one person; it’s mutual; it lasts “forever”; it’s selfless. But when I investigate these ideas they all break down pretty quickly.

  • True love happens once: Often the phrase “true love” is preceded by the word “one.” We are, at best, a serially monogamous species. Most of us will love (in ways that are deep and devoted and serious) more than one person in our lives. Which of those experiences is the one true love? The person you were with the longest? The one you had the most intense feelings about? The one you’re with now?
  • True love is mutual: If you have never been in love with someone who did not love you back, you’re missing out on a profound (and profoundly miserable) human experience. Most of us would agree that unrequited love feels far from trivial. Many people have made major life decisions based on feelings that weren’t wholly reciprocated. It seems short-sighted to dismiss those feelings as less legitimate than feelings that were returned. And even in mutually-loving relationships, individual investment in the relationship is not always perfectly equal.
  • True love lasts forever: I put “forever” in quotes earlier because I find this concept as shaky as “Truth.” Not to be a total literalist but nothing lasts forever, not the earth or the sun or the universe or your feelings. I don’t mean to imply that love isn’t valuable or even sometimes profound. I just want to point out that the ways that we fetishize love in our culture don’t always make sense. Endowing love with mysticism requires putting ourselves in positions of willful ignorance and passivity. In general I am annoyed by willful ignorance, in love I am particularly annoyed.
  • True love is selfless: Can anything requiring reciprocity to be legitimate still be selfless? (again, not a rhetorical question.)

I’ve been thinking about this idea of true love as I’ve been catching up on all the Valentine’s-related stuff I ignored while on vacation last week. A lot of the criticism of Valentine’s Day (at least on my various social media streams) is that it’s too commercial. And, yeah, advertisers definitely use the holiday as a way to equate expressions of love with giving material gifts, but it’s pretty easy to reject the consumerism of the holiday while still acknowledging the sentiment. I really like the idea of having a built-in reason to tell the people you love that you love them—and of extending the celebration of love beyond romantic love. This year I spent the holiday eating mahi-mahi and drinking beer with twelve of my closest friends and I had this abundant, totally joyful feeling of love (though I acknowledge this is an easy feeling to summon while slightly sunburnt and totally tipsy and very far from rainy Vancouver.)

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See what I mean?

So I don’t want to reject Valentine’s Day but I do want to rethink the concept of true love. Still, I get that it’s difficult to separate the practice of loving someone from the mythos of love. I just spent an hour listening to love songs on YouTube as I’ve been writing this and I’ll be the first to admit the mythos of love—that insistence on mystery and ineffable Truth—is seductive. I love the way I feel Continue reading

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smart and humble

Like every other writer I know, I read Claire Vaye Watkins’ “On Pandering” last week. It inspired long conversations with my friends and my partner. Who* do you write for? Who do you read? Whose view of the world are you pandering to?

There are a lot of great passages in the article, but this is the part that hit close to home for me:

As a young woman I had one and only one intense and ceaseless pastime, though that’s not the right word, though neither is hobby or passion. I have practiced this activity with religious devotion and for longer than I can remember…nearly all of my life has been arranged around this activity. I’ve filled my days doing this, spent all my free time and a great amount of time that was not free doing it. That hobby, that interest, that passion was this: watching boys do stuff.

This part really struck me because I was, at the time, writing an essay on romance. By romance I mean the baggage of love. The cultural weight of it. All the ideology that comes with loving someone…especially when you are young.

For a long time all of my romantic ideology was connected to a particularly fairy-tale-ish passivity. I waited, I watched. When I was a teenager I showed boys that I was likable by watching their crappy band rehearse or listening to long guitar solos on the phone late at night or going to their ballgames. I waited for those boys to like me back. It never occurred to me that I could be likable because of my own interests, not in spite of them.

I spent much of my last long-term relationship watching my partner do things. Continue reading

how to be famous

When I flew home last week, my mom reported how many views my TED talk had received and asked me if anyone recognized me on the plane. Ha. When I got back to town and told my chiropractor I had the worst seat on the plane (last row, middle seat–the one that doesn’t recline at all) he said: “Don’t these people know who you are?” Ha ha.

If jokes really are benign violations (this is my favorite theory of humor–a field I wish I’d known existed when I was in school), then I guess the violation is that famous people are sometimes entitled jerks and the thing that makes it benign is that I’m not actually very famous. But here’s the thing I’m struggling with, the part of the joke that doesn’t feel so benign these days: I’m not totally unknown anymore. No, no one has ever recognized me in an airport or on the sidewalk, but I get e-mails from strangers almost daily. Some even use the phrase “I’m a big fan.” (fan!) I now have a public persona that extends beyond my classroom and my friends. And I’ve spent the past month–and the past nine months before that–trying to come to terms with this persona, trying, in short, to figure out how to be just a little bit famous.

In all the years I spent writing without an audience, I developed an idea of who I would be as a writer. I imagined I would publish a book with a small press and it would be read by a few thousand people if I was lucky. In the wildest versions of this fantasy, I would go to conferences and sit on panels with other essayists. (Seriously–this is still a career dream, so if anyone wants an enthiusiastic panelist: call me!)

I imagined that I could keep my writing life and my personal life separate, that I could be honest and fairly unfiltered about the people I wrote about because no one who knew those people would ever read my books. None of this is shaping up to be true.

I got the call that I was going to be featured as the TED talk of the day the same week that my partner and I were trying to decide if we should stay together or split up. I told myself that, even if my relationship was a mess, at least this career thing was going well. But imagine this: 500,000 strangers watching you talk about your choice to love someone while you are at home with the dog watching comedy specials on Netflix to ward off the crying and wondering if it’s time to make a different choice.

I believe in personal agency but I also believe you get what you get from the world and you have to figure out how to live with it. To complain about the things that come with this newfound success would be disingenuous–I like getting e-mails from strangers. I like getting new Twitter followers. I even liked getting trolled (getting trolled is shitty–I do not endorse it–but it felt validating for someone to notice my work enough to loathe it).

troll

But these markers of success also make me uncomfortable. Those e-mails from strangers are sometimes difficult to respond to. People confess the most intimate details of their heartaches to me. Continue reading

I gave a talk!

I gave a talk. And now it’s on the internet. And now I am watching it and having all the thoughts that I imagine many people have when they watch themselves give a talk: What is going on with my hair? And my weird t-rex arm gestures? Is my face always this expressive—and should I think about toning it down a little? And: These ideas should be reorganized. And: That’s not what my voice sounds like.

I would like to do about twenty things differently. But whatever: I stood on the red circle and I gave a talk! And the audience was very kind. And now it’s on the internet, so wishing I could just hold my arms by my side in a post-Jurassic way is useless.

The strange thing about giving a talk like this is that over weeks of practice your delivery becomes disconnected from your ideas. Rehearsal forces you to separate the words from the sentiment. The words aren’t meaningless but the real emotion is displaced by redundancy–and nervousness. Or that was my experience. And maybe, in my case, this is the thing that makes it possible to get on stage and say things that, in retrospect, I would be too self-conscious to ever confess to a stranger. (“Hey, person I don’t know, guess what: I just want someone to love me.” Gross.)

I spent the entire day before the talk walking around Venice Beach and looking at everyone I saw—the barista and the bartender and the skateboarders and the weightlifters and the t-shirt hawkers—and wondering why I chose to make a career writing (and now talking—on a stage!) about the most intimate parts of my life. And if I had to write, why couldn’t I be more wry or funny or weird or cynical? Why sincerity?? Somewhere along the way I’d made a huge miscalculation. Continue reading

Some thoughts on the eve of submitting a book proposal

When I was in grad school, I got a small stipend to put together the alumni newsletter. There was a guy who (twice) sent in an update about his life as a real estate agent, noting that, though his career had veered away from writing, he still used his MFA-acquired-skills to edit the community wine newsletter.

As a judgmental and ambitious twenty-four-year old, this distressed me. I was spending thousands of dollars on my degree. I had made what felt like significant sacrifices to join this program and I shuddered to imagine that a day might come where I would be content to use that expensive and coveted degree to edit a wine newsletter. For years the fear of becoming wine-newsletter-guy motivated me to put aside time to start a book, even when there were more immediately-pleasurable ways to spend my days.

As a much more pragmatic thirty-four-year old, I now understand that this guy was on to something. He surely has a nicer home than me–and earns more money. And if he’s still interested in writing, he might have the resources to take a significant chunk of time off work, or even to retire early. And there’s the obvious truth that deciding not to be a writer isn’t such a bad thing. It’s probably good! My non-writer friends report watching high-quality television shows in the evening, with no overwhelming sense of guilt about how much unpaid work they did or did not complete that day. That kind of evening sounds nice.

An eerie post-apocalyptic haze has settled over Vancouver these past few days. Forest fires north of us have turned the sky an unnatural yellow, and when the evening breeze finally stirs the air, I taste campfire on my tongue. Roscoe and I hunker down in the living room, swatting at flies and trying to determine the least unpleasant hour for a walk. At night, I wake up before dawn scratching at large red welts, tuning my ears to the mosquito’s distinct whine, wondering if it’s worth turning on all the lights and hunting the bastard down. In case you are wondering about the life of a writer hoping to sell her first book, this is what it’s like.

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I guess it’s fitting that these days of waiting have the mythical qualities of purgatory. I started this book proposal in April. I thought I’d be done by the end of May. But in fact—after many revisions, false starts, one total do-over, and sixty-seven pages—I finished in the morning on Friday, July 3. And then I sat around wondering what to do. Continue reading

How do you live with doubt?

I used to think my writing was best when it came from a state of intense emotion. I suspect a lot writers have had this thought.

This belief is useful at times. If, for example, you’re trying to be productive while struggling with a persistent-but-amorphous sense of anxiety, the anxiety can be neatly reframed as an imperative to write. The belief that writing in fact requires some form of suffering served me well all the years I spent either ignoring or tending to my “should I be in this relationship” anxiety. But when the relationship ended (and the anxiety ended and the sense of loss became bearable) writing suddenly came easily. I was focused. I wasted less time browsing strangers’ wedding albums on the internet, wondering if I could ever feel the uncomplicated happiness their faces so often betrayed. Emotional clarity, it turned out, was totally productive.*

I’m supposed to be writing an essay about what it means if you spend years thinking about the dangers of love stories and then your own love story becomes a matter of international interest. This is an interesting topic! This is an essay I’d like to read! But what I’m actually writing is an essay about doubt. Sorry if you thought that other thing sounded interesting. Someone else may have to write it, because the question I keep coming back to, in writing and in love, is this: how do you live with doubt?

Urrghghfghhg. I pose this question and then I make this sound. It is a groan that is mostly consonants. It is a feeling that lives in the throat.

Maybe this question about doubt is really a symptom of privilege. It’s a question you get to ask when you have nothing else occupying your mind.

When you write an essay (that millions of people read) about how you used science to help you fall in love, you turn your life into the kind of myth you don’t believe in.

When you ask your boyfriend what he makes of this and he says, “It’s not like you fall in love and then you’re in love. You fall in love and then you have to actually really get to know somebody,” you can feel it like a fog, the doubt that has settled over the two of you.

We are out of lightning bolts today.

We are all out of lightning bolts.

This is what we don’t talk about enough in love: ambivalence. And how normal it is. Maybe I am not writing an essay about doubt, maybe I’m writing an essay about ambivalence. There is a difference. Doubt is the fog. It is the feeling you can’t see through. It’s all consonants. Ambivalence is a little better. It contains some certainty. It is the yes and the no, two cards held close to the chest. You want to play them both, but you can’t.

“If you can fall in love with anyone, how do you choose?” he asked that night last summer.

“How do we live with doubt?” I ask him today over lunch.

We’ve come up with an answer. It isn’t perfect but it’s all we have. You choose. You choose over and over again. Because there is no right choice. There is no right person. There is simply someone you love, someone you have chosen, whom you will have to choose again. But there is no guarantee that you will always choose him, that he will choose you.

When you write an essay about a study designed to make two strangers fall in love and, after trying it, you yourself fall in love, and this essay goes viral, lots of people you’ve never met will care very much about the status of your relationship. This is strange.

So, how do you live with doubt?

Continue reading

on the problem of wanting

For weeks I’ve wanted to write about all that’s happened in my life in 2015, but I couldn’t find a good way to get at it. I keep thinking back to a rainy Sunday night, about a year ago, when I met two friends for dinner. One was pregnant and doing interesting research for her PhD in linguistics. She and her husband were thinking about buying a condo or moving to a new, baby-friendly apartment. The other, a psychologist, I hadn’t seen since August, when she was in the midst of a messy break up with a not-at-all-nice guy. But by March she was living happily with her new boyfriend—a man who seemed unbelievably successful and kind and good for her. A man she met the day after her break up. She told us about helping to raise his two kids, and her summer plans to attend conferences and visit family.

As they talked, I sipped wine and asked questions and then, when it was my turn, I realized I had nothing to say. “Um,” I tried, “I’ve been on two dates with a guy who seems kind of smart and fun, but we still haven’t scheduled a third.” I searched my life for something: work was the usual mound of ungraded papers and, yes, I was still tooling away at the same book I’d been tooling away at for years. No real travel plans, no visitors. No weekend getaways.

I woke up grouchy the next day, but I couldn’t pinpoint why. After ending a serious relationship a few years before, I’d worked hard to make my life exactly what I wanted it to be. I liked my job, and writing, and walking around the neighborhood with Roscoe. I had time for skiing and climbing and eating Thai take-out with my best friends.

But when I had to describe that life to someone I hadn’t seen in a while, the straightforward sameness of my days suddenly felt embarrassing. My close friends were getting married and making babies. I was about to turn 33—my Jesus year!—and, while I was in no rush to procreate, I wanted something to say when people asked how I was, some small miracle. I understood that the upheaval in my friends’ lives was sometimes hard, but, at the time, even having something to struggle with seemed enviable and kind of glamorous.

how I spend much of my time

how I spend much of my time

Now, on the verge of my 34th birthday, I still spend my days the same way I did a year ago. I go to the climbing gym and I grade papers and I eat Thai food from the same restaurant down the block with my same best friends. I walk the dog. And I write. I write whenever I can.

But in some significant ways, my life feels different. Continue reading