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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skin thickening

A few days ago I decided I needed to develop a thicker skin. I thought that since I’m writing a book I should get more comfortable with criticism. And the way I would do this would be to read all of the YouTube comments on my last TED talk.

I don’t have to tell you that this was a stupid idea. Because everyone already knows that YouTube comments are the lowest form of internet discourse. (A favorite, in case you’re curious: “Why fall in love if you can fall asleep?”) I’d just listened to Lindy West’s amazing story of forging a weird sort of friendship with an internet troll on This American Life, so maybe I was just in the mood for meanness. If so, I found what I was looking or.

The fact is that anyone who’s participated in more than a handful of writing workshops, or anyone who’s ever worked with an editor, should be pretty comfortable with criticism. I like criticism–as long as it’s thoughtful and helps make my writing better. In fact, I’m skeptical of any editor who seems too easily satisfied. But YouTube comments are far from editorial, so I’m not going to read any in the near future.

I am going link to my second TEDx talk. I don’t know why I thought it would be easier the second time around. It’s not. I feel no less weird about sharing this one than I did about sharing the first one. But, self-consciousness aside, it turns out that I like public speaking. I hope I can keep doing it. (Call me! I’ll come talk to your friends/organization/class about writing or love or the love of writing.)

And I really do think we’re all doing a terrible job at talking about love. Or, at the very least, framing our experiences of love thoughtfully. So here’s my attempt at changing that.

 

Or follow this link here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pWaxi4H2xPU

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

On anniversaries

“Are you disappointed?” he said, as we heaped pineapple fried rice onto our plates. “Do you feel like this is not special enough?”

My partner and I celebrated our first relationship anniversary last weekend. I’d never celebrated an anniversary before, and, while it did not feel particularly special to be sitting at my kitchen table in yoga pants eating Thai food, I wasn’t sure that I really cared about specialness. “What’s really the point of an anniversary anyway?” I asked through a mouthful of pad see ew, “To say we managed not to break up this year?”

“No. It’s like: ‘Hey, you’re special to me. Let’s celebrate this thing we created,'” he said.

It’s not that I needed him to defend the idea of an anniversary to me (though I appreciated his willingness to do so), it’s that sometimes I feel it’s my job to maintain skepticism when it comes to the rituals we associate with romance. We all seem to have a lot of ideas about what you’re supposed to say or do in love and these ideas have the power to make us feel either smug or inadequate–or, absurdly, both at once. And I just wanted to tread thoughtfully toward the anniversary celebration.

“I think I should write something about anniversaries,” I said. “People don’t really talk about how weird they are.”

“Are you gonna write about this?” my partner asked, glancing around at the takeout containers propped between haphazard stacks of books. 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).

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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