A Memoirist’s Terror & Insight: Writing My Ex-Husband on the Page
I wasn’t looking for pretty stories. I wanted messy, ugly, honest secrets.
Carol Shields once said, “I made up my mind at the beginning of my writing life not to write about my family and friends, since I want them to remain my family and friends.”
Do ex-husbands fit the category of “family and friends”? I spent fourteen years in my first marriage. I can’t very well write about my life up to the age of twenty-six, then add a section break and resume my story on my fortieth birthday, after we’d separated for the third and final time.
A writing instructor once told me, “Go for the dirt, go for the jugular, and fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke.” Shortly after that I read about an author whose ex-husband killed himself when her book came out.
This could be why my house was suspiciously immaculate whenever I tried to write about the years I spent living in the bush with my logger husband, raising babies, and dreaming of someday realizing all that elusive “potential” my mother kept talking about. I would tap out a few words about a cranky logger coming home from work on Friday night, and poof! There he was in the room with me, that great big obstacle to my narrator’s happiness, holding a chainsaw and dangling a home-rolled cigarette out of the corner of his mouth.
My resistance came to a head when some smartass in my writing group said, “The narrator and logger are married. Why don’t they ever have sex?”
Sex? In memoir?
For the record, I’m not a prude. In fact, when I was younger I could have used a few more inhibitions to avoid growing into my forties with the best “embarrassing moments” stories in the room. But there I was, at my writing desk or facing my classmates, suddenly modest, when what I needed most was my old flair for being in the wrong place at the wrong time with no clothes on.
I gave it a shot. I wrote my first sex scene, intending to be subtle. It went like this: The narrator wakes up to her husband groping at her pajamas saying, “Why the hell do you wear so many clothes to bed?” Then there’s a bit of shuffling and repositioning and the logger says, “Up ‘n at ‘er’.” And they get up for breakfast.
Apparently, I was too subtle. During my writing workshop, when I asked if it passed the “puke test” as we called it, my fellow writers had no idea that the characters had already “done it”. One person thought ‘Up ‘n at ‘er’ meant the husband was ready for sex, and couldn’t figure out why they just went for breakfast. Someone else thought I’d replaced the sex with a section break.
In the next story, I tried a different tactic. A metaphor. My narrator is watching her kids’ pet rabbits through the wire of the kennel after a fight with her husband:
“As the female nibbles, the male comes sniffing up behind her, then jumps on her back and starts jerking
spastically. She scurries away but he follows and keeps jumping her until she finally sits still for a few
moments, her body heaving, and lets him finish. Then he moves away toward the food. I fight an intense
desire to club the horny bastard over the head with a piece of firewood.”
My writing group loved it, but the one time I read that story in public, I kept scanning the crowd, terrified my ex was out there.
Some authors have no trouble at all dealing with sex in memoir, like Augusten Burroughs in Running With Scissors. If he can describe himself (sorry, the narrator) giving some guy a blowjob for three pages, I should be able to knock off a few missionary position sex scenes. Burroughs does, however, have the luxury of knowing that most of the people in his books are dead, estranged, mentally ill, or have conveniently disappeared (except for the one who sued him.) I, on the other hand, still see my ex when he comes by to pick up the kids. I often wonder how he’d react to being compared to a male rabbit.
So I got the brilliant idea that, just in case my ex ever did read my stories, I could make them more palatable if my characters were more “well-rounded.” I made lists of positive attributes for the “antagonist” and negative attributes for the “protagonist.” Then I started writing about our shotgun wedding and realized that even though I tried to squeeze in some redeeming qualities—like his toned body and his prowess as a mountain climber—my antagonist was passed out drunk for 5,000 words. This negated my good intentions.
I know my ex won’t like the things I’m writing about him. But I don’t particularly like the things I’m writing about me.
Tristine Rainer, in Your Life As Story, reminds us: “The problem is that drama deals with moments of crisis and with secrets. In order to write a short story, a memoir, a novel, any narrative work, you need to deal with exactly the kinds of things people don’t want known about them.” If I leave out the angst, the conflict, the secrets—all the juicy bits—I’ll end up with a lifeless story. The plot will crawl along like that video cam I saw online once of an eagle waiting in her nest for her eggs to hatch. In five minutes she moved her head twice and blinked a few times. I finally turned it off.
I wish someone could tell me what to do, and god knows I’ve asked enough people to do just that, but Tristine Rainer sums up with, “When it comes to ethical concerns, you are on your own.” Thanks, Tristine.
What she’s really trying to get me to consider is whether I think I can deal with the fallout of exposing myself and other people. Harper Lee advises anyone who wants to get into writing that it’s “wise to develop a thick hide.” But even my hero, David Sedaris, who writes some pretty nasty shit about people who aren’t just still alive, but with whom he lives, isn’t completely immune. He, too, has to create little tricks to justify his art to himself:
“In order to sleep at night, I have to remove myself from the equation, pretending that the people
I love expressly choose to expose themselves. Amy breaks up with a boyfriend and sends out a
press release. Paul regularly discusses his bowel movements on daytime talk shows. I’m not the
conduit, but just a poor typist stuck in the middle. It’s a delusion much harder to maintain when
a family member is actually in the audience.”
Unfortunately, I can safely say, my hide is about as thick as filo pastry. My priorities have been to avoid conflict like I do sex scenes, and try to be liked by all. My daughter, when she was nineteen, made this same observation. She said, “One thing I hate about you is you care too much what other people think.” She said lots of nice things too, but that comment is the one that stuck. It’s what I hate about me too. I’m not uptight about things like my house (which we usually have to wade through) or my appearance (my writing garb consists of a pair of baggy fleece pants, a bandana and the old insert for a jacket) but I do hate to offend or inconvenience anyone.
I know my daughter watches me with the same thought running through her mind that I had at her age when I watched my mother: “I’m never going to be like that.” So far she isn’t, but I wasn’t like my mother at first either. I drank, smoked cigarettes and dope, cursed, refused to shave my legs, chewed tobacco, and got into high-risk sports like rock climbing and whitewater kayaking. But then I got pregnant, married a drinker just like my dad, and tried to stifle my stories. Just like my mother. I didn’t have her history to guide me because she, too, was worried about what other people would think.
So I went to other women for stories. I wasn’t looking for pretty stories. I wanted messy, ugly, honest secrets. I wanted to hear from women who sometimes felt they would smother their kids if they didn’t shut up, who fantasized about their husband getting squished under a tree at work, who curled up in a ball like a hedgehog when they felt his breath on their neck in the middle of the night. Brave women like Erica Jong, Gloria Steinem, Anne Lamott. Women who got out, in spite of their fear. Or never got in.
I’ve recently discovered Joyce Maynard. In her essay, True Life Stories: The Stories We Tell, she describes the ordeal of writing about her first marriage. It convinced me her ex must hate her—is maybe even justified in hating her—but her brutal honesty gave me a surge of power and the feeling that: If she can write it, I can write it. I wish she’d been there with her advice when I was paralyzed, hoping my husband would punch me, leave a physical mark, so I could justify leaving. She tells women that chronic unhappiness is a perfectly good reason to leave:
“A person who silently cries out, ‘I can't live this way’ and then does live this way, despite her cries—is also quietly teaching her children to ignore their own inner voices . . . ”
Sometimes I play that little game with myself, the “what’s the worst that could happen” scenario (trying not to think of that author whose ex-husband committed suicide). Really, the worst that could happen is: I could piss off my ex-husband, receive a few nasty emails and phone calls, feel a tad self-conscious when I go back to my hometown. But it’s unlikely anyone’s going to kill themselves.
At any rate, here I am, a writer on the brink of “emerging,” whatever that means, agonizing over publication as if it were a done deal. In the middle of one of my weekly moans to my writing class of, “How can I publish such personal shit?” someone finally said, “What, you think—they’ll be beating down your door? It doesn’t work that way. Don’t be worried about publishing, be worried about not publishing.” That took the pressure off a bit.
In my memoir, I have used all the standard tricks. I have changed character names and some place names. When I was feeling particularly gutless, I considered disguising my ex-husband with a mustache, creating composite characters, using a pseudonym, publishing as fiction. Even publishing posthumously. But what message would I be giving my kids?
I want to share my stories. I want to read them into a microphone. I want to see them in print. I want my kids to see them in print. I still don’t want my ex to see them in print, but if I allow him to sit on my shoulder and play critic, if I allow him to silence me, it’s as though I never got out.