Feb 16, 2015
What’s Love Got To Do With It
When Gulf Coast Journal and I put together this plan, the idea was always for me to run some “vintage” posts. And today is my first. See you with new material again on Thursday!
In 1993, my first marriage failed – eight years and two children in – and over the months, the years, that followed, I took on a strange, unanticipated role: Advisor to the unhappily wed. How did you know? they would quiz me, at toddlers’ birthday parties, at school assemblies. How did you know to end it? they would ask as we shepherded our Power Rangers, our witches, down dark, suburban Halloween streets.
How did you know when to call it quits?
It didn’t take me long to realize that I wanted no part in advising other people about whether or not to end their marriages. I had experienced too thoroughly the inability of any outsider to understand such a relationship and I knew too well how much was at stake. But there was one piece of advice I always felt comfortable giving: If you decide to leave, I would say, be sure you can articulate to yourself exactly why you chose to go, because I promise you there will be times when you doubt your choice, and you need to have a very clear set of reasons to recite to yourself during those shaky days.
That makes sense, they would say, disappointed, I knew.
Soon enough, I remarried and people stopped thinking of me as a poster child for getting-divorced-when-you-have-little-kids, so I heard those questions less and less. But then I took up writing, and then started teaching writing, and I began to hear other questions oddly resonant of those.
How do you know when a story is finished? How do you know when it’s time to send a story out?
How do you know when to call it quits?
It took me a while to realize that the answer I always give to this question is itself an echo of the other, earlier one: I know a story can’t be finished until I can explain to myself exactly why I have made all the craft choices I have made.
Or, to put it another way, if you plan on ending your relationship to a story and exposing it to the harsh gaze of those who didn’t write it, you had better be able to articulate to yourself why you think it’s time, because there are almost certainly going to be occasions when you doubt that you should have done so.
This parallel interests me in part because I have long searched for any kind of scaffold on which, for teaching purposes, I can hang an understanding of the role of intent (and of consciousness of intent) in the process of writing, of how it evolves, ebbs and flows, and finally dominates through draft after draft after draft.
In the past, I’ve always told students that first drafts should be as much like vomiting as possible, but I think (and this is happy news for future students) that I will now start saying instead that first drafts are like falling in love. Letting go. Giving in. Following a hunch. Obsessing. Hoping. Fantasizing. Knowing fuck-all about what's going on. The vocabularies of early drafting and of nascent romance are essentially interchangeable. Even the presence of an irresistible erotic force connects the two.
And mystery. It is all about mystery at the start. If we premised losing our hearts on our ability to explain doing so, we’d none of us ever lose our hearts; and, for many of us, it’s also true that if we stop too long to try and understand our early drafts, we may well find we have stopped too long to complete them.
At the start of both relationships, something bordering on lunacy may well be a necessary state.
But then you show the story to a trusted reader who makes some imperfection in it clear to you . (You introduce your beloved to your best friend and realize in her company that he laughs too loudly, too long at his own jokes.) You approach the next draft with this flaw in mind, engaging your intellect exactly as you couldn’t do to get those words down. (You ponder if there is tact enough in the world to suggest to him that he not convey how amusing he finds himself to be.) And so on. In writing and in romance, it is both impossible and inadvisable to maintain the state of insanity necessary to get the thing going at the start.
And the hope is, again in both pursuits, that over time even that initial lunatic state will become a little wiser, in romance through experience (and maybe through a little therapy, too?) and, with writing, through acquiring the sort of craft knowledge that becomes second nature even when you're in a fevered state.
But the analogy isn’t exact, of course. No truly helpful analogy – or metaphor – ever is. (What would be the evocative power of comparing identical things?) Here, it all begins to fail around the word failure itself. When you leave a marriage it is because the thing has failed; when you send a story out it is because you believe that it succeeds. For better and worse, we have built into our cultural understanding of marriage that it isn’t meant to be perfect- for better and worse - that it cannot be perfect and that to insist on perfection is to doom the union. The absence of perfection is unlikely to count in anyone’s mind as a soothing reminder of why they got divorced. But writers do strive for perfection. Even those of us who know in our hearts that we’ll never get it entirely “right,” cherish fantasies of perfection – necessarily, I suspect. (I suspect, even though at events where I read from my own book, I often change phrasings as I go, leaving anyone following along in their copy quite confused.)
But still, allowing for all kinds of exceptions, people for whom such rules never apply, it’s probably true that if you can be too coldly rational about your own marriage it’s not a bang-up success; and if you can’t be pretty damn rational about your own piece of writing it probably still has a long way to go.
In the aftermath of my divorce, I did have days, many days when I saw the pain it caused my children and I needed that list of all the reasons it had been the right thing to do, just to stay sane. My silent catechism got me through some very shaky times indeed.
But I wasn’t always so fortunate with my work. There I have been burned. I once sent out a story knowing, knowing, that I didn’t understand why I had ended it the way I had, and that it might well not be right, that it probably wasn’t right; and that suspicion rubbed at me like sandpaper. But being new to the game and desperate for some “success” I decided to take a shot anyway and it was accepted for publication. When the journal arrived at my door, I wanted to rip those pages out. When friends told me they had read it, I wanted to apologize for all it didn’t accomplish. When people praised it, I longed to explain why they were wrong. But then as with old lovers who part too soon, only to meet again and finally make it work, I had the chance to rewrite that story for my book and give it the ending I could explain to myself, the one that justified my letting go, so its romances with other people could begin.
No, the analogy isn't perfect.
But still. I see enough here, enough to build on; enough, for sure, to spare the next class of students that image of vomiting onto the page - which always gets a good laugh, but also a recoil – and replace it with thoughts of crazy, crazy, ill-fated love.
This post first appeared on Beyond The Margins in 2013