My ex-husband would like me to please stop writing about this divorce, which he sees as me writing about his life.
Maybe this is the first problem, or actually, the threshold problem here: that he sees our divorce as only being about his life, and not mine. It’s funny…for some peculiar reason I feel like all of this happened to me, too.
But okay, I’m already getting distracted from what I want to write about here, which is:
Why I am writing about this divorce at all;
what my motives are for this writing.
For he has asserted that these writings of mine are pot shots, acts of bile and spite, and while I immediately thought he was full of shit, I also wasn’t sure why I thought this. And so I’m doing what I’ve done my entire adult life, which is turn to the page to sort it all out.
Well, first I turned to Facebook to get some advice. Because to understand this inquiry, it’s important to understand that after a brief experiment, I decided to break off direct communication with him. For one thing, I don’t trust him. For another, in our few exchanges, I found his tone nasty and sarcastic, and entirely unhelpful to me and my peace of mind. So on any matters relating to our divorce agreement, of which my writing is a part, I will only communicate with him only through my lawyer.
I wasn’t aware until recently that he remains an avid reader of my work. Still, it was an unpleasant surprise to receive a text from him the other night, after he’d read something I’d written. It was less what he wrote, although that wasn’t so nice, than the realization that I’m likely to receive a nastygram from him whenever I publish something relating to our divorce. This made me want to stop writing about the divorce entirely, which then annoyed me — a chilling effect was his goal, should it really be so easily accomplished?
And so I asked Facebook– and especially my many writer friends– to weigh in on whether I should allow my strong aversion to hearing from him stop me from writing about this divorce.
This is a version of a question that comes up often when I teach: what will happen if I write honestly about the people in my life? I always say that writing about people in your life has consequences. Words have power and they matter. Relationships can be affected, indeed, they can be ended by what you write. While I am not so worried about the quality of my ongoing relationship with my ex-husband (as we have none), hearing his annoying feedback is a real consequence of my writing about our divorce. So I have to decide if it’s worth it to me.
Facebook overwhelmingly told me it was worth it: to let him whine and to keep on with my writing.
But leaving aside my ex-husband for a moment, let me just say that there are people who have serious doubts about the benefit of this kind of writing. It’s personal, and emotional and it makes some people uncomfortable. The narrator that I’ve used to write about this (and all nonfiction writers understand that the “I” in a piece of writing only is based on the whole version of oneself) is often pretty fucking pissed.
In fact, if I were to have given myself some writerly advice over the past year, I would have said, Alison, it would have been better for the writing to have gained some more distance on this experience. And by distance, I do mean time: the divorce hasn’t been final a year, I was still married just over a year and a half ago. My hyperventilating-in-the-street phase, my scare-away-homeless-people-with-the-rivulets-of-plum-mascara-running-down my–face-which-made-it-look-like-I-was-bleeding-from-my-eyeballs phase (it was a bad time to start wearing plum mascara), my nauseous-feels-like-I’m-being-beaten-with-spiked-sticks phase – that’s all over now, but it’s still in my near term memory.
But I did start writing about the divorce quickly, because in the immediate throes of separation I was unable to write at all. I also couldn’t read, or sleep, which meant that the world had become entirely unrecognizable to me. I greeted the return of each of these activities of my normal life with great relief. When I could write, I wrote. And I wrote about the divorce, because that was on my mind.
Very quickly, I began to hear from readers who encouraged me to keep writing on this subject. I heard that it was important to read honest writing about this divorce experience, which certainly isn’t the prettiest life has to offer. I heard that my writing has given others in similar situations some comfort.
So that’s all very nice and of course that is the reason why I now could declare this subject closed, affect a pious stance, toss my hand across my brow and declare: I do this all for my public! For my readers!
That’s one part of it, but it’s not all of it. Ex asserts I’m doing this writing out of bile, which is anger. I have been very angry at him, and the fact that he considers my anger remarkable, is in its own way astonishing.
But anger is one emotion that doesn’t actually propel me to the page – if anything, it propels me to the gym.
Just try writing when you’re really really angry. All you end up writing is FUCK YOU FUCK YOU FUCK YOU YOU FUCKING FUCKITY FUCK. Or something like that. Writing is an activity that is very hard to do in the grips of rage; absolutely nothing I’ve published on any topic has been written in anger. (N.B.: an angry narrator is not the same thing as an angry writer.)
He also says I write out of spite, which is a desire to hurt, annoy, or offend someone. Hmmm. Annoyance is the easiest motive to dismiss first –-I’d consider his annoyance at my writing about the divorce a side benefit if it didn’t provoke communication from him; the fact that it does this actually makes it more annoying to me.
But have I wanted to hurt or offend him with this writing? Have I wanted to hurt him at all?
I will admit that there were certainly times, and especially during the divorce negotiations, that the thought of punching him very hard in the face did occur to me. But that’s a very abstract thought, I’ve never actually punched anyone in the face.
No, my motive for writing about this divorce isn’t to create any particular emotional response in my ex-husband – as I said, I didn’t even know he was reading what I wrote until very recently. Besides, it’s not generally my instinct to want to create pain just because I’m feeling it. I definitely know I wanted my pain to stop, but even in the worst moments, I didn’t think that causing him pain would accomplish that.
I write about this divorce for the same reason I write about anything: to lay out the facts so I can see them, to discern the pattern between these facts, to find the story, yes, to find what’s funny about it, and finally to gain an understanding of the world.
And it is also true that by writing about the divorce, I’m shaping the public narrative. But then again, no one is stopping him from writing his own story.
But that gets to something else that’s happening here, in my writing about this particular topic. Every time I write about the divorce, I feel a greater sense of control over what happened to me, a greater sense of personal power. When I write about the few facts I have, and the meaning that I can find in them, I feel more ownership over these circumstances, and in fact I feel powerful.
Every writer knows this feeling – when you start to put facts of your life down on a screen and move them around, it saps even the most painful circumstances of their emotional strength. Trauma becomes material, to be arranged on the page for the greatest effect.
Now, I suppose if you had a certain kind of a mind – a paranoid mind, given to zero-sum thinking — you might say that any way in which I become strong makes my ex-husband weak. He was at the height of his power over me when he unilaterally ended our marriage, and categorically refused to respond truthfully to my most basic requests for information. I was at the nadir of mine. Every fact I’ve been able to determine, and every step I’ve taken sense to regain autonomy over my life has restored my own sense of personal power.
It hasn’t occurred to me until this moment that he might see my recovery of a sense of power and agency as a problem for him. But if that’s the case, then so be it. Writing is my strength. And I’m not going to make myself weak so that he can feel strong.