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Dear Someone Awesome:
An old girlfriend of mine is a writer too, and we ran into each other at a reading recently after more than a decade of being completely out of each other’s lives. Our breakup wasn’t awful or anything, but I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a bit of competition/envy between us that I’m sure contributed to our demise. Anyway, I was surprised to see her in my city and at my writer-bar, but she explained that her first book of short stories was just published so she was doing a little regional book tour. Hey, I know how hard it is to scratch out a writer’s life, so I bought her book, feeling like I was doing a healthy thing both for my community and for our past ills.
But then I read it and holy shit, Someone Awesome: it’s filled with thinly-veiled references to our relationship! Stuff I said, stuff we did. That one time in the elevator of the Math & Science building on campus. And suffice it to say, not a particularly glowing, fair or accurate representation of our time together or, especially, of me. At one point she describes the love interest (me!)as having “knees like grapefruits.” What does that even look like? What’s it supposed to mean?
I feel embarrassed, hurt and also fairly pissed off. I'm not a bad guy! I know she’s going to be at AWP (I told her we should get a drink there when I was buying her book—we’re both in relationships now so it’s cool), but I pride myself on my strong sense of justice and feel like I need to address this first, to clear the air between us. I’ve drafted an email that kindly but firmly refutes the characterization. Should I send it? And how do I face her in the book fair?
Dear Old Flame,
Step away from the keyboard, friend. You do not want to send that email.
Are you safely away? You’ve taken her address off the email so that you can’t mistakenly (or “mistakenly”) send it? Ok. Now, let’s talk.
First of all, I’m sorry. It sounds like your feeling were wounded, and you feel awful, and now I feel awful for you, because the whole thing sounds miserable. There are 20 different kinds of hurt involved here, including professional jealousy, betrayal by a former lover, and the righteous anger of people with perfectly-normal-yet-somewhat-maligned-knees. (I say “somewhat-maligned” because I like grapefruits, myself, and find them to be a pleasing size and shape.) You have every right to feel sad, annoyed, hurt, angry and seething with jealousy. Your feelings are your feelings and for anyone, including me, to tell you that they’re wrong isn’t helpful.
While we’re at rights, you also have a right to send that email. But I’m suggesting you don't, because the World of Things You Can Rightfully Do and the World of Things That Are a Good Idea is more of a Venn diagram than an exact transparency overlay.
You’re probably not convinced yet. I hear you. So, it might be worth contemplating what exactly you would ask her to do in that email you want so much to send? What justice do you seek? It’s not like she’s going to get the publisher to recall all copies of her book. I suppose she could apologize, but not only do I think that’s not really necessary (for more on that, see below), but I also don’t think it would make you feel better. It will be a forced apology, which is of little good to anyone involved.
I can hear you saying, “But I want to tell her how angry/annoyed/upset/shocked I am! I want her to feel as bad as I do!” Sure, ok. But the email isn’t going to cause that. You’re basically choosing the least sympathetic audience for your cri de coeur. It would land better with literally anyone else. I am all for venting; I would not have survived most of my 20’s and 30’s without being able to vent about the various shitty people who did shitty things to me. But I vented to my best friends, my parents, my brother, my pastor. Not to the person who did a shitty thing to me, unless some actual recompense was possible or required. Why would I want to look so pathetic to someone who has already hurt me? If you email Ex-GF wailing and calling for her head, you’re either confirming your status as a jerky guy who she rightly left behind, or alerting her to the fact that you’re much worse of a person than she thought.
There’s another side to this, too, Old Flame. I don’t really think she’s in the wrong.
I’ve just finished reading the great Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir, and in it, she writes at some length about how to tell people who you’ve written about that you’ve done so. (By the way, by her logic, you would fall into a group – out of touch for over a decade – that she doesn’t think need to be told in any event.) Anyway, Carr advocates that writers be open and honest with their subjects as soon as they’re sure they’re going to write about them, and that any reasonable requests be honored. A reasonable request would be that the subject get to choose their pseudonym (which she let all of her friends do at a gathering one night, which makes me even more sure I would like to party with Mary Karr); an unreasonable request would be “Do not write about me at all, ever.”
And that’s memoir. Your Ex-GF is writing fiction, which is an even more slippery slope. Fictional characters are often a Frankenstein’s Monster of a real friend’s love of Hall & Oates and an entirely imaginary upbringing in Corsica. Fiction writers have the birthright to make stuff up AND to use stuff from real life. So, just because you see bits of yourself in your Ex-GF’s Monster doesn’t mean that you are represented whole cloth in her work. She didn’t take your life together and simply change the names.
Here’s the thing: people own the stories of what happened to them, even when someone else was involved. Anne Lamott says it best in her book, Bird by Bird: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
Maybe, dear Old Flame, you should have behaved better.
That said, maybe she should have too. So, if you want, you can write a retaliatory story. You can weave together information about her and stuff you just want her to say, and try to make your own great art. Maybe that would work. It’s certainly more productive than emailing her about what she wrote. Or, you can make use of that strong sense of justice that you’re proud of, and fight for people who really do need justice: the homeless, the lost, the broken, the battered, the refuse of society. This is pretty small beans compared to a lot of the ills of the world. Which is not to say your feelings are wrong, but that perhaps you could use a little perspective.
But I do not mean to leave you without options. You certainly do not have to go out for a drink with her at AWP. In fact, I don’t know why either of you would want to. Me, I wouldn’t get in contact with her ever again, and if she did email, I would say, “Thanks, but I felt weird about how you used some of our past in your last book, so I’m going to pass.” Why put yourself through that?
You are also released from any obligation to pass her book along to friends, suggest that your public library buy a copy or two or get your former professor who does that podcast about books to interview her. You can cut ties to that book. You need not prove yourself that kind of great guy.
Have I convinced you, Old Flame? Are you off to bitch to your best friend and/or write an amazing story with Ex-GF as the main character? No? You still want to send your email? I strongly advise against it. She will not answer or she will answer with great condescension, possibly using the same Anne Lamott quote.
My last thought, Old Flame? I’ve always found it to be true that living well is the best revenge. You want to go forward in such a way that you’ll remember all of this vaguely when someone mentions Ex-GF at the party your intelligent, loving wife throws for you as a celebration of your most recent Pulitzer Prize.
Someone Awesome/Shannon Reed
Shannon's work has recently been published or is upcoming in The New Yorker, Buzzfeed, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Poets & Writers, Vela, Narratively and Guernica, among others. She is working on a series of comic essays about teaching.
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