Never Date a Writer. You’ll End Up As Material.

By
Photo: Underwood & Underwood/Corbis

More than five years had passed since Sam and I had last seen each other when he sent me an email with the subject line: "IMPORTANT." The email was sent to my work address. It was terse but portentous. "You might be in a position to help me," he wrote, "so I’m sending you this." Attached to the email was a manuscript. A novel.

I was a character, a central one. I had been given a pseudonym (as I am giving him here), and there were some elements of other women — fictional or real, I wasn’t sure — that had been grafted on. But there were also features that were unmistakably mine. The pseudonym he’d given me was more of an inside joke than a disguise. 

I stayed up late that night and finished the manuscript, reading with a strange sense of honor. Isn’t it every woman’s fantasy, to some extent, to be someone’s muse — to feel as though her beauty, intelligence, and grace are so extraordinary that they inspire not just devotion but art? I’d never admit to desiring celebrity, but that doesn’t mean that I’d turn down the chance to be immortalized — or at least captured for a moment — by someone else. At art museums, I’ve always played a game: Matisse or Picasso, Manet or Degas, Rembrandt or Rubens — whom would I prefer to sit for?

But there was horror mixed with the honor. I’d never asked myself: Bellow or Roth, Hemingway or Fitzgerald, Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky? It seemed too terrifying to be made three-dimensional — to be faced with someone else’s portrait of your psyche. If the depiction seems to miss the mark, but includes just enough to make you recognizable, then you’d have to wage an endless personal PR campaign with anyone who came in contact with the text: No, reader, you don’t know me. But if the novel contained some shades of truth — perhaps the attributes you don’t share widely (aren’t they always the most compelling?) — then you face an even scarier prospect: Yes, reader, you know parts of me before we’ve ever met.

Reading Sam’s novel, I vacillated between annoyance that he’d gotten parts of the story wrong and annoyance that he’d gotten parts of it right. Sam and I had met our freshman year at college and had quickly fallen in love; the two main characters similarly, speedily fall for each other. It was flattering to read his account of first setting eyes on “my” character — a scene that involved something like a vision emerging from across the campus quad. (He remembered the outfit I was wearing! I still had that skirt!) But the closer he got, the more uncomfortable it became. The character was elegant but uptight; generally correct, but also a scold, deploying righteousness to shield impatience. In my most honest assessment, I’d say I possess shades of all these attributes and that they are some of the things I like least about myself.

Of course, there is no “right” or “wrong” in fiction — and no “right” or “wrong” in the way he chose to assemble elements of our shared past. Fiction requires no fidelity to reality, just dedication to the elements from which it is composed. And all prose has perspective; he was going to tell our story however he wanted. But I still couldn’t help but think I was allowed to feel annoyed that he’d turned me into both some kind of idol and a nag.

***

I should not have been surprised that this manuscript appeared. In one of our infrequent post-breakup phone calls, Sam had mentioned he was writing a book. But, more fundamentally than that, Sam and I were both compulsive scribblers. Freshman year, he’d slip poems under my door. I thought they were embarrassing; my roommates thought they were brilliant — or maybe they were just being kind. Sam left school for a spell, and we wrote letters while he was away. Wandering around the country, he did not have regular access to a computer — I’m not sure he even had an email address, though by that time everyone did — so we would use his parents’ house as our poste restante. Occasionally, he called when he found a phone, but it is the letters that I remember.

The novel wasn’t even the first time Sam had made me into material. When he returned to school a few semesters later, we took a creative-writing class together. (Not a good idea.) We fought over what he could and could not write about; I made him change the details of some of his stories so that I could sit through class without passing out. I wasn’t entirely prudish about privacy, however. Sam published some stories in a campus magazine that made me feel proud rather than violated.

When I graduated and moved to Washington, D.C., Sam remained at school. We both assumed we would stay together, but the distance strained. We grew apart, and then he broke up with me. Perhaps every surprised girlfriend feels that her would-be boyfriend is not being rational when she’s rejected, but I truly thought he was making a major mistake.  

That changed when I visited him a few months after our split. I don’t remember much about that trip, but I do remember that a plant that I had given him had grown so large it was as though someone had slipped it steroids. The branches reached the ceiling; Jurassic leaves blocked the light from his tiny dorm room window. It had mutated into something that pushed against the confines of the room — a kind of organic manifestation of the claustrophobia I felt. I saw him a few months later, and then again a few months after that, then the time between our encounters yawned into years.

After several years, I got engaged and, not knowing where to find him, left a message on the voicemail of the last phone number I had for him. I felt like I was throwing pebbles into a black hole; the communication had no tail. I never heard back. This is how it ends, I thought.

Except, it didn’t, quite. I worked Sam into stories I was writing — squeezing them in whenever a niggling memory made my fingers twitch. Perhaps, I thought, if I had had more affairs, I would have more inspiration. (I’d met my now-husband a few weeks after Sam and I broke up.) But I never really felt a dearth; there was plenty in my head to keep me going. I didn’t try to publish any of these fragments. I don’t think I even showed them to anyone. When I read over them with a little distance, they seemed immature and raw. But even if I knew the work wasn’t for publication, I could still sense it had a pulse.

***

Sam’s novel had a pulse as well. It was messy, but it had the ingredients of good campus fiction: privilege, precociousness, girls on bikes, and boys in scarves. Was this assessment what he wanted? Some pointers — like I’d given him in Creative Writing 101? Or did he want something more practical? I’m loosely connected to the world of publishing and I had no idea where or how Sam was spending his days. Maybe I was only a connection to be tapped for professional help? And if so, wasn’t there something shamelessly mercenary in his pressing me into service: Yes, you’re a character; get over it and help me with my prospects. Or did he dispatch the manuscript with slightly more aggressive undertones: Screw your memories; here are mine.

Eventually, I wrote to ask. The answer was straightforward: He wanted me to tell him what I thought, and to help him, possibly, figure out how to get it published. I could deliver on the first request; I could hardly stop myself. I told him where the structure did not seem entirely successful. I felt certain elements of the plot were too sketchy. And I took issue with one character in particular: me. Why didn’t he give me more of an internal life? Why did I make such bad decisions?I tried to keep my questions from seeming too whiny or too prude. Too similar to objections the character would have voiced herself.

There was no way, however, that I could help him with his second request. Promoting the book would seem underhandedly conceited, as well as just bizarre. And I wasn’t sure that the novel was good enough to overwhelm my hesitations; I was pretty sure that it was impossible for me to judge. (It didn’t help that my judgment was certainly clouded by annoyance that he’d put me in such a position.) In the end, I gave him some names of people he might contact but made no invitation to use mine.

***

About a month after I sent him my notes, he texted me to say he would be visiting Washington, where I still lived. We met for lunch the following day. It had been years. I was nervous, repulsed by my chicken salad. He came out with it: Did I mind, he asked, that he had made me a character? Underneath the question lay a proposition, maybe: He was offering to bow out, concede the contest.

Sam was no Matisse or Manet, but he was probably the only man who would know me well enough to attempt to distill a little piece of me, to boil it down and strain it into art. My husband, for all his wonderful features, is not stirred by creative impulses. But I don’t think it was pure vanity that led me to turn down his offer. It was part of reckoning with what it meant for him — and with the labor of writing itself. I did not want him to pull apart his work because I understood the sweat it had involved.

Okay, I had to feel this way. Sam’s novel had sent me back to my computer to write this essay. Was I trying to do to him what he’d done to me? You use me, and I’ll use you. “Whoever writes best wins,” said a writer friend, shrugging, when I told her what I was up to.

When two writers meet, and fall in love, and break up, and then begin to write, is this competition impossible to avoid? Even in nonfiction, truth one can butt up against truth two. I haven’t intentionally invented anything here, but if Sam swore that he’d sent those freshman-year notes to my campus mailbox rather than slipping them under my door as I remember, would I vehemently disagree? Did we really send letters to his parents’ house? (Or do I just read too many 19th-century novels and like the antique feel of a “poste restante”?) Would Sam even remember the overgrown plant, which has become for me a symbol of a love that no longer fit?

More important, does it matter if our accounts diverge? Probably not, and not just because one is nominally fiction. Fiction or non — there’s no such thing as a single truth when you’re writing the story of a breakup.

Years later, Sam sent me a new version of the manuscript. I skimmed it and got the impression that it cohered much better than before. He’d taken my advice and dramatically revised “my” character — he’d revised her so much, in fact, that she had ceased to be a recognizable representation of me. I felt relief, and then I felt sad.“The End” had finally arrived.