I encourage everyone to write about their ex. Release them. Release yourself. Feel the peace.
Is this my entire writerly identity?
Something’s Gotta Give
Zen in the Art of WritingWhy did I say that? What made me react in that way?Why did I allow that to go on for so long? Why didn’t I just walk away?
Sometimes I am embarrassed that the bulk of my published work focuses on one subject; it can make me feel less valid as a writer. Whenever I feel this way, I try to remember the readers my work can help and make feel less alone—I get to be a gal pal to the girl who just ran into her ex and whose heart rate hasn’t quite come down. And luckily, readers have told me how much they needed that and have given me positive responses. Sometimes I am very proud of my work, and other days I feel embarrassed that I could not just leave these relationships behind but instead had to dissect and explore them thoroughly the best way I know how—on the page. I worry that the men and women I write about will get the impression that I still think about them, when in all honesty I don’t.
But when I consider it more deeply, I am less embarrassed about the idea of an ex reading an essay in which they are a character and more embarrassed that I put an essay out that explores some of the least sexy parts of my personality.
In 2021, I started to teach a workshop, “How to Write About Your Ex,” choosing to lean into my accidental “brand” as a woman who writes about her exes. To my surprise, most of the students who take my class have no trouble writing compelling nonfiction but are more concerned about publishing the piece for the world to see. I have students that ask me, before writing their own essay, “What will my ex say?” My answer is always the same: They will probably say nothing. Stories about heartbreak are always so much more than one individual event. They shape us and give us insight into who we are and where we are going. As my students work on their essays, the exes in question, whose opinions they fear, usually barely appear in their completed works. I assure my students that even if someone in their essay were to read their perspective, they are very unlikely to want to hash it out with them.
Even with this reassurance that a late-night DM is unlikely, my shiest students continue to ask me, “What if my ex contacts me? What will they think if I write about them?” To calm their nerves, I give them Anne Lamott’s famous quote as a starting point: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” But then I always ask them, “What will this story say about you?”
An exercise I use when I write or when my students are having a hard time finding their voice involves playing with the trope we may already have in our heads about relationships—that we are the heroes of our own stories—and then asking the page to show us that there are times we are not: Write one paragraph of your story where you are the perfect partner who did nothing wrong in the relationship. Lean into everything you did right. Then write one more where you are the villain of the story. Lean into everything you screwed up or wish went differently. How do these compare? Sometimes what is right for one person is painful for another. Nuance is okay. Gray areas are okay. These paragraphs don’t have to make sense together. Often we can find the answers just by playing these roles as if our relationships played out in an HBO drama—are we the hero or the villain?
When I start an essay now, I no longer sit down with a Carrie Bradshaw fantasy in mind. I know now I will get an honest self-portrait of myself at my worst, because there is no worse version of myself than being in love in a way I don’t deserve. I know now, after writing so many essays about my past loves, it is truly better to have no relationship than a shitty one.
I continue to write about my exes, learning about the former me and the present me, and overall the truth, as best as I can.
I encourage everyone to write about their ex. Release them. Release yourself. Feel the peace. They will not contact you, I promise. And whether you choose to publish the essay or keep it in your drafts folder, you’ll learn something along the way.
Elizabeth Teets is a Los Angeles and Portland based writer, comedian, and fashionista. She is the host and producer of the Hollywood Theater program Isn’t She Great. Her writings can be found at Los Angles Times, Reductress, and more.