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Turning Points Writing About Marriage When You Want to Stay Married
“I am posting a bulletin from the sanctuary behind that closed bedroom door.”
Two winters ago, I stayed temporarily in a bee-infested cottage in the swamplands of Florida while teaching and writing at an artists’ center. Each morning, I opened the cottage door to a swarm of fist-sized carpenter bees so thick it seemed to cloud the humid air, then slammed the door, heart racing. The bees were not my only problem. In fact, they seemed like such a perfect metaphor that I began to wonder if they were real at all. My work had skidded to a painful halt. My mind was . . . well, my mind was buzzing. I was stuck. There was something invisible and dangerous at the center of everything I tried to write, something I didn’t yet understand.
Over the course of three extremely isolated and challenging weeks, my inner world seemed to tilt and reorient itself. I hardly left the cottage except to buy coffee, milk, yogurt and wine. I ripped up the essay I had been struggling with for many months, and realized with a thudding sense of horror what I had been avoiding. The subject of my next book was going to be marriage. As in, my marriage. I was going to write openly and honestly about my marriage to a man I loved and to whom I had every intention of staying wedded for the rest of our lives.
Had I lost my mind? Why would any sane person do this?
I had been married for eighteen years, and I had some questions, the kind of questions that, if you’re a writer, begin to haunt you until you’d better attempt to explore them using the only tool you have, which is language. How do two people commit to each other for the duration? What is it to form oneself alongside, with, against another human being? To grow at different rates? To engage together in a dance—at times graceful, at other times awkward, even ugly—all with the conviction that there is no exit strategy, that this is it?
I wrote a few words in the margin of one of the torn essay pages: woodpecker , I scribbled, and ice storm. And then I called my husband.
“I think I want to write about us,” I told him. My voice rose at the end of the sentence, an implied question.
A brief pause on the other end.
“This should be interesting,” he answered.
I had written four books since meeting my husband, but had never really written about him. One novel had centered on a marriage, but not our marriage. I had published two memoirs, but in each, he had made no more than a cameo appearance. In fact, when my memoir, Devotion , came out, readers asked me why my husband wasn’t in it more. The book was about a spiritual crisis, I explained, and he was an atheist. He just didn’t have very much to do with the story.
But now he was the story. Once I returned home to Connecticut, the sense of being in treacherous, borderline-lethal territory continued. In the twenty-five years during which I’ve been publishing books, readers have often made the assumption that I must feel exposed, and also, that I must be somehow comfortable betraying others. I have written extensively about my mother, father, half-sister, grandparents, aunts, uncles, exes. I’ve done so with some alchemical combination of trepidation and ruthlessness. I would prefer not to hurt anyone, and yet I’ve felt these stories that involved me—that made me—were my stories to tell. I once heard Andre Dubus III asked why he felt he had a right to expose painful episodes in the lives of his siblings, in particular a brother who had been sexually abused by a high school teacher. “What took place on his side of the closed bedroom door is his story,” Dubus responded. “What happened to me as I walked down the hall and heard the sounds behind that closed door—that was mine.”
But a couple married nearly twenty years—while each has a singular story—is wound together like two old trees in the forest, and the story of them, their themness is not the property of one or the other. My husband and I were on the same side of that bedroom door.
Woodpecker . Ice storm. I knew just where I was going when I scrawled these notes in the margin of the dead essay. To write memoir is to find the shape in something shapeless—to understand and make use of the raw and chaotic stuff of life. A woodpecker had been doing his damndest to destroy our house, the rat-tat-tat of his sharp little beak a rhythm that punctuated our days. Now he wasn’t only a woodpecker; he was a metaphor for all the things we couldn’t control. An ice storm during which our home lost power for several days had precipitated one of the more violent arguments in our marriage. My husband, a former war correspondent, wished for nothing more than to go out and explore the devastation in our neighborhood while all I wanted was to find a safe warm place to stay with our young son. Memoir turned that ice storm into a metaphor as well. Safety, danger, erosion, aging, time, the accretion of joy and sorrow, triumph and failure—all these were now the wet clay I worked with. At the end of the passage about the ice storm I wrote the words: I hated him . My breath caught in my throat. I deleted them as quickly as I had set them down. Then wrote them once more. Stared at them. We all probably hate our partner at moments. But was it okay to write that I had hated mine?
Each evening during that high-wire year of writing about my marriage, I read that day’s pages aloud to my husband. I sat across from him in my small office—I on the chaise where I had been working, he swiveling back and forth on my desk chair. He is also a writer and has always been my first reader, but now the process took on a heightened intensity, as if the words I had been struggling to set down that day were a third presence in the room, a therapist, a judge, a clergyman. I was creating something that was both us and not us. I was crafting two characters on the page who would, in time, be thought of as us. Could I tell the truth and still protect my marriage? One day I wrote a particularly tough scene involving a financial risk my husband had taken without telling me. I waited until we were on an hour-long drive before I read them to him. His hands on the wheel, staring straight ahead, he listened carefully. When I finished, my words seemed to echo in the air.
“Did you think I would be upset by this?” he asked.
“I thought you might be.”
He shook his head slightly.
“But it’s true,” he said.
What does Michael think? asks every person who hears I have written a book about our marriage. He reads every word , I sometimes answer. Or: He’s fine with it, good thing he’s also a writer. Or: If he had asked me not to do it, I would have put it in a drawer . I think of my parents, grandparents, half-sister, aunts, uncles, exes and all the others from whom I never sought nor felt I needed permission. Like an archaeologist, I dug where I could, searching for buried cities. I took care with each dusty artifact, all the while knowing that I might not be getting it right. How could I possibly know what was true? People were dead. Lives had been lived and lost.
But now I am posting a bulletin from the sanctuary behind that closed bedroom door, the place where two people learn each other’s inner and outer contours, as the years hurl by and life has its way with both of them. I am not reconstructing a world so much as attempting to illuminate it. I am writing about the delicacy of love and, in so doing, am pushing against the very edges of that love. I am exploring something as close to me—and as invisible—as my own breath. I hold both my husband and myself gently in my hands, betraying either both of us, or neither. When people ask me what my husband thinks, I can see the question beneath the question in their eyes: Is nothing sacred? Precisely the opposite, I want to say. The terror that enveloped me in the Florida swampland, the danger I felt pressing in on me was because everything about my marriage is sacred.