My ex-husband didn’t love me. He was mean and selfish, and sometimes even cruel. The day he left, I found dating profiles on his computer along with e-mails from other women. He didn’t work for longer than a year at a time, and he drank like he deserved to. He spent most of our three-year marriage in front of a video game with a wine bottle by his side. He spent more money than he would ever earn. He traded in my Christmas gifts for video games, burned a hole through my new couch with a cigarette, and kissed girls prettier than me. He was trying to escape me, desperately. But you would never know any of this from reading my memoir, Fat Girl, Skinny, the book I wrote about our life together.
When I first sat down to write the book, I was convinced that I needed to show the world the real Jack, the man I just described. I needed the reader to be on my side, to be as angry as I was with him. I wanted the reader to be in our living room with that couch on fire, to feel the burn of my discontent. I wanted…to win. But as I wrote, draft after draft after draft, I could actually feel the anger dissipating. The first draft – heck, the first eight drafts – were hot and bold: He did this, he did that, he hurt me. But by the time draft nine came along, my prose began to soften.
My ex-husband loved me. We met when I was sixteen and he was eighteen. He had the best smile I had ever seen on a boy. He wore red Chuck Taylors and he read poetry; he stole a Tori Amos CD for me and he cried when Kurt Cobain died. How could I feel anything but pure adoration for this boy? Together, we traversed adolescence. There was a hill by his house that overlooked the airport. We sat there, night after night, discussing poetry and watching the landing lights blink green and red, guiding the planes in. I was pretty and young. I wore short skirts and lingerie on Valentine’s Day. I stroked his hair like it held the answer to every question I had ever asked.
Drafts ten and eleven became kinder to him and less kind to me. In those later drafts, I’m holding a lot of the blame for our crumbling marriage. I allowed my weight to balloon to 265 pounds, and was mean and cruel when I should have been more understanding. I acknowledged his crippling panic disorder and wondered what it must have been like for him to live under the pressure of constant anxiety. I wrote about him with a soft touch, the softness I should have shown him during our marriage.
So what happened in between those early and later drafts to change the way I wrote about this man? One might argue that I was in a better place personally. By the time I began writing the book, I had remarried and was blessed with twin daughters. My newfound happiness may have colored my perspective. There was also an emotional distance afforded to me through five years of writing drafts of this book. I never went to therapy after our divorce, even though I should have. I carried a lot of guilt and anger, felt those burdens on my chest at night, and allowed them to stay with me most days. Those burdens lessened with each draft, each word, and each revision.
But it was more than that. As I read through the earlier versions of my memoir, I found myself asking the dreaded question: Why on earth did I stay in this relationship? And that – the inability to relate or understand – is where writing memoir can become tricky. I soon realized that by skimping on objectivity, I was building a wall between myself and the reader. If I was asking myself why on earth I even married this man, let alone stayed with him in an unhealthy marriage for three years, wouldn’t the reader wonder the same thing? And in turn, wouldn’t the reader have difficulty not only connecting with me but with my story? The wall between us would grow taller and taller until it became impenetrable, causing the reader to put the book down and walk away.
Writing about the people we have loved and who have hurt us can be a tricky business. As memoir writers, we only have our personal lens through which we see our story. But the reader brings his or her own lens, which we’d be smart to remember. Objectivity is hard; if it were easy, there would be no such thing as blame. The best way to achieve that coveted neutral perspective is to walk further away from the fire itself, and the most effective way to do so is through revision. With each retelling of the story, we pull the lens further and further away from our scene, until the full landscape of our lives – both sides of the story – become visible to the reader.
Through revision, I have learned two important lessons. First, it was more important for me to be honest than vengeful, and to show the reader why I fell madly in love with this boy, to build a connection to him emotionally, a connection that would break down that wall I had put up. The reader needs to sit on that hill with us, to see the gentle way Jack kissed my neck, held my hand, and breathed me in when I needed someone the most. I didn’t need the reader to be on my side; I needed the reader to be on our side. Because this was not just my story, it was our story, mine and Jack’s. Which brings me to the second lesson: By writing about the origin of our love story, I allowed myself to remember why I fell in love with him in the first place. To remember being a teenager and loving him so purely and without complication. And what a beautiful gift that was.
Amye Archer holds an MFA in creative writing. Her debut memoir, Fat Girl, Skinny, was published in January 2016 by Big Table Publishing. She is the author of two poetry collections: Bangs and A Shotgun Life. She teaches at The University of Scranton and Marywood University. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband, Tim, and their twin daughters, Samantha and Penelope.