Respect the overlapping details in each other’s work and cherish the differences.
Inevitably, when you’re dating a fellow writer, there will be a certain amount of overlap in your fiction. Certain details might surface in both of your work—a Shih-tzu puppy you’re petsitting together eating an ancient junior mint that was stuck to one of your blankets, and the two of you frantically googling, “are junior mints dog poison?”
But, because you are different people with distinctive minds and voices, you are entirely different writers, and the details that you focus in on are also thrillingly dissimilar. The language that you use to describe the crusty-white of the aged junior mint and the moment of fearful wonder as you struggled to decipher what it was in the dog’s mouth—these make no appearance in his telling at all.
What you marvel at is how easily he has remembered your exact phrasing when you said, “This is going to ruin my relationship with junior mints, isn’t it?”
Establish what material is “fair game” and don’t be surprised when territorial feelings arise.
He tells you a story about growing up in Phoenix about a neighbor who kept a pet camel in the backyard and how sometimes this neighbor would lead it around on a soft rope, and the big kids would lift the little kids up to touch its vast velveteen nose. When you go with your boyfriend to Phoenix for New Years, you walk around his old neighborhood looking for the camel together. Later, you write about it.
You are shocked to find, after everything is said and done, that he felt territorial about the camel.
In an autobiographical novel he started working on in the relationship’s final stages, he writes about you stealing the camel detail. He writes about how weird it is to have the details of his own life show up in someone else’s work.
But I was there, remember? You want to tell him. I lived it too.
That was what you thought you’d rendered, a shared memory, the hilled desert swelling like red and yellow surf above the streets where he used to trick-or-treat as his favorite basketball player. You held hands while looking for the camel. You took turns calling: “Hey, CAMEL!” You peeked through the cracks in fences and everything smelled like grapefruit and hot stone.
You hadn’t thought of it as something private to him.
But maybe this feels greedy, whiny. And you can’t tell him this anyway, because at this point, the relationship is already over.
Make your peace with all the parts that will go undocumented.
In your relationship, which lasts three years altogether, you write mainly about the beginning—the early days of junior mints adhered to blankets.
He, on the other hand, writes mainly about the ending—the time at the Renaissance festival you laughed at him for not knowing what a gunpowder horn made from the tusk of a wild boar was for.
“Why would I know that?” he snapped suddenly. “I’m not from the middle ages.”
Because you have documented the beginning, and he the end, this makes your relationship feel thoroughly mapped— though there seems to be a lot of material in between that neither of you have paid much attention to in your writing.
Don’t be surprised when you don’t always recognize yourself in your partner’s fiction.
At the end, he is working on a book. It’s a record of his life in the city he hates where the two of you moved because of you.
Because it’s six months before your breakup, this manuscript of his will serve as a record of the relationship in its final stage. When he sends it to you after he’s moved out, you are shocked that, really, he has fictionalized nothing. It is all rendered exactly as it was—your slow dissolution, his stifled misery.
You are amazed by his accuracy. You used to joke with him that his memory was flawless because he’d never done any drugs, not even a lone hit of weed.
“You’re like an unpolluted wilderness stream,” you’d tell him.
He’s gotten everything correct, you decide; except, it seems, for you.
Try to acknowledge when fictional depictions are fair while still attempting to locate what, specifically, has been omitted.
There is something pale about his rendering of you. You don’t really recognize yourself. Were you really so floundering and shrill and superficial?
You recognize many of the things you did and said—many of them shameful, many of them testament to your selfishness and inability to navigate even the most basic requirements of living as an adult in the world. For example, your inability to ever, once, pay the rent on time.
He acknowledges in the book that, really, you were trying very hard, and he acknowledges that asking you to try harder would have only upset you dramatically, but you keep seeing the word “lazy” appear in reference to yourself, sprinkled throughout the manuscript. This laziness, you realize, is true of you, but it also isn’t the whole truth.
You see quite plainly, in his book, all the ways that you were a terrible partner, and they are inarguably accurate. You see, also, his rendering of all the reasons that he was devoted to you. And this is where some of your confusion resides.
There is something you can’t put your finger on, something missing behind the funny dialogue about which animal’s poop you would eat if you had to, behind the moment when you offered scraps of beef from a carton of leftover pho to a stray Labrador. There’s something a little cloying in the things that make you likable. In other words, you don’t like them. They seem false, cute even—Zooey Deschanel in 500 Days of Summer. You can’t quite locate what it is that has been erased, but you read with keen attention, wanting to know yourself through his knowledge of you.
In the book, your character spends a lot of time stroking your boyfriend’s face, offering reassurance, comforting him when he utterly fails to thrive as a Driver’s Ed instructor. You remember these gestures, but, reappearing here, they don’t seem authentic, motivated by anything real. There is some essential part of you that just isn’t there, behind the gestures themselves, and it makes you feel increasingly empty and unseen.
You find yourself actually squinting as you read, as if this will help you to better see what, specifically, has been omitted from the page.
Try to use the things he gets wrong about you as reassurance that the relationship needed to end.
Eventually, you begin to see the thing that is missing. It is, to put it simply: your mind. This depressed, anxious mind of yours had been sitting between the two of you the whole time, and it was his repeated attempts and failures to comprehend it that had made you feel so alone in the relationship, alone on the page where this part of you was invisible.
You had, through frequent conversations, tried to acquaint him with what the struggle to make sense of your mind had felt like. These conversations are absent from his book. Instead, you quibble about moving logistics as you maneuver a Craigslist sofa into a smelly van you rented from Home Depot. Instead, you debate Chipotle vs. Qdoba or which Spiderman you’d want as a road-trip companion. In reality, you did spend a lot of time talking like this. But you are seeing these conversations now, written down in your boyfriend’s book, as a kind of lack.
In his book, your injured mind has been cut free of you, and you can’t recognize yourself on the page without it.
It was with you every day, this precarious mind. Every single day of your relationship. There are hints of it in the manuscript, subtle nods—a moment when you broke down weeping after he informed you that a neighbor was threatening to have your long-dead station wagon towed if you didn’t move it. You see how easily overwhelmed you were. But, without a mention of the mind’s constant battle, you appear spineless, vapid, petulant, incompetent, and overly sensitive.
It’s not that you feel that your struggle to gain some semblance of control over your mind is the most essential part of you. It’s that something feels unfair about rendering a “true account” of your relationship without this piece of you, this thing, you realize now, that your boyfriend was never able to fully grasp.
You don’t blame him for this. At the time, even family members and close friends had struggled to understand what you were dealing with. And it isn’t that you wanted him to use your mental unwellness as some kind of explanation for all your bad behaviors. It was that, without it, the fictionalized you just isn’t quite you.
In your memory, the you from that time was perpetually sad and frustrated and laughing, constantly laughing, through the sadness and frustration at the stories your boyfriend brought home from his day—the time he briefly considered applying to be an FBI agent until he saw, listed under “Physical Requirements,” that there was a certain number of push-ups he’d be expected to do. “Fuck that,” he said, and you’d laughed with your whole self. You were entirely miserable inside your own mind, but still, you could laugh.
In his book, this was what the omission has done: it has erased any acknowledgement that laughing and living had brought you into a kind of lie. A lie that tried to say, over and over: it’s alright. You’re alright. Your life in this place with this person is bearable. It wasn’t. And that is the truth. The truth that his fiction has the power to reveal to you.
Don’t hold any grudges but acknowledge your disappointment.
You don’t resent him for getting it wrong. You are only a bit disappointed, ultimately, that all the times you wrote about him, he shone through your words. He glowed. And when he wrote about you, you didn’t.
This doesn’t mean you’re a better writer, or he, a more honest one. After all, your territory was the beginning, and there was glow around that anyway. His territory was the end, and by then the glow had gone a bit pale.
Renée Branum’s novel Defenestrate is available now via Bloomsbury.