Imagine Them Reading Your Book

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In my last blog post, I mentioned an article I had recently gotten published in Brevity's Nonfiction Blog in which I talked about what to leave and what to leave out when writing memoir. It tells the story of two breakups and two reunions, but very different sorts. In case you missed it, here it is:

Imagine Them Reading Your Book

My uncle and I stopped speaking to each other almost a decade ago. I loved my uncle, and he loved me, but we had an argument that mushroomed into a cloud so thick neither of us could see through it—until years later, when he got sick, and his prognosis became too grim to keep on refusing to exchange words, especially kind ones. When we did finally speak, just after what would become his final surgery, neither one of us addressed the argument from years before. We knew it was time to put it behind us or else be left with regrets. We held hands, and that became more important than our tender but old hurts. 

My uncle died weeks later.

Years before I finished writing my memoir, The Going and Goodbye, I sat through panels and lectures on how to decide what to leave in and take out when writing about people in your life. Some authors advocated spilling it all, no matter the consequences. Others advocated for the play-it-safe side, allowing those represented in their memoir to read the manuscript before publication, sometimes even letting them decide what went into the final version.

In my first few memoir drafts, my uncle resided in several chapters. There was even a chapter about our argument: his past, my past, the places where our stories collided and burned. But some things felt too private to air to the world, and I worried about who might get hurt—namely, his family. Eventually, those chapters—and my uncle—were entirely taken out of the book, but there were other people I could not pluck out so easily. My memoir is about love and loss, and a former boyfriend and an ex-husband—whose relationships helped shape who I am today—were integral to my story. 

When I started writing my memoir, I had written down any memory that came into my head, even if it was ugly, unfortunate, unflattering. The fights, the breakups, the counseling sessions, all of it went into those early drafts. The anger, too, and especially the blame. Oh, the blame. I had plenty of that.

I revised my “final” manuscript three times. And in those iterations, a shift took place. I was learning to understand better the former boyfriend and ex-husband—not just their actions or inactions, but what they might have feared, how the things I did might have hurt them. I kept imagining what they would think if reading my book. Did I talk enough about my failures? Did I admit to my insecurities, my weaknesses, my mistakes? In the end, I hoped, if nothing else, I had been fair.

The day I signed my book contract, I thought perhaps I should find and give a heads up to my ex-husband. It had been eight years since we had communicated. I didn’t have to find the former boyfriend because years ago he asked me (very nicely) to never contact him again, and I promised him I never would. He is not the type of person to open a shut door, so it’s highly unlikely he will ever know about the book, but if he ever reads it, it’s okay. I have imagined it dozens of times already. The ex-husband, though, I had made no such promise of never contacting, and I decided I needed to track him down. Turns out, I didn’t have to. It was only a day or two later that I opened up my email inbox, and there was a message from him.

“Hi Shuly,” it began. “I found your blog and enjoyed reading your stories. It felt a little strange to find myself in a couple of your stories—it brought back some old memories. I'm happy to see that you are doing what you love. I hope you are well.”

Yes, I had written a few blog posts about our marriage, but they weren’t intimate the way the book was. And if they were strange to read for him, how was a memoir going to feel?

I wrote him back and told him about the book, offering to let him see it. He wanted to read the chapters that had him in it, so we made a deal: I would send a chapter and we would discuss it over email, and then I would send the next, and the next.

We began to pass memories back and forth: the salsa dancing at the Corinthian, the trip to Mexico, the move to North Carolina. We joked about things, too—something we had not done since our marriage. Not surprisingly, some of our memories differed. He didn’t always like the way he was portrayed. Always my question to him was, “But is it fair?” He said it was, for which I was very grateful. He never, not even once, asked me to change what I wrote. He never complained. We communicated more honestly about our relationship in those emails than we ever had sitting on the marriage counseling couch together, sinking into a too-soft and uncomfortable future neither one of us was sure could support us for the rest of our lives. In our emails, we offered respect and regret. Time is a great negotiator of forgiveness. It allowed us a greater perspective, and to speak without blame, to take ownership of our mistakes, and to remember the best parts of our relationship.

Fifteen years ago, after we split up, while I was still smarting from our breakup, he said he hoped one day we would be able to be friends and get coffee together, and I told him, probably not very nicely, that there was no way that was ever going to happen. But now, it feels a little like we have had that coffee—without the coffee. And when my ex-husband said he wanted to buy my book, to read the whole thing, it felt like the kind of success I wanted but never dared to imagine.

This article was originally published on August 30, 2017 on Brevity's Nonfiction Blog. To learn more about my memoir, The Going and Goodbye, click here.

Remembering to Sing

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Recently, I wrote an article about what to leave in and what to leave out when writing a memoir, and it made me think of this story from my life:

When my (first) husband decided he wanted a divorce, it was the end of November, just after Thanksgiving. The cold, darker days marched steadily on in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where I was living at the time. I had a plan to be gone for Christmas in my hometown in Ohio, but there were plenty of days that preceded that trip, days when I was still stuck in our shared condo, still living under the same roof with the soon-to-be-ex-husband, days when I dreaded going home after my workday ended. 

At that time in my life, I had two co-workers who were also my friends: Stef and Kim. The three of us had spent a lot of time together—traveling to the mountains, watching Felicity every week (one or both of them rooted for Ben while I cheered on Noel, the safer, more practical choice), eating out, and one night, dancing at a college club, and another night (or was it that same night?), purchasing a CD of the best of the Backstreet Boys and playing it in the car as loudly as we could and singing right along. I’d never been a boy band fan before, but in that time in my life, I was becoming one. The ballads allowed me to belt out my grief and to dare to hope. To this day, any Backstreet Boys song reminds me of that time, and especially of that night, and my two friends.

It's hard to believe, but our trio—Stef, Kim and I—never dealt with any of the jealousies that often come when three people are great friends. It never felt like any two of us were closer than with the other, and we somehow achieved, without any effort, a balance and security that satisfied us all. 

And so it was that on one of these evenings of that time in my life that felt like purgatory teetering towards hell, when the last thing I wanted was to be in that condo, Stef and Kim decided to take me out. I’m sure it was a weekend night, when they might have been going out with their romantic interests but instead chose to go out with me. They drove me to the ice skating rink in Raleigh. I’m also sure I was the one, and probably the only one, who really wanted to go, but good friends make exceptions when it really matters.

Stef was the one who provided comic relief while Kim was the one who provided steadiness. We skated round and round that rink until I forgot, for a few moments and then a few minutes and then more, that I was grieving. The DJ played the crowd’s favorite pop songs, taking requests. We skated round and round. Then, after one song ended, the DJ announced over the loudspeaker, “This one goes out to Julie,” and on came N Sync’s “This I Promise You," which was the song I was listening to at the time, wanting to believe that someone might love me again, this time for a lifetime. I looked at Stef and Kim, and asked if I was “Julie.” Yes, they said, the DJ had gotten my name wrong, but the song was in fact for me.

I can’t remember now if I laughed or cried or both. I do remember skating to my song, and singing to it. And I remember feeling something I still feel to this day when I think back to that night: gratitude for these two people who rescued me for an evening, who would continue to rescue me over the days and weeks yet to come, who showed me a kind of love that has lasted to this day.

Kim and Stef didn’t make it into the memoir but not because they did not matter—I want that to be clear—and not because there was anything controversial about them. On the contrary: there was no conflict whatsoever. They didn’t make it in because I just didn’t happen to tell all of the stories about my life. But I am telling this one now. There are so many others—of my parents and sister, of other friends near and far who held up lights when I groveled in the dark. But it was Stef and Kim who found ways to ensure that I got out of the condo, that I remembered how to laugh, that I did not forget to sing.

A Little Thank You for the Safe and Steady Things

As soon as I turned 16 and was eligible to work, I got a job at the public library. What better place for an enthusiastic reader and budding writer to work? I loved being around books, shelving them, feeling their weight in my hands, and smelling them, especially the old and more musty editions. I dreamed someday I might write a book, too, and that someone would go looking for it in the stacks and pull it off the shelves.

I worked at the library many weekdays, after school, and I would walk home from the library via downtown, always taking the same route: down Xenia Avenue, turning left just before Ye Olde Trail Tavern, cutting through King’s Yard, and taking the alley to home. Every day that I took that route, I passed the little bookstore on Xenia—I’m pretty sure it was Epic Books at that time though later it would become Sam & Eddie’s Open Books

There was a man—I did not know his name then—who was always sitting at the bookstore checkout desk, and often the door must have been propped open because I remember that as I passed by on my way home, I would see him and wave to him, and he would smile and wave back. He was a fixture in my journey home, and there was something safe and steady knowing he would be there. 

My journey has been filled with safe and steady things, and for all of those, I am grateful.

It seems fitting then that when I found out my book was being published, the first store I contacted in hopes that they might carry it was Sam & Eddie’s. You see, the man sitting at the desk, the one who always waved to me on my journey home, was Eddie Eckenrode, though it would be years after I left my wonderful library job before I knew his name. I was there when he celebrated his marriage to Sam, and I was thrilled when he and Sam opened Sam & Eddie’s.

Eddie has since passed away, but Sam has carried on with a gem of a bookstore that offers not only books, cards and gifts but heart. 

Seeing my book in there means more to me than it would sitting in a big box bookstore. My book feels like it’s exactly where it belongs. 

Thank you, too, to the other fabulous independent bookstores who are carrying my memoir: Park Road Books and The Regulator Bookshop.