Writing about people from the past

I sent the manuscript of my memoir to my agent on Friday. Big yay!! This is only one step of a long process, but it’s a significant one. It means that, for now, I’ve come to the end of myself with this book. I’ve written it, rewritten it, and rewritten it again. I’ve had Mike and family members read it and offer their thoughts. I’ve asked some friends to do likewise, and others to help me copy-edit. I even hired an external editor to offer her advice on how the draft could be strengthened.

What I hadn’t done until very recently, was think about how or whether I wanted to contact certain key people I’d written about to give them a heads up; certain key people who might be surprised or hurt by what I’d written.

Like Jason, who I dated seriously in 2004. And Ryan, whose writing about his life and work in Afghanistan I found so compelling that I became infatuated with him… while I was dating Jason. I won’t go into the whole saga here. I’ll just say that I am not particularly prone to regret, but when I think about certain things I did and said (and things that I did not say) during this period, I still feel ashamed.

I included the tale of these two, tangled, long distance romances in the book for many reasons that had nothing to do with me needing to exorcise that shame. That said, however, writing this particular chapter was therapeutic. By the time I was done drafting and redrafting this story a dozen times, I understood the person I was seven years ago a great deal better and I had largely forgiven her the weaknesses and willful mistakes of that era.

I had not, however, dealt with any of this openly with either Jason or Ryan.

Ryan I have remained in intermittent and friendly contact with over the years. In a bizarre twist he was also an acquaintance of Mike’s long before Mike and I ever met (Mike met him in Afghanistan). Last July Mike and I met up with Ryan and his lovely wife, Celestina, in Vancouver for drinks and dinner. With Mike’s full knowledge and encouragement, I had intended to bring up the whole subject over the dinner table but the moment never seemed right (although one does wonder when the moment would seem quite right to bring up something like that).

So, two weeks ago, knowing I was very close to submitting this book for possible publication I sat down to write Ryan a letter. Here’s how it started:

Ryan, you know how when you write a memoir you sort of forget during the drafting process that other people may eventually actually read it? And, even worse, that the day will come where you need to send the draft to people who appear in the pages in ways that require you to seek their permission for what you’ve included? And that some of those people have never before heard you admit anything along the lines of, “I once had a crush on you”, much less, “I was once completely infatuated with you – or the you I felt I knew via email – and I booked a plane ticket to cross an international border specifically to suss you out without ever telling you what I was doing?”

Yeah, well. For me that day is today. And for you, well, you get to raise an eyebrow (or two) and marvel at the range and depth of my craziness back in 2004.

I’m so much less crazy now, I promise. Also much, much, happier.

The letter to Ryan was relatively easy.  Jason, however, well that was a different matter. I hadn’t spoken to him in several years and I had written about things in this chapter he knew nothing about. I had been far more frank in the book about my part in the dynamic of our slow and painful breakup than I’d ever had the courage to be with him face to face.

Mike and I talked this over during dinner one night by the Khan.

“So are you going to write to him?” Mike asked me, shooing the cat that had jumped onto our table back to the floor.

“I don’t know…” I waffled. “I sort of want to, but it was a long time ago now, maybe I should just leave it alone.”

“Leave it alone in the sense that maybe one day Jason will pick this book up and read about it then?” Mike asked.

“Maybe it’ll never get published,” I said. “And maybe he’ll never read it.”

Mike stayed quiet while I squirmed, recognizing the temptation to deal with the issue the way I’d dealt with so many of the issues that had arisen while Jason and I were dating – by avoiding and deflecting.

“What do you think is the right thing to do?” Mike finally asked.

“To write to him,” I answered reluctantly.

So I took a deep breath and did. I told Jason I’d written about aspects of our relationship. I offered to send him the chapter to read if he wanted me to. But first, I told him in this initial email, I wanted to apologize for ways I felt I’d wronged him during the time we were dating. Then I told him exactly what those ways were.

It was not an easy letter to write and send, but part of the dysfunction in our relationship had been that I avoided conflict with him and didn’t speak my mind openly. Writing the chapter had helped me understand this. Writing to Jason himself finally helped me break those old patterns and put into practice the new strengths I have gained in the years since then.

I was very happy to receive gracious emails back from Jason both before and after he read the chapter, but regardless of his reply (or lack thereof) I think it would have been a healing exercise of closure. It’s taken years, but it brought full circle the process that was first started when I put pen to paper and tried to figure out where and how we’d gone wrong. It transformed understanding into action.

Have you transformed understanding into action recently? How?

And, writers, last week I touched on a dilemma faced by most essayists and memoirists in a post titled, Writing About Loved Ones: To Do Or Not To Do, That Is The Question. Writing about those you have known and perhaps loved in the past, however, is a slightly different kettle of fish. Have you encountered this? How did you deal with it?

8 responses to “Writing about people from the past

  1. You are brave and inspiring.

  2. So, um, do these guys read your blog? 😉 Just kidding! I agree with Sarah — you are brave and inspiring. And this post is only one of the many reasons why.

    Also, I enjoy Anne Lamott’s advice about writing about others in “Bird by Bird”. I’m sure you’ve read it . . . I won’t re-post here as this seems to be a family friendly blog. 😉

    • I don’t think so :). But even if they do, there’s nothing in here they didn’t know already now. Plus some. Now I’m curious about that non family friendly advice. You totally have to email it to me.

  3. Lisa – what a great step forward in your life! Many do not want to face their past (relationships or otherwise), much less seek closure over past relationships! What you did takes chutzpah!

  4. Hi Lis
    Well done! I recently wrote a letter I’d had brewing inside me for 5 years (Champion Procrastinator!!) and found – not very surprisingly – that there was a lot more space left for thinking in my head afterwards…
    Luckily I didn’t have to write a book about myself first. Yow, that would take some processing!

    • Yeah, it was a rather long, helical, processing, this one. But a rather unanticipated side benefit of writing this book. Congrats on that letter… yeah, daunting, but so worthwhile!

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