Writing What You Know and Whom You’ve Known

Feature: Of Essays and Exes

By Joey Franklin

When I teach the essay to new college students, I usually put the kibosh on three subjects right away—the Big Disease, the Big Game, and the Big Break-Up. One reason for this blanket prohibition is as simple as it is selfish: I don’t want to read bad writing about tired subjects; and there are few subjects more exercised in the essays of new college students than dying family members, fleeting athletic glory, and the pains of first love.

I do have a more legitimate reason for this prohibition than my own desire to never read another internal monologue about teenage unrequited love. You see, I steer my students away from these subjects because, while the loss they represent is certainly real, it is a loss so common as to tax the ability of any writer—let alone a young writer—to say something worthwhile.

Perhaps, then, it is unfair that I follow up this prohibition by challenging my students to write according to Phillip Lopate’s dictum: “The trick is to realize that one is not important, except insofar as one’s example can serve to elucidate a more widespread human trait and make readers feel a little less lonely and freakish.”

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What Binds Them Together

Features: Of Essays and Exes

By Rachael Peckham

When a MacArthur grant-winning poet and classicist writes about her ex-lover, she doesn’t commit a “thick stacked act of revenge” against him, a tempting “vocation of anger” enacted on the page. Yet Anne Carson, author of “The Glass Essay” (from the collection Glass, Irony, and God), knows it’s “easier to tell a story of how people wound one another than of what binds them together.” It makes sense. Where there’s an ex, there’s the story of a relationship—a clear beginning, middle, and the dreaded end, with a natural protagonist in us versus them, the Exes.

That said, Carson’s “The Glass Essay,” which begins with the speaker’s losing sleep over an ex named Law, can hardly be called a clear or easy break-up story. In fact, it’s not a story at all but an essay in verse—one that doesn’t mention him much. Perhaps it’s no surprise that it’s not about him (is it ever, with the essay?) but about her. About several hers, actually; Carson oscillates between “three silent women” each struggling, each alone or left behind in love. It’s loss that binds them together.

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Breakup, Break Down, Break Open: Intimate Partner Violence and Life Inside a Daily Ending

Feature: Of Essays and Exes

By Sonya Huber

Some relationships fall apart in a gradual and mutual cooling, and others rise toward a crescendo of irreconcilable differences. Still others are threaded with periodic or daily heartbreak and even violence. Imagine living a love in which every moment was a breakup, and every next moment was a reunion, over and over and over. The essay of domestic violence is the essay of a living bonfire of a breakup, an extreme breakup in slow motion, and in this writing we can see essayists shining a light on heartbreak, but also on thornier issues of identity and personal safety.

Many of the best essays in this genre have to deal with misconceptions about domestic violence first, since the query applied to an abused person in a relationship is often: “Why didn’t she leave?,” why wasn’t a simple breakup the solution, as if the abused had a decision to make and then failed to make it correctly. For some people affected by domestic violence, though, the breakup hovers as a longed-for destination, an impossible shore to reach. Others fear the breakup due to real hazards and the effects of trauma. And so the question reveals the asker’s naiveté. The nature of violence is that it won’t simply be left. Violence pursues, damages, threatens, and changes the reality that contains it. Several notable essays have dealt with this painful truth.

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More than a Vanished Husband: Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter”

Feature: Of Essays and Exes

By Holly Baker

“My vanished husband is neither here nor there,” Jo Ann Beard writes in her 1996 New Yorker essay “The Fourth State of Matter.” She’s describing a relationship caught in the freeze-frame of a collapse. The rafters have buckled   and the walls are caving in, but the marriage structure is falling, not yet fallen. Beard, though, is not centrally concerned with the catalyst of this disaster, nor  its aftermath. She does not reflect on settling dust or salvage work. Instead, with a sense of foreboding, her essay captures the days and hours preceding a series of inevitable tragedies: divorce, the death of her dog, and a horrific campus shooting that leaves seven people dead and a survivor seeking new self- definition.

Beard’s lack of control over these horrible intertwining events permeates the writing, and her failing marriage hovers continuously and gloomily in the background as she thinks about her “vanished” husband. But why vanished? Why does Beard paint him this way, not as estranged or simply gone, but vanished?

In this word, she seems to want to elicit a magic trick, and readers may just as well finish the phrase in their minds: vanished without a trace. Unexamined and unexplained—this is exactly the approach Beard uses to distance herself from the heartbreak of impending divorce, from allowing herself to mourn a relationship that has died. To spare herself and the relationship from bare examination, she instead creates buffers and barriers as tools to cope with and contextualize these losses.

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On Breaking Up with the Dream of Your Former Self: Megan Daum’s “My Misspent Youth”

Feature: Of Essays and Exes

By Kelly Kathleen Ferguson

We all know “you can’t go home again,” but what does it mean to long for a place we’ve never inhabited, to love that idea so much that it feels like the beginning of a relationship? And what does it mean to finally admit defeat and break up with that ideal?

Megan Daum, in “My Misspent Youth,” writes of her infatuation with—and split from—New York City, and her long-cherished imagination of the life she would lead there. Daum begins by recounting a time in high school when she first saw a couple’s artsy, romantic Upper West Side apartment. From that moment she was driven by an “unwavering determination to live in a pre-war, oak-floored apartment on or at least in the immediate vicinity of 104th Street and West End Avenue.” Daum goes on to detail how this obsession influenced every major decision of her late teens and twenties, until she discovers—as in most relationships—there’s no escaping money trouble.

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On Natalia Ginzburg’s “Human Relations”

Feature: Of Essays and Exes

By Dinah Lenney

“ . . . the friend we’ve dropped is hurt on our account . . . We know this but we have no regrets, indeed we feel a kind of covert pleasure, for if someone suffers on our account, it shows we have the power to cause pain, we who for so long felt utterly weak and insignificant.”

So writes Natalia Ginzburg in “Human Relations” in which she considers the way people come together and grow apart; and come together and grow apart; not a breakup essay exactly, and yet it will serve, I think, I hope, since Ginzburg breaks (or anticipates breaking) with parents and friends and relations from beginning to end. She hangs her reflection-on-the-human-condition (that’s what this is)—in which we humans are eventually forced to come to terms with how human we are (as in helpless in the face of the universe, as in doomed from the start)—on a story of coming of age, beginning in childhood when we are understandably baffled by adults and their “dark and mysterious” ways. Next, sparked by adolescence, comes the long middle of the piece: Enamored of our peers, Ginzburg admits “we punish the adults . . . by our profound contempt”; by the end of the essay, she herself has grown up, of course. “We are so adult now,” she tells us, “that our adolescent children are already starting to look at us with eyes of stone.” In other words, what goes around comes around, right? As for what happens in between: Relationships—hers (ours?)—keep ending and ending and ending of natural causes, which (if we don’t count death) only means we eponymous humans—naturally (hopelessly) fickle and self-serving—are to be held responsible more often than not.

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