Writing the Story of a Marriage
January 12, 2022 § 20 Comments
By Nancy McCabe
When I set out to write about my ill-advised, ill-fated youthful marriage, I didn’t realize what an almost impossibly daunting task was ahead of me. I didn’t realize that opinions about my life would feel inextricable from opinions about the writing. That judgments about the characters would feel inseparable from judgments about me. That proceeding would require a mix of steely determination and foolish tenacity.
Even before my wedding at 20, I was writing in coded ways about my ambivalence. In a short story, the source of my protagonist’s unhappiness was not, like me, her lack of romantic feelings about her husband. Instead, she struggled with mixed feelings toward an unplanned pregnancy. A few months later, newly married, I wrote a series of poems. From the point of view of a wife, they were so jaded that my classmates concluded that the narrator had been married for at least thirty years. My classmates were puzzled and kind, as if maybe it wasn’t normal for a newlywed to be quite so miserable.
Four years later, I finally tackled my situation head on. I wrote about an inattentive husband who stayed out drinking with his friends every night, a young wife whose illusions about marriage as a source of safety in a dangerous world, of home as a refuge from turmoil, had crumbled. In my story, the husband was warm and funny, restless and inconsiderate. Perhaps I neglected to similarly develop the wife. My workshop classmates largely sympathized with the husband. The wife, they thought, was too compliant. I started to wonder if societal expectations of women were antithetical to what made a sympathetic character.
When, a year later, my husband and I ended the marriage with deliberate kindness, we reassured our friends that they didn’t need to take sides. They took sides anyway. I doggedly set out to write a story in which no one needs to take sides. I stubbornly resisted the notion that a marriage that ended in divorce had to be written off as a mistake.
Several years later, I finished a novel. Classmates in my PhD fiction workshops, agents, and editors tended to forgive the husband who repeatedly threatens to end the marriage rather than make compromises. They were more critical of the young, inexperienced, economically dependent wife. “Make her spunkier,” said my classmates. “Have her replace her husband’s eye drops in the medicine cabinet with superglue. When he moves out, have her hide shrimp shells in his curtain rods to stink up his apartment.” It was fiction, so why not? But none of these things rang true to me. Would I somehow be better off if I’d done those things?
Eventually, I’d revised my story so many times, I couldn’t even see it anymore. I gave up on the novel altogether. But more time passed, and with the same rash persistence with which I once held my marriage together, I returned to the material. I ruthlessly stripped away the disguises and started writing a memoir. I no longer had the leeway to make up details and detach myself from my characters. Maybe now, I thought, I could really tell an honest story that was fair to both the husband and the wife.
Two years later, I finished a draft. “I feel sorry for the husband,” an editor said. “She should have never married him if she wasn’t in love with him.” Now that the narrator was more obviously aligned with me, it was hard not to be defensive or wonder why readers weren’t more critical of the husband. Shouldn’t he be a more considerate lover? Shouldn’t he honor his commitment? I revised some more.
To tell a story about finding my own strength, I knew, I had to admit to my weaknesses. After all, the cardinal rule of creative nonfiction is to be harder on ourselves than on anyone else. But when I owned up to my flaws, some readers instantly, ferociously, disliked the narrator. How, I wondered, did you capture the totality of an earlier self without creating an unfocused mess?
The next year, I published a hermit crab essay that used the form of a women’s magazine quiz to tackle the material, resulting in e-mails from women who related to my experience. I didn’t know if I’d done a better job or just found a kinder audience. Or maybe the meaning and interpretation of a story changes as the culture changes.
Over the next several years, I broke down the memoir into essays. “What a jerk!” some readers said about my ex. “He’s so manipulative!” I was frustrated. Had I skewed the narrative too far in the wife’s favor? That wasn’t my intention, either.
Scratch that. A press’s external reviewer lambasted my selfish, self-centered narrator at length. I gained new appreciation for my ex-husband’s perpetual generosity in not objecting when I wrote about him. Maybe, no matter what I did, some readers would always take the wife’s side. Maybe some would always take the husband’s.
Thirty years after I’d started writing my story, my book, Can This Marriage Be Saved? A Memoir came out. And gradually I realized what I should have aspired to all along: to reach those readers who said that the book helped them recast their own early “failures” as essential parts of their own stories rather than as sources of shame. That, I was reminded, is the purpose of memoir. Not to set the record straight or make ourselves look good or win others to our side, but to offer our experience and insight as honestly as we can, and hope that our words help others make sense of their own lives.
Nancy McCabe is the author of six books, most recently Can This Marriage Be Saved: A Memoir (Missouri, 2020). Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Fourth Genre, Newsweek, Prairie Schooner, Gulf Coast, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Salon, among others. She is the recipient of a Pushcart and her work has been recognized on the notable lists eight times of Best American Essays and Best American Nonrequired Reading.