Healing a Pulverized Heart: Why I Write Nonfiction

December 2, 2022 § 6 Comments

By Chelsey Drysdale

If you’re like me, while writing your memoir, you spend an absurd amount of time worrying about what everyone will think of you once you publish it. You may even make yourself physically ill like I do. Recently, though, I was reminded why I craft my pain into art regardless.

Eight years ago, my UCLA Extension instructor, and now personal friend, accepted a steamy but heartbreaking piece I wrote about my college boyfriend for an anthology she was editing. We took our published stories in paperbacks on a California book tour, including to the Bay Area where my former love now lived. It was terrifying and exhilarating and propelled me to write my full manuscript. Over the years, I have often wondered what the subject of my story would think if he ever read the essay I shared in public with strangers, family, and friends alike. Despite changing his name, I revealed private, excruciating details of our twentysomething selves, like any diligent memoirist would, finding solace my words only appeared in print, never to be found in a Google search.

The other day, I sent him a happy birthday message on LinkedIn, the only place we’re still connected. I hadn’t spoken to him online or otherwise in a decade and hadn’t seen him in fourteen years, since the night I met the woman who would become the mother of his children and, much later, his wife. One night after Christmas in 2008, I had dinner with them when they were in the honeymoon stages of dating, and I was still nursing wounds from a broken engagement and previous divorce. At the restaurant, I admired his then girlfriend’s bright, infectious smile and hopeful, sparkly eyes. Her eyes twinkled like mine did before he broke up with me with little explanation, shocking nearly everyone. I left dinner thinking, “Please don’t hurt her.” That night, for the first time in eleven years, I rejoiced over feeling like I was finally over him, despite the remnants of my heart most likely still swirling around the parking lot outside a certain former coffeehouse, where he once said, “I don’t think this is going to work out.”

In my LinkedIn message, I told him I have a knack for remembering birthdays, and I wished him and his family the best. He wrote, “How are you?” How does one explain the last fourteen years in a LinkedIn message to the man who pilfered her innocence? I gave him the short version: I’m still single. I never had children. I quit my job. My nephew is ten, and I wrote a memoir. I said I’d send him a copy someday when it’s published. He responded, “I would love to read your memoir. Good luck finishing it up.”

“My memoir is finished!” I wrote. “I’m just trying to find a home for it.” (Still.) This felt like an opening. “I actually wrote about you, and everyone liked it because it was a very nineties pre-internet look at a romantic relationship. If you want to read the [published version],” I can send it to you. He said he was “nervous reading a critique of [his] twenty-year-old self, but [he’d] take a crack at it.”

He thought he was nervous.

I sent him the published essay and the material I added to my manuscript when I was working with a book coach in 2017. He emailed he was busy but would “give it a solid read” when his time freed up. “No hurry!” I replied, meaning, “You don’t have to read it. Forget I ever mentioned it.”

The next morning, I received an email when I was in my bathrobe at my desk next to a handyman who was fixing the track on my sliding closet doors. The love of my young life and source of endless sadness wrote, “I have to admit, I really enjoyed reading these. I may have to set my computer on fire to destroy evidence, but I loved reading them.”

Then I received the clarification and apology I hadn’t realized I still needed after twenty-five years. “I’m really sorry how poorly I handled the breakup.” He called his former self “weak” and “super emotionally immature.” He had “needed more time to be free and date other people but didn’t know how to tell [me],” which, of course, most people need when they’re barely an adult. “I’m really sorry I caused you so much grief.”

Nowhere in his email did he ask me to change one word of anything unpublished I’d written, something I offered to consider if he had any major objections—particularly about the time I found him passed out drunk on the sidewalk or the day we passed sexy secrets back and forth quietly in a notebook during a philosophy lecture.

This felt like validation. This felt like the young him had loved the young me after all. This felt like my version and his finally gelled and made sense. We’d collided before he turned twenty and was a “mess,” back when I was naïve and wore my heart as a necklace outside my body—a recipe for a strychnine cocktail. While our breakup was inevitable, its abruptness had steamrolled me, but now I had more proof I wasn’t inherently unlovable.

After reading his email, I left my bedroom to head downstairs and watch the rare rainfall outside the backyard window, lest the old dude fixing my closet door see the tears streaming down my face. I thought about how a memoirist can’t predict a person’s reaction to her words, and in this full-circle moment, I could finally tell that twenty-three-year-old girl whose heart was pulverized for the first time that someday pouring her soul onto the page would be worth it. She would be seen, and she would finally receive the transparency and understanding she’d craved but never expected.
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Chelsey Drysdale’s essays have appeared in The Washington Post, Brevity, The Coachella Review, and others. She edits at drysdaleeditorial.

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