When authors peel down the covers of their bedclothes to examine their marriages like Dani Shapiro and Claire Dederer have done recently in Hourglass and Love and Trouble respectively, it’s the writerly equivalent of using a mirror to view what goes down there in that genital netherworld. To scrutinize anything so closely, so near and dear, requires a girding of one’s loins, a willingness to, if not see and tell all, speak the truth about those raw, fleshy bits.
Then why do it? Seriously, what’s the point?
The object of a personal essay or memoir is to render the particular universal. If I’ve thrown a stapler at my husband in a fit of blind rage, chances are someone else has too. If I can tuck that stapler into a larger narrative about developing more equanimity over time...even better, if I can render that soaring office accessory funny, I can show the potential for growth and demonstrate that one flying stapler does not a marriage unmake.
Perhaps you’ve chucked a stapler or two in your time. Maybe you’re rankled by your proclivities for stapler-chucking. Maybe you think it signals the demise of your union and freaks you out that you have been provoked to, yes, violence by your spouse. You might find solace knowing that it’s part of the human condition—granted, not the most mature part but not beyond the realm of what can happen between two people who love each other—to hurl the nearest object.
I didn’t draw blood, by the way.
To be clear, I threw the stapler near him, taking a nice divot out of the wall, which I knew would piss him off. Had I thrown the stapler with the intent to commit bodily harm, that would be a different essay with a different outcome. But in this case, it was a ridiculous fight that got out of hand. As we learned more about our volatile fighting style, Mitch and I have both found ways to keep conflicts on “simmer” not “explode.” In 24 years, there’s happily only been one Office Depot missile.
So here I stand, naked with my stapler, like these other fine writers have done with their own, more lucid stories. To write about marriage in all of its messy, gorgeous dailiness, provides a service. It’s the anti- “When Harry Met Sally” or maybe it’s “When Harry Met Sally II,” 20 years after the honeymoon when Sally gets Botox injections and Harry bitches about the cost all the way to Katz’s Deli, where they start to reminisce about the old days and before you know it they’re holding hands again. It's not happily ever after. But it is one happy moment accruing over time, again and again.
These writers are showing what it’s like to live with and love someone over time. Without the soundtrack, but also without the dour fatalism of Edward Albee or cynicism of HBO. To write about one’s marriage is to help others see theirs more clearly and hopefully with more compassion. For me it’s also a way of feeling around this thing that’s both utterly transparent and unknowable like describing a brick wall from inches away.
Dani Shapiro has said, “Writing Hourglass allowed me to see certain strengths and certain fault lines in my marriage more clearly than I ever had before. It’s a very interesting exercise to put one’s marriage under a microscope.”
Indeed it is. So we write what we know. We write to help. And we write to understand those dark, mysterious places even a hand mirror can’t illuminate.