Is He Boyfriend Material?
Only If You Write Essays About Him
Like every writer who ever wrote in the first person, I was piqued and a little mesmerized by Isabel Kaplan’s essay “My boyfriend, a writer, broke up with me because I’m a writer.” Within an hour of it popping up in The Guardian on Monday, several friends and colleagues had sent it to me, all registering some variation of bitter if slightly amused recognition. Kaplan, a 32-year-old novelist and former film executive who published her second book last summer, channels her literary hero Nora Ephron to write about how her boyfriend, who she describes as a journalist and historian, ended their relationship over (as Ephron might have put it) irreconcilable literary differences. Specifically, he didn’t like that she mined her own life for material. He was afraid that someday she’d violate his privacy or the privacy of their future children.
Kaplan notes that until this last book publication, the boyfriend had been “unquestionably the more publicly prominent one.” In fact, they’d broken up once before because, she writes, “I wasn’t successful and independent enough. He wanted a partner, not a wife, he said.” Now he felt she wasn’t supportive enough of his work and was taking his supportiveness for granted. Along the way, they argued about what Ephron meant by her famous line “Everything is copy.”
This is one of the oldest stories in the world, especially for people who tell stories for a living. Sit down for brunch on any given Sunday in Brooklyn and 80 percent of the conversations coming from tables of women eating their vegan scrambles contain these kinds of laments. I once spent the better part of an hour nodding in empathy as a woman talked about convincing her literary agent to take on her less successful boyfriend as a client, only to have the boyfriend later reject the agent because she wasn’t big and powerful enough.
But Kaplan isn’t trying to be original. She set out to write a funny, entertaining, relatable essay that came with the added benefit of offering some personal catharsis. In her last line, she says that this is the most personal piece she’s ever written. Since she’s a novelist, I’m inclined to believe her. Since she somehow made it to 32 without having written anything this personal, I’m also inclined to congratulate her for her restraint.
When I was 32, I had already written hundreds of thousands of words about myself. Along the way, I wrote about untold numbers of people in my midst: friends, family members, neighbors, co-workers, the lady at the dry cleaner, the guy at the bagel shop, fitness instructors at Crunch, nail salon technicians, phone company repairmen, subway conductors, taxi drivers, homeless people, rich people. In my rush to chronicle every aspect of my life and then embellish it for dramatic and/or comedic effect, everything and everyone was fodder for material. None more so than boyfriends past and present.
And how could I not have written about them? When you’re in your 20s, boyfriends are ridiculous. They do ridiculous, hilarious, idiotic, maddening, damaging, endearing, occasionally heroic things. Sometimes all on the same day. They fall off barstools. They wear unwashed Che Guevara T-shirts to meet your parents. They play bass in terrible ska bands that you have to go see in dank, sticky-floored clubs at 1 in the morning. They hand you pages of their short stories and expect you to read them right then and there as they study your face for any hint of reaction. They also rescue stray animals and make decent lasagna and don’t hold it against you when you drink too much and puke all over their bathrooms. They call too often or not often enough. They love you too much or not enough, or in the wrong way or at the wrong time in your life.
They do it all! As such, they’re practically begging to be written about.
For the better part of two decades of my life, I not only wrote about many of my boyfriends, I sometimes started dating them at least partly for that purpose. I would never have admitted as much, even to myself, but when I look back on some of my relationships, it seems obvious that my sense of attraction to others was more than a little tied up in my sense of story. Being a great character, maybe even especially a “complex and deeply flawed” character, was a physical turn-on. I’ve rarely been one to pursue men, but there was a certain kind of sexy train wreck that I chased as though I were a reporter chasing a lead. And once I caught them, they were generally happy to let me have my way with them—for a while.
And so I wrote and wrote and wrote about them (always with names and identifying details changed—mostly). Not that I didn’t write other stuff, of course. Back then, I was so desperate to publish work and be paid for it that I would toss off 2,000 words about the larger cultural ramifications of gum on the sidewalk if I thought I could make a buck. But boyfriends reliably occupied the richest soil. And quite often, especially in the beginning, they seemed to enjoy it. I can’t wait until we’re far enough into this relationship for you to start writing about me, at least one of them said. Another expressed dismay that I had never written about him. Chronicling their quirks and foibles wasn’t just my vocation; it was my love language.
I wrote about boyfriends so often that on no fewer than two occasions, magazine fact-checkers had to call them before an article went to publication. In both cases, the relationships were long over by the time whatever I had written about them got published. That meant I not only had to phone my exes out of the blue, I had to tell them that they should expect a call from a researcher to confirm a couple of details about our time together. I’m not sure this news is any more welcome than the news that you might have given them an STD. In fact, it might be worse, since most STDs are curable and published words live forever.
The thing is, I never wrote about stuff that really mattered; at least that’s how I saw it. I was generally too self-protective to write about deep emotions or heartbreak, and I never wrote about sex. I was more interested in small details that seemed to suggest something larger about the nature of relationships in general or, more precisely, the relationship between our love for others and our love/hate for ourselves. I also relished comedic scenes, or things that made me look slightly pathetic. In an essay about how broke I was, I wrote about how one boyfriend lent me $3,000. (That was one that elicited a call from fact-checkers, to whom I also had to supply my tax returns.) I wrote about how another boyfriend, when we checked into a Sheraton hotel in midtown Manhattan, didn’t like the desk chair in our room and called the front desk to demand that it be swapped out for another.
I wrote about the time I brought a not-so-formally-educated boyfriend to dinner with my snobby academic friends, and when someone mentioned that another friend had gotten tenure, the boyfriend winced and shook his head ruefully because, I later realized, he heard “got tenure” and thought they were talking about a sexually transmitted disease. I wrote about the incident even though I never knew for certain that this was actually what he thought. I took my wry assumption and turned it into a funny anecdote that I told at dinner parties until I eventually borrowed it for a novel that didn’t have to be fact-checked because it was fiction. That novel contained a character loosely based on yet another boyfriend. He was a gentle, eccentric and troubled soul for whom I had genuine and lasting affection but who, if I’m being honest, I got involved with partly because it was obvious from the start that he would supply endless material.
Some women look for men who will take care of them financially. For years, I looked for men who would make me feel like I was living inside a brilliant, sexy, occasionally absurdist novel—and, when that got old, a movie based on the novel. When I look back on the boyfriends of my 20s and early 30s and note the sheer number of them who did not have jobs or, in some cases, actual places to live (the one from the novel lived in a remote cabin in the woods and kept a stack of New Yorkers next to the outhouse), all I can think is Wow, your definition of “boyfriend material” is a little different than most people’s. I also think, Why couldn’t you have used your damn imagination a little more?
In my mid-30s, when I met my husband, I wrote a bit about him in a book about my obsession with real estate, but it felt like filler and was frankly kind of boring. I made up for that in my mid-40s, when we were (amicably, if devastatingly) divorcing. The writing I did during that period is probably some of my best. It’s also so brutally sad and self-interrogating that I have to wonder if I wrung out every last drop of autobiographical writing, let alone boyfriend- or husband-related writing, I had left in me. I never published a syllable about my husband that he didn’t first see and approve. When the fact-checkers called him, there were no surprises. Some of the most personal material, he actually edited in multiple drafts. But by the time it was all over—“it” being the marriage, separation and divorce and everything I’d had to say about it—I think I can safely say that my husband was relieved to no longer be living under the same roof as his unofficial biographer.
Since then, I haven’t written a single word about anyone in my personal life. I don’t know any better way of explaining it other than to say it just doesn’t seem cute anymore. To do so would be like wearing clothes inappropriate for my age (not that I’m even sure what that means anymore, since everybody wears everything now regardless of whether they should or not). I’m tempted to say that I’ve been focusing so much on career stuff these past several years that I’ve barely had a personal life, but that’s not really true. I’ve met some characters and had some adventures. I’ve accumulated plenty of funny stories. But I haven’t written them down, at least not with an eye toward unleashing them upon the world. I haven’t even told them at dinner parties. I’ve told them privately to a few friends, who’ve laughed at the funny parts and said, “I can’t wait to read your essay about this someday.” As of now, they’ll be waiting a long time.
“My boyfriend, a writer, broke up with me because I’m a writer” works because it’s funny, flawlessly paced, and strikes the right balance of vulnerability and wit. It references Ephron’s roman à clef Heartburn, which I got the feeling Kaplan had opened up and read several pages of before sitting down to write this piece, since, as I suggested at the beginning, she seems to be almost channeling Ephron’s tone and cadence. That’s not a criticism, by the way; I’ve done this many times myself.
But as I’m sure Kaplan would be the first to admit, if the essay weren’t so well-written, it would be embarrassing at best and unconscionable at worst. For all the “you go, girl” approbation she’s getting on Twitter, a few readers have questioned her ethics and said they would have liked to hear the boyfriend’s side of the story. Those aren’t really valid criticisms, since she didn’t reveal his identity (yes, it’s Google-able, but only for advanced-level Googlers) or purport to tell anything other than her own story. Offering both sides was not the contract she made with the reader. And if her ex wants to say his piece, I’m sure there are plenty of editors out there on the edges of their seats waiting to hear from him.
Still, as I sit here today, nearly 30 years after stumbling upon the great revelation that your paramour can also be your muse, I can only say that both views are right. Kaplan’s essay is at once a great piece of prose and a not-great thing to have done. The same goes for a lot of my own essays. I don’t regret what I wrote in the past, at least not most of it, but the instinct not to do it anymore feels like the right one. It feels like a young woman’s game. As it is, Kaplan has plenty of years to get it out of her system, and I hope she makes the most of them because she’s a talented writer. Ephron may have said that “everything is copy.” But Joan Didion observed that “writers are always selling someone out.” Date us at your own risk.
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