Write First, Apologise Later?
Whose intimacy and whose pain can we write, and still sleep soundly? A lyric essay by Joan Fleming.
“Yet I ride by the margin of that lake . . . / . . .
and have a small boy’s notion of doing good”
––Robert Creeley, “The Way”
Once I took a trauma that wasn’t mine and made a poem out of it. What’s the name for that kind of power? How should I name that taking, and what is its relationship to love?
The story of the trauma was shared with me in an art gallery, during an installation for a show. She was up a ladder when she began to tell me the story, hanging photographs. She had a lot of dark, lovely hair, and it seemed to me dangerously long. I remember wondering if she would put it up, or if it would catch on the work. She wore all black. Her photographs were large as picture windows, and their colours were saturated to a degree too lush and too obscene to be called merely beautiful. They featured, always, figures. Never more than two. Also the sweet, decaying skirts of crone roses, and mangoes and pomegranates, and farragoes of broken household objects exhumed from the tip. There was a cracked drama in the arrangements, a mystery that felt high and unforgiving.
I was hanging texts underneath the photographs. This was our conversation. My texts were quiet. I wrote down what I sensed going on in the under-stories of the photographs. We lived in different cities; it was the curator who had put us in touch. In the months leading up to the show, we spoke on the phone, traded images and pieces of writing. We circled around a central concept for the show – the idea of an Eden – but, finally, this became less important to me than how the open texts of her photographs fed into the small, particular language squares that we decided should go underneath.
When I finally saw the photographs in the gallery space, it was both more and less intense than my experience of the A4 printouts I had been carrying round in a paper folder all winter. The printouts were grubby with handling. They had become soft and doggy with all the thumbing I had done. I had found poems in them. They were, somehow, mine. The photographs for the show were huge, sharp, impenetrable: framed and perilously heavy behind their brand-new glass.
The story she told me, from up the ladder, was a story about taboo. It was about the unrequited. You may have guessed, it was a story involving two figures. The gallery was like a blank space, a space in process, and during those days of the installation it felt like we could say anything.
Months later, when I began to make a poem out of it, I wrote pages of imagined conversation in quick, staccato lines. To me, they dazzled. I had thought that, as an artist, she would be moved by mere artistry, that she would be glad to see this storied version of herself, dark and glittering on the page. Surely, she would gift me the rights to the poem I had written – but I would hardly need to ask. I would gift the poem to her.
The truth is, though, I didn’t think much about all this. I didn’t think much about her. I only thought of the poem.
It was over a year later when I saw her again. We were both passing through Wellington, and we had a drink. I mentioned I’d written a long poem that had something to do with that painful story she’d told me. Her face didn’t change. We kept talking, about sex, love, work, and the future. Then later she wrote to me, asking to read the poem. At that moment, I had a feeling I’d done something not quite right. That evening, she rang me up. I remember exactly where I was sitting, even what I was wearing. It was spring in Melbourne. The window was open. I had a bandage on my face, holding my cheek together after a failed attempt at surfing. She began to speak, and her voice had cracks in it.
“You could have made me a dentist,” she said. “You could have made me a third-grade teacher. You could have made me anything but what I am.” She said, “You described my house, my photographs, my hair. People will recognise me.” She said, “You put things into this poem I haven’t told anyone else.” My heart was beating so fast, I couldn’t quite breathe properly. I represent her here as reasonable, and she was. However, I can also count on one hand the times in my life I have been the recipient of such pure rage. By that time, every gesture in the poem was set in stone. The music was fixed. I couldn’t change a single word without the whole thing falling apart. I had blended the story she told me with other moments of her pain, and I had done it without permission. I also wove in extravagant fictions alongside the ‘truth’, and she knew that people would read it all as fact, as biography. It was an intolerable mirror, and a warped one. It was not mine to hold up. It was an excellent poem, and I will never publish it. “I’m so sorry” – I must have said it ten times or more. But what could it change?
In a later chapter of life, I came to understand that not everyone dislikes having their experiences turned into content. When I met up with a man I had once been engaged to, almost a year to the day after I broke it off, he told me the thing that upset him the most was that I hadn’t written about our breakup.
It was difficult for me to believe that this was the thing that upset him the most. I had left him for another man. I was in love, I was happy in my new relationship. He still had whiplash from how quickly I had ended things. A mere fortnight before I broke it off, I had printed our wedding invitations. The breakup was terrible timing for him, personally and professionally. I had known that, but it hadn’t stopped me. After three years together and an engagement, I broke up with him on the phone.
For him, the fact that I hadn’t yet written poems about the breakup was proof that none of it mattered to me: not the relationship, and not how I’d broken his heart. On the one hand, this man is a storyteller who would willingly throw himself under the bus for art. He has the blank courage of self-revelation that startles those who know him. He is willing to publicly broadcast the kinds of raw confessions that would make most people shudder. On the other hand, while he’d gladly be immortalised in art, he had asked me to change details of early love poems. He’d asked me to alter little flourishes of diction that might suggest subterranean insecurities to a close reader.
That night, he had asked that we meet in a neutral hotel lobby bar, as if it were Chicago or New York on some rainy film set, rather than Auckland, soft and average, on the cusp of another summer. He arrived in a suit. He never wore a suit. I sensed that he had rehearsed the meeting in his head a hundred times. Whenever he started to say something fierce, something that hadn’t been in the script, he bit his tongue. Here was story bleeding into life, not the other way around.
Sometimes love can turn into such a dark entitlement. It can twist in on itself, and all the talk in the world can’t untangle it.
In the year since I’d left him, he had been hounding me, through a third party, to allow him to make a podcast: the ‘true’ story of our failed relationship. He wanted – needed – my consent. I didn’t want to give it.
I remember the first time he’d pulled out his phone. We had been arguing in my bedroom. He was leaning against the bed with his legs sprawled, the bony knees I loved all akimbo. My back was against the door. I was trying to keep my voice low, so our debate wouldn’t permeate the entire apartment with its fissured walls and its nervy flatmates. “Speak up,” he said, fiddling with his phone. “This is interesting.” “What?” I said. “This – this conversation. I want to record it.” He seemed to be enjoying his anger towards me, and I know I enjoyed the role of professor: calling him out on his blind spots, his hasty utterances, his questionable habits of perspective.
Soon the podcast project was between us like a noisy note-taker. More and more had to be recorded, and the ramping conflict between us was juice, fuel, fire. “This is great tape,” he said.
Usually I went along with it, but sometimes I felt uncomfortable. “I don’t know,” I’d say. “I don’t think I want this recorded. I don’t want to talk about sex. Can we turn it off for a bit?” He reassured me that, if anything ever came of the project, we’d make it together. I would always have creative control. We just had to keep the tape rolling.
A work of art is never the whole story. It is not even a story honestly told.
That night in Auckland, a year after the rupture, he was the one in the suit, though I had dressed carefully, too. I wanted to look good, but not desirable. This was not about being touched. This was about being heard. However, the thing about heartbreak is it makes it very difficult to hear the other’s side of the story. My sense of myself as the villain made me savagely self-protective. His sense of himself as the wronged party gave him the aggressive ambition of the one who is owed. I owed him this project. Sometimes love can turn into such a dark entitlement. It can twist in on itself, and all the talk in the world can’t untangle it.
A work of art is never the whole story. It is not even a story honestly told. Here in this essay, I haven’t told the truth about my artist friend. Nothing I’ve written is how it really was. I’m protecting her. I would even go further, and say that every work of art is necessarily a fiction. So why do I mind what my storyteller ex makes? We had started the project together, but now he wanted to continue it, from a place of grief and anger and pain. It was no longer a story about a couple trying to understand each other. It was now a story about how I had fallen in love with somebody else. At some point during the storm that preceded the end, he stopped telling me when he was recording. Unbeknownst to me, he even taped the phone call where I ended the relationship. I remember thinking at the time that there was something oddly performative about his reaction, but I was too deep inside my guilt and nauseous determination to challenge it. “I’m so sorry,” I said, over and over again, “but I can’t do this anymore.”
The cord that binds a story and its subject can be so hot, it scorches. Somehow, the cord must be loosened or cut so that it is the story that can burn, but not the person.
We go to poetry, to story, to art, to hear our lives echoed. It matters that story is paying attention to life. This is what art is for. However, it’s not just attention that matters to me anymore. It’s attention and care. If someone is making work about a moment in my life when I was my most foolish, my hastiest and most vulnerable, I want to be convinced that they have thought deeply about how the story might affect me. I didn’t think through any of that with my artist friend. Not only that, but her story had nothing to do with me. I had no blood in it, no skin in the game. Nothing to claim. They say that when you write about those you are close to, you should be hardest on yourself. But with her, I couldn’t even throw myself under the bus. She was a subject, and the knowledge I held was radioactive.
The cord that binds a story and its subject can be so hot, it scorches. Somehow, the cord must be loosened or cut so that it is the story that can burn, but not the person. Sometimes fictionalisation loosens the cord. Sometimes a kind of complication or obfuscation does it – Dickinson’s “tell all the truth but tell it slant.” Sometimes it is trust alone that does it, mere goodwill, a sense that the storyteller has properly grappled.
Because I was not satisfied that my storyteller ex-fiancé had really grappled, and because he could not promise to make ‘a good and right story’ that I would not be scorched by, and because I had asked to be kept out of it, but instead was cornered into signing a legal release form, his third party offered me a sum for the rights to the story. I asked that they quadruple it. In the end, it was my inability to bear being hated that forced my hand, and I gave him the consent he wanted. Whatever the story he’s telling now, it is both true and false. The lens is skewed. Apologies have floated down the river.
Money has a strange and dirty power. It stands in for energy, but something is always lost in the translation.
He will tell of his own trauma, and an actress will fill in my side of the conversation. My string of bad behaviours will be reanimated into a sanctioned piece of theatre. Money has a strange and dirty power. It stands in for energy, but something is always lost in the translation. If I was to be scorched, I suppose I wanted him and his team to feel a little scorch, too. That sum has both bought me time, and muddied my moral position, my clean distrust of the project. For the sake of the man I once loved, and still care for, I hope the project will be good. Still, I wish I had never confessed to him all that I did, within the bounds of the trust of our relationship, and I wish that he hadn’t recorded it.
I wonder if friends and ex-lovers feel that about me? Do they regret their confessions? I think there is some near-pathological openness in me that draws out revelations from those I’m close to. Perhaps I, perhaps all artists, should make a practice of warning the world that we are not good secret-keepers. Story flows in, and it seeps out. Vulnerability and confession can be a high. It strips back the masks, and good art should do that, too.
My practice of drawing out secrets started early. I remember being fifteen and looking out the window of my mother’s car, at a landscape made flat with boredom. My mother was speaking to me but my mind was tethered to the mobile phone I had begged as a present the previous Christmas. I had a consuming crush on my best friend Jeremy, a kid with a white-blonde gelled fleck and a black Honda Acura with automatic seatbelts. However, he was dating my other best friend, a waifish depressive named Shannon, and because I couldn’t admit my feelings to anyone, least of all myself, I had made myself over into the model female friend. Breezy, sexless, endlessly available. The kind of friend to whom you can tell anything. My mother watched me jump at the ringing phone, and watched me bend myself out of the shape of myself to meet the caprice of Jeremy’s voice. With the sometimes-prescience of the parents of teenagers, she said, once I’d hung up, “What is it about you, Joanie, that you always need to be needed?” Everything Jeremy told me, I shared with Shannon, and I never won. She dropped him, he found someone else, and I stayed on as confessor, receptive to the dirty details as a way of gaining some level of power when I was the undesired one.
Half a lifetime later, a brief experiment in open relationships taught me a little more about my capacity for betrayal. I started a relationship with a woman I liked, and without really thinking about it, I told my partner everything. Then one day she asked me, “What do you tell your partner about us?” and I said, “Umm…everything.” She was alarmed, angry, even a little sickened. She had known from the beginning that I had a partner, but she hadn’t guessed that I would kiss and tell. We talked it through. An open relationship means endlessly talking it through. Finally, we came to an agreement where certain things could be shared, and not others. We spent the next few months together, but I could feel us falling, and I knew I couldn’t do it. I knew I couldn’t keep both relationships. She was pale and strong and smart, with glossy black hair. She dressed in expensive patchworks. She doubted herself in a way I found difficult, because it was familiar. One night, when we were trying to cut the cords that were binding us, talking and crying together in her bed, she turned and said to me, “I don’t have anyone else to say all these sorts of things to.” It was painful to me that she wasn’t the first person I would call in a moment of crisis. She wasn’t even my primary love. I had the lion’s share of the power; it didn’t oscillate back and forth the way it should in a healthy relationship. And maybe that’s the thing about someone you’re close to making work about your unshielded self: it’s not like sharing story in a conversation, where the balance of power is fluid. In a piece of writing, the story is set. The writer has the last word, the power of representation. Once we parted ways, I tried to be less of a capricious arsehole. I don’t know how well I managed it. I burned her in life, and I have tried not to make anything that would burn her in writing.
Like ‘consensual non-monogamy’, perhaps what I’m talking about in this essay is a peculiarly millennial thing. We want to write all the grit and burn of love and its failures, yet we want to do it ethically, cleanly, without arseholery, and without betrayal. I have a brilliant novelist friend who seems to care slightly less about showing her claws. She said to me once: anything that can’t be honestly discussed between two people is fair game to write about. At the time, I think I interpreted this as the big family secrets that can’t be broached. It’s the savage thing you think, but never say aloud. It’s your mother’s unacknowledged addictions. It’s your brother’s blind spot. There is a part of me that admires those who can be mercenary in their writing. Those who write first, and apologise later. Those who have the courage to be cruel.
‘Fair game’ is a hunting metaphor. It evokes targets, trophies, display, and consumption. Where is love in this equation? Should we use the legal metaphor of ‘fair use’ instead? There are no laws here, but I have tried to find my own code. When you are listening so closely to someone that you become a hold for their pain, perhaps there is no time to understand your own reactions. Is this the thing that can be written about? Surely some writing should call people out, even those you love. Some writing should be the articulation of how you call yourself out. I would like to say I have found a way of making art from life that falls just a crucial few beats shy of betrayal, or at least that I have sufficiently thickened my skin to deal with any consequences. But I don’t know. I keep eating the apple, and risking the knowledge. Love and writing and their close relationships are too multiple to believe oneself prepared for. Sorry is a hinge, and the door keeps swinging.
Feature photograph by Joan Fleming