Heartburn, Nora Ephron's roman à clef based on her own divorce, kicked off the what we know as the divorce memoir genre. Although Heartburn was technically published as a novel, every reader going through a divorce of their own knew that this heartbreakingly funny book held far more fact than fiction. But after Nora spoke her piece in 1983, it was crickets. Nobody wrote about their divorce for years. You'd have to be crazy, right?
In fact, when I was writing my memoir about my divorce, I asked Ms. Ephron, "What advice do you have for someone writing a memoir about their divorce?" She looked at me evenly and said, "Don't do it."
And yet I did. And in the last few years, many other writers have written memoirs about divorce as well. I'm convinced we need these stories because, as Cheryl Strayed has said, they ask us to "bear the unbearable."
I found more answers to the question of why do we need these stories in a recent interview with two of the teachers for the upcoming Wild Mountain Memoir Retreat: Suzanne Finnamore, author of Split: A Memoir of Divorce and Candace Walsh, author of Ask Me About My Divorce: Women Open Up About Moving On and Licking the Spoon: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Identity.
Nestor: Did you look for books about divorce when you were going through your own? If so, were there books that helped you?
Walsh: For a few years before my marriage ended, I avoided any articles on divorce that I saw in magazines. It made me feel ill, like knowing they had the results of a cancer test within them. I read the O Magazine excerpt of Eat, Pray, Love with that ill feeling, but after the divorce was in motion, reading the entire book was so healing. I read it in giant gulps.
Finnamore: I looked in vain for a book that would apply to my situation, a woman who had an infant and had been lied to and gaslit and then dumped for another woman who was also, in very short order, pregnant. Everything was ultra-politically correct and dry and self-help-y, briskly casting me as the non-initiator, instructing me to do guided meditation and forgive everyone at once, which made me want to swan dive off the roof. Or else there were novels wherein the husband came back on his knees and the scorned wife turned him away (!)... and also novels featuring a slender and kind Portuguese gardener who fell in love with the spurned wife. Neither applied. So I began to write my own, not out of a plucky sense of courage, but out of sheer desperation.
There were two books that helped enormously: Heartburn by the great Nora Ephron -- this novel should be rushed to the door of every woman who is also a mother of small children who has been hit with a divorce petition. It should be a community service. Also Remember Me by Fay Weldon, who is equally brilliant.
Nestor: How did writing about your divorce change your view of your divorce?
Finnamore: It didn't. I still see divorce as a heartbreaking event that maims children, at least the way it is often performed by selfish partners. But writing about it gave me a sense of freedom and control, whereas being hit with a divorce petition is a unilateral move which can come out of nowhere; there is no proper preparation. Writing is a legal form of vindication, but nothing will make divorce a pleasure cruise. Writing made me realize that, yes, I had chosen to marry and have a child with someone who was secretly unfaithful and who fathered another child out of wedlock and moved away, but I had recourse. I could fashion my experience into a lifeboat for other women who were abandoned.
Walsh: Writing about my own divorce lightened me. I felt like it freed up my brain to stop maintaining the memory of it. It was out there on paper; I could store new memories and stop hauling that stuff around.
Nestor: Why has the divorce memoir become its own mini-genre? How do divorce stories help us?
Walsh: We humans really want to know what others go through when they've gone through what we're about to go through. There are a lot of opportunities for release in reading others' stories. You feel like you're not alone, and you also note that these people have survived and thrived, and you can too.
Finnamore: We have become, for better or worse, a memoir culture -- a body of people who share everything either on social media or in books or on television. Therefore, everything that happens to a significant part of the population becomes a mini-genre. Divorce stories are no different than stories about anything else; they help us by proving that we are not alone. If they make us laugh and give us practical advice, all the better. "Heartburn" had recipes. Fay Weldon's novels consistently provide wit and courage for women who have been left behind, allowing her readers to go from victim to heroine in 300 pages or less. I tried to be extremely honest as well as prescriptive in Split: A Memoir of Divorce, boiling it down into "Ten Simple Yet Elegant Keys To Divorce", the first of which was, "change the locks."
Nestor: What was the biggest challenge you faced in writing about your divorce?
Finnamore: Realizing that I owned my experience. Not paying attention to the voices that say I would be strung up for telling the truth. But my manuscript came after the James Frey fiasco, and so it was legally vetted, page by page.That was terribly freeing, that thoroughness and having legal counsel. You can't just wander out there and say whatever you like. There must be structure and restraint. You must also be willing to leave out a great deal of what happens. Which you will regret, at times, since it seems you are blamed for telling it all when you haven't told it all. But it's still the right thing to do, as it would be absolutely too squalid and banal.
Walsh: I think people tend to recoil away from divorce stories unless they're "in it." Why would you want to go there unless you are already there? But people who read the stories who were not going through a divorce found that there was so much for them in terms of being aware of the process of figuring out what you want, how you'd recreate your life if you had the opportunity, and how to infuse a life that is in a nice status quo position with the silver linings of upheaval.
Theo Pauline Nestor, Candace Walsh, and Suzanne Finnamore will be among the instructors at the Wild Mountain Memoir Retreat (March 15-17, 2013 at Sleeping Lady Mountain Resort in Washington's Cascade Mountains), which will offer an opportunity for established and emerging memoirists to acquire new skills, build a writing community and renew their vision as writers. Keynote speaker, Cheryl Strayed, author of the #1 New York Times Bestseller "Wild", will talk about memoirs' big deep things: how writers make meaning in memoir, excavating the layers within a narrative, and a writer's use of intuition. Candace Walsh, Suzanne Finnamore, Ariel Gore, EJ Levy, and Theo Pauline Nestor will teach ten different classes focusing on the craft of literary memoir writing, the genre's ethical and logistical challenges, and strategies for overcoming memoir's most common obstacles.