This post originally appeared on the blog on 2/10/12
I read Lorraine Berry’s Salon article, “Dear Female Students: Stop Writing about Men,” with great interest. She gives good advice that all college students ought to hear: You’re not defined by your relationships; you are more than who you choose to date; a breakup is not the most significant or interesting thing that has ever happened to you. But I was surprised to see her focus her essay on female students, and to learn that, in her experience, “The females in the class tend to write about a romantic relationship, and the males do not.” I have had almost the exact opposite experience. I can only recall one female student ever writing about her own romantic troubles, but I’ve read—as either a student or a teacher—the “guy’s break-up narrative” easily a dozen times.
To be sure, I don’t think I’m talking about the male equivalent of the type of essay Berry is talking about. She writes that “only once or twice in the nine years I’ve been teaching these courses has a guy expressed his need to understand why a relationship has fallen apart.” I haven’t really read that essay either. The type of relationship essay I’ve read from male writers tends—more often than not—to be more angry than reflective.
I first encountered this type of narrative during my senior year of college, in a workshop where a fellow student ended his own end-of-the-affair narrative with the triumphant line, “I was sick of playing that bitch’s games.” Even typing that line now, fifteen years later, I cringe both for her and for him—she was, after all, a fellow student on a campus of just over two thousand, and he certainly had no idea how committing such a line to the page and handing out photocopies to the class made him seem… well, less than gentlemanly.
This trend continued in grad school. There was the guy from my M.A. program who gave a paragraph to each girlfriend in a five page essay, each paragraph devoted to chronicling the woman’s flaws. And I’ll never forget the guy from my Ph.D. years who described—in pornographic detail—the sex with his ex-girlfriend while Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” played on his stereo.
The above examples come from former classmates, but I’ve occasionally received these types of essays from my own students, too, and it always seems to me that the men who write these narratives of the break-ups—with their unflattering descriptions and their potentially embarrassing sexual revelations—are writing not to reflect on “why a relationship has fallen apart,” the way some of the women Berry has taught do, but are instead writing as a form of revenge, an attempt to “get back” at those who either broke their hearts or somehow became a romantic disappointment.
I was talking about this phenomenon with my own nonfiction students last week—before I even read Berry’s article— as we were discussing Dinty W. Moore’s observation in his anthology/textbook The Truth of the Matter that “A helpful way to approach the question of memory in creative nonfiction is to occasionally investigate your own motives. Are you remembering something a certain way in order to make yourself look more like the hero of the situation, or in order to cast your lazy brother-in-law in an even more unpleasant light? If so, you are being dishonest.” I would say the same thing is true when writing about relationships—in fact, I think it’s even more true. It seems to me that a failed romance provides fertile ground for self-deception and self-serving excuses, which will inevitably lead to a dishonest essay or memoir.
I don’t want to tell my students not to write about things that make them angry, or that they have strong feelings about—such subjects might lead to brilliant insight, either in their writing or in their lives. But I do caution them to ask themselves, honestly, if they’re ready to write about these subjects. Can they reflect without being overwhelmed by their emotions? Because if the answer is no, and the piece of writing lacks that critical, honest interrogation of the self, then the essay or memoir will ultimately be unsuccessful. And above all else, I try to discuss with my students why we write what we write. If a student is genuinely trying to come to an understanding of an experience, trying to figure out something about himself or an event or relationship he lived through, awesome. That’s the point. But, I caution my students, if the whole point is to vilify, degrade, or humiliate another person in front of a classroom full of people, then perhaps this is an essay that ought not be written. Once it’s written down and submitted for workshop, it’s out there, and can’t be taken back. And I doubt too many of us would want to be judged by the things we say—or write—in the heat of an angry or heartbroken moment.