In retrospect, encouraging my husband to have an affair — while he was in Europe on a three-week business trip — was not the best idea to bring passion back into our colourless, but loving, marriage.
In retrospect, dating compulsively — just three weeks after my husband left me for the Turkish Delight he met on that business trip — was probably not the best way to work through the pain of having been dumped, at 39, for a 24-year-old.
In retrospect, writing a memoir of my year of dating dangerously — but pretending it was a romance novel — was the worst of three very bad ideas.
At least I didn’t make a fourth mistake and self-publish that work of creative non-fiction. At least…yet.
The timeline went like this:
- In 2005 my husband of 15 years had an affair.
- In 2006, I dated. Compulsively. Outrageously. Even dangerously.
- In 2007, I wrote a memoir which I called, “My Lava Life: A Year of Drinking Scotch with Strangers.”
- In 2008, I submitted 50 pages of my manuscript to a highly competitive writing program, hoping it was good enough that I’d be invited to pay $2,000 for a published author to mentor me through writing my second draft.
The incentive: Many writers who ‘graduate’ from the mentorship program achieve success, finding agents and publishers.
The catch: the program was, at the time, for fiction writers. My memoir, although at times creative, was pure non-fiction. So, I lied on the application. Where it asked for genre, I wrote ‘Romance’.
Truth is, I’d never even read a romance novel. But, in my technical writer’s mind, my story had lovers and sex, ergo, it could be a romance novel.
Great news! My first fifty pages — written in first person but with the “main character’s” name changed to Tara — passed the “she can write good enough” test. I was in. I started picturing my book on the Heather’s Picks table at Chapters.
Yeah, right! What follows is a just a tiny taste of the feedback my Published Author Mentor (I’ll call her PAM) gave me on my “romance novel.”
I wrote that my husband’s affair was a result of my suggesting that he have one, since my libido had obviously been fused to (and was expelled from my body with) the placenta of our only child — now nine years old.
PAM: No sane woman who still loved her husband would make such a suggestion. She’d find out why her sex drive was so low and deal with it.
My reaction: Of course, I couldn’t tell PAM that my main character was perfectly sane, thank you very much. And only in part because I didn’t want to admit the autobiographical nature of the story. It was because, by then, I had started to believe that I was, in fact, insane, since the marriage counsellor my husband and I saw after the affair, said the exact same thing.
I included the letter that I wrote to my husband’s new lover — all six pages of it — in which I explain why I suggested that my soul-mate have an affair, and why she should never trust him, since he broke the first rule of our agreement.
PAM: This letter is 100% unbelievable. The emotions are all wrong. It’s too controlled. Do some primary research; talk to a woman who’s been cheated on.
My reaction: Seriously, PAM, stereotype much? We lovers scorned aren’t all National Enquirer story fodder.
The profiles I wrote for online dating sites were in the story, verbatim.
PAM: Donna, sign-up for a couple of online dating sites to see how dating profiles are written. These don’t make sense. Men would never reply.
My reaction: You are so wrong, PAM. I had hundreds of replies. Granted, 98% of them were whack jobs, but, I got men’s attention!
I wrote about my reticence shaving my pubic hair at the request of a man I dated for a few months. I wondered what the attraction was of making my sex organs look prepubescent. And about the process of using a razor, the resulting razor burn, and the unbearable itching as the hair grew back.
PAM: Your character sounds puritanical and stupid. What 40-year-old has never shaved her pubes? 15-year-olds know more than this character.
My reaction: Okay, maybe I’m an idiot. But I knew I wasn’t puritanical and took comfort knowing that by chapter six, PAM would learn that, too.
I wrote about the night a date smashed my face into a table at a bar, knocking out my front tooth after I slapped him for making a sexual comment about my friend’s four-year-old daughter.
PAM: First, this kind of violence has no place in a romance. The reader won’t like it. And second, your character isn’t likeable enough for the reader to even care.
My reaction: It’s true. I’m an unlovable loser.
I included a dozen blog posts, exactly as I had posted them 12 to 18 months earlier, of stories about some of my dates. I included many of the comments left by readers. Even those from my mother.
PAM: I like this character less and less. Put her in counselling, get her out of the dating scene.
My reaction: Nobody will ever love me again.
And on and on. My memoir — like my marriage and my year of dating — was an unmitigated failure.
But, my Published Author Mentor also gave me positive and supportive feedback about my writing style, my voice, my pacing. She told me that the story needed a better narrative arc — that the adventures of a 40-year-old woman’s dating should start and end with the man she eventually falls in love with, otherwise the main character would be seen as a slut — even if she only went to bed with a couple of them. She said that it’s okay for men to play the field, but society doesn’t look kindly on a woman who does.
So, what did I do? Obviously, I made yet another bad decision, because, between 2005 and 2008, that’s what I did.
I rewrote my story as actual fiction, taking most of PAM’s comments to heart, including that it should be written in the third-person.
I hated the result. All 80,000 words of it. PAM and I went our separate ways, her work being done — at least, her hours having been used up.
But I wanted a story I could walk into Chapters and see on the shelves, so, I wrote the story a third time. I went back to first-person, reduced the number of dates from twenty-four to a manageable three men — and one woman! And what had started as a memoir was now a series of scenes, loosely based on my sexual fantasies, not my own “character” arc as I dated to learn that men could not fill the hole I was experiencing in my self.
But, I still hadn’t read a single romance title.
I did, however, join a romance writer’s group to see if they could help me turn my manuscript into something publishable. What I learned from this kind group of women is that my story, now called Drinking Scotch with Strangers, might best serve me if it was placed in a box, under my bed, where cringe-worthy, first novel, works-in-progress go to die. I didn’t disagree and that’s where it still lives today.
And what about the memoir version? The true story of the year I really did lose my mind and work through the grief of losing the man I loved to another woman by dating 24 men in twelve months.
It’s now been twelve years since the affair. My ex-husband married the woman he left me for and they have a two children. I’ve never met either his wife or his sons, but I’m happy for him. Truly I am.
In fact, I forgave him for falling in love with ‘her’ before my friends could and even held a marriage dissolution ceremony with many of the same people who were witnesses at my wedding. That second service (which my ex-husband declined participating in — I did invite him) was recorded and shared as a radio documentary on CBC Tapestry. You can listen here.
The process of having written my memoir forced me to be self-reflective; it was cathartic; and ultimately, healing. I, too, met someone and remarried. We’re very happy. (And so is my libido. Thank goodness.)
Do I need to revisit my memoir manuscript now to try to make it publishable? Well, no. I don’t need to, but part of me still wants to.
On the other hand, I wonder if PAM’s reaction is indicative of how the majority of readers would react knowing I slept with a man in drag just to see what it would be like; that, to avoid being rude, I ignored my gut and went into the home of a man recently released from prison for assault; that I accepted a marriage proposal from a man who was obviously a compulsive liar? (Not the man I ultimately did marry. Again — thank goodness!)
I can live with one reader telling me that my main character is a naive idiot who’s hard to like. Do I want to risk being personally labelled that way in book reviews?
Do I want my now adult son to know about how I spent my nights during the weeks he was with his dad?
Well, no, of course not.
So why am I even considering pulling my memoir out from under the bed and placing it, naked on the sheets, for all to see?
It makes me wonder,
Why would anyone want to expose themselves to the potential humiliation of sharing their personal lives in a public forum?
What’s there to gain from writing a memoir?
Why are memoirs the fastest growing genre in publishing right now?
Those are some of the questions I’d love to explore by talking to people who’ve had “write my memoir” on their bucket list for years; authors who’ve published their memoirs; and the poor souls who are written about in memoirs.
And, at the end of all the research, which could take years, maybe then I’ll have the confidence to tackle this story again, because there’s obviously something in it that needs to be shared, otherwise, it would be with the half-dozen other, partially-completed manuscripts that I never think about anymore.