When I found myself unexpectedly divorced at twenty-eight, I did what any ambitious writer would do. I wrote a book about it. Isn't that what aspiring authors are supposed to do these days? Experience trauma (incest, Ritalin abuse, a stay in a mental institution), reveal it in print, go wide on Oprah, sell the film rights, make a million. The guiding principle is that to have an emotion is to share an emotion; validate your experience in its uniqueness and its universality (a tricky balance, and readers want both, as publishers will advise you) by exposing your emotional innards to voyeurs and fellow sufferers alike.
But I didn't want to write that book. Divulging news of my divorce to friends had been painful enough; I certainly didn't want to publicize my newly unmarried status to the world, to become some sort of poster girl for Gen-X divorce.
I did, however, want to go beyond the confines of my own little tale, with its petty arguments and betrayals, in order to document a larger trend. As a journalist I wanted to examine the idea of "starter marriages" - unions that last five years or less without producing children. By interviewing sixty people across the country who'd had the starter marriage experience, and by supplementing their stories with statistical data, I hoped to use the phenomenon as a filter for analyzing the politics, culture, and social state of marriage in contemporary America.
I knew I was straddling a blurry line between the subjective and the objective. Having been through a starter marriage certainly colored my perspective, though I hoped, and publishers agreed, that it would give my work immediacy. I listened. I wrote. I set rules for myself. I would use the first person in the book's introduction to explain how I came to write it, but I would eliminate the I from the rest of narrative. I would avoid the verb should and allow my interviewees to speak for themselves, reserving for readers the right to judge. If they found one of my subjects immature, foolish, or self-centered, so be it, I reasoned, if that helped a reader avoid the same mistakes. I tried not to tell readers what to think. Not to insert myself gratuitously into this narrative. This book, I vowed, was not about me.
Or so I thought. When the book, The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony, was published, I found myself making my television debut on the Today show. The next day, I was a guest on Good Morning America. Inside Edition, Politically Incorrect - even The 700 Club. My TV hosts all asked the same questions: "What happened to you?" "Why did you get divorced?" "What does your ex-husband think of your writing this book?" The Washington Post described how I ate my pasta over a dinner interview. The Daily Telegraph of London asked what my ex-husband did for a living. People magazine wanted his name. In response I learned the art of deflection, the coy rebuttal, the slippery diversion. I'll numb 'em with numbers, I thought.
People wanted me to take my book back down to the personal level. One recently married reviewer accused me of celebrating my "victimhood." "The idea is that the culture has tricked her, not that she has made a mistake," she wrote. "I have no doubt that writing the book made the author feel better." Now, any author wants to connect with readers and be taken seriously, but I had to wonder: does that mean readers have to take it personally? Is it necessary to insist not only that writers create a "personal" project but that in doing so they also acquiesce to personal attack? Perhaps by putting myself out there I had set myself up. "If you're going to write a book, you're going to get criticized," media-savvy folk advised me, and I agreed that I should be grateful for attracting such notice. "But I thought my book would get criticized, not me," I replied with defensive na"vet}.
What I've learned is this: if you're going to write a book, you are going to be the subject. Popular historians become televised pundits, novelists turn into gossip-page fixtures, biographers are profiled in the New York Times Book Review. I didn't set out to write a memoir. But in today's literary landscape, I didn't have to.
Pamela Paul is a senior editor at American Demographics.