On Not Being Able to Write It–Wendy Rawlings

In 1988, fresh out of college and working at a macrobiotic deli in a health food store, I had an affair with the stock manager, a married Irishman living illegally in the United States and the father of a three-month-old daughter. In the mornings, when we met before work to make love in the back of my car, he smelled of baby powder and the beer he’d drunk the night before at what he called his local, The Dribble Inn. We flirted through the workday, French-kissed in the walk-in freezer. One day six months or so after our affair began he didn’t show up for work. Just like that, he was gone. This was in the days before cell phones; he didn’t get in touch to tell me that his wife had found out and given him an ultimatum: quit his job or she’d take his daughter away and make sure he never saw her again.

Two years later I’m in graduate school in Colorado, sharing an apartment with some guy working on his MBA. At seven in the morning I get a phone call. It’s the Irishman. He and his wife have split up; he wants to see me again. In his wallet he’s been carrying a note I wrote him. He has read it so many times that it’s falling apart.

He flies out to visit me. I’ve just gotten over the chicken pox and my face is still flecked with scars. We’re massively in love with each other. I have written down everything that’s happened between us, since the day we met, and in his absence I’ve imagined him and dreamed about him and probably misremembered him in a hundred thousand ways. Now we’ve found our way back to each other. I spend most of the next summer in the tiny house he rents with three other men, two of them English and living in the States illegally. For its cesspool problem the house has earned the nickname, “The Swamp,” which we have to navigate to get inside and make love on his twin bed with the trundle pull out for when his daughter stays with him.

I move to Utah to pursue a Ph.D. We maintain our relationship long distance. Two years later, on my birthday, my friends take me to Chili’s for dinner. I’m sitting there wondering why my friends have taken me to a shitty fast food restaurant on my birthday when a waiter steps up to the table and places an ice bucket containing a bottle of champagne in front of me. The waiter is my Irishman. He has come straight from the airport and he’s here to stay.

I’m one of those writers who draws from my own life to write fiction. My first book is a collection of short stories, Come Back Irish. Versions of the Irishman appear in many of my stories. But someday, I tell myself I’ll write a memoir. That memoir.

I have tried for thirteen years to write that memoir.

I have not written that memoir.


Why do some nonfictional stories resist being told? On a table near my writing desk sit twenty-four journals I kept during the years of my love affair with the Irishman. They’re filled with details that evoke the tenderness and difficulty and hilarity of two people from very different backgrounds who fell in love nonetheless. There’s the time I took him to dinner at a friend’s house in a wealthy suburb of New York City and the host presented him with a six-pack of Guinness, as if it was the birthright and duty of all Irishmen to drink six packs of Guinness (N.B. he hates Guinness, is a fan of Budweiser). The day I first met his daughter, at the wedding of one of his roommates, and I got nervous and drank so much wine I threw up all over my green linen dress in his van after (thankfully) we had dropped off his daughter at her mother’s house. He got me undressed and into his bed, and when I awoke several hours later, I wandered barefoot down the street to the Dribble Inn and found him drinking pints with the usual gang. “Ah, barefooted like a peasant,” he exclaimed, and didn’t even mention the embarrassment I’d made of myself earlier. Or one time in Utah, when he was giving me a ride to work in the truck he bought when he moved out there with me and I noticed a black liquid sloshing around in the plastic well between our seats. “A sea of tea!” he said. He was in the habit of drinking a cup of tea on the way to work at Fedex, and over time, tea had sloshed out of his mug and into the well. He liked it like that.

And one time we’ve made love in the back of the van and afterwards he’s hungry, so we go to the drive-thru at Taco Bell, ten in the evening, and he buys a bunch of stuff to eat and we sit in the van in the parking lot while he rests the clamshell on the steering wheel and eats messily and happily, licking his fingers. I refuse to eat anything at this late hour. At the end, folding the clamshell shut, he lets out a despairing sigh. “What?” I ask, alarmed. To which he exclaims, reaching into the paper bag beside him, “I forgot my mild and spicy sauce!”

I’ve often tried to begin the memoir with one of these moments, but it falls flat. We are too ordinary; I cannot in words convey the charm of his accent and the unfettered pleasure he takes in his senses without turning him into a leprechaun.

Have I just not found the right form to tell this story, the right voice? Is the story of two people from different backgrounds falling in love just too played out? Do I simply lack the confidence of Mary Karr and Tobias Wolff? Or are some stories meant only to be lived, not told?

It has been fifteen years since I left the garden-level apartment with the intermittent box elder bug infestation where we lived together. He still lives there, still pays $400 a month for rent, still has the framed Matisse poster in his living room that I forgot when I moved out and and asked him to ship to me in Alabama, where I met my husband and got married ten years ago. Recently I visited Utah again – for an atheist convention, of all things – and met him for dinner. It was the first time I didn’t swoon when I saw him. He was an ordinary middle-aged man eating a plate of fish and chips. In a few months, he told me, he’s taking his Filipina girlfriend to his hometown in Ireland and marrying her.

Is there an algorithm that will predict the moment when a writer can begin productively to translate life experience into nonfiction? Must a certain number of years go by? Or does this impasse mean I’m supposed to give up on my desire to write the nonfiction version and write a novel instead?  In order to write the memoir, must our feelings toward the experience we want to write about be utterly neutralized, as by some reverse alchemy that changes gold back into workaday metal, “massively in love” into mere material? But by the time I’ve reached neutral, will I still want to write that book? If I have to wait until I’m sixty, will I be even be able to summon the intensity of those years?

You tell me. I’m still sitting here with my twenty-four journals, waiting.




Wendy Rawlings is the author of two books, The Agnostics and Come Back Irish. Her nonfiction has appeared most recently in Creative Nonfiction, The Cincinnati Review, Passages North and Crab Orchard Review. She teaches in the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Alabama.

146 thoughts on “On Not Being Able to Write It–Wendy Rawlings

  1. I love this post and really appreciate it, Wendy. I’ve had a similar dilemma with a work I’m writing now. I just couldn’t find the container because I had so much material. I think you’re hitting on a key question in the conclusion about whether the feelings must be “utterly neutralized” in a Wordsworthian way. I hope not, because I think the impulse of the essay and the memoir are the question, the thing we are pursuing, that living squirming “what does this mean” that still nags at us, and I think if it’s all settled, the memoir–or the essay–doesn’t have life for me. BTW I had to just write short snapshots and keep writing them and rearranging them to find a form or to even figure out what the thing’s central question was. Still in progress.

    • Thanks for your comments, Sonya. I, too, was thinking of Wordsworth when I wrote the post. I have been playing around with writing snapshots and not worrying about the overall narrative arc. Maybe that’s the way I’ll be able to write the book.

  2. Maybe you want the story to be yours a bit longer. Maybe it’s sacred on a level you cannot put into words. Maybe successfully marketing it to a population dilutes its strength and fades its beauty.

    A personal story is like an uncut diamond. You can pretty it up by slicing it into a shape people will accept but much of its total value will be sacrificed in the process.

  3. I write for fun and to share my own experiences w people. I enjoyed reading your story. I don’t believe stories like this every get worn or tired. In today’s world where everyone is moving so fast..its nice to read stories like this that allow us to take a moment to reminisce on our our memories… I know this isn’t being answered from a technical writing perspective but just my 2 cents…

  4. Stories like this are why I love writing. If you didn’t write down what happens in your life, how will people ever know it happened? Sharing all aspects of the human condition and human experiences just assures all of us that there is something that ties us all together. Whether one person identifies with the Taco Bell anecdote or the passion in the relationship between the Irishman and her, it doesn’t matter because all experiences relate to one another, just like people do.

  5. I sincerely enjoyed reading this piece, and I don’t often get so absorbed reading blogs!

    Maybe the best way to proceed for the memoir is to create a very detailled plan, listing all the elements you wish to present and the ideas you want to argue. Once the structure is clear, it will probably be much easier to write the memoir itself, because you’ll be able to follow the ideas you organised in the plan. You’ll be able to simply write, regardless of the quality of the text. Then in the end you’ll be able to perfect the sentences, vocabulary and such. Proceeding this way, you won’t get sucked into memories, doubt and toughts as much as if you were writing the memoir from a to z: it’ll be easier to detach from the emotions without having to make the effort to stop feeling.

    Just a tought! Let me know if it makes sense or not. I’d love to know more about how you usually write!

    Congrats on being FP!

  6. Similar dilemma here! I am writing a true story in my blog, consulting my journals spanning 20 years, trying to convey the essence, the intensity of feelings of a story, that has an unbelievable end. I am also asking myself often, whether this story wants to be told as a memoir, or as a novel instead. I love your article, you truly managed to pull me in your story. Gia x

  7. I’ve had a semi-autobigraphical short story in my head for years and years. It’s as though I have memorised it in my head but every time I try to write it down it eludes me. I suppose some stories are just too much a part of us to be cut out from us and let go in to the world.

  8. I really wish I could give you advice on this subject. It sounds very interesting. Sadly, I can’t. Perhaps you’ll write the memoir, or make it a novel, or will wait many years. The hardest thing is starting in the first place. Maybe once you actually start, it’ll get easier and you’ll know where you want to go. Hope that helps.

  9. “Have I just not found the right form to tell this story, the right voice?”

    You just may have hit on something and I would just like to offer some advice that might help you and at the same time differentiate yourself in the marketplace, something we hear all the time. But first, some word from my own source of inspiration.

    F. Scott Fitzgerald felt strongly about a writer’s motivation and offered insight into his own efforts: “You don’t write because you want to say something; you write because you have something to say. Whether it’s something that happened twenty years ago or only yesterday, I must start out with an emotion – one that’s been close to me and that I can understand.”

    There’s an entirely new genre of Literature just emerging called MultiTouch fiction (see MultiTouchFiction.com – a WordPress site – that offers writers a compelling way to tell their stories.

    Tell us your story, Wendy.

  10. I think you already wrote your memoir in those 24 journals. But even though the story is still in your head, maybe it is best left just for you. That said, you are a fantastic writer. Thank you for sharing this small potion of your story with us.

  11. Like you, Wendy, I have those notebooks full of scribblings and “morning pages” (my favorite three pages longhand every morning just to get the junk out of the head . . .) and so on. Dreams, tarot readings, you name it. I also had a rather all encompassing love story (which didn’t last as long as yours with your Irishman) which I had difficulty writing about. Maybe because it was so personal. Maybe because it was in my journals in spots and those feelings, written contemporaneously, were still too raw to be anything but felt. That is, I could still feel those feelings, but didn’t have a way to process them with the filters of memory and experience and just being a more skilled person in this world. I took a stab at it on my blog during this Writing101 exercise in a three post series, but it’s not fleshed out (hardly). I also am taking old journal entries and putting some of them out there (with some editing) and then reflecting upon them. I guess this a long way to say – maybe journals aren’t meant to be published? Or if they are, they need to be culled, processed, and edited to protect both the innocent and the guilty. Good luck on doing something with them – or nothing. Maybe they remain your sweet memory, held close and enjoyed for years to come. Laura

  12. There is so much meat in your writing; I love it. Probably because you write about the most “alive” parts of your life; those parts I don’t have courage to reveal. Given that you’ve written this with so much raw passion, I am puzzled about your blockage. However, when you said you didn’t swoon for the first time and he’s a regular middle-aged guy, I wondered if that’s your block. Once you see him for who he is without your veil of passion, can you write as if you’re still enveloped by it?

  13. Memoire writing… Always needs a muse, which never seem to come… Interestingly, your post is quite touching as I see through your writings esp the one on Come Back Irish..wish I could just read it (and know how it all ends).

    Great post Wendy. You’re awesome

  14. What a wonderful post. Great story, interesting details and a big question: why did you leave the Irishman? You’ll tell more of your tale when you’re ready.

  15. I loved your post Wendy… believe me when i tell you that your story/piece of your memoir was an amazing read. I would certainly love to read more about you and your irishman’s adventures. The story has a soul that could connect to. I too have a memoir that I am somewhat afraid to post, fearing that its too ordinary, but your story has changed my mind. Thank you. Keep posting Wendy…. you are amazing!!!

  16. Hi Wendy, you have such an interesting story here and you should definitely consider sharing it. One thing you might consider is writing fictionalized versions of the experiences you wrote in your journal, perhaps in a collection or connected stories. Think of the experiences and feelings that you wrote down more as a guideline to describe the scenes, actions and plot, but allow yourself to transform the people into their own characters and then follow the characters wherever they lead you.

  17. I often include tidbits of real life situations in my fiction, but have never considered writing out a memoir, or journal entry of sorts. It seems a good idea and is something fresh, because I’ve never put it to the test and after reading this post, I feel like doing that right now. I always find, I have a lot to say about the things going on in my life at any given moment, so to write about it in this way would be beneficial, perhaps. Again, this was a brilliant read and I loved reading of the bond you both shared.

  18. What a great essay. I have experiences in my own life like this that just refuse to conform, refuse to find their way into the form I want. I think cross-genre writing is a perfect way to express the entirety of our lives. But I also am thinking that time and perspective give us the write angle to write. Maybe your memoir will come to you soon.

  19. I want to read this book!! Write it from the heart you can not go wrong!! I too have those journals and have taken a very small step by creating a blog. It is scary. But I am writing. One post at a time!

  20. It helps knowing someone else is tapping her finger on a stack of pages and asking the same questions that I do over my stack. Some day?

  21. I really connected with this post. I am only 24 right now, but have so many stories I’ve wanted to turn into novels, and endless journals full of collections of my love affairs. But when it comes down to it, I feel I cannot fully articulate what I want to evoke. It comes out sounding cliche or overtold…or just lackluster in general.
    However, it seems to me that you have become successful even without fully telling your story in the way you’re wanting to. Maybe fictionalizing your characters and stories is the way to go (for now).
    This post was incredibly lovely and actually gave me chills. I’d love to read more!

  22. Wendy, this is such a great post. I’m with Sonya Huber when she said, “I think the impulse of the essay and the memoir are the question, the thing we are pursuing, that living squirming “what does this mean” that still nags at us, and I think if it’s all settled, the memoir–or the essay–doesn’t have life for me.” I think you’ll write your way into your understanding. The question is why now? Why is this relationship, this man, still nagging at you?

    One commenter asked how it felt to see him as an ordinary middle-aged man. I’m so curious about that. How did seeing him like that (when you were married to someone else) change how you viewed your relationship? Or not? I think those moments of tension are such great jumping off points and might help you find the stage of your memoir, the point from which you are telling the story.

    Keep going with those snapshots! I’ll read this book for sure!

  23. I think sometimes you are too close to something to write about it effectively, maybe you never will find enough distance. Perhaps you could write about it tangentially – Kurt Vonnegut spent many years tribe to write about his wartime experiences in the Dresden bombing before finally managing to do so as science fiction in Slaughterhouse Five. Not suggesting you apply quite the same tactic 😉

  24. I don’t know much about writing, but as I’m reading this post about the Irishman, I’m thinking, “okay that’s him, that’s who he is — but what about the person who wrote the story – why do you put up with his idiosyncrasies, what is it that attracts you to him, what keeps these two people together?” You need to dig deeper and tell us more about you in relationship to him. But of course, you already know that, right? All the best!

  25. I love this piece. I struggle with the same thing. For me I think translating life expirience to non fiction gives you a chance to rewrite history…..Give yourself boobs like Pamela Anderson and make him look like Gerald Butler while you’re at it.

  26. I loved this piece, Wendy, because I am struggling with the same thing. I’ve been struggling to write a “memoir” for years about a rekindled relationship with a college paramour. I’ve taken workshops, retreats, and an online class, but never seem to progress beyond a couple of scenes. Frustrating and depressing. I like the advice offered here, especially about writing snapshots, and I’m inspired by the idea that we don’t need to know “the end.” That the writing may be more dynamic with “the end.” This blog and the comments have given my spirits a boost. I’ve been ruminating about many negative aspects of my life and needed a bit of encouragement. By the way, I AM almost 60 though the reconnection happened about six years ago!

  27. This was a great post, but if you are struggling to write your non-fiction story, I would suggest that it’s because you’ve already written it.

    If you still need to express the emotion of that that experience, I think you will have to fictionalize it. That will help you express it again for the first time.

  28. Oh my goodness. I couldn’t stop reading this long blog. Definitely a eye catching story. Keep writing. I knew you wouldn’t marry him. Just an adventure and adventures come to an end.

  29. Leave the story like that. It was good enough without all the work to make it ‘polished’ but ‘boring’. I’d rather a memoria shine with the experience the reader can live out in their mind to properly experience rather than details that read like a recipe.


  30. Thank you for raising an important question. I think if you feel a desire to write this as nonfiction, it will find its way out. All good memoirs/essays are about transformation. Maybe you are looking in the wrong place. Maybe the story is about how the affair changed you, not the affair itself. Focus on you, not on the two of you.

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