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. Wendy: I’d like to offer a bit of constructive criticism. I actually was not feeling the story behind this piece at all. The way your Irishman kept wafting back into your life is an interesting idea, but ultimately it didn’t pull me in. Maybe I’m just not a romantic at heart. Maybe I’m just a cynic and not into happy-ending love stories. BUT when I got to the end and saw you’d moved out, married someone else, and found the Irishman once again, and suddenly he was just a man eating at a restaurant–no magic, no sparks–THAT’S when I got interested. That’s when I wanted to know why you left after you both landed together, after whirlwind romance became an apartment with a Matisse framed on the wall. Maybe you need to start from the end and work your way backward.

  2. This was a great post, I too can relate to your situtation. Heres my advice, you have already wrote your story in your journals, thats your rough draft to whatever you decide to go with be a novel or memior (sorry for spelling using my phone). Good luck

  3. Maybe you’re still waiting for something. Like there should be another page for you and the Irishman. 🙂

    I feel you though. We have stories we want to write about ourselves and yet we feel like its not enough to even be written.

  4. I saw a movie once. I cannot remember the name or who was in it but I have never forgotten one line which was “Just because it happened to you does not make it interesting.”

    A large part of what makes an artist extraordinary is the ability to determine what parts of their work are brilliant or simply mediocre.

    What you may be experiencing in your failure to write a memoir is your artistic self suppressing attempts to express what it feels is not particularly special, at least not as non-fiction. You addressed this yourself when you questioned if your life was “ordinary.”

    You have also drawn on this character several times in past work. Maybe you have said all there is to say, fiction or non-fiction regardless.

    • For years I’ve kept a diary and often thought it must be possible to make some interesting writing out of them. But like your film quote says, just because it happened to me doesn’t make it an interesting read. Maybe I’ll make a fictional blog out of them…?

  5. Such an interesting, well written post. I’d read this memoir. I want to know more about you, and why you fell in love with him, and how he is different from the man you married. Like Sonya and Kate said, there’s a reason this story keeps following you around. Those 24 journals will get you started. Good luck, Wendy.

  6. This is an amazing post! The same thing happens when I try to write about my life or poetry about my lovers. It just never sounds as interesting when written in simple fact. Love love this

  7. Your opening story , it’s the sort of thing that makes you want to keep reading..it draws you in, it’s the hubris of life.. awesome -inspirational.

  8. I would absolutely love to read your memoir written exactly in the voice your post was written. While brief, it evoked vivid images of your time together and it was a fun and entertaining read. I imagined you sitting in a bar telling your girlfriends about your Irish lover while they looked on with envy, flushed and eager for details of the love affair of the century.

  9. I had no problem seeing your story in my mind’s eye and understanding your Irishman an his “Irishness.” I think I am helped by the fact that I have known a few of them and it was easy for mr to lay my own experiences over yours. I think that probably holds true with many stories written. I believe that is also one of the reasons that books are almost always better than a movie – the movie forces us into a particular picture rather than the personal one formed inside our own mind. But then, that could just be me.

    Best of luck in your future writing! Write what you love and enjoy – then it doesn’t matter if anyone else gets it or not.

  10. Hmm..well, I’m over sixty and there’s plenty of things from my youth that are far to difficult to express in writing still I’m afraid. Lovely post though, thank you.

  11. Reblogged this on Wardle words and commented:
    It is true – there is that gap between the thing lived and the writing of it. I think (and I am willing, or hoping) to be wrong here, but there are some stories that may never be told. But there will be others that will crowd in on you until you find a voice to tell them. Maybe the voice isn’t there yet for your lovely Irishman. But I suspect, one day, maybe parked behind a truck, waiting for the lights to change, or standing in an airport shuffling queue, a sentence will drop into your your head in a voice as clear as your own … and you will be off! Some stories, the ones with deep roots, take a while to surface

  12. I’m writing mine in shorts and will at some point assemble them together into the book. LOL I’m not sure about writing all of mine though, huge parts of it may be illegal to put into print

  13. I think most women have had a “He was an ordinary middle-aged man eating a plate of fish and chips” moment with past boyfriends. When you are young, you tend to look past a persons true nature. Unfortunately, most women don’t have the “fish and chips” moment soon enough. It isn’t about regretting old boyfriends, it is about seeing people for who they really are.

  14. Maybe it needs a third character to give the story a little added dimension, some richer perspective and deeper meaning. Someone in addition to you and the Irishman. His ex? His daughter? Someone whose part in your story is as compelling as yours and the Irishman’s?

  15. Hi I am Aruna…I understand what you are saying … how much of personal is too personal to be shared even in a fiction form… even years after the event? And yes doesn’t time dim the remembered intensity? A tightrope walk for sure.. all the best. You have to make the decision yourself.. and you will if and when the time is right.

  16. This is a great post! I’d have to say you’re stronger than me. I write fiction, and live in a world of escapism. Though small pieces of myself and my own past work their ways into my work, I prefer to bury old wounds as best as I can. I admire your determination to put your own story onto paper, and I’m sure you’ll get it all down, in just they way you want it told, when the time is right. Until then, best of luck : )

  17. It sounds like you’ve already wrote the beginning, this blogpost feels like it could be the beginning to the book but as perfectionist as writers tend to be try not to be a perfectionist start with something thats just your thoughts on paper something because those thoughts are geniune and this is a geniune story that you want to tell

  18. Amazing post! I’d read your memoir in a heartbeat. I, too, find myself in the same problem, except instead of 10 years it’s’ been 8 and frankly, I think the end is near. But like you said, I don’t know where to start with it, for me, turning it into a memoir would keep it alive, which is normal I feel since this person was such an important part of your life, and regardless that you are both married and him soon to be married, the beauty of the story is still there and will remain always!

  19. Wendy, to me, it looks like you wrote the memoir in this very piece. Perhaps some memoirs are better told with brevity. Thanks for sharing.

  20. To me, as a reader of this work, it feels like a novel. Maybe if you are not fettered to the real life of your story, allow yourself to embellish, think of your characters as not yourselves, but other imaginary people, add bits and pieces. Also, if you work out what you both wanted, what got in the way, why it didn’t work and what how you both learned and changed from it (or not, as the case may be!) – youhave a plot. The passion makes it a story worth writing. Good luck!

  21. This is a lovely little piece. The details really made it for me, and I giggled at the bit about Taco Bell. I think it may need more time and distance, and you may decide you don’t need to write a memoir about him in that time, but that if you don’t feel it’s working, it is alright to just not do the thing.

  22. Wow! I have grappled with similar inability to write about real-life events. I have always wondered if perhaps the Universe is simply telling me that the story is mine and mine alone. Not meant to be shared. Too personal. Yet, I still have such a desire to tell it!

    Thank you for sharing!

  23. As a writer myself, I spend an awful lot of time wrestling words into existence; and the hardest thing of all is to write about your own experiences. It’s possible to narrate, even to chronicle; but to really WRITE – to convey the emotion, as you felt it – is hard. Even if your words flow in other ways.

    Why? It seems to me that – as you say – some stories are indeed made to be lived, and not told. Others can only be told when the time is right; and it may not be right – yet. There could well come a day when, suddenly, you find your words flowing out and the story being told, your thoughts impelled by a will that seems not your own. But it is.

  24. very interesting post; you have provided a glimpse of you memoir here and I love your voice. I write fiction; however, I find that the details of my life become incorporated and intertwined in the narrative. Thanks for the post, Melissa

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  26. Appreciating your loyalty with the Irish Man who was married and had a daught .. Nice Post. Hope to read your memoir one day. 🙂

  27. I totally agree with the premise that some stories are not yet ready to be written. We should never forge our creativity into some hideous rendition of our imagination. We should raise and nurture it just as we would a child first learning to walk. I too have stories yet untold and when they are ready I plan to show them off to the world. Sometimes we are simply afraid that the exposure will cause our dear precious moments to alter in some way. Yet, other times its just that the experiences are not yet understood nor complete. Whatever the reason, I do believe that you should give it time. No matter how much time, if its meant to be written it will be. Good luck. 🙂

  28. I am in the dilemma of writing a very interesting collection of life experiences as well, but like you, they don’t want to come out the way I want them to come out…I guess they need a lot more time to marinate within me. Great post, it is absorbing and very engaging that I read it all the way until the last comment before this one!! Congratulations on being FP!

  29. I am really glad I read this. It was very entertaining and just the inspiration I was looking for. I am trying to write an account of my youth from scratch. Needless to say I am battling. I like the idea of a ” snapshot”. I am going to explore this further. Thanks for the great post.

  30. The way you’ve just written about STRUGGLING to find a way to write your memoir is precisely how you should actually go about it. I found this captivating, and it almost moved me to tears, just reading about your love story. Bear in mind that I don’t cry very much! Perhaps this would work really well as some sort of prologue? Or introduction? I just know that what you’ve written here is truly engaging. Ah, best of luck to you! (Haha and I found myself reading the Irishman’s lines in an Irish accent!…) Clare x http://www.thehedonistavista.wordpress.com (P.S. I’d love some feedback on my writing ^ – if you have time to read and leave a comment i’d really appreciate it! Thanks!)

  31. I like the idea of doing snapshots instead of a novel – style memoir. Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller comes to mind. It’s not real chronological but it centers around a theme and he provides episodes instead of a full length movie. After all, isn’t that what we remember of our favorite movies? The scenes where he comes in on a white horse and takes her away or the scene where she gives him the what for? And those scenes make up our stories.

  32. Pingback: Our Unwritten Story | ~innervoiceoutloud~

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