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 just stumbled across this post and I am sorry that I have not read all the comments so I apologize if what I say has been said many times. I suspect that if you ever really do write that memoir you risk losing it to the world and it is no longer yours. Something in you knows that it is precious. If you give yourself to riff on it fictionally and stay close to the core of the truth you will achieve the same, if not a better result.

    I wonder if this is why some great writers leave their “autobiographical” novels until later in their careers when they have both the skill and the distance to give the “trueness” of the story the treatment it deserves. At least you are writing. Some of us just have stacks of random notebooks!

  2. I think maybe you distilled the essence of those twenty four journals into that great post and you’re waiting as we all do: for things to end the way we want them to end.

  3. What stops a memoir writer from telling their story is often the self-examination they submit themselves to as part of the creative process. In this well-written, non-critical description we glimpse moments from a joyful romance that occurred over a decade ago, Memoir writing requires deep personal probing, explanations of behavior and days of thoughtful reflection. The family that was once glimpsed in the background can’t be overlooked in a memoir written by a mature, married woman. The story will emerge, but as fiction.

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  5. If you’re struggling on where to begin, then why not begin from the beginning? How you started this article seems like a pretty good place to start. Tell it how you remember it now. Even if you don’t feel the same way as you did then, write down what you can remember of how it felt and how it feels now.

  6. What a wonderful piece filled with so many lessons – about writing and other things. Not everything is fair game for memoir especially those things that were so sublime in the moment but can’t be recaptured with words.

  7. A great post, and heavens I know a similar feeling. For me I feel like my stories in reality are so unsurmountable to words. How can we ever express something that we hold so dear? There is an elusive inner pressure to get it all down on paper before a creation so profound is lost to the world, fictorially speaking. I hope for your sake that you find the words, your story is remarkable as I’m sure the end product will be.

  8. Hey Great post. I was kinda hoping it ends with you and Irishman getting married. I am so gonna read your novels. I am just an amateur and for me stories just struck. It sometimes began with the new restaurant that opened or stars the guy i met. There is a burden to get it out on paper. Hopefully you’ll find your story cause I really want to know how the relationship ended. Visit my blog and give me some advice maybe? zoelovestoread.wordpress.com

  9. I find it interesting that we often base writing on all of these meaningful life experiences, but in the end use them in fiction. Is it more scary to create a story, a world, where you are the puppet master? Or is it more scary to present the truth, labeled as such? Maybe it’s not a matter of fear at all, but I often steal from life in my own writing, when I could just as easily call it nonfiction. Still can’t figure it out.
    For more fun with writing and literature, check out aliteralinterpretation.wordpress.com. I think you’ll like it.

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  11. This is a lovely piece. And so well written about the problems of writing. I think memoir is very difficult and especially so for ordinary people who haven’t lived through ordinary times. Though you have captured something of it in this. I wonder whether all those sublime and special moments couldn’t be captured in fiction. That’s one reason why people write it. Somehow when it turns into fiction it becomes universal.

  12. I think if we live long enough all writers have that one person or experience we debate sharing in our work. I know I do. The interesting rhing I’ve discovered about that person and those ezperiences is that they have had such an impact on us in our journey of beciming that they show up in our writing in ways big and small whatever we writw. Your Irish shaped you a little bit and so he is in your writing because he became a part of you. I don’t have your answer, I don’t have mine. I do know that writing, in whatever genere, is a giving of the self and you have no oblugation to anyone to share all of yourself.

  13. I’m a seventeen year old who has been through the life of a 25 year old, I’m being thrown into an undetermined world, I can relate to your story. You can’t finish a story that hasn’t even started.

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  15. Wendy, this was moving. You say you’re not writing about the Irishman, but here you are, writing about the Irishman. Maybe you’re too hung up on the book idea. Why don’t you just write posts like this? Then after 50 of them, you’ll have your book.

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  17. I published my memoirs about one month ago and at 70 it was the powerful memories and the feelings about them that had never changed. Writing the book actually helped me to heal and grow (along with individual, group and marital therapy). Having had the good fortune to retire from my day job, the book was written with my whole heart. I loved your memoir. My wife and I deal with the joys and obstacles of having emerged from different cultural milieus. God bless your efforts and your timing.

    H Robert Rubin
    Author of Look Backward Angel, available as an Amazon ebook

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  19. Ditto your idea of writing your memoir based on your real life experience. Please go for it because by telling the truth, your readers will hear echoes of their own life experience.

  20. I still found your short story about your Irish lover entertaining and for some odd reason, inspiring. Maybe some stories are not meant to have an ending. I would love to read a collection of short stories just like this one!

  21. This is a terrific question — it’s nagged at me all my writing life too. But if there is a time to write one’s story, you have definitely reached it. Your story was riveting and provoking, full of nuance, capturing the passion perfectly and reflecting with realism. I’m in awe!

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  23. maybe that is why you should write it?
    That will set it apart: your difficulty to put into words the inexpressible. That difficulty will work because people might relate to it more, just because you are writing doesn’t mean you are not human and can explicit everything

    Great Post!

  24. Misremember (a great word nonetheless) sounds to much like dismember. Maybe that is the point. I am going to write a childrens book this summer. My oevre is paralysed, screenplay, poem, short story. I have several distinct advantages.

    I am in deep despair of the suffering of children in war zones, I have a mandated expectation from my girlfriends granddaughter of a made story most nights (sometimes begrudgingly, but sometimes I get it right and it inspires me), my casual work is running out over summer – I will have to start looking for more than five (more like twenty, when five is a struggle) jobs a month.

    Waiting for the Critical Mass can be frustrating, I think now, it is like a snowball and when you know it is rolling, you do all you can to start an avalanche.

  25. I don’t think you can ever force the creative process. You will write what you write and that might not always be what you want to write. Maybe you have to write it as fiction so you can touch it up and make it that much better of a story to be told.

  26. Pingback: On Not Being Able to Write It | Imperfect Writer: My Journey to Finding Myself

  27. “Twenty-four journals” would be a great title for a book. I love the line: ‘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.’ Could you write a novel in the form of a journal? I would read it!

  28. I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that when Kerouac was struggling to write On The Road, spending too much time worrying and thinking it over, Neal Cassady finally said to him, “Just write it!”
    Thus, the greatest American true story was written.
    Stop caring and just write it!

  29. “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.” O, Lord, now I’m concerned I turn everything into a leprechaun. Loved this.

  30. Why does it resist being written? Does it have to be a question of you having the number and type and depth of experiences to have the material and the compulsion, not to mention the conviction to write? I see many comments about of writers who wrote in one genre only to come back in later years to write their memoir. So, what holds you back? Does it even matter? Are you worried about something that does not matter? perhaps your muse wants you to write in some other genre and if so is it possible that even though you write fiction that comes complete with gnomes, and giants, and dragons, oh my but in fact you write in allegorical form. What if you fiction is cleverly concealed memoir and for that matter what if all fiction in some way is nothing but that, concealed reality. I have always though that most artists are simply drawing self portraits no matter how fantastic the artwork and that the great artists are those who finally rise above the subconscious drive to create a selfie. Hence, in that same vein of idea does a writer simply memoir no matter the form until they become so great that they finally rise above who they are? Well, its my theory anyway. I hope you can follow. I am an author and I had to wait a great many years to reach a point when I could at last write. I had been on a life long writers block that has at last fallen by the way side. I had to wait though until I built my own business, raised one family and then started a second. Wrestled with addiction and then went to jail for more than a year. Tough thing to do, going to jail. For one thing, you will always be hungry and you will always lose your dignity. How not to go to jail? Don’t get high. That would be my suggestion.

    Then again, while in jail I found a teacher who had a class on writing. She came in each week to the jail and taught the inmates. She helped me learn how to write. Now I am free and I write each day. I am rebuilding my business and raising my family. It took a great deal of personal tragedy to reach the point where at last I could defeat my writers block, but I did and it is so very liberating. My statement to you then is, please just write, Don’t pay heed so much to what your writing, but rather just write till your hand drops off.

    Thanks, Johnny.

  31. Great questions you ask in this fine post. I started writing a memoir, my first, eight years ago. Among other reasons to write, it was an attempt to help make sense of my life. There was a great need to do that. It opened me up. It opened me up so much that I realize with each passing year I am still growing, and how I change with each year is just as as important as who I was all the years before I started writing my memoir so that in a sense the memoir will never end.
    Obviously, this guy has no advice for you!
    But I love writing. Without the memoir, I might never have discovered that joy.
    My best.

  32. The thing about writing a memoir is that you give people a write into your thoughts and experiences. People get judgemental and they write you off either ways. U loose the mystic and become the normal next door girl ! I have my in-laws who read my blogs and never tll me what they think about it.. Sometimes, i think not telling the writer what you think about his blog is judging him anyway !

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