Who Needs True Love When You've Got Great Copy?

If you're a memoir writer, relationships aren't good or bad – they're fodder
Published: 29 May 2023

An acquaintance asked me recently if I ever worried about getting another boyfriend. Surely, he said, my job would put potential suitors off? Later on, I tried to think of another trade men might say this about, and could only come up with sex work. I am not a sex worker, though I have something in common with escorts and cam girls. I too am engaged in the business of selling myself.

I am a writer who writes mostly about her own life. I sometimes pitch ideas about other subjects, but they rarely get picked up. In the past year, I have written nine articles. Seven of these could be classed as memoir. Three were about ex-boyfriends; relationships relayed in less than glowing terms. The men were disguised, though not so well that they wouldn’t recognise themselves.

This is another question that comes up a lot, when you write memoir: What happens if a man spots himself in your work? The answer is nothing, most of the time. Despite the fact we have some of the most stringent libel laws in the world, you have to be very rich, or inoperably maligned, to bring suit. If someone is telling the truth, you can’t sue for defamation; you’d have to try for invasion of privacy. And provided the writer has made an attempt to obfuscate your identity, that’s fairly hard to prove.

I can’t say when, exactly, it became my job, to write bitter essays about men

The ethics are less clear-cut. Unless you’re writing about your time as an anchorite, other people are going to feature in the story. As with most things, it’s easier to seek forgiveness than permission. People generally fall into one of two camps: those who love being written about and think the whole thing is a terrific wheeze, irrespective of what you actually say, and those who are horrified by the idea, and will consider even the most carefully rendered portrait to be a violation. There’s nothing you can do to please this second camp, short of leaving them off the page. I suppose you could always deploy that flimsy but time-honoured excuse: I was just doing my job.

I can’t say when, exactly, it became my job, to write bitter essays about men. Some time after my bitter memoir was published. The book was about an ill-fated affair I had with a married offshore worker. It contained the ghostly imprint of another book, the book it was meant to be: a piece of straight reportage about oil rigs. No one came out of it well: not me, or him, or the other men, or the oil industry itself.

Yet the only person who objected was a woman: my ex-boyfriend’s wife. Long before the book was published, she wrote to my editor, concerned I might smear her husband’s good name. When my editor asked me what I thought we should do, I suggested a tactic I’ve used all my life. You might say it’s the very principle b ywhich my existence is organised. It’s called: Let’s put our heads under the duvet, and hope it goes away. Curiously, my editor took my advice. More surprising still: it held good. Nothing came of it. The book enjoyed modest success. I got offers of other work. Over time, a new connection was soldered in my brain. Psychic pain means money.

The industry has an endless appetite for female self-disclosure. To the point that I no longer think of my life as a series of chapters, but as discrete episodes that can be turned into features and monetised. Editors like personal essays because they’re quick to turn around, compared with other types of journalism. There’s no research to undertake, no interviews to conduct, no travel to expense, no PRs to win over.

I tend to hoard certain conversations, noting the stupidest and most insulting things people say

Writers like them because they’re pretty straightforward to do. You just need to sit down at your desk, disinter some buried grievance, and transcribe it. When I was struggling with my book I often used to wonder if writing a novel wouldn’t be easier. Now I am writing a novel, I can say, with complete certainty, it is not. Of course, I already have a title in mind for the essay I will pitch, should I decide fiction is not my forte and junk the project altogether (“Couldn’t Make It Up”).

Admittedly, the work has left me with some weird habits. I tend to hoard certain conversations, making notes of the stupidest and most insulting things people say. If I have a fight with a man, I’ll write it up, while it’s still fresh in my mind. And I’m more sanguine about breakups, because part of me will be thinking: “Good. I can go off and convert this experience into cash now.” I’m not quite at Liz Jones’s level (yet). Her tales of marital woe and unhinged spending once made her one of the best-paid columnists on Fleet Street, but she said the job warped her behaviour. She used to find herself picking fights so she'd have material for her next piece. This is Nora Ephron's mandate, pushed to its furthest logical limit. If you truly believe that everything is copy, and allow these magpie instincts to rove unchecked, then pretty soon, your whole life will be plotted per the vectors of the market place. The more money you earn, the more convinced you'll be there was no other course.

As to whether it puts prospective boyfriends off, it's very hard to call. Men don't get in touch to tell you they're not going to ask you out, then list their reasons why. A more reliable metric might be to audit your old relationships, and see how often the issue came up. When my last boyfriend and I argued, he used to say I didn't care enough to write about him, which suggests that, far from being scared off, he quite fancied the role of muse. Personally, I think this is an insane complaint. But then, I would never want to go out with a writer. They might promise to respect your privacy while you're together. They very rarely honour that agreement in the end.

Tabitha Lasley is the author of the memoir Sea State. This piece appears in the Summer 2023 issue of Esquire UK.

Originally published on Esquire UK

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