Laura Pratt is a journalist, writer, and book editor whose second book, Heartbroken: Field Notes on a Constant Condition, was published in January 2023 by Penguin Random House Canada. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction. She lives in Toronto with her kids and dog.
Everybody said writing the book was the best part, that the stretch that followed was a lot less fun. I went through the exercise feeling that, waiting for the good stuff to get cinched up into a tight, little fist of drudgery and duty. That happened, to a certain extent, and there’s no question that the writing was the greatest pleasure of my four-plus-year exploit. Still, the after-writing hasn’t been as bad as the doomsayers predicted. It’s been taxing in a new kind of way, calling upon faculties like self-promotion and public speaking. But it’s not been as unpleasant as I feared. Save a notable exception about which nobody warned me.
Here’s what it is: I did not know that writing a book would cause my friends to turn on me, enraged over choices I made about how to live my life.
As I describe in my memoir, Heartbroken: Field Notes on a Constant Condition, heartbreak is not a state that attracts boundless sympathy. There is an end date for people’s indulgence of your devastation, and when you skid beyond it, you know. The consolation is turned off, the censure starts to fly. Your heartbreak is up for grabs, the subject, now, of disgust and derision.
First, my friend John took his leave of our long connection in the wake of my enduring sorrow, simmering with resentment for the way he perceived me to be presuming with my thesis that my heartbreak outranked his.
For Deidre and Ed, the relationship severing was my doing, undertaken in response to the criticisms they made of me that I thought were unfair and none of their business. But maybe that’s my naïveté talking. Maybe when you write a memoir, you renounce your right to your business.
Anyway, it came as a shock, these rejections of my way of doing things. It felt invasive and it made me consider the wisdom, after all, of having exposed so much of my life. I don’t regret it and I’m not so naïve that I thought I’d get through the experience of inviting people into my story unscathed. I just didn’t anticipate the privilege they’d assume that bought them.
As my story goes, my erstwhile love left me with nary an explanation, and then failed to respond to my subsequent efforts to understand his decision. After, in the throes of twitchy dissatisfaction and desperate for relief, I kept those efforts up, very occasionally texting or emailing him to ask what the hell happened and remind him of my continued existence. For his part, he kept up efforts too—those of failing to respond or recognize my existence.
So Deidre and Ed called my behaviour “harassment” and said I wasn’t respecting my heartbreaker’s situation with my overtures. They didn’t mention that he’d denied me a voice and the grace of acknowledgement. Neither did they note the idea that my harmless gestures (he can block me and likely has) might be my entitlement, given the callousness of his dismissal of our long relationship.
Anyway, I spent some time trying to make my case with each of these folks, but abandoned the effort when I realized I was defending the choice I’d made in order to survive heartbreak—just as other people make their own choices in order to survive their own heartbreaks every day. And they’re not required to defend them, at least not publicly, in the glare of a memoir’s advent on the scene. Not like I was.
I won’t talk to these friends anymore. They overstepped their access to me with these outbursts and demonstrated their ignorance of the inferred contract memoirists make with their readers.
Here’s what it is: memoirists will uncover secrets of life on earth in exchange for some mercy and forbearance for the sacrifices the exercise asks of them. The memoir community needs to evolve, I think, to include a more nuanced appreciation for what seeing this contract through involves. In its evolved iteration, it needs to pay attention to both the memoirists’ role in making an oblation to a strain of universal human suffering and of the rights the witnesses thereto enjoy to question it. So long as folks don’t realize that people who write about their lives are conducting an act of service to everyone else (i.e., those individuals who can learn about the human condition without having to bare their own souls or plumb their own suffering), they’re going to feel entitled to pass judgement on particulars.
It’s a tricky argument to take on, the one that defends memoirists’ rights to their own discretion while simultaneously celebrating them for abandoning just that. But trashing writers for choices they made in pursuit of truth is never acceptable.