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Written by: Margie Davis
My philosophy of marriage probably was influenced by growing up in a dysfunctional family, watching how my parents stayed together despite (or to spite) their differences. I took the opposite approach and got married three times. I explain that I was practicing the first two times, and I have come to believe that. This third time is a charm and I do not want to do anything to mess it up.
Writer Jayne Ann Phillips once said in an interview, “Writers have permeable identities. They absorb things. And because of that, I think it’s a particular struggle to be involved in family life. I think I was like that in my primary family. I took on the identity of the members of the family. Writers often do that. And I spent 10 years working it out.” When I saw Phillips’s first sentence, the word ‘permeable’ jump-started my awareness. From an early age, I became the characters I read about. If a character was angry in the place where I left off reading, I would carry that anger around with me until I picked up the book again and read past the dissolution of her anger. If the character had cause to celebrate, so did I, and everyone around me enjoyed my ebullience until I continued reading.
Even though I wield the power to create characters in my short stories and novels, I find I cannot help but take on the emotions that my characters experience. My heightened empathy allows me to dig into their (and my) psyches to find the deeply-held feelings that I would be unable to concoct from imagination alone. In my last two novels I have centered the plot around problems in a marriage. My two practice marriages gave me abundant fodder for crafting such stories.
During the months I built the conflicts to precarious crescendos, my husband and I fought. We were able to find substantial as well as inconsequential issues to argue about. While the first novel, which had an ending that kept the couple married, was underway, I was dumb to the connection of plot and real life. However, in my current novel, which may find the wife and husband going separate ways at the end, a gnawing guilt has been building in the back of my mind that perhaps my plotting is to blame for my destructive behavior in my current marriage. For example, sometimes I find myself savoring the feelings of disharmony from a fight with my husband, burning the emotions into my memory so when I write my next chapter, anguish will pour freely from my nerve endings. Two months ago my mother died, and before that, her sickness and gradual letting go of life sidetracked me from working on my novel. For nearly three months now, my characters’ marriage has been in abeyance while my own marriage has grown solid once again.
My husband has been an emotional support for me during my grief, and that in itself has drawn us closer. I have also noticed, though, more of an acceptance on my part of the idiosyncrasies that are part and parcel of my husband. For example, he is bald on the top, but his bushy sides have needed cutting for several weeks, yet not once have I succumbed this time to calling him ‘Bozo.’ His little habits, like buttering the toast crooked, that irked me to the brink of insanity a few months ago, are mere annoyances once again. Until now, I have not admitted any responsibility for our discord, which leads me to wonder how honest other writers are about the crossover from fiction to reality and vice versa. Is my epiphany about a personal quirk, or does this admission sound a wake-up call to other writers on the verge of a marital breakdown? I believe the time has come for me to face an ultimatum: cease writing about marital woes, or go it alone.
If I hadn’t devoted so many years to practicing for this conjugal encore, I might charge ahead unencumbered by plotting restrictions and produce the next National Book Award for fiction. I have vowed, however, to myself and to my husband, that this time is for keeps. And so, I will have to develop characters who create drama in arenas other than their relationships, but what kind of conflict can compare with the soul-searing pursuit of love and acceptance that will still put me in the running for the National Book Award?