I Texted My Exes About Putting Them In My Memoir & It Didn't Go As Planned
I, Dana Schwartz, hereby confess my sin: I am a notorious Ex-Texter. I can’t resist the meticulously casual, “Hey, how have you been?” text; the glorious agony of waiting for a reply, learning whether they still think about me, discovering who has truly won in the games of Moving On First. People say moving on after a relationship isn’t a competition. Those people are liars. Moving on is absolutely a competition, and points are awarded for both hottest rebound and best “not trying too hard but still sexy” Instagram. But my bad habit of texting my exes — when I’m lonely or bored — is pure masochism on my part.
After all, I wrote a book called Choose Your Own Disaster about how I spent my early 20s making the impulsive, painful, interesting choices instead of the safe, sane ones when it came to love. And that book lead me down a route of self-reflection when it came to my exes more intimate than any therapy session I’ve ever had: I had to track down all of the men I dated and tell them I was putting them in a book.
To be clear, when you write a memoir, you don’t need to tell people that their interactions with you are going to feature, especially not if you’re using pseudonyms, like I did. I made sure of that over endless emails with my editor and my publisher's legal department. But thanks to my fear of anyone secretly hating me, I took the writing process as an opportunity to check in, say hi, and, if they had been nice to me, to let them choose their own fake name. And I'll admit it, there was an element of narcissism at play: I got to humblebrag that I was writing a book — that out of the chrysalis of our relationship, I emerged a beautiful butterfly, an author.
It was my own personal Scrotal Recall (now called Lovesick), the Netflix show where a 20-something boy finds out he has chlamydia and has to run through his former hookups to let them know they should get tested. Letting someone know they’re going to be in a memoir has to be an equally awkward conversation.
Fortunately for me, because I am a millennial and terrified of speaking on the phone, I did the deed mainly through text and Facebook chat. There is no helpful cheat-sheet to that interaction. So this is what I went with:
Hey! Long time no talk! I know this is out of the blue, but I’m actually writing a memoir, and I’m going to be writing about some of our experiences. Just wanted to give you a heads up, and let you know that, unless you want me to use your real name, I’ll totally use a pseudonym.
The typical reply was polite but curt: “Please use a pseudonym. Thanks.”
One boy seemed almost excited at the prospect of seeing my side of our miniature love story written out. We had met in college, fallen in quick, ill-fated love over our mutual love of Victorian horror, and then drifted away — him to a marriage, me to New York City.
He read some of the pages of the draft of the chapter I wrote about him and asked me to change a few identifying details. I did. Eight months later, when the book had gone to print, he emailed me and said he had changed his mind, that he didn’t want to be in the book at all, and wanted his chapters removed. It was too late, anyway, but that didn’t matter. It was my story to tell, too. I said I was sorry. I didn’t hear from him again.
One boy I used to be in love with never replied. Two years before, we had texted nearly every day. He had slept in my bed. We had seen each other cry. And now he was completely two-dimensional to me, existing only in the form of his Twitter profile, where neither of us followed each other anymore.
Maybe I sent those messages selfishly as a way to regain some power in relationships that had dissolved into nothing, like the way you can relight a candle from just the smoke if you know how. The reactions were, more or less, indifference. Exactly the sentiment I feared would break my heart all over again.
I feel strongly that after you’ve slept with someone, they shouldn’t be allowed just to go on living their lives. These people know what I smell like and sound like and the way I brush my teeth; they can’t just go on living in the world with that information! There should be a system in place where these people are taken, humanely, to an island somewhere, where they can never be attracted to another person and remain half-in-love with me for the rest of their days.
Writing a memoir forced me to relive those moments of passion, when I felt so strongly about a person that I was convinced I would spend the rest of my life with them. For the time it took to write each chapter, I fell back in love with each person. But they didn’t experience that — they had just been out being normal, forward-looking people, probably happy and fully adjusted, likely dating other people. Any attempt to pull my exes back into my life in any way was always doomed: I was stuck writing about and thinking about the person they had been when they had been with me. That person doesn’t exist anymore, except in the pages of my memoir.
I wonder if any of them will read the book, out of curiosity or to find things they’ll think I got wrong. But the truth is, the characters are different from their real-world counterparts in more than just name. The characters are ghosts projected back in time and space from my memory and rebuilt into something that makes a cohesive narrative. They’re the men as they’ve been warped by years of retelling their stories in my head to myself. Writing a book gives you the final word (at least, until they write books of their own).
In that spirit, the final acknowledgement in my book is for them:
“To all of the men I’ve slept with, thank you for giving me what I needed in the moment, for making me feel special or wanted or loved. And if you hurt me, thank you for helping me to learn while I was young. Hope you bought this book full-price just to see if I wrote about you.”
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