I would like to apologize to my ex.
Though I never wrote about him during the four years we were together, not once, I did write about so many other boys. Names changed, details altered, but always others. I wrote countless semi-fictional travelogues featuring sexually liberated young women (my undergraduate thesis contained only that), and he rarely confronted me about it. When he did – obliquely, weakly, with a caginess for which I can hardly blame him – I told him it was fiction, fiction, fiction. I robbed him of what might be the only real benefit of dating a writer at that age: the beauty of seeing yourself rendered romantically in print. I’m sorry for that.
When I go back and read writing from that time, I am embarrassed by how obvious its references are. Of course he knew. Previous lovers are practically named if not identified by defining characteristics of hair, body type, freckle patterns.
Back then, I felt like I was getting away with murder.
My mother and I used to have arguments about this all the time. She thought every mother character that appeared in a story was my mother, every father figure directly inspired by my father, every sister my sister. She would say, writers write what they know. I would say, we can pull inspiration from the ether and rearrange personalities in front of us like puzzle pieces.
At a recent open mic, I read a poem based on this essay. As in the essay, the poem ends on waking up one day and realizing you’ve lived in a past-its-prime town “two months / seven years / half your life.”
The seven years refers to a new friend of ours. When we first met her, she mentioned that she had moved to Terre Haute for a year-long Americorps position and ended up staying. This is her seventh year here. It’s likely she delivered this information neutrally, a simple fact. I’ve since imbued all sorts of melancholy into her words, the idea of moving to a place with a strict sense that the whole thing is a temporary situation and then – suddenly – it’s seven years later. I read the poem, and people clapped. About a week ago she said that she knew that line was in reference to her.
She didn’t ask: not, “Was that line about me?” But rather: “That line, that was me.”
I was surprised that she had picked up on such a tiny detail, something you might miss considering how poor I feel at reading poetry aloud. But then, when something is exactly your detail, of course you’d know it. You could never miss it.
When she said this, I admitted it happily.
These days, if you ask, I can trace a piece of writing down to its source material in seconds flat.
Maybe it’s because I’m growing up. Maybe it’s because the line connecting those dots isn’t as long as it used to be. The world feels so small these days yet I am still a stranger in my new home. When I first began seriously writing, I felt like I could write authoritatively on subjects both vast and foreign – like writing whole histories of places I’d never visited. Maturing as a writer has meant coming down to earth and getting a sense of authenticity or whatever, but it also means that I’m obsessing more. Writing about the same seven things. Mostly, that which is right in front of me, all the time: Eric started classes at my school a few weeks ago and has observed that same feeling of sadness pervading the halls. Students here because of arrests, teenage pregnancy, drug abuse. Students who say, “I just hope I can finish something.” A sepia-toned long-dead heyday, schools that feels like the last stop on a long road, whole blocks destroyed by bulldozers without notice or fanfare. I’m still trying to figure it all out.
In a town oppressed and small and sad – all heavy adjectives that I, as newcomer, paint proudly on the side of the deserted buildings downtown – you have to take what you can for inspiration. Of course it’s your life; what else do I have?