A few years ago, when I was living in DC, a smarmy guy I used to date wanted to take me to dinner. He’d been calling me off and on for years, usually while drunk, and the previous voicemail I’d received from him had been this: “Eva Marie. I’m calling you from Napa Valley. A buddy of mine is getting married. I was just listening to Careless Whisper by George Michael* and it made me think of you. I was hoping you’d answer so I could fly you out here to be my date for the wedding.”
Yes. That’s really what he said. I wrote it down in my diary because you can’t make that shit up.
Anyway, this guy had treated me badly on multiple occasions and was, if not a downright sexist asshole, certainly an emotionally-stunted and rather ridiculous person who I didn’t need to be messing around with.
And yet, I found him fascinating. What crazy things would he say while drunk? Where would he offer to fly me to next? What secrets in his past had caused him to create such an elaborate and overly-confident façade? I’d already written one short story based on an experience I’d had at a casino with him. Maybe there was another story waiting to happen.
So I said yes to dinner.
“WHY?” my roommate wanted to know. “Why in the WORLD are you going out with that jerk?”
“I’m curious to hear what he has to say.”
Sure, part of it was that I was lonely and he was handsome. Part of it was that it’s nice to be asked out on dates, even if it is by a guy who once told me he’d like to be able to choose the sex of his children because he doesn’t want any daughters. Maybe I even felt a modicum of care for this guy, in spite of (or perhaps because of) his emotionally-stunted ridiculousness. But for the most part, I just wanted to see what would happen.
What happened on that occasion was nothing damaging to me emotionally. We had dinner and drinks. He told me I was beautiful and got weirdly intense while talking about Motown music . Then I told him I was going home and met up with my roommate at costume karaoke instead.
But I have not always been so lucky.
Throughout my twenties I was always going out with guys who I didn’t want to be in relationships with. I went out with them because of loneliness, boredom, weirdly misplaced optimism, and, most importantly, the desire for a good story.
Instead of ending things when most rational women would (perhaps, for example, after a dude told me he was jobless and lived in a teepee in someone’s back yard), I would continue to see these guys because I wanted to find out what would happen next. I wanted to turn the page and watch the plot thicken.
And here’s what would often happen next: the guy would be a total jerk, and I’d end up getting hurt by someone who I never should have been involved with in the first place. (That teepee guy ended up dumping me for his ex-girlfriend, and I was pretty broken up about it, even though deep down I didn’t really want to date a homeless guy who ate all my food and sang on the street for money.)
But I always told myself it was worth feeling bad in the moment because now I had a story.
I turned thirty with a bunch of stories and a bunch of scars. I was also alone.
These days, my boyfriend sometimes worries that he’s not exciting or crazy enough for me. I have to assure him that I’m done with that phase of my life — that phase where I put myself in precarious situations for the sake of a story. It’s taken me a long time, but I’ve finally realized that I don’t have to live my stories. I can make them up.
I’m not saying I regret my decisions. They’ve made me who I am. And I do think that writers have to live a little. They have to go out into the world and gather characters, settings, experiences. But they can often do this by observation. They don’t have to put themselves in the middle of the story. They can imagine what might happen next without actually living it.
My mother, who is a playwright, gets some of her ideas from newspaper articles. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein based on a dream. There are other ways to find a story.
So go out in the world and gather experiences, but trust that your imagination can do the heavy lifting. I said earlier that you can’t make this shit up, but I was wrong. You can.
The great thing about being a writer is that you can have your characters make the mistakes instead of you.
*I have no idea why “Careless Whisper” by George Michael reminded him of me.