Sam de Brito is a polarising writer. He irritates a few people I know, but I’ve always enjoyed his candour even when I don’t agree with his opinions. Sure, his manly man blog for the Sydney Morning Herald, All Men Are Liars, is often provocative. But he’s thoughtful and analyses his research, which is more than I can say for his female counterpart, and he’s less prone to maul the english language than her too. (This amazing piece from Pedestrian says it all – and yet I can’t stop reading her blog to see what Carrie Sadshaw cliché she massacres next. I believe this is called schadenfreude.)
Perhaps the biggest love/hate sticking point people have with de Brito is the extent to which he’s always injected himself into his writing. Whether he’s self-deprecating, self-flagellating or just self-defeating, de Brito never shies away from drawing lessons or just laughs from his own experiences and mistakes.
Anyway, I was happy for Sam when he wrote about finding the love of his life, their whirlwind romance and having a daughter together. There was a noticeable settling and softening in his work – he seemed to embrace the shift in perception that comes naturally with welcoming a child into the world. A year later, though, he’s enduring a break-up which is all the more exposed because of how much he’d written about it previously. After he announced that his partner had moved out, there were actually commenters parroting back gushings de Brito had written in the flush of his new love. I’m sure that paled in comparison to not being able to see his daughter every day, but still. Ouch.
From a writer’s and a lover’s perspective, there’s the rub. So many people will advise you to “write what you know”, and you can never bring something to life on the page as well as when you’ve lived it. So do you write that experience – and there are few things more inspiring than the early rush of love – or is it just tempting fate to put yourself out there?
If it’s a matter of being “sure”, how long should you wait? Can you ever really be assured that you’re set for the long haul and things won’t go tits-up? And how much great art would we have missed out on – songs, paintings, poetry, novels – if every lovestruck joe resisted the impulse to shout his joy from the metaphorical rooftops? (On a side note, I would love to see someone do research into who famous love poems were about/for, and whether the relationships worked out.)
Taking the pretension of art out of the equation, you can bring this debate back to something as simple and accessible as social media. When – if ever – is the right time to put your relationship out there on Facebook? What level of wall-to-wall contact should you maintain with your paramour? Is there anything creepier than couples, who might even live together, constantly mooning over each other on their virtual walls? Personally I think it’s a bit gauche to have my relationship status broadcast on Facebook. But I can’t deny that a big part of that personal rule is my utter revulsion at the idea of how it would feel if it were my own break-up broadcast with the zig-zag split heart on all my friends’ news feeds.
Another facet of this question has been on my mind as well. What are the rules, the etiquette, for writing about your ex after a relationship has ended? Not so much the sadness or even bitterness that can come after a relationship – that should never be aired publicly. But what about poignant and happy memories? If I were to write about the first time I told my someone that I loved him, for example, do I have the right to share that? The memory, the moment, does not belong to me alone.
Memories are part of the murky grey zone of relationships’ shared property. What are the rules for the division of those assets when the partnership dissolves? Can you – should you – ask permission for broadcasting rights to a private moment? Or can you assume that you breach no covenant in rehashing your own experience of a situation that in all possibility was experienced, or is remembered, entirely differently by the other party? When you hook up with a writer (or stand-up comic, or indeed a two-bit blogger, or anyone with a social media account), do you surrender your rights to privacy? And if so, why would anyone ever hook up with a writer?!
Certainly it seems more dignified, respectful and safe to simply leave such things in the past. Or, as a lawyer might advise, switch to fiction and change enough details that the ex-partner has no grounds for defamation. But even then, that party could still recognise themself in print. Like LA-based TV writer Hilary Winston, who had the unpleasant experience of learning that she and her ex held rather different perspectives on their relationship when she picked up his novel in a bookstore and found herself referred to as the “fat-assed girlfriend”. Having now published and sold the film rights to My Boyfriend Wrote A Book About Me, clearly she responded in kind.
What do you think about writers putting themself – and their relationships – out there? How would you feel if your ex wrote a book about you?