Should you include romance in your memoir?

The process of getting together with a romantic partner is so psychologically complex, and so fraught with pitfalls and doubts, it makes perfect raw material for a memoir. Then why have I seen so few bestsellers centered on this theme?

Perhaps the subject has been so over-reported in fiction that some memoir authors might fear that mentioning their own romance will sound cliché. Others might be reluctant to reveal such an intimate insight into their hearts. And yet, as the Memoir Revolution continues to mature, every possible life experience is finding its way into a book length story. It’s just that romance is arriving slowly.

Romance did famously play a key role in Elizabeth Gilbert’s runaway best seller Eat, Pray, Love. This was “her guy.” No problem. Unlike the inner battles of the romance novel, there wasn’t a lot of “should I shouldn’t I” going on.

However, in a second, less famous book, Committed, Gilbert went through every agonizing contortion you could imagine, trying to convince herself to tie the bond. Unlike the inner debates in a romance novel, Gilbert didn’t fret so much about the suitability of the guy as she did about her hatred for the institution. The book was a protracted intellectual war within herself to talk herself into getting married. Committed was so emphatically not a romance novel, one wonders if she was intentionally avoiding those tropes.

My next foray into what looked like it might be a romance memoir was the improbably titled The Happily Ever After: A Memoir of an Unlikely Romance Novelist by Avi Steinberg.

I already knew Avi Steinberg’s penchant for a strong nonfiction slant from his previous memoir, Running the Books about being a librarian at a prison. Unfortunately, true to his quirky style, The Happily Ever After showed me a lot about Steinberg’s attempt to be accepted into romance writer’s groups, but did not do much for my insights into the emotionally complex journey to enter a committed relationship.

Actually over the years I have read several memoirs which included the connection with a romantic partner – (see notes at the end for more details) — but in all of these, the storyline included other powerful themes, such as death, cancer, and in one case concluding she would better off on her own. So I was gaining a slow education in the way romance could be introduced into a memoir.

I did not run into a full-blown “romance memoir” until Never Too Late: From Wannabe to Wife at 62 by B. Lynn Goodwin. Not only was the memoir specifically about getting together as a couple. It also had the bonus feature of being by a woman who had made it into her 60s without having been married. It was a perfect opportunity to extend my horizons. And it didn’t disappoint. The memoir Never Too Late took me into the complex emotional territory of a romance novel, but completely within the style and intent of a memoir.

In addition to taking me on an excellent journey, I felt that B. Lynn Goodwin’s experience might help other authors who are debating whether or not to include romance in their memoirs. So I reached out and asked her a few questions.

Question about your decision/inspiration to write this

Jerry: At what point in your relationship did you realize you wanted to write about this experience? For example, had you been on the lookout for a deep story about yourself and realized as you entered this situation it would be worth writing about? Or did you become aware of the potential for a book much later in the period?

B. Lynn Goodwin: We’d been on 3-4 dates when I realized that if this relationship went any where it might make a good a memoir. Actually, I’d been free-writing with a group of married women, all younger than me, for about 8 years when Richard and I started dating. They had a lot more to write about than I did and somehow, I realized that I’d done many of the things that I wanted to, but I’d never had a chance to find out what marriage was like. I’d never even lived with anyone. Richard offered me that chance.

Did you have inner doubts about “do I really want to be writing this?”

Jerry: Never Too Late is an unusually frank and open look into aspects of your inner world that not everyone would be willing to expose. As you realized you might turn it into a publishable book, what additional self-doubts or worries crept in that you had to brush aside to keep going? Such as:

Jerry: worrying about his reaction to being made public”

B. Lynn Goodwin: Richard and I have done a good job working through all the compromises and choices we would have to agree on to become a couple.’ Though we still have our individual sides, fortunately neither one of us has to be right all of the time.

He sees life as black as white, and I see it in a spectrum of grays. I also pick my battles. It was easy to show this through our early encounters. Of course, he once suggested that after I wrote each chapter, he could write “what really happened.”  He was joking… sort of. As the writer, it was my story, but in the end we were still aligned.

When it was done, I asked him to read it. His response to the book was, “It’s all true.” He’s right. I love his honesty.

Jerry: Worrying about what others will think about your own actions and choices

B. Lynn Goodwin: I was anxious about my lack of experience with relationships, but memoir writers reveal things that the rest of us keep private. Besides, it was no secret that I’d never been intimate. Most people probably figured it out immediately. Now moms often ask if I’m a grandmother, so whatever obvious signs were there about my single status have apparently disappeared.

Jerry: Worrying about what others will think about your writing.

B. Lynn Goodwin: I didn’t think my writing was bad and I appreciated when others pointed out what was unclear to them.

Inner debate as a cornerstone of the romance genre

Jerry: The whole basis for this story is remarkably similar to the Romance genre, which is largely about the journey of two people trying to come together as a couple. Did you make any conscious effort to follow or diverge from that genre’s story structure?

B. Lynn Goodwin: I didn’t have much experience reading romance novels, so it didn’t occur to me to reference them. If you’d like a little romantic symbolism, I opened like a rose, and my petals are still blooming.

Jerry: Okay. So even though you weren’t thinking about the romance genre, per se, you were certainly treading some of the same territory. Your memoir explores the whole process of choosing to enter into the partnership of marriage.

While everyone who has ever formed a relationship must sort out how much of themselves will be compromised, you have written a whole book about crossing that frontier. These decisions are especially complex and fraught for you because of your beliefs about gender, and your coming to this question late in life. Throughout the journey you write about in this book, you must weigh these questions in an astoundingly transparent and intricate series of self doubts and self discoveries.

Considering how differently the two of you were when you started, this desire to bond with this man, you had to use internal dialog to cross over some very complex terrain where heart and mind must come to some very important agreements.

I’m blown away at the content of these inner debates. You were asking yourself detailed questions about such an intense ethical and moral set of choices, almost drilling down to the heart of what it means to be a couple. Your story is a workshop in a dimension of personal attunement and personal ethics that most of us only ever think about in the background if at all. That is a fascinating journey. Thank you for taking us readers along for the ride.

B. Lynn Goodwin: Thank you for understanding what I was doing.

Jerry: The inner debates about what you will need to adjust in order to share a life are an amazing masterclass in this aspect of relationship building.

B. Lynn Goodwin: Still a student in this master class… Memoir is usually two stories. It’s the story of what happened and how the narrator felt then. The second story is about how the narrator feels now as she reflects. I’m often struck by the fact that no one can tell your story but you. If Richard were  to tell the story of our meeting and marrying, his would be different from mine. Even his reporting of our experiences would be different. My story might speak to someone who’s had similar experiences and thoughts, and outside perspective often helps.

Jerry: Your circumstances added some fascinating nuances to the equation. You had never been married, and had a lot of life behind you as a single woman –to give over half of your life to this other person was such a huge decision and you take us deep into the guts of your decision.

B. Lynn Goodwin: Absolutely. There are many reasons a single woman needs to be cautious. I needed to believe we were both doing the right thing so I would not live with regrets.

How much did writing act as a workspace for your own emotional evolution

Jerry: I definitely had the sense that through the course of the story, you kept moving the dial from “I’m comfortable and content living on my own ” to “I want to be in this marriage with this man.”

So I’m looking at your memoir as a sort of real-time unfolding of your own evolving self-understanding. I love that. I think you spooled that aspect of decision-making masterfully through the course of the book.

So while as a reader I’m seeing how you are moving the dial of your decision making process, I wonder what that was like for you as a writer. Were you using the writing as a tool to help you expand and extend and clarify your own emotional vocabulary during this experience?

B. Lynn Goodwin: I used the memoir to help me figure things out and to justify my choice because plenty of my friends had questions. It did not seem like an evenly-matched marriage, but they were applying different standards than I was.

Jerry: Could you say more about how or if you see writing the memoir as a part of your evolution as a person.

B. Lynn Goodwin: I write tons of short memoir pieces in my journal. I call them flash memoir. As I write I discover a great deal about who I am and how I became the woman I am. Every moment of evolution helps me function better.

Jerry: As a writer, editor, and a lifetime reader and literary person, how much were you consciously thinking of this as a journey through your “Relationship value system?” 

B. Lynn Goodwin: More than you might imagine. This is a hard one to answer, but Richard introduced me to honesty without fear of repercussions. It was something I’d always craved. I didn’t write much about why it was missing, because I wanted to limit this to our story rather than including excessive back story.

Jerry: What was the relationship of your passion for writing, with your earnest development of new emotional “muscles” in this time in your life?

B. Lynn Goodwin: My passion for writing helped me develop my buried emotional muscles. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I’d said no. I can’t imagine any scenario I’d like.

Notes:

Other books with strong themes of romantic connection. Each has its own unique slant of course, but as you search for the best way to include the notion of romance, consider these other approaches to constructing your story.

Again in a Heartbeat by Susan G. Weidener. Romantic, connection, then loss, and grief. Then on to reclaiming her own strength as a single mom.

Banged Up Heart by Shirley Mellis. Romantic, connection, then tragic loss. A real ode to a relationship – and like B. Lynn Goodwin’s Never too Late, it took place later in life.

Click here to read my article about these two romance/grieving memoirs.

The Dog Lived and So Will I by Teresa Rhyne. This was a great, romantic comedy. And it involved a dog, and like the previously mentioned ones, cancer.

Click here to read my article about the adorable, brave and romantic memoir The Dog Lived and So Will I

MatchDotBomb: A Midlife Journey through Internet Dating by Francine Pappadis Friedman. An unromantic book that speaks to the horrors and disappointments of midlife dating.

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