|A MODERN LOVE STORY.|
|By Kate Kirtz||
Read the original New York Times story that inspired this piece:
I originally glanced right past the word.
Froky? In the paper? Typo. Froky isn't in the newspaper. Froky isn't even a public word. It's a private word, our ... shit.
My stomach flooded with acid. It was "Froky." Our most intimate pet
word. Right there in black and white on the front page of Sunday Styles. I turned to the "Modern Love" section, and it hit me. My ex-boyfriend had gotten his first byline in the newspaper of record with an essay about me, him and our shared past. I had had no warning whatsoever from either him or the Times. Adding insult to injury, the article was accompanied by an illustration of me: as a grotesquely oversized, adultly breasted infant girl, arms and legs spread wide while a little boy frantically filed away at iron bars to make a prison break from a heart shaped metal cage.
My person and my past had been fictionalized in the "Modern Love" section. There was just enough fact to make it ring true and just enough stagecraft to make it
fiction, but there was nothing I could do about it without losing even more privacy than I already had.
For me and many Times readers, the Sunday Styles section is a guilty pleasure. I turn to it first, steeping myself in the familiar rhythms of its amusingly irrelevant fluff amid plunges into the Gray Lady's more serious offerings.
Within Styles, "Modern Love" is my least favorite feature. Launched around 2001 and pitched to those perusing wedding announcements on the facing page, "Modern Love" deals with issues such as dating after divorce, marital struggle and family quarrels. The formula for the 1,200-word personal essay is clear: a vivid emotional incident is described, then dissected and contextualized, then used to generate an epiphany. I rarely make it all the way through. They're well-written enough, but amongst the oppressed Wal-Mart workers and genocide victims in the rest of the paper, it is hard for me to care about what strikes me as the emotional vicissitudes of a privileged population. I read the Sunday Times to escape my obsession with the emotional vicissitudes of a privileged population -- that is, myself and my personal life -- so I'm hardly in the mood for more in my newspaper, even in frothy Styles.
Beyond their innate limitations, "Modern Love" articles always seem vaguely false, suspiciously tidy in their neat insights and strangely lawyerly in their adroit summations. I've wondered on the past about what it felt like to be written about in these oh-so sensitive essays. Does the mom writing about the unruly son start a family fight, or does she clear her prose with him? What's the protocol for notifying or fact checking on creative nonfiction? Who gets the final word?
I know now to a certainty that there is no fact checking. There is no real redress for those who feel they have been inaccurately represented. In fact, dear readers, the entire "Modern Love" column is best read as pure fiction. I should know, because I was fictionalized myself only last week.
After our breakup seven months ago, I somehow knew in my bones that my ex-boyfriend of two years -- a writer of 'creative nonfiction' -- would write about us. I had toyed with the idea of asking him not to do so, but I never went through with it, for several reasons. First, I was arrogant: I assumed that if he did publish, it would likely be in a smallish press, and I would never have to know. Second, I was generous: If it helped his career I didn't want to stand in his way; it was his experience as much as mine. Third, I was naïve: I assumed that if he did write, he would veil our most intimate details, honoring our private life together as sacred. Finally, I was just plain intimidated: Although we had talked about remaining friends, in reality he had angrily insisted on no contact whatsoever. We haven't spoken since April, when after months of silence, we happened to have a strained conversation.
"How's your writing?" I asked. "Doing anything interesting?"
My favorite novelists -- Colette, Jean Rhys, Richard Yates -- drew heavily from their lives and lovers for their fiction, sparking spicy literary gossip along the way. But fiction, no matter how transparently based on truth, carries with it a veil of plausible deniability. As the daughter of a journalist, I was raised with the golden ideals of reportage: protection of sources, objectivity and fact checking. Today as a film director anyone I shoot -- for documentary or fiction films alike -- must sign a waiver granting me authorization to depict their physical likeness. Otherwise I run the risk of being sued for misrepresentation.
Creative nonfiction, however, is neither fish nor fowl. It's not fictional enough to warrant changing salient details -- the pet name "Froky" is plenty real, as is my little-known first name "Diana," after my beloved late grandmother. Yet it's also not factual enough to warrant fact checking or objectivity; to mention that I was never consulted, warned or interviewed about the piece is to state the obvious. These works exist in a gray zone. Between fiction and nonfiction, truth and libel, they are one writer's rendition of their subjective experiences, as untraceable and unaccountable as a dream, no matter how much may be misrepresented along the way.
"He said, she said" has no place in this or any forum, but suffice it to say that from my perspective, the article uses a sprinkling of facts to decorate a work of fiction. Timelines and words were skewed, events were taken out of context, and characterizations were creative. But I can hardly write to the Styles editor. Any public comment is easily dismissed as the rants of a scorned woman, a risk I am obviously running by writing this article now.
To truly attain peace there was really only one thing to do: write to the author. So just as he had recently done for thousands of strangers, I did just for us: I sat down and wrote my heart out. I revealed things I had never shared when we were together, and I paid honor to the beauty of our past love. I also conveyed my shock at his decision to blindside me with the article and my opinion that he had not told the whole truth in the piece.
Surprisingly enough, my ex wrote me back within the day. He was cool, civil, even kind. He addressed my concerns about the truth by admitting forthrightly:
"Of course, my essay is not the truth. It's a version that is emotionally truthful for me The essay isn't about you or me, and wasn't written for either of us, but only about how people struggle with these things."
As his smooth prose flowed on, it was almost enough to make me doubt my gut. But then I realized: He wasn't writing to me as Stephen to Kate, as man to woman, but as a published writer to civilian reader. He was a professional now, with a nice clip from The New York Times to prove it.
He had told his story, and his story had sold.
Kate Kirtz is a freelance writer and filmmaker living in Brooklyn.