Movie Marriage: Thoughts on my 4th Wedding Anniversary

Movie Marriage: Thoughts on my 4th Wedding Anniversary

General Writing

I’ve had marriage on the brain for the last few months. Here’s why:

  • Today is my fourth wedding anniversary.
  • We’re getting some marriage counseling.
  • I’m writing a novel, which is about–among other things–why people get married.

I read an article recently which said Year Four is when the euphoric stage of “passionate love” fades and “mature love” begins. Yep, I believe it. I’ve never been so blissfully happy in my whole life as I was during our first year or two together, and right on schedule, our marriage has been tested recently.

Before I Got Married

It wasn’t that long ago that I was 37 and single, and all I could think about was love and marriage, chance and fate. Why had my life turned out the way it had? Was there anything I could do to change it, or did it need changing at all?

I challenged myself to find out these answers, and then I wrote a strange little book about it: Comeback Season: How I Learned to Play the Game of Love. It’s about the Colts 2006 Super Bowl season, and about my season of dating. Imagine a mashup of a smart rom-com and an inspirational sports movie. When Harry Met Sally meets Hoosiers.

Sports metaphors have always resonated very strongly for me, and there was one that I kept going back to again and again. Vince Lombardi said:

There are approximately 150 plays in a football game, and there are only three of four plays in any game which make the difference between winning and losing. No one know when the big play is coming up. Therefore, every player must go all out on every play.

I felt there was a lesson in that. Maybe I’d already met the “right” three or four people, but I’d let them  go because I wasn’t paying attention. Maybe, in order to change my life, I needed to stop acting like I had all the time in the world and start paying attention.

So: that’s what I did. I went all out on every play, every day for a year, and holy shit, it nearly drove me insane. Here, I wrote about for

Before Sunrise, Before Sunset

This is the full story of how I met my husband.

We met the first time in 1990 and got along very well, but then we lost touch–as people did in the pre-email, pre-Facebook days. Flash forward 18 years. He heard me on the radio talking about Comeback Season and got in touch. I remembered him immediately, although I’m not going to say that I spent those years pining for him. But I did think of him as one of those important plays out of the 150.

before sunsetThe summer we started dating, the summer I was trying to decide if this man was the person I’d been waiting for, I happened to rent the Richard Linklater film Before Sunset.

Background: Jesse and Celine meet as twenty-somethings in Vienna in the first movie, Before Sunrise, and then nine years later they reunite as thirty-somethings in Paris in Before Sunset. They float down the Seine and reflect on the what-ifs. What if they’d exchanged phone numbers in 1994? What if? What if?

Celine says, “I guess when you’re young, you just believe there’ll be many people with whom you’ll connect with. Later in life, you realize it only happens a few times.”


They talk about the book that Jesse has just published about that night in Vienna, which is how they’ve reconnected: she read about him in a magazine.

Jesse: You want to know why I wrote that stupid book?

Celine: Why?

Jesse: So that you might come to a reading in Paris and I could walk up to you and ask, “Where the fuck were you?”

Celine: [laughing] No – you thought I’d be here today?

Jesse: I’m serious. I think I wrote it, in a way, to try to find you.

Celine: Okay, that’s – I know that’s not true, but that’s sweet of you to say.

Jesse: I think it is true.

And so, reader, I married him. Four years ago today.

It wasn’t just because of the movie, but yeah, it had something to do with it. Yes. And I’ll be honest: I’m a fiction writer, and I cannot deny that one reason why I married my husband is because I knew it was a great story. It’s like the happy ending of rom-com/sports movie. It gives people hope; I know this because people who’ve read the book write and tell me so. Here’s one I got the other day, as a matter of fact, from a woman who is getting married soon:

I was very much inspired by your real-life story…it gave me hope for my future too. And I’m SO glad to see that you two are so happy together!

Before Midnight and Mature Love

A few weeks ago, I saw the third film in the Linklater trilogy, Before Midnight.

before-midnight-ethan-hawke-julie-delpy-11Jesse and Celine are finally “together,” but things aren’t blissful. In fact, the movie contains a wonderful, 30-minute knock-down-drag-out fight. I saw the movie with a bunch of friends my age, and we laughed ruefully throughout. What fascinated me about the movie was its realistic depiction of a mature relationship. How do people stay together over the long haul? I really want to know. And sentimental rom-coms aren’t going to give me the answer.

As I watched, I thought about the people (mostly married) who told me when I was going through my Comeback Season phase six years ago that I was just idealizing marriage, that marriage wouldn’t necessarily make me happy.

They were right. And they were wrong.

Take This Waltz and Happy Endings

There are two kinds of stories about love: the kind that ends with the big kiss/the declaration of love/the wedding, and the kind that begins there and moves into mature love.  Happily-ever-afters vs. reality-ever-afters, and as you know, mainstream America loves the comforting, sentimental nostalgia of the former, not the big bummer of the latter.

But here’s the thing: our lives contain both of these stories.

When I was living the experience that was Comeback Season, someone close to me said, “You have to find love at the end of the book or nobody will want to buy it.”

[Remember, I didn’t meet my husband until after the book was published.]

I said, “But I didn’t meet anyone. No one special anyway.”

“Well, then just end the book at a moment when you are dating someone,” he said. “Give the reader some hope.”

This isn’t what I ended up doing, but the conversation did make me think a lot about where writers end “relationship stories” and why .

take this waltzOne of the best films I saw this year was Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz about a married woman (Michelle Williams) contemplating whether or not to have an affair. For most of the movie, I thought the dramatic question was “Which one of these two guys will she end up with: her husband or the neighbor?”[Spoiler alert!] Then she chooses the neighbor, and they embrace.

If the movie had ended there, it might have been your typical rom-com. But it doesn’t end there. It keeps going. You get a montage of Williams’s relationship with the neighbor, which moves from passionate to mature (slightly dull) love. I’m not sure how much time passes in this montage, but for fun, let’s say four years. Clearly, Williams isn’t sure if she made the right decision leaving her husband, and her former sister-in-law (Sarah Silverman) says, “Life has a gap in it. It just does. You don’t go crazy trying to fill it like some lunatic.”

Mind the Gap

Last week, I took my husband out for his birthday. We had a perfect day. And I said, “Can you believe that just one week ago, we were fighting so bad I thought we were going to have to get a divorce?” And he said, “I don’t even remember that.”

If you’d ended the movie of our marriage a week earlier, it would have been as depressing as the day the Colts released Peyton Manning, but a week later,  it was all Harry kissing Sally on New Year’s Eve/Rudy! Rudy! Rudy!/”You had me at hello.”

Being married isn’t one decision. Being married is deciding to stay married every single day. It’s hard. It’s boring. It’s not terribly cinematic.

A lot of people want to get married because they want to perform “Being Married” in front of other people–in real life and on Facebook.

I know you know what I’m talking about.

Maybe I’m guilty of this sometimes, too. I share our good moments, but not our bad. I don’t especially like admitting that my marriage isn’t perfect–there’s some shame involved in telling you that–but maybe if I tell you that I’m trying to mind the gap, it will help you mind it, too.

Maybe  the best way to give you hope–whether you’re married or not–is to tell you that my own love story has Happy Ending Days and Bummer Ending Days, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

Research and Serendipity

Research and Serendipity

Mrs. Cole Porter Writing

Research isn’t something I do to flesh out my ideas. Research is how I get my ideas.

Writer Mario Vargas Llosa has said that he requires “the springboard of reality” to ignite his imagination, and I would say the same. Here’s a story about why I love doing research and why I write what I’ll call “nonfictional fiction.”

So, in March of 1902, my main character’s brother-in-law tried to divorce his wife. Theirs was a tawdry story, and it made all the papers for about two years.

Since the trial happened in Chicago, I wanted to see how the trial was covered there vs. how it was covered in the New York press. This involved going to the library here at Ball State and scrolling through the microfiche.

Microfilm. Ah, the good old days!
Microfilm. Ah, the good old days!

Bingo. I found what I was looking for. Drawings of the principal characters. Testimony read into evidence.


Now, I don’t know if my character actually went to this trial or not, but it’s certainly more dramatic if she was there. So I made it happen. Presto.

So, the other day, I was writing those scenes. Linda in Chicago at this divorce trial. March of 1902.

The Ladies' Entrance to the Palmer House.
The Ladies’ Entrance to the Palmer House.

I decided to have her stay at the famed Palmer House. Why? Well, I stayed at the Palmer House for AWP 2012, and so this way, I can write off some of my expenses.

Also, it’s gorgeous.

While I was staying there, I grabbed a flyer about the history of the Palmer House and gleaned two great details:

  • The floor of the barber shop was tiled in silver dollars.
  • The owner was so sure that his hotel was “The World’s Only Fire-Proof Hotel,” he promised that if any of his guests were willing to pay to remodel and replace their room’s furnishings, they could set their hotel suite on fire and close the door. Potter Palmer vowed the fire wouldn’t spread, and he was willing to prove it. (His original hotel burned down 13 days after it opened in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and Palmer rebuilt his hotel out of iron and brick.)

When I saw those details, I knew my character’s rich, bad-boy husband wouldn’t be able to resist setting his hotel room on fire, and that he’d want to show her that floor tiled in silver dollars.

So, I knew from the Chicago Tribune coverage that the divorce proceedings ended suddenly in a mistrial. My character had a whole day before her, plus I needed to give her husband time to set their hotel room on fire. What would she do with the day?

The Art Institute of Chicago in 1892.
The Art Institute of Chicago in 1892.

I decided to send her to a museum, the famed Art Institute of Chicago. Was it open in 1902? A quick Google search told me yes, it was.

Well, what would she have seen?

We all know from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off that the museum is famed for its Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, (like Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jette”) but in 1902, they hadn’t acquired much of that yet. So I Googled:

what would have been on exhibit at the art institute of chicago in 1902?

And I found this: a list of all the exhibits for that year with links to the digitized exhibit catalogs.

Three cheers for archivists! Three cheers for the digital humanities!

Can I get an amen?

Randomly, I clicked on the name “Charles Walter Stetson,” then Googled his name, and discovered that Stetson was married to Charlotte Perkins Gilman. In fact, when she first published “The Yellow Wall-paper” in The New England Magazine in 1892, she was still Charlotte Perkins Stetson.

from The New England Magazine 11:5 (January 1892), 647-657. Digital image available here:;cc=newe;rgn=full%20text;idno=newe0011-5;didno=newe0011-5;view=image;seq=655;node=newe0011-5%3A12;page=root;size=100
from The New England Magazine 11:5 (January 1892), 647-657.

I also discovered that Stetson painted a portrait of Gilman shortly after the birth of their daughter, a time when she was likely experiencing the post-partum depression that she chronicled so vividly in the story.

"Evening. Mother + Child" by Charles Walter Stetson which portrays his wife Charlotte Perkins Stetson, later Gilman
“Evening. Mother + Child” by Charles Walter Stetson which portrays his wife Charlotte Perkins Stetson, later Gilman

So I came up with a plot device that would allow Linda to see this painting (although it actually wasn’t in the exhibit) and become intrigued enough to read her recently published book, The Yellow Wallpaper.

Published in 1899. Note the art nouveau cover and that she's still "Stetson," not "Gilman."
Published in 1899. Note the art nouveau cover and that she’s still “Stetson,” not “Gilman.”

There’s a library in the Art Institute. Was this book there in 1902? I don’t know, but I’m hoping the reader will permit me a little creative license.

So I sat my character down in the Ryerson Reading Room and had her read “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and she has a kind of epiphany that day.

She’d been needing an epiphany for awhile. I just had no idea what might trigger it. No idea that a simple Google search would end up determining a major plot turn in my novel.

Then she returns to the Palmer House to discover that her husband has burned their suite.

Sometimes, I think young writers feel that “creativity” means “making up out of whole cloth,” but I’ve never felt that way.

Serendipity means a “happy accident” or “pleasant surprise.” Specifically, the accident of finding something good or useful while not specifically searching for it. For me, serendipity is part of the euphoria I feel when I’m inside the creative process. I like it when my character’s “real” life (whether it’s my life or someone else’s) provides some plot points to shoot for.

But too much plotting can be…well, plodding. I find that when I’m writing and/or researching, I have to keep my plan, my goals rather loose to allow for serendipity, magic, and imagination.

I like following bread crumbs, like the trail I just described to you. It’s like playing detective.

That afternoon, I read “The Yellow Wall-Paper” not as myself but as my character. I found something out about her that I hadn’t known before. Or hadn’t been able to articulate before.

And who is to say that this wasn’t exactly the way that discovery was “supposed” to happen?

Why “Copper” is Addictive and Instructive

Why “Copper” is Addictive and Instructive

Teaching Writing

If you like Deadwood, Law & Order, Gangs of New York, and Homicide: Life on the Street, then you need to watch Copper. It begins its second season on BBC America on June 23.

Find out where you can watch Season 1. Here’s a preview.

People, I streamed all ten episodes in two days.

Here’s a preview of Season 2.

Now, one of my most popular posts here at The Big Thing is “Why Downton Abbey is Addictive and Instructive,” in which I analyze the first 15 minutes of the first episode of that wonderful program.

But I’d like to do something a little different here, which is to analyze the last 15 seconds of season one of Copper. Continue reading

Thinking Like Edith Wharton

Thinking Like Edith Wharton

Mrs. Cole Porter Writing

For the last few years, I’ve had Edith Wharton on the brain.

See, I’m writing a book about the life of Linda Lee Thomas Porter, best known as the wife of Cole Porter. But before she was his wife, she was married for eleven years to the son of a robber baron/industrialist named Ned Thomas.

So: what’s the connection between Linda and Edith Wharton? Continue reading

Writing Machines & Writing Spaces

Writing Machines & Writing Spaces

General Teaching Writing

A little over a year ago, I had back surgery, and this has changed forever the way I write. Because I can no longer sit for long periods of time, I move around a lot. I have a few places where I write.

This is my main desk, command central, you might say. I have a home office. The picture on the left is what my desk looks like normally. The one on the right is what it looks like when I do a purge.


Continue reading

Book Reviewing in the Social Media Age: or, What if Mark Richard and I Had Been Facebook Friends?

Book Reviewing in the Social Media Age: or, What if Mark Richard and I Had Been Facebook Friends?

Literary Citizenship Teaching Writing

Here’s a question: What if I’d become a writer after–not before–social media? If you’re my age, do you ask yourself this question as often as I do?

Mark Richard was one of a handful of writers who made an enormous impression on me early in my apprenticeship. (I’d use Andre Dubus here, but he’s deceased, much to my sorrow.)

What if, after reading Mark Richard’s story “Strays” in Best American Short Stories 1989, I’d friended or followed him? Continue reading

My students, my friends

Literary Citizenship Teaching Writing

cross firesIt’s “In Print Week” here at Ball State–the In Print Festival of First Books. Each year, we invite to campus a poet, fiction writer, and nonfiction writer who have published their first books.

This has been a great year for me as a teacher;  a number of my former students had books come out. We invited one of them to In Print–Eugene Cross. This is the introduction I wrote and read last night, and I think it speaks to a lot of things I blog about here–literary citizenship, community, and how to make it through the dark times. So: I thought I’d share it with you. Continue reading

For the man who called me for advice about how to get published

For the man who called me for advice about how to get published

Literary Citizenship Teaching The Biggest Things Writing

To the man on the phone who called me today at my university office and asked if I had a few minutes to help him figure out how to get published.

First, wow, the phone rang. That hardly ever happens. I wasn’t sure it worked.

Second, no, I don’t have a few minutes. I’m getting ready to go teach a class, and I’m frantically trying to grade a few more quizzes. Continue reading

How to Talk to Writers

How to Talk to Writers

Literary Citizenship Teaching Writing

A key principle of literary citizenship is that writers should build their community and expand their circles.

Not “network.” Not “schmooze.”

In her book Living a Literary LifeCarolyn See advises writers to send one “charming note” a day to someone in the publishing field—a writer, editor, publisher, etc. The point isn’t to ask for anything, but rather to just make a connection. These days, thanks to social media, it’s never been so easy to make those kinds of connections.

I require my Literary Citizenship students to friend or follow or email someone five times a week. Friending on Facebook, liking an Author Page, following on Twitter: these are “passive” acts. But at least once a week, they’re supposed to actually say something to somebody. Such as “I enjoy your work,” or “You published one of my favorite books,” etc.

Continue reading