A Romance Novelist’s Existential Crisis

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I spent the past two years in love—the most passionate love of my life, but also the most catastrophic. It ended. And in its wake, it’s left me shaken about the nature of what I, as a romance writer, do.

I sell “forever,” you see—the idea of love so true it lasts a lifetime. I don’t do it cynically. In my heart of hearts, I’ve always believed in it, even if I never quite achieved it in real life.

With Him, I thought I’d found it. Circumstances notwithstanding, I found myself blindly, overwhelmingly enamored of this man. And it was everything you read in the most overwrought of novels. Hot. Intense. Spiritual. Agonizing. There aren’t enough adjectives, even for me.

Since our breakup I have felt disbelief: how could a love feel so incredibly important, and yet be better left to fade? How could a person feel so essential to my breath, my skin, and not end up mine for the rest of my life?

Turns out, in the adult world—the nonfictional world—it happens.

Somehow in all my forty-one years, I had failed to learn that lesson, or simply never had occasion to love that hard before.

Oh, I’d been smitten before—several times.

The first crashed into my life in the most literal way—I was twelve, sneaking cigarettes in my childhood bedroom with a friend when he burst down the door, an older boy roughhousing with my older brother, a golden-blond, blue-eyed boy, a wild and magical maniac who captivated me just at that impressionable moment when I’d picked up those first romance novels by Valerie Sherwood and Laura London and the grande dame, Johanna Lindsey. When he died, ten years later, far too young and in an accident unworthy of his great spirit, I loved him still, mourned him in poetry and in alcohol and in there’ll-never-be-another-like-hims. But he’d never been mine, not truly; never loved me back nor yearned the way I yearned, the way those heroes in the novels loved their forever girls. He only swept me off my feet in dreams, declared passionately for me just the once, in a smoky bar, in a moment I’ll never recall quite clearly.

I loved a bartender next, from across the polished hardwood and the drunkenness that left me inarticulate, indistinct, just another groupie waiting around past closing time. He took me to bed, but did not take the heart I offered, though his handsomeness outshone the models on the covers of the novels I’d just published.

And then there was Him, part one.

It was 2001, the shaky aftermath of 9/11. We met at a little secular Christmas party I’d thrown; me in a slinky silver top that showed too much cleavage, he the guest of a guest of a guest. Struck with lust, and instant knowledge, kindred spirits under the spell of the best-ever blue cheese olive-strewn martinis, we were magnets only pried apart five months later, when he preferred another, as he would (it turned out), always do.

Eventually I found requited love, sane love, sober love; companionship and friendship and evenings spent slaying super mutants on PlayStation with my best friend and loyal Mr. Right, my husband. We had life-love; went to funerals and weddings and sat through each other’s book signings and theater productions the way upright people do. For nine years we were kind to each other, there for each other; until we no longer wanted to be. And it was for the best that we walk two different paths.

It was in the wake of that marriage, adrift, that I crashed into Him again. Twelve years earlier, we’d been almost right, and then pretty damn wrong, but nothing I’d looked back on with more than nostalgia. A moment, a blip in a time with too many other blips, and then gone. I’d looked him up a couple of years before—idly, of course—“Hey, are you the so-and-so I knew?” Then Facebook friended, a few how-ya-beens, ain’t it funny how things change, oh, you’re sober? Ha, me too. Oh, you’re married? Yeah, me too.

But now I wasn’t so married, and an innocent Facebook friendship turned into oh-crap-we’re-in-it-now, and suddenly we were something I’d not known before.

In love, in love, in love.

When I looked into his eyes, stormy beneath beetled brows, I saw a romance novel writ there. He was my eighteenth century pirate captain, the claymore-wielding highlander, the cowboy, the renegade, the dangerous duke to my swooning miss. Perhaps not Fabio—not with his chipped front teeth and his sometimes Stanley Kowalski accent. But when he cradled my nape in his hand, oh, how my knees did buckle.

We breathed each other’s air, and marveled. He read the secret things I wrote, the poetry and darkness I showed none else, and he saw me, saw me, saw me like I’d never been seen before.

We had epic sex. Mean sex, low sex, down-and-dirty sex, even goofy, funny sex sometimes. And then, to my astonishment, we made love.

I may have been a romance writer, but some things are too cheesy even for my purple pen. Sure, I’d written the words “they made love” a dozen times in novels, but I’d never believed in something so quaint, not for myself, not in the light of day. Yet there it was. A revelation, a wonder, a perfect moment held in time. Our eyes met as our bodies twined; we trembled, whispered, “it’s you, it’s you, it’s you.” And in each other’s arms, we were, for a while, one skin.

I fed him soup. I wore girlish sundresses, and slutty leather skirts, even corsets dragged from the back of my romance novel costume closet for our trysts. He came to my door with a spring in his step, a light in his eye, my heart in his fist.

I nursed him when he relapsed; inevitable I guess. I held my own sobriety tight, but I was high, so high, our love the proverbial drug. Soon we were both circling the drain.

I tried, oh, how I tried, to be good for him but I was not. “You opened a door to a part of myself I thought was closed forever,” he said one night, low into my ear. That door turned out to be the lid of a Pandora’s Box, a hatch beyond which lay the monsters of betrayal and despair.

We tried to make the math add up, but every equation equaled heartache. For us, and more than us. And at last, sense returned. For him anyway.

He left me.

And just like that, he vanished, an essential character written out of the script.

There were reasons. Good ones—the best. And I deserved every moment of the pain I’m in.

When I’d glimpsed the tragedy coming, early on, I’d merely shrugged. “It’s only pain,” I said to anyone who’d listen. “I’ve been through deaths, divorce, dislocation in my life. I’ll deal, and damn the torpedoes.”

I had no idea what pain could feel like. But by the time I had to let him go, I knew.

“Surely no one has ever hurt this badly,” I thought. “Not in the history of the world. We’d all be curled up in fetal positions, praying for death if this were what normal breakups felt like. No one would be going to work, eating bagels, checking in on Facebook.” And worst, most urgently, I thought, “If it hurts this badly, obviously it’s wrong that we be parted.” A cardinal sin against all I ever knew, had ever written of romance. He was no appendix, spleen, an organ I could do without. He was my heart, my heart, my heart.

Of course I realize now, there’d be no songs on the radio, no theater, no poetry if we hadn’t all been “there.” And yes, I suppose this is the “normal” amount of pain.

My lover and I have been broken up some months, and it is getting better. More tolerable, breathable, at least most hours of the day. (Don’t ask me about the small hours of the night.) What troubles me now is that I don’t know how to write what I write anymore.

I’m a romance novelist, for God’s sake, and I don’t know how to believe in Happily Ever After. I don’t know how to have faith in “forever love,” or “meant to be,” or that feeling of ecstasy when you’re with your “soul mate.” Because now I know you can find the one you think is him, and lose him, and be expected to believe there’s another one out there, who will be right, someday further along in life. How can you perceive something, know it so deep in your bones, and be so very, very wrong?

I suppose that’s why we say love is madness. Blindness. Foolishness. And still we want it again, again, again.

I don’t, right now. I look at love—the concept, the connection—and think, “I don’t ever want to be that wrong again.” That insane. Misguided. Vulnerable.

So how do I write romance now?

I suppose the answer is to place my new protagonist in exactly this dilemma. Break her heart, dash her upon these lovers’ shores, let her wash up, blind and blinking, into an unknown dawn. But I suspect I’ll have to leave the story’s resolution for a later date, when I myself figure out what comes next. What a new kind of Happily Ever After might mean. One that can’t be stolen, because it comes of self, not other.

I’ve never written a book not knowing how it ends before. I hope it may be an adventure, and that I may learn something that helps me grow as much as it will my next plucky heroine.

Stay tuned.

 

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2 thoughts on “A Romance Novelist’s Existential Crisis

  1. I cried when I read this, because I have my own version up on my blog too. I stopped writing romance as a result of a similar experience. Then I wrote a non fiction about grief, attachment and art. And now, that will be my first published book, after 5 unpublished, contest-winning romances have spent six years “just missing the mark.” Ripped down to my center, I accept the Universe’s dare and scream with Mel Gibson-fervor, “I will keep my heart open! I will not be defeated! I know love is the answer and my ship is coming in!” And I know now what is possible, when before it was only an inkling. Thank you for sharing this.

  2. And thank you for reading it. I’m not glad you went through hell, but I’m glad you dragged art with you out the other side. Congratulations on your book!

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