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Jill Tal­bot’s The Way We Weren’t

the end of the 1973 tear­jerker The Way We Were, the es­tranged cou­ple played by Bar­bra Streisand and Robert Red­ford re­unite by chance out­side the Plaza Ho­tel in New York. As the score swells and they stare rev­er­ently into each other’s eyes, Streisand’s Katie tells Red­ford, “Your girl is lovely, Hubbell,” re­veal­ing that es­sen­tially, Hubbell has be­come a dead­beat dad since the two di­vorced and that Katie has spent the in­ter­ven­ing years rais­ing their daugh­ter with­out him. But Hubbell’s aban­don­ment of his child is a mostly for­got­ten foot­note to The Way We Were — his ab­sen­teeism is folded into the movie’s sen­ti­men­tal coda, and view­ers tend to fix­ate not on Hubbell’s de­ser­tion but on the epic ro­mance that once was.

The demise of au­thor Jill Tal­bot’s re­la­tion­ship left her sim­i­larly aban­doned with a baby girl to raise by her­self, and in The Way We Weren’t (Soft Skull Press/Coun­ter­point, 2015), Tal­bot chron­i­cles the sub­se­quent pe­riod she and her daugh­ter In­die spent shut­tling through nine states in as many years. Tal­bot, a vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor of cre­ative writ­ing at New Mexico High­lands Univer­sity, parses both the mem­ory of her ill-fated love and the chal­lenges of sin­gle moth­er­hood as she hops from low-pay­ing tem­po­rary teach­ing po­si­tions to slightly bet­ter cir­cum­stances, state by state. In do­ing so, Tal­bot in­ter­ro­gates the very idea of writ­ing memoir, ex­am­in­ing her ob­ses­sion with her ex­part­ner through a skep­tic’s lens, while re­al­iz­ing that the more she recre­ates his mem­ory in writ­ing, the more slip­pery the re­la­tion­ship’s es­sen­tial truth be­comes.

Mem­oirist Lu­cas Mann wrote re­cently on Buz­zFeed about his book on his brother’s death from heroin ad­dic­tion, “What re­mains un­clear, at least in the con­ver­sa­tion that per­sists about memoir or cre­ative non­fic­tion or what­ever else you want to call it, is whether the sto­ries count as art and de­serve the cor­re­spond­ing ab­so­lu­tion. If I turned my fa­ther and brother into ‘some­thing else,’ I would in­stantly lose track of the aims of non­fic­tion, but if they were to re­main a non­fic­tion truth, they would be un­able to tran­scend. It is, I think, the bind of the mem­oirist — the as­pi­ra­tion to­ward both types of truths and, in many peo­ples’ eyes, the built-in fail­ure to achieve ei­ther.” Tal­bot is fa­mil­iar with this slip­page. The Way We Weren’t opens with an ac­tual let­ter from In­die’s fa­ther to the Boul­der County Child Sup­port En­force­ment Unit, un­der­lin­ing the facts, as he sees them, of his time with Tal­bot: “a short-term re­la­tion­ship that re­sulted in an un­ex­pected preg­nancy. I of­fered to marry Jill and take care of her and In­die. She de­clined and didn’t want any­thing to do with me. She wanted to move out of state and move on with her life. This was agree­able for both of us.”

Of course, Tal­bot’s ver­sion of events di­verges wildly from her ex’s, and she probes how the pas­sage of time and the act of memoir writ­ing have cre­ated her own story. She writes of her­self, “She is two chap­ters away from fin­ish­ing the book about him. She uses his real name as a mat­ter of record and a way to re­turn his be­trayal. It will be years be­fore she re­al­izes that the man she writes is not the man she missed, even more years be­fore she un­der­stands she’s never been the woman on the page. [She writes] the fic­tion of her past.” I pulled out that pho­to­graph, and I was stunned, be­cause I rec­og­nized the dif­fer­ence be­tween

the man in the pho­to­graph and the man I had been writ­ing about. ... I look at the two of us, and I feel like that’s some story that I used

to know, a story that I tell In­die. -- Jill Tal­bot

Tal­bot told Pasatiempo that her re­al­iza­tion of the re­la­tion­ship as part fic­tion came from her dis­cov­ery of an old pho­to­graph of the cou­ple. She said, “When peo­ple go out of our lives and we start writ­ing about them, we re­ally are cre­at­ing them from mem­ory. I was in a safe space of writ­ing about him, and then I pulled out that pho­to­graph, and I was stunned, be­cause I rec­og­nized the dif­fer­ence be­tween the man in the pho­to­graph and the man I had been writ­ing about. I un­der­stood the com­plete dis­tinc­tion be­tween who I’m writ­ing about and who he is. I look at the two of us, and I feel like that’s some story that I used to know, a story that I tell In­die. The fact of his pres­ence in our lives as a story makes it part fic­tion, too.”

Tal­bot an­tic­i­pates that read­ers may won­der why she got so stuck on a failed love as sub­ject mat­ter. In the book’s pro­logue, a friend asks her when she’s go­ing to let this go. “It’s dif­fi­cult to let some­one go when in a way he’s with me ev­ery day, in the way In­die walks, or her eyes, or the way she loves to work with tools,” she said. “He’s very present; there are still mo­ments when I think I don’t know what to do with this loss that keeps re­peat­ing it­self. I can com­pletely fall down into it in the writ­ing in a way that I can’t with her.”

The book’s other arc is that of a sin­gle woman with four de­grees who can barely sup­port her fam­ily, high­light­ing the re­cent head­line-mak­ing ad­junct cri­sis in academia. The first piece of the book Tal­bot wrote de­scribes her lis­ten­ing to a call-in “Talk of the Na­tion” seg­ment on NPR about sin­gle moth­er­hood in Amer­ica and feel­ing that none of the call­ers ad­dressed the root of the prob­lem: ab­sen­tee fathers. She said, “That was the first time I ever thought about writ­ing as a so­cial act, as some­thing that might give a voice to peo­ple who didn’t have a voice.” Of her time en­trenched in aca­demic poverty and the itin­er­ant lifestyle it ne­ces­si­tated, she says, “The writ­ing life is a gypsy life. It’s like scraps — you find what you can find where and when you can find it, and you don’t get to choose where you live. You just are grate­ful that some­body’s giv­ing you a year or two here and there.”

Molly Boyle

The New Mex­i­can

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