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.”
The New Mexican