I began to teach women to write the stories they hold within their hearts because when they write their truth, anything is possible.
I’m a writer, but the only reason I wrote my divorce story was because my lawyer asked me to do so for my legal file.
When he mentioned doing this, I procrastinated. After all, I was living the horror story. How would writing about it help? I drank countless cups of coffee and systematically worked my way through the first, then second display case shelf of pastries at a local cafe. I listened to Oprah podcasts, watched self-help videos, and scrolled social media posts. I was so bereft that I didn’t know how to begin to write what felt like the most important story of my adult life. Condensing a long marriage into mere words? How?
Once the story was on the page, the past would be fully violated. The private inconsistencies, the flaws, and the dismal examples of human behavior and responses would be belly up for the world to consume. But what it really came down to—the haunting reason I was avoiding writing the story about my divorce—had to do with who would read it: me.
Divorce is trauma and writing makes meaning, but it also demands a ruthless examination of truth. Writing held my feet to the proverbial fire and forced me to look at the great schism of my life play out like a splitting glacier. My married self dutifully fulfilled societal and family expectations and answered with unwavering loyalty to the institution of marriage. Writing my divorce story forced me to admit that it wasn’t only resilience and patience shackling me to an untenable relationship, but fear and denial of my own self.
I had come to define the obligations of wife to mean self-sacrifice to the point of erasure. When does patience become submission, compromise become violation, forgiveness an obliteration of self? What are the boundaries of an individual within a couple? It was a lot to process.
Divorce burned my life to the ground. Writing my divorce story helped me to understand why.
As I got started, I embraced bullet points, recalled specific events and my reactions to them, and thought of the main themes that governed my married life. Words tumbled out—the flood of miseries and unmet expectations, the admittance of truths and shame, the disappointment and deep sorrow. When I finished, I felt lighter. I wasn’t rid of my trauma, but I realized divorce was the right decision.
Writing my divorce story also changed the course of my mediation. After reading my story, our mediator ordered that my ex and I occupy separate rooms during the day-long process. This allowed me to better negotiate. I began the day nervous and shaky, even with a lawyer by my side. By the end of the mediation process, I had hit my stride.
What I ultimately discovered is that the assertion of an authentic self on a page changes writers and readers—and in the case of writing my divorce story, I was both! I began to teach women to write the stories they hold within their hearts because when they write their truth, anything is possible.
Over the last few years, I’ve helped countless women write their divorce stories—and what I know for sure is that structure is key. Here’s everything you need to put in your personal and/or legal file (with your attorney’s consent). Keep it under 5,000 words. And remember your ultimate goal is honesty.
This is 1-2 sentences that answer a central question: Why are you divorcing?
Here’s a sample first-draft thesis:
I am divorcing John is because he was an unfaithful, boring, tone-deaf alcoholic who repeatedly cheated and lied about it. He was always drunk. He often repeated the same story over and over. I couldn’t take any more of these repeats about the great summer he had when he was 23 years old. Plus, he is tone-deaf, so he has bad taste in music.
Once that’s down, try an edit that captures the main points:
I am divorcing John because I no longer want to exist in a marriage of alcoholism and infidelity. I want to live an honest life.
To understand the scope of your marriage and the full weight of your divorce, it’s important to know who you were when you met, what drew you to your partner, and the expectations you held about your relationship. If recalling your early days prompts you to rethink your divorce, it’s a sign that you are not ready to move forward!
Describe your home life as a young person, and the cultural background that formed your emotional and social outlook. Our current home life often has its origins in our past. Growing up, we learned patterns that we either embraced or ditched. We may replicate a parent dynamic with a partner, or we may have lived in a particular way due to cultural or community expectations that are no longer relevant to our current needs or desires. Writing this down will help you see those patterns, and how they showed up in your relationship.
This will be the bulk of your evidence to support your thesis. You will create brief paragraphs that talk about the specifics of your life together. Use headings and subheadings to anchor your descriptions of moments, observations, patterns, or events. Write what happened and how you felt about what happened. Here’s an example:
Subheading: Public Image
Kevin’s beauty products and physical maintenance took a lot of our household budget. The entire bathroom cabinet was filled with cologne, lotions, and elixirs of youth. Private trainer, haircuts, he justified that his job was important, so he needed to look good. Our child’s healthcare and education expenses were high, but when I suggested we cut down on some aspect of his physical maintenance, he didn’t want to—and told me I looked terrible. My wardrobe and beauty products were nominal.
How I felt about what happened:
I was hurt by Kevin’s insults and felt stressed by all of the yelling and name-calling. All I can say is that if a person keeps calling you names, after a while, you start to believe it. There was no household money for me to dress well and his demands that I look perfectly groomed when we lived in a rural area didn’t make any sense. I never said anything to his insults. I was depressed but didn’t understand why.
Student loans, stocks, the money you borrowed from a soon-to-be-ex in-law for a deposit on your house—write about all of it. Marriage is a legal and business contract. Looking at the financial decisions you made together over the course of your marriage will make specific patterns within your relationship clear.
In the end, I realized that writing my divorce story helped me recognize the parallels between writing a story and living a story. Writing forced clarification. When the foundation of how we have built our life collapses, we wonder what else is fallible. Writing my story changed my life because I came to see that my divorce was an act of bravery, not shame. I came to see that I deserved to be treated with dignity, not scorn, and that my life was my own to live.
Dr. Stephanie Han teaches women’s creative writing workshops at drstephaniehan.com. Her fiction collection Swimming in Hong Kong won the Paterson Fiction Prize, and finalist for AWP’s Grace Paley Prize, the Spokane Prize, and the Asian Books Blog Award. A PEN and VONA fellow, she received grants from the LA Department of Cultural Affairs, and was the inaugural English Literature PhD of City Univ. of Hong Kong. Her work-in-progress ‘Break’ details how to write a divorce story. Han lives in Hawai‘i, home of her family since 1904.
This piece was originally published in Scarlet Society.
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