literary women

Letters From the Creative Man-Child: What Writing a Novel Taught Me About How They Date

Photo: A. Green/Corbis

Several months ago, I published a novel about a guy, a particular kind of guy: one who is in his twenties or thirties, who is really into his art and/or career (in this case his writing), whose apartment is kind of a dump (he’s got other priorities), and who dates plenty — and thinks about sex plenty — but has reservations about relationships. I wanted the protagonist of my novel, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., to represent the creative man-child as accurately as possible: as someone who is at moments surprisingly sensitive and yet seems to wreak emotional havoc on the women he dates — women who mistook the moments of sensitivity to indicate that he was a different, and more reliable, type of male person.

I wanted to write about this guy because men like him so often tell the stories that make up our collective culture. They’re often talented and funny and committed to their work — and still, like all of us, they often have a blind spot when it comes to themselves. I wanted to shine a spotlight on one  of these men, to be fair but unsparing, and scrutinize in particular his treatment of women.

Truth be told, I’m fond of my character, Nathaniel — or Nate, as he is known — in spite of his many flaws. (These include but are not limited to bouts of misogyny, lapses of empathy, and a deeply ingrained tendency to avoid uncomfortable emotions and tricky emotional situations, at a cost to others as well as himself.)

Still, I didn’t want to paint Nate as a heartless monster whose exploits with women are nearly criminal in their badass-ness. Ironically, such an account would have delighted a guy like him, playing into his personal mythmaking — it would made him feel exceptional. The more honest, as well as the more pointed, approach, I felt, would be to capture the mundane day-to-day reality of being a serial dater in an urban milieu circa now.

For all his intellectual flights of fancy, Nate’s anxieties are almost embarrassing in their ordinariness: He worries about whether he can still get it up for a casual hookup; he wonders about what his male friends think of him and of the women he dates; he is at the mercy of ever-shifting moods — from loneliness to horniness to desire for solitude — and less a pilot of his destiny than he might like to imagine. In other words, the portrait that emerges in my novel is not especially flattering.

Partly for that reason, I’ve been really touched when I’ve gotten letters from men who say they relate to him. Letters — and Facebook messages and tweets — from readers have been one of the greatest pleasures to me since my book came out in July, and I’ve been surprised to find that about three out of four of them come from men. (Who says men don’t read novels about relationships?)

Here’s an example, a tweet from someone called @pazwess:

@adellewaldman 1. How would you know that much about me? R u stalking me? 2. Thank you for changing my alias to Nate. Greatly appreciated.

The e-mails tend, naturally, to be more detailed. C., for example, a recent college grad who now lives in New York, sent a kind note in which he said the book “nailed a certain kind of male disposition toward dating and women that I (shamefully, at times) am completely familiar with.” He said he saw himself in a number of passages:

from the descriptions of Nate during his high school days as “nice-guy Nate, friend to girls in need” to that … bit at the end where Hannah [Nate’s girlfriend] calls his theory that he might not be able to be in a relationship at all as the plight of “shallow morons everywhere.” But I think the ones that stuck with me the most were the multiple moments where Nate knows the right thing to do and just doesn’t do it, electing instead just to tell Hannah “I’m fine,” or “I’m just tired.”

One of my favorite correspondences has been with J., a 30-year-old teacher in Massachusetts, who has put real time into long, thoughtful analyses that veer back and forth between the novel and his life. He initially wrote: “In interviews, you noted that some readers are recognizing pieces of Nate in themselves, and I would like to echo that feeling, though ‘pieces’ fails to capture the completeness of alignment between some of our (Nate’s/mine) thoughts and behaviors.” J. called the feeling “amusingly unsettling” and cited, among others, Nate’s “discomfort of talking about sex acts” and “the many minor internal temper tantrums Nate throws when faced with what he considers boring domesticity.”

J. and I got into a long dialogue about whether women tend to want monogamous long-term relationships, or, as he calls them, MLTRs, more than men do, or at least more than he does, and if so, what that means for his dating life:

For those of us who see couples listlessly following each other through Whole Foods (I’m falling prey to one of my least favorite things, using corporate brands as slurs), or the way a parent’s personal life can be usurped by their child, or the many marriages that end quickly in great recrimination, or simply the way our own parents often just want to be alone, the idea that MLTRs/marriage is desirable looks shaky. Are there happy marriages? Of course. But the odds seem stacked against happiness. So how does one act ethically in a dating context if they carry that pessimism? …

As a veteran of many MRs, from the very short to the very LT, and someone who is currently single, I think a lot about this. I take genuine pleasure in getting to know lovers and have gotten very serious about them at times, but over the long-term when the routines get routine… well, it’s no fun, and there are a million shitty self-help books about that that don’t alleviate my worries. Date Night? Shoot me.

I wish I had some advice to offer J. But I don’t. While J.’s situation does indeed sound a lot like Nate’s, I have to admit that as a novelist, I wasn’t thinking about how to “fix” Nate — I just wanted to capture him on the page.

I do, however, sympathize, with both J. and Nate. As much as I would like to take Nate to task for some of the specific ways he behaves with specific women in the course of my novel, I don’t think he can be blamed exactly for not wanting to be in a relationship. Not really. At least, I don’t think it’s the kind of situation where he needs to try harder, to be more mature. As a married person, I must say I kind of think the opposite is true. You’ve got to genuinely value not only the other person, but the relationship you are building. It shouldn’t feel like a big, tedious chore — like eating your emotional vegetables.

Why, for some people, do relationships seem so unappealing? I wonder if ambivalence about relationships is especially pronounced today, not only for guys like Nate, but for women (because of course it’s not only men who have misgivings about relationships, nor are these issues limited to heterosexual couples). For certain creative and intellectual types, it’s come to be seen as a sign of strength and creative commitment to care more about work, as if relationships are for conventional or unimaginative people.

Maybe today’s attitudes are a reaction to the mildly unsatisfying suburban childhoods that many city-dwelling creative types look back on scornfully. That’s certainly true of Nate, who associates relationships with a kind of self-satisfied and stultifying coziness, a sort of forced domesticity. But it might be worth examining that kind of thinking — because, in its own way, it’s just as self-justifying and reflexive.

I think what people like Nate, who have plenty of intellectual pride, might sometimes fail to consider is that the single life could ultimately be as stultifying, and as bad for their creative and intellectual lives, as hypothetical enslavement to a domesticating nag. Middle-class suburban life isn’t the only type of life that can grow stale. When someone lives the same way for too long — in this case, flirtation, hookup, breakup, ad infinitum — they probably cease to grow in certain ways. Though relationships (or, as J. would say, MLTRs) often get a bad rap, as if they signal a retreat from life, I’m not sure single life is inherently better or deeper or truer. It’s not all long nights of the soul and grand love affairs.

Lest I be disregarded as just another commitment-loving woman, I should say that these thoughts have been inspired by some of my other correspondents. In addition to the e-mails I’ve gotten from guys who relate to Nate, there’s a whole other set of e-mails from older men, who say they related to Nate, in the past tense, but came eventually to change. Take G., a 66-year-old academic from California:

It really wasn’t especially different for us, I don’t think, in the late 70’s and early 80’s, when being an academic was still a viable pursuit, and romance, sex, and the life of the mind were interwoven for my generation in much the same way as in the realm you portray … After years of repeating in my maturity so much of what I’d done when I was Nate’s age (with a long hiatus for marriage, divorce, and recovery), I did find the right woman. I know because the pattern broke. This time around, the longer I’m with her the more I love her.

I used to think that the coupled life isn’t for everyone — and surely it isn’t — and that we should mostly avoid trying to disparage or convert one another, the Nates and the couple-type people, I mean. But some of these letters make me wonder if some men who in fact would like to be in couples one day are being hurt by their Nate-like tendencies. One of the most impassioned notes I’ve received came from D., a 47-year-old ob-gyn in Australia:

For a time, I was a lot like Nate. It cost me a lot to stop being like that, though the price was worth it in the end … Nate doesn’t have a genuine grasp of love and therefore, little respect for it. He talks the talk and walks the walk, and appears open and engaging, so people have the impression they are close to him or know him, but that is not intimacy. I have the feeling that at some point, and it is inevitable as Nemesis, Nate and his analogs will be forced to face that closeness, that challenge of an open and honest relationship, and, because of that lack of training, Nate and his cronies will fail and fall. They will miss out on the person they could truly grow and develop and evolve with. To me, there is nothing more horrifying than learning the lessons of how to be in a relationship by losing the person you truly need to be with.

I’ve got to agree with D. You learn things from getting close enough to another human being to see their weaknesses and to reveal your own, from spending time with someone who’s sharp enough and knows you well enough to call you out on your affectations and self-justifications and rationalizations in a way that friends or casual hookups never will. I made Nate up, so of course I like to think I’ve got his number. But the real Nates are on their own — for now.

Letters From the Creative Man-Child