Divorce is a rite of passage -- like losing your virginity, marriage, becoming a parent, going through illness and losing your parents -- that you can hear about forever, but not really understand until you've experienced it yourself.
But unlike those other examples, which are generally honored and supported by societal rituals, divorce is quite isolating. There aren't greeting cards or parties or showers, there are only ruptured friendships, an underlying sense that you might be contagious, or that you have torn up the societal contract.
So I was fascinated to read that with much fanfare, prominent divorcees Nora Ephron and Arianna Huffington have unveileda new tab on the already swollen pages at Huffington Post, right between "Health" and "Art." "Divorce" has apparently already scurried to among the most popular pages.
Ephron famously made her first big foray into romantic comedy with the script based on her divorce-a-clef on Carl Bernstein, Heartburn. (Only now, all these years later, as I type this, do I realize it's not just a joke about her cooking hobby, it's also a pun on her real ex's name.)
Contributors to the HuffPo Divorce page have included a few friends of mine, and I am certainly interested in the subject matter. But I can't really bring myself to click on the link. Partly because like the rest of the site, it's so celebrity heavy. (I really don't care about Courtney and David Arquette, honest!)
But here's the real reason why it's hard to "go there": because it hits too close to home. No, I don't mean I can't bear reading such pieces. I mean it's annoyingly similar to an idea I had pitched for years. Once, quite specifically, five or so ago, between TV jobs, I was trying to rustle some magazine work, and I had a conversation with an editor at O magazine -- though to be fair, it really could have been any of a number of magazines, that went something like this:
I suggested that I write a monthly column for them on divorce.
I had been through one but was on the other side, I knew several people who were going through divorces, some of them so messy you needed to wear a butcher's apron, others so civilized you couldn't quite comprehend that the couple was actually split. I knew that it was a rich and vibrant world full of all the emotional hot buttons magazine editors love: sex, love, money, children, real estate. And that nearly 50% of marriages, no matter how well intentioned at inception would end up there, so it was certainly relatable. At least as much as cooking or books or other regular columns. Every divorce was its own story.
Here's what I was told. They didn't think there was material for a monthly column on the subject. They wanted a single reported piece on "The State of Divorce, 2005" or whatever year it was. They wanted me to find THE couple whose divorce personified and profile them, while quoting other people to support this thesis.
This is nuts. And it's one of the biggest challenges in being a freelance writer. You have to basically do all the legwork for something whose wordcount would never pay back the effort.
But on top of that, the assignment was both silly and impossible on a practical level. Who should I anoint as the personification of today's divorce? The couple who shared the same apartment so their kids wouldn't have to move, and did things like leave dirty dishes in the sink or an unmade bed as silent fuck-yous? Or was it the couple who still sat on either side of their child at a rock concert?
The whole point of my pitch was that there was no one story, and more than the New York Times vows column would pick one marriage to represent all marriages for an entire year. So I said no.
In the intervening years, having seen the weird and unexpected ways my divorce and others have impacted on our generation's children, I have relentlessly pitched TV executives that there is a rich vein to be mined in a TV series centered on a group of teenagers whose parents are divorced.
I did research with a group of New York City school kids and hearing their anecdotes remembered the adage that real life stories can often be richer than anything a fiction writer could make up. There was the girl whose Dad stayed upstate when her mom moved to the city for a corporate job, and then the mom flew out of town for work and left her 17 year old alone to cook, do laundry, and supervise herself.
It was all much realer than anything on Gossip Girl or Glee or even my beloved Modern Family the other shows about kids this age, with the exception of my also-beloved Friday Night Lights. Even the otherwise truish Parenthood, gets a little convenient when it comes to dealing with Lauren Graham's character's recent divorce: it seems mostly to show the hardships of being a poor single mom (and the benefits of being an available MILF). The ex has been out of the city and offscreen (though that might finally be changing). There's no questions of custody, money fights, divergent parenting styles, playing the parents off each other, the mixups and annoyances and hilarity that happen when you're impossibly split.
But everyone I pitch the divorce-based show says it seems "negative" or "limited."
Trying to add literary pedigree to the idea, I adapted John Updike's novel Marry Me as a screenplay. It's a microscopic satire about two Mad Men-era couples and infidelity (though, true to the 1960's it only glancingly deals with the children).
At one point my agents got it to a rep for a terrific actress who's just the right age; the feedback was that she had just gotten married and "didn't want to deal" with the subject matter. Sigh. I don't think that's how Meryl Streep picked roles at that age.
A few weekends ago, I was intrigued that the New York Times' navel-gazing column Modern Love ran a piece by a woman who was the child of divorce, as is her husband, and they swore they'd never do the same to their kids. She started musing, "I've begun to wonder if there isn't something positive about divorce that we could incorporate into our marriage."
I started to think, wow, this could be revolutionary. But it turns out, she just wants her husband to cook more. Lady, that's not what divorce is.
Now I read on the Huffington Post that Fran Drescher and her ex-husband have collaborated on a pilot called "Happily Divorced" that they sold to TV Land based on their experience, in which, as it turned out, he happened to be gay. Highly relatable -- if you're Liza Minnelli or Carrie Fisher.
Still, maybe the topic is starting to get out there. Maybe HuffPoDiv will start to generate book deals and movies the way Modern Love sometimes does. There are zillions of other side-splitting stories out there still waiting to be told.