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Marrying the Wrong Guy: Writer Joanna Rakoff on Her Big Do-Over

Joanna: [00:00:00] He essentially said, like, I want to marry you. I know you're the person for me. Let's just get married. And I did this. And pretty soon after, I mean, as in the day after, it was so clear to me that I'd made a grave, grave error.

Erin: Welcome to Hotter Than Ever, where we take a look at the unconscious rules we've been following. We break those rules and we find a new path to being freer, happier, and more self expressed. I'm your host, Erin Keating.

I am so excited today to have Joanna Rakoff joining us for a conversation about the things we tell ourselves and the decisions we make as a result. Joanna Rakoff is the author of the international best selling memoir, 'My Salinger Year', and the best selling novel, 'A Fortunate Age', which was the winner of the Goldberg Prize for Fiction and the Elle Readers Prize. She has won a lot of prizes. Her books have been translated into 20 languages and the film adaptation, which if you haven't seen it is amazing. Of my Salinger year stars Sigourney Weaver and Margaret Qualley. And it opened in theaters worldwide in 2021. And I saw pictures of her at con and a very pretty dress. It's now streaming on Amazon prime and Apple TV and everywhere else.

And her recent essay, which just floored me is called, there is a name for this. And we're going to talk about that today. It's published in the terrific anthology, 'Wanting: Women Writing About Desire.' Welcome Joanna.

Joanna: Thank you. I'm so excited to be here.

Erin: I'm so happy to have you here. I'm such a fan of you and your work. So just to set a little context about what we're doing here on this podcast. One thing I really want to explore is the unconscious rules that we follow in our lives and the ways in which we don't tell ourselves the truth about what [00:02:00] we're really thinking and feeling.

And then as a result of seeing that truth and really understanding what we think and feel, then we figure out how to make different choices and become more happy and more fulfilled as we get older and, you know, live out our days in joy and well being. That's the goal. That is the goal. That is the definition of being hotter than ever.

No big deal. No big deal. Like small dreams. Small dreams. So you write fiction. And you write memoir and, and I'm curious to talk to you today about your real life story and your incredible love story, which is one of the most romantic and inspiring stories I think I've ever heard. And that's what you write about in your essay. So can you, can you tell us a little bit about what the essay is about and why you were inspired to write it?

Joanna: Absolutely. The essay is kind of framed by one monumental night in my life, in which I travel to Boston [00:03:00] from New York, where I lived for many, many years. And I'm basically from. I traveled to Boston for a giant, you know, 15, 000 person conference, walk into the lobby of a hotel to meet a friend who's also traveled to Boston for this conference.

And we're going to sort of go to parties and do writer y professional things and see friends. And Instead of seeing that friend, I see the love of my life, to use a really cheesy term. And the essay then goes back into our history and kind of tells our story, which is a very familiar one, which is possibly why I think readers have been responding to it. I've been getting a lot of mail about it. Essentially, we met our first day of college. He was the first person I met at college. And I felt this kind of--

Erin: Everybody dreams that's gonna happen to them.

Joanna: Yes. And I know a number of couples who have the same story as in they met on the first day of college, or they [00:04:00] met the first year of college or something along those lines. And they fell in love, stayed together, got married. They're still together to this day. And it's always a little hard for me because the, and this is the story of the essay we met, I sort of instantly felt drawn to him. And I think he, to me, and instead of dating, we became friends and he just was sort of, I felt like he was my person, but I would see him on campus and feel better about life.

I always felt this urge to kind of put my head on his shoulder and close my eyes. And eventually, our senior year, after we dated a lot of people and done a lot of things, we came together and it felt very natural. And that's a huge understatement, you know. When he kissed me, I felt like, oh, wait, this is why people like kissing.

So we dated and we stayed together for a year or so after college and then [00:05:00] I without really understanding why at the time to use contemporary parlance, ghosted him. I didn't dump him. I wasn't like we're through I just kind of disappeared. And when people hear the story of what happened between us, they're often like, Oh, you reconnected 30 years later on Facebook or whatever and that is not what happened.

He is an incredibly mature and kind of centered person and he forgave me for doing this to him and said, I just want you in my life. And we stayed in each other's lives, even though we both married other people. He stayed my person, the person that I felt closest to, and who I felt a kind of unconditional love and attraction to and for.

But it took all these decades. It took me walking into this hotel that night and seeing him there for us to return to each other. That's the end of the essay, we returned to each other. He's downstairs now. He set up all this audio for me.

Erin: I mean, so amazing. [00:06:00] And, and so amazing to have a, a do over, right?

Like that's something I think about a lot where we feel like we make decisions in our lives and that's it. Well, we've made the decision and we can't reorient ourselves. We can't shift. We can't change. It's, it's locked in. I'd love for you to read a little excerpt that sort of speaks to some of that.

Joanna: Absolutely.

"At the time, I believed I had lost him, that I had hurt him so badly he could never forgive me. I believed too that this, my abandonment of Keeril was the greatest mistake, misstep of my life, A tragic error, the unhappy outcome of which a life without true love, a unconditional love, without happiness, without desire, I deserved and full and perpetuity.

Three years nearly to the day after I failed to arrive in Berkeley, I married the man who shouted the loudest, who desired me the most, or so he said, or so he believed. Perhaps because he, a would be poet himself, saw me, first and [00:07:00] foremost, as a writer, and a talented one. And I could envision a life with him, with my work at its center, a life in which I woke up and wrote and fell asleep with my head on the page, my hand gripping the pen, perhaps because I didn't love him, didn't desire him in the way I did Keeril, and there was no danger of losing myself.

Years passed, a decade, then half of another. Keeril won fellowships and awards and commissions that took him all over the world. I stayed in New York and wrote and wrote, struggling to lie in the bed I'd made, intent, for reasons that now elude me, on presenting my marriage, myself, to friends, to the world as perfect, as normal, as happy married."

Erin: That's amazing. 15 years with somebody else. Yeah. Feeling like you couldn't undo it.

Joanna: Exactly. I mean, [00:08:00] what happened really was I, I married a person who was very, very different from me, you know. Different background, different ideas about the world, everything, every possible thing who I thought kind of represented a romantic ideal, you know, he soon after meeting me was like, I love you. You're the most beautiful woman in the world. I fell in love with you the first time I heard your voice. And this is sort of the opposite of Keeril, who rather than saying those things kind of does them. But I, as a 25 year old, I guess something a lot around then thought that, you know, this was what grand love was.

It was someone who kind of says to you, you're the best, you know, you're the most gorgeous, you're everything, you're a genius. And in reality, I think that from what I've read a whole bunch about this, as in like this phenomenon of people kind of, it's now called like love bombing or something like people kind of swooping in and taking over your life. You know, I think people feel that [00:09:00] it's a symptom of kind of narcissism and I don't want to pop psychoanalyze myself, but it was kind of similar to things that I'd experienced, you know, from my mom, basically just kind of taking it coming in and taking control of your life, making all the decisions for you. And he essentially said, like, I want to marry you. I know you're the person for me. Let's just get married.

And I did this and pretty soon after I mean as in the day after it was so clear to me that I'd made a grave grave error. We had such different ways of constructing our lives and running our lives and I realized even just like logistically I couldn't be with a person who was like, let's just get in the car and drive and who knows where we'll stay tonight you know, I which is what he wanted to do the day after our wedding and we don't have any money, so we'll just figure it out.

Like that's so the opposite of me. And I think I, before getting married, I [00:10:00] was like, Oh, this person is better than me. Like he's romantic. He's spontaneous. I'm boring and make to do lists. And I'm like the Rory Gilmore figure. Like I'm the, you know, planner, whatever. I think I had felt that way. Other men had made me feel that way, like, why are you so careful?

And, but then as soon as I got married and I'd done this kind of final, finite, something, thing, undo, what felt to me undoable thing. I thought, this is a huge mistake, I can't spend even a day with this person, like I don't want to get in the car and just drive aimlessly with him. No, that sounds like a nightmare. And I called my mother who lived in California at the time and said, you know, I've made, I've made a mistake. This is a huge mistake. And she kind of expected this, um, and said, well, you've made your bed. Now you have to lie in it. And, oh my gosh, um, okay, I guess she's right. This is just [00:11:00] my life. I have to figure this out.

Erin: What were you hoping she would say?

Joanna: That's a good question. I think I was hoping that she would respond in the way that one of my closest friends would. Like I have a close friend named Lauren who has a very kind of expansive view of the world and view of marriage and view of romantic relationships and friendship. And I think If I had called her, she would have been like, just get out.

But I didn't feel at the time, like I could call a friend because I felt that I needed to present myself to the world as perfect and in control and knowing what I was doing. And I did think I could say to my mom, I made a mistake and I thought maybe she would sort of give me permission to leave. I'm realizing I had actually just turned, I was 26.

Erin: Because at 26, you felt [00:12:00] like you needed permission to undo this thing.

Joanna: I did. I really did.

Erin: I think we as women, especially those of us who are sort of self identified good girls, who do all the things you're supposed to do and check all the boxes and, and tie it up in a bow, permission is a huge theme, I'm noticing, where we want to be granted something that we can grant ourselves. And that the difference between being in your twenties, in some ways, and the difference of being 40 and older, is that we come to understand that the permission needs to come from ourselves.

Joanna: Yes. That is so true. I see this even in my own work life. I wonder if you do too, as in like, I've been a member of various writers groups and they've all been all women. And a theme that comes up. Is often as a writer of literary fiction and nonfiction, I'm in these groups with people who are writing novels and [00:13:00] memoirs and pieces for magazines. There's this constant feeling of obligation to the literary world, to the publishing world, even to your readers. But I noticed that one kind of, I don't know, what would you call it, like a dynamic that often comes up is one person saying to the other, I give you permission not to do this.

I give you permission to back out of that event that you didn't want to do that will have no positive effect for you. That's all about just doing a favor to someone. I give you permission to not blurb that book, you know?

Erin: Isn't it amazing that we need to hear that from a peer or from a friend or from another woman in our lives? We really have the authority to do that, to grant ourselves that permission and to say no to things and we know what's right for us. But we get so hung up on this external perception, or what we believe the external perception will [00:14:00] be. That it really. God, we waste a lot of fucking time, you know?

Joanna: It is so true. I keep thinking that I've learned in terms of the work stuff and also for me in terms of family, like with as a mother, I am daughter. I have a lot of trouble. Dealing with situations like this, like obligation type situations, and this feeling of having to just give and give and give and give and never say no. And I keep thinking that I've learned though, and that I've put up boundaries, and then I'll realize, no, not enough.

Erin: Yeah, and I think like, boundaries require this whole sort of... Set of muscles that it takes a long time to develop and to understand that boundaries aren't about rejecting people They're about teaching people how to treat you in the world.

Joanna: Yeah, that is such a good point Yeah, that is so so true, but it's so hard.

Erin: Well, we don't I don't think we believe we deserve to be treated well. Like there is [00:15:00] something in that where you know, for me, I stayed in an unhappy marriage for a really long time because I felt like maybe he was right about a lot of the things that he said about me.

Joanna: Me too.

Erin: And maybe if I stayed, I could get better. I could fix it instead of being like, no, I'm fucking miserable. I deserve to be happy. I'm not gonna be happy in this situation. I knew I wasn't going to be happy in this situation, but I kept trying to fix it, kept trying to make it better because I couldn't tolerate the notion that I was going to fail so miserably at something.

Joanna: It was exactly the same for me. I mean, I think I felt partly that I was failing at being in love with him or even liking him or feeling affection for him. And it was as if I had to stay in it to punish myself for not having those feelings in a way.

Erin: And that's a terrible, like, self perpetuating cycle. Well, well, fast forward to you deciding to [00:16:00] leave and to be with Keeril. Like you made such a big change in the very middle of your life. I mean, you had already had success as a writer. You had two kids. You had a home and a life in New York. And then you realized, Oh yeah, I got to blow this up. What was that like for you?

Joanna: It was simultaneously absolutely terrifying. I think there was probably a year in which I just existed in this state of constant kind of like vibrating at a higher frequency. I was constantly just feeling so, um. It's strange because I also felt kind of more alive than I had been. It was almost like an electric shock was constantly going through my body.

I will say that part of the terror, to be totally honest, was fear of my former husband, of repercussions from him and that kind of thing. And I was honestly [00:17:00] afraid of being judged by the world. Part of this, I will say though, had to do with, he is a person who is on social media a lot, particularly Twitter. And I was really concerned that he was the one who was going to build the narrative surrounding our marriage and my leaving.

And I actually wrote a piece exactly about this for a British magazine, which ultimately my agency decided I shouldn't let them run because they were afraid he would sue me. And

I still kind of wish that I had published it just because there are so many women now in that situation who fear public kind of shaming if they leave their spouses. It's pretty real if you think about the world we live in.

But anyway, so I was afraid of that. But then on the positive note, I also, it was as if the weight of the world, I keep using these cheesy phrases, I don't know why, but it's why they exist. Because they're real. I felt, again, like a new person. Another cheesy phrase [00:18:00] I really did, I felt. Quite literally like a new person. All sorts of things that I thought I had needed to kind of keep me together and afloat daily rituals and all sorts of things.

I suddenly realized I didn't need and I had just needed them because of the kind of deprivation, like the emotional deprivation of my life beforehand.

And I also felt, you know, electrified with excitement about being with the person I loved. It was so exciting to be with him. I woke up every day excited that I got to see him and be with him. We didn't live together for some time, but I would wake up. I lived in an apartment alone with my kids and I would just feel so happy actually to be alone with them. Yeah. I think a lot of women who leave unpleasant marriages. express this sentiment, but it was always a relief to me when I could be alone with my kids. Like when my former husband traveled and I was just [00:19:00] alone with them, there's this incredible freedom and excitement because it meant that I wasn't kind of butting heads with someone who wanted to do things differently or who was doing things to kind of, I don't know, upset the kids or what have you. It was just me. And I knew that I could keep them in a good state of mind and happy and doing their homework and that kind of thing.

And so when I first left him and I was just alone with the kids, a lot of my days were spent in this state of kind of exuberant joy. Cause I was like, I'm alone with them. I love them. They're so wonderful. You know, I felt like I could interact with them in a more pure way. It wasn't that I wanted total control or anything It was more just that I didn't have to take care of this third Person and kind of look out for his feelings and what he wanted.

Erin: Or police the dynamic that was my in in my marriage. One of the things that didn't work was I didn't like how things would go [00:20:00] between my ex and the kids, and then I had to sort of step in and put myself in the middle of that and take the brunt of whatever conflict or control issues or whatever, put myself in the line of fire, so to speak, in order to alter the dynamic so that it It was closer to what I wanted it to be. But of course it wasn't. Then it just became about a conflict between us, which the children had to witness, which was obviously no good.

Joanna: Yeah. There was lots of that too.

Erin: Yeah. There was lots I relate to that relief of like, like, Oh my God, it's just me and you guys. And we like each other and we're going to have fun and it's going to be light and easy and there's going to be no drama. It's a gift.

Joanna: Yes exactly. And no, like fighting about who does what, because I. Would just do what needed to be done or not do it if I didn't feel like it, but I wasn't expecting someone else to do the dishes or pick up the kids clothes or whatever it was once I knew that I just had to do it. That was somehow easier.

Erin: Well, because it eliminates all that sort of friction and [00:21:00] dialogue around the thing that doesn't even have to be there.

Joanna: Yeah. And feeling like you're the director of everyone's lives, you know, which gets very old. If I don't sort of say that this thing has to be done, it won't be done.

Erin: Yeah, and then you're like, why am, why am I everybody's parent here?

Joanna: Yeah exactly. How did this happen?

Erin: And I don't think we're, you know, we have similar situations, but I think people will relate to. That feeling of being in charge of too many things. What did you feel like inside yourself when you made this big change? Because that is the most interesting thing to me to go from being a person who needed permission to say no to the thing that you had just done the commitment to marriage and then deciding okay I made my bed. That's what my mom said. I made my bed. I have to do this I'm gonna do this and I'm gonna make it look good [00:22:00] to the outside world and I'm gonna retain myself through my work I'm going to like hold on to myself because I'm going to be a writer, God fucking damn it.

No one's going to stop me, but now, okay. I'm going to give myself permission to have the full life that I want to have. How did you feel about yourself and your own agency once you took that leap?

Joanna: Well, I think I felt. I mean, I'd say the strongest feelings were two things. One was this feeling that I was finally an adult, you know, that I know that I no longer needed anyone's permission, that I had just made this decision myself. This was what I wanted.

And I think I, like a lot of women, have spent my whole life doing what other people wanted from me. And somehow, I could kind of keep all the balls in the air. Like I could do the things that everyone needed and wanted, but also through just not sleeping enough and not eating enough and not doing anything that I needed to do for myself ever, [00:23:00] like not like relaxing or having fun or doing anything.

I could keep all this balls in the air and do everything that everyone wanted, but also like write a whole novel, you know, by waking up at four in the morning. And also, by the way, supporting my family financially, like I could sort of do everything. And then suddenly there was this relief of like, okay, wait, I don't have to do what everyone wants. I'm an adult. I can decide what is important and what I want to do and what I want for myself.

I know it sounds very simple, but I really did feel like that was when I became an adult. When I became a full on grown up was when I left my first marriage and also realized that things don't have to be perfect, that things are not going to be perfect ever. And you can sort of spend your whole life treading water and trying to keep things perfect, which I had been doing and in leaving him I was sort of saying to the world this marriage that I was trying so hard to present to you as great and perfect and everything is fine [00:24:00] was not it wasn't and I'm done. And it's okay. It's okay that it wasn't perfect. It's okay that I made a mistake, a huge, huge, huge mistake. I can just admit that and move on.

That was a huge, huge life lesson that everything doesn't have to be perfect. And it's okay for people to see that things are imperfect. I think it's funny. As a person who writes memoir, I'm constantly, you know, in the room with people who chronicle their lives, which is not me necessarily. And a lot of what they're chronicling are things that are very, very messy, including things that they have messed, you know, messed up in major ways, mistakes they've made, things that are embarrassing or shameful or all sorts of stuff.

Everything from drug addiction to crime to whatever. And I've never been that person. I've always, you know, as a journalist, I [00:25:00] rarely wrote personal essays. And when I did, they were kind of a little bit more focused on things outside myself. And I really thought of myself as a fiction writer. And it was a huge lesson for me that you know, other people are out there saying like, I did this and no one is saying to them, Oh my God, how could you, you know? They're all saying like, wow, thank you for telling me this because I did the same thing. And now I feel less alone.

So in other words, it was wonderful to understand that. I don't have to be perfect. I don't have to present myself to the world as perfect. And I'm joining a huge crowd of people doing that. And then no one is really going to judge me. A few people did, but it was pretty minor. You know, in general, most people were really excited and happy for me. And for all components of it, it wasn't just that they were like, yay, [00:26:00] you're leaving a bad marriage. Yay. You're reuniting with the person you love most in the world. They were kind of like, yeah, you know, I did stupid things too when I was 26. Join the club, you know, we're in this together.

Erin: Yep. Yep. And I think when you, I mean, you are someone who presents as having it all together. And it's so incredible that you're so revealed in your writing and so vulnerable because it gives permission, just like we were talking about for other people to be like, well, actually, you know, I, I feel like maybe I fucked up or maybe like, yeah, this was a mistake that I made that I've always wanted to undo and I never felt like I could undo it.

I think the more we tell ourselves and we tell each other the truth about how we actually have felt inside these situations, the compromises that we've made, and then we are public about changing our minds and changing our [00:27:00] plans and giving ourselves the freedom to live a happier and more fulfilled life. The better off we'll all be, but it is so scary. It's so scary. And I think the fear of judgment is real. Did you have more people say to you, Oh my God, thank God, then then said, Oh, I can't believe you're doing this.

Joanna: I did. Oh, way more. I mean, I only had a very tiny number of people say, I can't believe you're doing this. In fact, it's strange, but I actually can't think of anyone. Even when I told my mom, I took her out to lunch and told her before I left, before I did anything, I was sort of figuring out logistically how to leave. And she said, 'Oh thank God.' And I was shocked. I almost started crying. And that was really all she said.

She actually, to redeem my mom, she gave me very good advice about how to leave and how to set things up with Keeril. As in, I had said I'm going to [00:28:00] leave my first husband and Keeril and I will sort of live in these two different cities for about a year and he'll get to know the kids and then after a year or so we'll, you know, we'll figure out what to do. I'll probably move to where he is. And my mom said, you've wasted all this time. You should just be together now. The kids will be fine. Kids are very resilient. He's wonderful. They'll be fine. Just be with him now. You can't waste another year.

And I was pretty shocked and I realized here again like that I think part of the reason that we had planned this kind of very very gradual careful coming together was because of fear of what people would think like that. It's okay to leave a bad marriage, but it's not okay to have an affair and leave a marriage for someone else, right?

Erin: Right, in come a whole other set of rules.

Joanna: Exactly, but I'll tell you is that, so as you mentioned, I lived in New York on the Lower East [00:29:00] Side, and I lived in a very large apartment building that my dad had grown up in. And so I knew the whole neighborhood. Like I would walk down the street and people would be like, Oh, it's Rebecca Rakoff's granddaughter, you know, and actually good amount of time before I left, some neighbors of mine took me aside and said, is everything okay? You know, we're just concerned. Things don't seem right. We've seen your husband with the kids and he seems very stressed out. And, you know, is everything okay?

And they sense that there was something wrong. They really did. And that was honestly helpful to hear. But once I did leave, really, most people were like, Oh my God, I always thought you guys. We're the strangest couple you didn't make any sense, you know, and everyone from my very close friends to people I barely knew like quasi strangers, [00:30:00] all these neighbors. That's really my point is that all these neighbors were like, Oh my God, like this never made sense to me.

Erin: And then you're like, Oh my God, they saw me the whole time. Like, they could see me and they thought things, this is my experience, they could see me, they thought things, and no one ever said anything.

For me, I was like, God, I fucking wish people had said something to me. But I also understand why they don't, you know? None of your business. Right? That's the sanctity of marriage and all that. Like, but that's the huge kindness that they did you by saying something.

Joanna: Yeah, it's so true. I know a couple of them. They really were people that I didn't know that well, but who I liked, you know, who I felt very sort of affectionate. toward. And I felt like these are people who really care and who just want to kind of see if they can help in whatever way they can.

I think it's possible that that kind of lodged itself in my brain. Let me step back and say, I think sometimes the term Gaslighting is really [00:31:00] prevalent now and my 14 year old daughter will be like, you're gaslighting me, like if I tell her that, you know, I don't know, okra is better for you than spinach. And like, she discovers it's not like, I don't know, that kind of thing.

But there's a way in which you can be gaslit in a marriage, right? And you start to feel like you're the crazy one. And maybe your partner is not consciously trying to make you feel that way, but you start to feel that way. Because you can't see outside of the institution of your marriage, like it's a house that you can't escape and see from the outside, you know, and if you stepped outside it, maybe the paint would be peeling off of it, but you can't see it. And so it's helpful to have someone from the outside be like, wait, I think the foundation is cracked. You should get that looked at.

Erin: And you're like, Oh, it is. I mean, you knew it was, but you're like, Oh, it is? Yeah. Absolutely. I want to go back to your mom for one second, because do you think that she [00:32:00] changed over the years that you were married to the point that she could then support you in making the decision that she really told you you couldn't make the day after the wedding?

Joanna: I do. I think a few separate things happened that changed my mom. One, I think had to do with her realization. That she was kind of culpable in a certain way in my making this choice to marry my first husband and also to leave Keeril. So when Keeril and I were involved, you know, in college and right after, my parents loved him, but my parents had these very dated ideas about marriage.

And Keerill is a composer. After college, he... entered a doctoral program for composition at Berkeley, which is one of the best programs in the field. And this is his [00:33:00] world. And he knew that he was going to write music, but also work as a professor and get tenure somewhere. And that was his life trajectory, which was much more organized than my life trajectory.

But my parents didn't understand this. They were first generation Americans. They were from a very different background. And they often made remarks about like, how will he ever support you? Are you gonna be a penniless wife of a musician? You know, you won't be able to have kids because he won't ever earn any money. And they would tell me these cautionary tales about my mother's friend Diana's oldest son who went to Juilliard, but then he could only make a living as a cruise ship pianist and you know, like that kind of thing.

Erin: Said with such scorn. Yeah. Judgment and scorn.

Joanna: There was a lot of judgment toward anyone who wanted to be in the arts at all and fear. And I think they were [00:34:00] afraid that I was going to marry someone who would never make money and they were going to be supporting me. And as a mother myself, I really can't imagine telling either of my daughters, don't marry this person because his financial prospects aren't good, but I think I'm much more in touch with the world as it is than my parents were in touch with the world of say like 1995, 96.

Erin: Yes. And I think it's a different It's a different economy for creative people now.

Joanna: Definitely.

Erin: There's, there's also, it sounds to me like a lack of desire to rebel on your part, too. Because you could have said to your family, this is the man I love, but one part of reading your essay was that you write about when you were with him, you couldn't write.

And that, to me, seems even bigger than anything your parents might have said. Because it almost frames things as a choice between your dreams for yourself, your ideas [00:35:00] about your own destiny, and what role love would play in your life. That it seemed like an either or proposition at the time.

Joanna: It did really feel that way. And I think when I first failed to join him in Berkeley, I wasn't 100% aware of why or what I was doing, though, I have a very distinct memory of being in Berkeley with him during this little trial period. And, um, I just finished a master's and I had work that I had to do that was late and had a paper to write and I was in this apartment and I couldn't even think like I pulled out my laptop and my legal pad. I read a lot on legal pads and I couldn't even remember what I was supposed to be working on.

And I went out to a coffee shop and there was this process of kind of trying to Think my way back into being able to even write a sentence and I just remember I have the sense memory of being in that coffee shop [00:36:00] and somehow it was as if, if I was even Keeril's world, I lost some ability to think critically and creatively.

I remember that I use the time instead to write a letter to a friend. I didn't actually work on the thing. It was only as time went by that I understood, you know, when I left and immediately, once I had my own apartment in New York, and I was able to write all the time, that I was able to admit to myself in reality that when I was with him, I couldn't work, I couldn't think, I couldn't write, and it wasn't clear why to me, it wasn't clear to me, is it because I desperately love him and I'm so attracted to him. And when I am with him, that kind of subsumes my whole personality. And that was a really horrible possibility for someone who thought of herself as a feminist. [00:37:00] I didn't want to admit that, but I sort of knew that that was the truth.

And then there was also a little part of it that I also didn't want to admit, which was that Kirill was this hugely ambitious, hugely talented person who was considered this huge star. And I was not. I was a person. I was an English major. I was in the honors program, but no one was like, you're going to change the world. Like you're a brilliant writer. No one was saying that to me. So I think there was this way in which, you know, he had this whole life planned out, this whole career planned out and he was just on that path and nothing was going to stop him. And when I was with him in Berkeley, I was just his girlfriend. I had nothing there. I didn't have a job.

But I do think, I think that I needed to be alone, psychologically alone. I needed to be in situations where I was alone with my [00:38:00] thoughts in order to figure out exactly what I wanted to do, how I wanted to do it. I did go about my career in a pretty bumbling way. I see writers in their twenties and they're so directed and that was not me. But I still, I needed to just be by myself without... the kind of encroachment of extreme love and attachment and passion in order to write that the books that I did and the million articles and essays that I did.

And maybe I needed to come to Keeril as an equal as part of it. By the time we came back together, we were of equal standing in our careers. And I think we had both done many, many years of thinking about each other and why we had split apart and how we would be if we came back together. So I think he obviously no longer thought of me as just like [00:39:00] a girlfriend, you know?

Erin: Yeah, I mean. That's the most romantic thing I've ever heard equal part of it where you're like, oh my god, we're both so amazing

Joanna: I'm amazing! That's what we do, we sit around our living room and we're like, we're amazing.

Erin: Okay, I want to ask two questions One is about passion and what it felt like to actually be in a relationship finally with someone who you're passionate about and what that feels like inside of a partnership versus a partnership where that's not at play. And then the last question that I'm asking everyone on this podcast is what is the contract in your life right now that you are ready to renegotiate?

Because I think we all have. I mean, with your marriage, you clearly renegotiated that contract. And the literal contracts of marriage.

Joanna: So passion. I mean, it's completely changed who I am. I feel like I even look like a different person. Because I have this constant [00:40:00] passion in my life. You know, I wake up every morning. And Keeril is next to me, and I feel passionately in love and attracted to him. Even when I'm arguing with him or angry at him, I still feel like I just want to rest my head on his shoulder and kiss him and just physical proximity to him, it's made me a person who is more joyful and who finds fun in unexpected places.

And then the contract negotiation thing, I love that idea. Do you want to tell me yours first?

Erin: Yeah. So in showbiz, you know, where I grew up, you make these very long and arduously negotiated deals in order to make something or even have the possibility of making something. And the lawyers get super mad if someone comes in and goes, I need to reopen [00:41:00] the deal terms. That's the thing that makes them lose their minds. They're like, we decided this. It's locked in. We're doing it this way. You agreed, you agreed. And it's like, yeah, some circumstances have changed.

And I love it as a metaphor for life. Just, you know you are allowed to go in and reopen the deal terms so this is so small but and it's a work in progress. It's not escaped this responsibility yet I fucking hate making lunches for my kids. I hate it. There's nothing I hate more. I don't know why I hate it so much. They're never satisfied. It's never what they want. They bring the lunchboxes home half full of food. I feel like I work so hard to please them, I fail. And finally I was like, guys, I hate this. I hate this. Can we renegotiate? Like, whose responsibility this is, or can I have you guys step up to this practice that has to happen five days a [00:42:00] week to either you do it, or you buy food at school, or you come with me to the grocery store, but we need to work on this because this is something I'm tolerating in my life that sucks. And so that's the process we're in right now.

Joanna: I can't believe you still make lunch with, I, when each kid hit middle school, I was like, I'm done.

Erin: We're in six. It's small, but it feels like a freedom to me to just be able to say, let me admit to this thing that is a symbol of maternal love and care. Like I don't want to do it anymore. No.

So do you have something in your life that is ripe for renegotiation? Does anything come up for you?

Joanna: Yeah, I have a bunch of things, but I think the thing that is most important is probably a contract. It relates to my whole family, but it's mostly with myself. And it has to do with my work, with writing.

And for a [00:43:00] couple of years now, I have a book that is due. It's overdue. It was supposed to be turned in in June 2020, an awesome time to be turning in an enormous creative project. And it was put on hold a couple of times, once so I could write the movie and then so I could shoot the movie and then so I could promote the movie.

I've turned in a chunk of this book, but I'm having some trouble working on it. A lot of trouble. And I think part of it has to do with the pandemic and the film to an extent, taking me away from writing every single day, like having regular hours in which I write and just kind of sitting down and working no matter what, even if I'm tired. Even if I am somewhat sick or have terrible allergies like today or what have you, I kind of fell away from that. I think because things just became really, really hard with family life. And when I would have a moment alone. I wasn't like, yeah, I want to write [00:44:00] this essay for the New York Times opinion about really difficult things. I was, I was like, no, I want to eat candy and sit in a bathtub or I want to take a walk and escape everyone. I don't want to look at a screen anymore.

And so recently, because I was under a lot of pressure to get some timely essays and, and I still am, I had to force myself to work no matter what. And it felt great. And it made me realize the extent to which writing like a lot of other practices or arts is kind of a vocation. Like there's an Italian writer named Natalia Ginsberg who has this wonderful essay, I believe it's called 'My Vocation', where she talks about how writing is a vocation, it's not a career.

And we live in a world in which the arts are considered a career, but they're not, and I think that's infected my brain, but they're not, they're a vocation. You only become a writer of literary stuff because you can't do anything else because that's how you make sense of the world. And I realized in having to sit down and [00:45:00] write this stuff and intensely work on it with editors that when I'm not doing my work, I'm not really myself. And sometimes it feels like I don't want to do it, but I need to just force myself to no matter what.

So that's the contract that I actually just in the past week renegotiated with myself. I was just on a trip. I hate working while traveling. I want to just read Vanity Fair. And I just was traveling with a child actually, but I forced myself to do a big edit while I was with him and it felt great. There was no, Oh, I wish I had just sat there and done nothing or like scrolled Instagram. It's like, that was a great use of my time.

Erin: Yeah. And that's a devotion to yourself. I mean, that's, that's a devotion to yourself and your craft and what you want to be in the world, what you want to continue to be in the world.

Joanna: It's like there, there are things you can do that make you feel energized and excited. About life and [00:46:00] about not even necessarily about yourself But it make you feel more connected to the people around you and the world around you and give you a greater understanding of the world and yourself. And then there are activities you can do that are the opposite of that that deplete you and leave you exhausted and sad. And for me work is the first one.

I know for some people it's not, but for me it is. And so I had to make that choice. And it's a hard, it's a hard choice.

Erin: So hard, but it's such a great privilege. It's such a great privilege to, to be in a place in your life where if you do do that work, you know, what's on the other side of it is opportunities to do that work and to be that person that you want to be.

Joanna: It's so true. Yes, absolutely. Yeah.

Erin: I love it. You're amazing. Thank you so much for taking all of this time. I've just really enjoyed this conversation and it's been very deep and very fun at the same time, which is my favorite. So thank you, hank you.

Joanna: You are amazing. And I love this, thank you. [00:47:00]

Erin: Thank you so much for listening to Hotter Than Ever. If you enjoyed this conversation with Joanna Rakoff, please follow the show on whatever platform you're listening to right now, and leave us a review on Apple Podcasts.

Hotter Than Ever is produced by Erica Girard and Podkit Productions. Our associate producer is Lena Reibstein. Music is by Chris Keating with vocals by Issa Fernandez.

Let's talk again next week. We're just getting started.


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