I never had a dream of being a writer. I wrote and edited for my school newspaper, and I churned out beefy research papers that would be the pride of any academic. But I was never the image of the passionate author. I was never Jo from Little Women, sitting in the attic and scratching out chapter after chapter until the sun came up. (With the exception of a brief fanfiction phase I had in early high school. To this day I still pray that no one will dig up that shameful skeleton.)
So to find myself with a genuine book contract from an established publisher was surprising, to say the least. I don’t remember who it was who planted the seed in me in the first place--a friend, a partner, a stranger trying to flatter me--but I somehow got the hare-brained idea that writing a book is something that I should do. Even so, that first step wasn’t without its hurdles. I spent months tackling self-imposed resistance and challenging my inner belief that no one actually wanted to read what I had to write. I educated myself about the world of publishing, literary agents, and book proposals--all brand-new information for me.
It took six months to finalize a book proposal, two more months to sign with a literary agent, and then another month before I got my first publishing offer. Compared to the pace of the average budding writer’s career, this was akin to going from zero to breaking the sound barrier in 10 seconds. (Or at least, it felt that way.) After I signed my publishing contract, I was hit with a moment of shock that crushed all the butterflies of excitement. “Oh, shit,” I thought. “Now I have to actually write a book.”
I’m happy to say that eight months later, I handed over to my editor a hulking, 350-page manuscript, the result of blood, sweat, tears, and my now-deteriorated eyesight. I fully understood why I had always looked at this process with awe and intimidation. The difference was that now I was on the other side of it, with appreciation, and a lot of exhaustion.
These are the things I learned.
Most relationship books for women are terrible.
As I was putting together my book proposal, I extensively researched what kind of relationship books were floating around in the popular psyche. If you type “relationship book for women” into Amazon, these are the top results:
Never Chase Men Again: 38 Dating Secrets To Get The Guy, Keep Him Interested, And Prevent Dead-End Relationships
The Power of the Pussy - How to Get What You Want From Men: Love, Respect, Commitment and More!: Dating and Relationship Advice for Women
Ignore the Guy, Get the Guy: The Art of No Contact
Men Don't Love Women Like You: The Brutal Truth About Dating, Relationships, and How to Go from Placeholder to Game Changer
If reading these titles doesn’t turn your stomach, then you should probably be reading a different blog right now. These titles paint a picture of desperation, of confusion, of countless women at the end of their rope. Men don’t fare much better, with The Game, and countless other pick-up artist titles shooting to the top of the search results.
The dating and relationship books that are best sellers promise hacks and cheat codes. Simple steps to get what it is you want from the other sex: the most useful phrases in "man-language" that you need to know in order to get through to him; the right formula and rituals to apply in order to win the game. Because that is how we view it: as a game, with rules, secrets, winners, and losers.
If there’s anything that I learned from reading these titles, it’s that the people who “win” the game of dating and relationships are the people who are the most brutal, the most manipulative, and, ironically, the most heartless. I lost a little bit of my faith in humanity during this research phase, but it strengthened my resolve to write a book that would encourage people to at least be human beings to each other.
The poly internet is straight-up embarrassing.
Much of my writing process involved scouring the internet for polyamory resources--blogs, forums, articles, etc. Not only did they serve as inspiration when I wasn’t sure how to tackle a particular angle, but they also helped populate a “recommended resources” section for people who wanted to learn more. The poly community now benefits from a growing number of innovative writers, thinkers, and content creators, which is great!
What is not great is that website design doesn’t appear to be a strong suit among this set. The current state of the poly internet suggests that a bunch of aging hippies and swingers learned how to build websites in 1995 and then got stuck there. If you are browsing the internet for solid polyamory resources, you are sure to have your eyeballs tortured with a barrage of animated gifs, noisy and repeating background images, terrible color schemes, mismatched fonts, broken links, and a cornucopia of mid-'90s HTML, all crammed into one page. I’ve seen template-based monstrosities that would make the original designers of those template platforms cry bitter tears. And these are not sites that belong to some yahoo who just started blogging. These sites belong to respected members of the poly community, official non-profits, long-running events and meet-ups, and established educators, activists, and speakers.
Now, I have to be careful here. The poly internet is a tightly connected and relatively small community, and bashing the efforts of other people is not good sportsmanship, as it were. So I’ll refrain from putting particular websites on blast (though hopefully you know who you are, and shame on you).
Putting together a modern, attractive, easily navigable site is not the easiest of tasks. Website design trends and technology change at a rapid pace, and it’s difficult to keep up. It requires time, effort, a modicum of technological know-how, or the resources to hire somebody who does have those all those things to do it for you. But the poly movement is still desperately seeking recognition and acceptance. Say what you like about millennials, but we are collectively embarrassed and skeptical of any site that claims to be reputable, yet looks like something your mom cobbled together to promote your little league team.
I developed multiple personalities, each of them uniquely annoying.
Anne Lamott, in her famous tome Bird by Bird, says of the writing process:
Your mental illnesses arrive at the desk like your sickest, most secretive relatives. And they pull up chairs in a semicircle around the computer, and they try to be quiet but you know they are there with their weird coppery breath, leering at you behind your back.
Undertaking this project meant I got to meet all of these distant, forgotten relatives. Every time I sat down to write, my mental resources were rarely taxed by wondering what to write about for that session, or puzzling over how I might format a particular section. Instead, my mind was overloaded with the inner voices of self-doubt, negativity, and criticism. I questioned why I was even writing. I could see everything that was imperfect. It was obvious that the majority of readers would be pissed off or offended by my glaring ignorance. These were the thoughts that I had to beat back and silence every time I sat down, in order to get at least something written. It drained my energy and turned my shoulders into knots.
And that’s when Moody Author Dedeker would come out to play.
Before I knew it, I was snapping at anyone who dared to exist near me while I was writing. (90% of the time, this was Jase. Sorry, Jase.) I became fussy and demanding. I needed a comfortable chair, climate control, an excess of personal space, and peace and quiet. Not having these things made it nearly impossible to be productive. I suddenly resonated with the vice-laden habits of Bukowski and Hemingway. I tried it for myself, but, lightweight that I am, I could only consume maybe half of an adult beverage before I wouldn’t be able to focus at all.
The only method I found for coping with Moody Author Dedeker was to make sure there was nothing and no one in her path. I took to isolating myself whenever it was time to write. It helped with my productivity, and also really let me hear the churning and gnashing of all my neuroses loud and clear.
When Moody Author Dedeker had to actually function in society and interact with others, I swapped her out for Know-It-All Dedeker. Know-It-All Dedeker was only barely more functional, as any conversation that had even the remotest connection to relationships, sexuality, non-monogamy, or anything else that I was writing about became a one-sided knowledge dump. Exempli gratia:
Person: I just watched Dances with Wolves for the first time. That Kevin Costner guy is really--
Me: YES NATIVE AMERICAN CULTURES ARE FASCINATING DID YOU KNOW THAT THE HURON INDIANS PRACTICED NON-MONOGAMY AND DISPLAYS OF JEALOUSY WERE FROWNED UPON AND ALSO THE LAKOTA SIOUX SWAPPED WIVES ALL THE TIME BUT ONLY WITH THEIR BESTIES AND THAT REALLY PISSED OFF THE CHRISTIAN MISSIONARIES ISN’T THAT INTERESTING BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH I KNOW STUFF
Needless to say, Know-It-All Dedeker did not endear herself to many people.
In the leftover space between these two assholes arose the personality I've come to think of as Normal Human Dedeker. Normal Human Dedeker is baffled by most of this. She doesn't know why people ask her questions about relationships, because she feels like she is making mistakes in her own relationships all the time. As a matter of fact, Normal Human Dedeker has gone so far as to wonder, “I just keep having these communication breakdowns with this person. Wait! Moody Author Dedeker was just writing about communication! Better not bother her... What would Know-It-All Dedeker do in this situation?”
You heard it here first, folks. Writing a book taught me that it may be time for a padded room.
It’s impossible to cover everything.
Human relationships cover a broad spectrum, because human beings themselves cover a broad spectrum. Every interpersonal relationship is the mixture of each individual’s strengths, weaknesses, neuroses, past baggage, dreams of the future, sexual expression, ephemeral interests, and personal growth. Every relationship is as unique as the people who participate in them.
That’s why it’s difficult to write a relationship book that has any kind of solid guarantee. You can’t follow 10 easy steps to finding your soulmate, or apply a magic formula that will solve the fundamental problems in your communication (though plenty of people have tried to write books like these, and plenty of people continue to buy them).
Even when you narrow the scope to the relatively niche practice of polyamory, it is still difficult to pin down. Let’s take a look at something basic: the definition of polyamory itself. At first, it would seem simple. Poly = many/multiple, and amory = love, so therefore:
Polyamory: having multiple loves
“But wait!” Cry some people sitting in the back. “Anyone can have multiple loves. I can love many family members or many friends or many different kinds of food. Polyamory is specifically about having multiple, simultaneous romantic relationships, not just having many loves.”
Okay. Fair enough. Let’s make it more specific.
Polyamory: having multiple, simultaneous romantic relationships
“But wait!” Some other people cry. “Plenty of people have multiple relationships, but they don’t do it the right way. They lie, or cover it up. That’s cheating, not polyamory.”
Alright, that is true. So we’ll make it more specific.
Polyamory: having multiple, simultaneous romantic relationships, with full knowledge and consent of everyone involved
“But wait!” Cry the swingers. “We’ve been doing this for a long time. Sometimes our outside relationships are deep and romantic, and sometimes they are just fun and sexual. Where do we fit in?”
Okay, okay, calm down. I’ll try again.
Polyamory: having multiple, simultaneous romantic, sexual relationships, with the full knowledge and consent of everyone involved
“But wait!” Cry the asexuals. “We don’t have an interest in sex, but we do have an interest in getting lots of love! How can you define a relationship just based on whether or not you’re having sex?”
I didn’t even think about that. How about this?
Polyamory: having multiple, simultaneous, romantic relationships (often, but not always sexual in nature), with the full knowledge and consent of everyone involved
“But wait!” Cries yet another concerned party, to which I respond by saying, “Fuck this,” slamming my laptop shut, and leaving to play video games.
This simple exercise in trying to pin down even a basic definition of polyamory is indicative of the bigger problem I kept running into the entire time I was writing the book. Many different kinds of people take part in the polyamory community, and writing advice aimed at one group is sure to alienate, confuse, or piss off the other groups. And this is a phenomenon that echoes a bigger dynamic present in the polyamorous community at large. Some people within the polyamorous community complain that the community itself might be a little too easy to take offense, too quick to criticize, and too sensitive when receiving criticism. Even when talking about polyamory itself, the community struggles to find a definition that strikes the right balance between inclusive and exclusive.
* * *
That said, these aren't the only things that I learned from tackling this book. Interviewing polyamorous women of all ages, from all walks of life, from across the globe, gave me fascinating and surprising insight into the non-monogamous feminine experience. So many women shared with me their triumphs, their heartbreaks, their struggles, and their joys, enough to fill far more than just one book. Learning from them and telling their stories kept me coming back to the grind every single day. Which, at the end of the day, made going a little crazy absolutely worth it.