The Things You Purge and the Things That Stay: In Conversation with Brett Fletcher Lauer

“I think about the future only in the sense of dying. I don’t even mean it to be bleak—that’s just how I think of it. Anything I write comes out that way.”

Sarah Gerard is the author of the essay collection Sunshine State, a New York Times...

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Brett Fletcher Lauer and his ex-wife were newlyweds when he found out she was having an affair. A woman whom he’d never met called: “What I have to tell you,” she said, “is difficult.” So begins Lauer’s memoir, Faked Missed Connections: Divorce, Online Dating, and Other Failures, which traces that event forward and backward through Lauer’s history, to his mother’s, and his own, alcoholism; his parents’ divorce and its aftermath; and Lauer’s attempts at adult connection in a world of singlehood changed dramatically since he last entered it. The book is a hodgepodge of documentation—emails, letters, journal entries, online messages—which reads like evidence in a courtroom where the reader acts as judge. Lauer weaves them all together with sections of tight, affecting prose in which he moves back to New York from the Bay Area, contemplates suicide, is visited by a ghost, and finally begins his reemergence into the world of other people.

I visited Lauer at his apartment in Brooklyn, which he shares with his second wife, who is Ingrid in the book. Beneath the desk where he works are boxes containing dead pages from the memoir and sentimental papers from his childhood, as well as a file folder holding documents he gathered for the memoir. A poet by training—Lauer is deputy director of the Poetry Society of America and poetry editor for A Public Space, as well as the author of the collection A Hotel in Belgium—I was curious to hear about his experience writing, or rather compiling, a book-length work of prose. We began over coffee, then moved outside for a cigarette, and finally ended up back in the living room. I sat in front of the bookcase where the ghost first appeared.

Brett Fletcher Lauer:
 I don’t have many current journals, because I realized I sort of purged them all recently. I went through to see if there was anything useful, typed everything up that was at all of interest, and then I threw them all away.

Sarah Gerard: You actually threw your journals away.

BFL: I did, yeah, and I think that’s mostly because the apartment is so small and I have to look at these things and think: Am I holding onto them for sentimental reasons? Am I actually going to go and refer to them for something?

Brett gets up, goes over to desk, and pulls out a gigantic white binder.

BFL: These are all the notebooks that I purged. I went through them and looked and said, “Oh, I like that sentence,” typed that up, and threw the book away. If I’m trying to work, I’ll put this on my desk and look through it.

SG: How many years does this comprise?

BFL: This is maybe a year and a half. It has other stuff in there, too. I find this just an easier way to work. I think I construct poems rather than write poems, and I like to have a book of fragments or ideas that I started, when I’m trying to work on something new. It’s easier than looking at my handwriting in a Moleskine.

SG: Is there something pleasurable in purging your notebooks, as well?

BFL: Notebooks are working documents, and going through them is revisiting a ton of false starts, failed rough drafts, the feeling that I used to write a lot more, and lists of books I should be reading and still haven’t. But I didn’t want to be precious about these writings. I wanted to see if there was anything that didn’t make it into a poem that could be salvaged, and then move on. There were occasionally moments when I allowed myself to feel proud, if there was a draft of something that later ended up in my book of poems, and mostly that feeling of pride was a reminder about the process of writing.

SG: What about your literary estate? [laughs]

BFL: I think once I got divorced and had to move back [to New York], and lost so many things, the preciousness of a lot of things changed. I remember as a kid, I was someone who wouldn’t lend my books. They were mine, and I had them on my shelf all alphabetized. Once I lost so much stuff, I realized that these things are replaceable in a certain manner. So, when I started to move, and with my apartment being so small, I started organizing everything. I did keep sentimental journals.

He shows me several handmade notebooks from his childhood, including one that’s colored upon with magic marker and a marbled composition notebook.

BFL: These were actually for a class, in fourth grade. This would have been middle school to high school. It’s sort of one of those, “Dear Diary, I haven’t checked in in awhile.”

We laugh.

 “This has happened in the last six months that I haven’t written.” But then I found these, which are chapbooks of poems that I was making.

SG: Like ‘zines that you would give to your friends?

BFL: Probably more my family.

SG: What era is this?

BFL: This has to be sixth grade, seventh grade.

SG: And I guess you designed them on your computer?

BFL: [laughs] I guess I did. It was my dad’s computer that he had at school.

SG: I started writing on my dad’s computer, too. The first computer we ever had was in my room. That was the only place in the house where it would fit.

BFL: I had one of those Brother word processors. I don’t know if you remember those. They had a little screen, just this big. But I always used journals to write. There must be some from that era—because I didn’t throw anything out from that period. I only threw stuff out that was five years old [or more]. I wasn’t going through journals from ten years ago to see if there was anything I wanted to use.

SG: In Fake Missed Connections, you go back pretty far. You bring in letters that you wrote to your family, letters they wrote to you.

BFL: Yes, and that stuff’s different because it’s all sentimental, family stuff. It’s not my creative work. Whereas, I don’t know that I would—just besides that they’re funny looking—have kept these. These are more like true diaries—they’re not creative work. I have sentimental attachment to that, but I don’t know if I would keep something where I was trying to write a poem.

SG: Lately, I’ve been thinking about how I mine my life for material, and how it gets transmuted into my work. It’s not always a pleasant experience.

BFL: I guess I feel like [Fake Missed Connections] was my one chance to do it, and I did it. Anything else isn’t going to make the cut at this point.

SG: Where did you start pulling material for the book?

BFL: A lot of it was email. I started probably with that, because I think at the time I switched over from Hotmail to Gmail.

We laugh.

BFL: And so, I was looking at all of those emails, and I sort of set them aside thinking, “Oh, this is interesting, that I have all of that.” Rarely, in a moment of your life, do you have the full correspondence of everything that happened. Everything that I wanted to say, or that was said to me, I had, because we didn’t have those conversations in person. And then, I knew that I had things from my father and my brother because, having moved and packed things, I knew I kept all those letters. As I was writing, I went back to some of these journals to see if I could find something from that time period that would fit into the book. This journal is probably the journal I was keeping as [the divorce] was happening.

He hands me a small, black, hardcover Moleskine.

SG: Were you talking to yourself in that moment or were you talking to a future version of yourself?

BFL: I definitely was conscious of someday needing it, but was also [just] needing to keep track. There was so much information that was coming in, and it was so sudden. There was so much I didn’t know about what happened or how long the relationship had, or the nature of the affair. But then, every time there was a conversation, or an email, or an interaction, there was more information that confused what I was trying to figure out. I mean, I don’t think I was recording it in the sense of, “This is great material.” But I was definitely working through, “Could I have foreseen any of this? Were there signs of this that I was oblivious to?” Trying to think about that. Moments that I was reflecting on that now had a different light, that I was writing about.

SG: It must feel like a long time ago.

BFL: I can’t remember lots of details from that time. Even happy details, details from when we were in New York and were happy. So, that’s one of the other reasons, when all of this started happening, that I just started writing in my journal: to remember. Because I wanted to be able to say, basically, “You’re not crazy,” or, “You tried this,” or, “This person said this.” So that I could have some kind of record, emotional record, of how I was feeling. The relationship that I had previous also ended with that person having an affair, and I knew that I didn’t remember anything about it, so I wanted, the second time this was happening, to be able to articulate what was going on. I was also by myself. I had some friends, but I wasn’t really with them all the time. Or I was waiting for [my wife] to come back. So, that was my way of talking to myself. But, I knew I had it all, and I think not until I started dating again did I think that it might be a story. I don’t think I ever would have just said, “I’m going to write about my divorce.”

SG: Why not?

BFL: Probably because it didn’t seem like enough, or it felt like everybody has that story, and that even though I had the letters—what’s interesting to me is the form of the story, or how memory works—I don’t think I would have felt like [I had] enough, or that anybody needs to read—

SG: What do you mean “how memory works?”

BFL: Well, I would have never tried to write a story without those letters because I wouldn’t have felt comfortable trying to sit down and close my eyes and remember all of that again, and then accurately represent it. I felt like, because I had those moments already, because I had primary documents of those moments, that there was more truthfulness in it than if I was to reinvent it. That’s important to me: with all of the emails and correspondence, instead of me trying to say, “This woman I dated said this to me,” to actually have a version of what she said to me.

SG: You’re writing your own history and need to verify your facts.

BFL: Exactly, and I don’t trust myself. If I were writing without those [primary documents], I would have gotten things wrong and changed things because it sounded better. So, to have that as the format to write around was, especially because I write poetry and I don’t write prose, something that gave me the courage. It was important that, if I’m writing my own story, it wasn’t just my version. You know, my brother’s letters are in there, to me, my father’s talking about me, these people I’m dating have all these bad things to say about me, and nice things to say about me, and I’m not saying them myself, so it’s not like, “Oh, this person thought I was so great, we had a great time together.” It’s like, actually, here are the transcripts of our time together.

SG: What do you think the manner in which the story is told reveals about the story itself?

BFL: I sort of wanted the reader to come to her own conclusion about the primary documents—to be like, “Here’s all my emails, here’s all my letters, this is the framework of the story, you sort it out.” Obviously I didn’t do that, and it would be a less interesting book if I were to do that. But I wanted people to be a little bit involved in judging me. That it wasn’t, “Here is my word on everything and this is how it went.” Because I still have questions about all of that.

SG: Was anything illuminated for you, about yourself?

BFL: Maybe my dating patterns, how I interacted with people. I mean, that’s a little bit embarrassing to read over. Even though I feel like I didn’t do anything horrible—I’m comfortable with myself as a person, but I definitely was dating a lot of people and unavailable for them, and that was unfair and selfish. I feel bad about that. It’s illuminating to think that, yeah, as a person, I was not only capable of that, but that’s how I interacted for a period of time.

SG: You had to generate original material for this book, to hang everything together. Did you find it interesting how your thinking had changed over time? You were now having to write about these experiences from a new perspective.

BFL: I thought about [the story] much more matter-of-factly. I didn’t start writing it when I was in an unhappy place, so I wasn’t dwelling on trying to get revenge—there were none of those motives at all. I wouldn’t want to write that kind of book. There was no cruelty. The stuff with my mom: I have twenty years on that. I’ve been to therapy about that. I can tell that story to a stranger in the checkout line. Telling the story through my mom, I started writing fake letters, and that was very helpful because I didn’t have to write [the story] like a novel; I’m writing it like a direct address and I can move freely around in the letter because that’s what one does in a letter—they don’t have to say everything.

 I was reading some of your poetry today and in one of your poems, you describe a piece of the sun breaking off and falling to Earth as an artifact. I wonder if artifacts, or if what makes an artifact, is something that you thought about while you were writing this book, in terms of fixing an event in time.

BFL: I think of all of those things as artifacts, everything that’s in the book in that way, especially because some of those things happened so long ago. For instance, writing about being Hare Krishna, or having a drinking problem—those things happened … I was eighteen at the most. So, we’re talking about almost twenty years ago. I just don’t feel as connected to who that person was. It’s sort of part of your own mythology or your own story of who you were and how you became who you are today. I mean, I have Krishna things around my house, and they’re in my life in some kind of way, but not really. It’s not some kind of identifying thing. They seem like they’re of another period.

SG: It’s interesting that in a memoir about your divorce you would travel so far back.

BFL: I think of it in some ways as all of my failures to communicate or figure out who I am.

SG: It’s a memoir of all of your failures to communicate?

BFL: Well, not “all.” [laughs] But there’s sort of three primary [storylines]—there’s my mother, my ex-wife, and then there’s these future relationships. I think my mother is a large part, hovering over both of those, and that a lot of the childhood acting out is in relationship to my own parents’ relationship and their divorce, and my estrangement from my mom, and trying to find who I was in the world. I really wanted to fit those things in. I hope they connect in the story, but they were really important for me to write about, and also might provide a counterpoint to something that seems very domestic. I mean, it’s not a memoir about chewing my arm off in a ditch to survive; the events are pretty standard. A lot of people have experienced similar events. It had to be really about how I told it.

SG: You must have been interested also, as a writer, in the things you could do with this new form. I can see how you would want to explore its limitations.

BFL: In selecting what letters or emails to reprint, I was certainly paying attention to both narrative elements and the rhythm, pacing, and writing in general. For instance, I’m sure there were plenty of IMs that were the equivalent of “Sup” but there were also many that felt very charged and active and linguistically interesting, especially in the gaps in what was said between two people, and a history of interaction is taken for granted. Maybe that is close to how I think of some gaps and leaps in poems as well. It was really hard writing prose. It’s just so different. I was like, “Okay, do I have to describe everyone?” I’ve never taken a class. All of those things like: “How do you get a person into a room and out of a room? Are we supposed to sit down and have a meal? How much description do I have to provide?” Really struggling to…

SG: Make a scene?

BFL: Yeah, exactly. In the poetry that I write, that’s not necessary.

SG: You also have, in prose, the element of time, which you don’t necessarily have in poetry.

BFL: Also, editing prose: I don’t know how anyone does that. I mean, I did, but you have to reread 60,000 words. If I’m working on a poem, two pages, three pages at the most.

SG: As a poet writing a book-length work of nonfiction for the first time, and especially a work that culls together various forms of writing, did you feel the need to refer to other writers who had done this before?

BFL: In very initial drafts of the book, I think I was trying to recreate the feeling of reading the diaries or letters of someone. I very much had Kafka’s Letter to My Father in mind—a forty-plus-page letter, which was never read by his father, and is a model for my letters to my mother in my book. But I was actively avoiding reading any books, memoirs or novels that were similar in form or content to what I was writing. I worried my own insecurity would cause me to be discouraged by how well-crafted something similar was, and that it would be more of a hang-up than an inspiration. And then additionally, as I was figuring it out on my own, I didn’t want to be consciously or unconsciously derivative of work I admired. There were books like Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, and Shela Heti’s How Should a Person Be? that I just placed on my shelf and knew I would read at a certain point.

SG: Did you come to writing by poetry?

BFL: Yeah, I was the high school county laureate of my town! That was what I always wanted to do. I don’t think I ever thought that I would write prose. I’ve always worked in poetry. I went to school for poetry.

SG: In your poetry, you also tend to explore very close, personal relationships.

BFL: Yes, but I can always be like, “The narrator…” [laughs] You have a lot more distance. There was a review that came out [of Fake Missed Connections], one of those Kirkus reviews, and it wasn’t great and it wasn’t bad. It was just talking about my book like: plot, description, and, “Lauer, an alcoholic…” It was just so weird, because they’re talking about me.

SG: You put yourself out there in a memoir whereas you can mask yourself in a poem.

BFL: I imagine with your novel, people come up to you who have had experiences with anorexia.

SG: All the time, and I’m pretty straightforward about writing autobiographically. It can feel odd to have someone approach me, though, because I’m not necessarily the woman in the book. I’ve been abstinent for a long time.

BFL: It’s subject matter that, after a reading when someone comes up to you, is maybe not subject matter you want to talk about.

SG: It can be difficult. After trauma, we tend to want to close the door on that experience. Writing about a traumatic experience can feel very similar.

BFL: Writing [Fake Missed Connections] wasn’t about reentering that space to feel those feelings. It was more about, “How does this work in how I’m telling this story?” I think it was probably really strange for Gretchen, my wife, because she’s read the book 900 times, to help me with it. It was a really strange way for her to know everything that’s happened in my life. After it got accepted for publication, rereading it was less about my own feelings and more about portraying real people.

SG: And you had to get their permission.

BFL: I had to get their permission for anything that I was reprinting. So, with my ex-wife, really early on, I realized I was not going to be asking her to reprint any of her emails. It just wasn’t going to happen for a lot of reasons. So, I don’t quote anything from her, but all of the people I dated, I had to write to recently, in the last year, and ask for permission. About half the people said yes and half the people said no. I had to cut a section that I really liked because that person had a lot of their emails in there, and she just felt it was too much. I totally understand. All of my emails [to people I dated] were like, “I know this is totally weird. If you feel at all uncomfortable, just let me know. I won’t include it.”

 You put a lot of stock in good writing. But in emails, people aren’t always at their most articulate. We’re either lazy with our writing or we’re conscious that in a moment, someone is going to read what we’ve written, and that may cause us to be more guarded. Whereas in a notebook, you can maintain the illusion that it will never be read, and can write more candidly. You’re combining these two styles.

BFL: I was thinking about this the other day. I don’t know if you remember when people really wrote emails? I don’t get emails that are more than a paragraph long at this point.

SG: No, it’s annoying if they’re longer.

We laugh.

BFL: Luckily, most of the emails I’m reprinting are ones that I was really thinking about because they were either written for someone that I was trying to date—so I was trying to impress them—or they were for my ex-wife, and the nature of that relationship was so fraught that wanting to say everything and say it perfectly and express all of my emotions, I had given some thought to. I’m not embarrassed by any of that. I really love the letters from my father to me, and from my brother to me. I mean, they’re just casual letters.

SG: Your dad is very honest about his feelings and his fatherly concerns for you.

BFL: Absolutely, and those are first-draft letters. Those aren’t typed or anything. I think what’s interesting is that we didn’t communicate as a family face-to-face that way. Those weren’t things that we were saying at the kitchen table to each other. So, there was always a moment or an occasion where it was like, “Okay, I’ll say the fatherly things or the brotherly things that I need to say.” And that might also be because, as a kid I would have been like, “Shut up!” or cried or something. It might have been that they were trying to give me a letter that I would read and listen to, rather than trying to express it in a way where I might get upset or act out.

SG: You strike me as somebody who thinks a lot about time, your own time and time on a grand scale. It comes up in your poetry a lot, actually.

BFL: I think about history a lot, and I also think about religious time. Everything that I read, that is nonfiction, is probably historical: world history or literary time periods. I think I have a very distinct awareness of the time of my life, and of different versions of myself at certain times, and wanting to have a more constant, stable version of myself. But also, a personal history of the time of my family, and my own growth during that period of time, is something I think about. It’s also, as far as poetry, just such a big idea, that a lot can surround it when you’re writing. One of the things that I think about a lot is death. That has to do with time, too.

SG: I wonder how much you think about the future, because you’ve spent a lot of time, as a writer, in the past.

BFL: I think about the future only in the sense of dying. I don’t even mean it to be bleak—that’s just how I think of it. Anything I write comes out that way.

SG: What do you mean, “Anything you write comes out that way?”

BFL: Comes out of thinking about death.

SG: Anything you write?

BFL: Almost everything in some capacity. It’s like writing and thinking about what the most inevitable thing is. It’s not a fear of dying or missing loved ones or anything. It’s just a constant thinking of coming to terms with the fact that at any moment, or at any time … I don’t feel bleak about it. It’s not something I talk about. I don’t have those kinds of conversations. It’s just always in the back of my mind.

SG: The only thing you can be sure of.

BFL: I think maybe that’s it, yeah.

SG: Does it seem silly to fantasize about what might happen before then?

BFL: It seems like a fantasy. Because everything that happens before then is speculative. I’m not speculating how I’ll die. It’s not like, “Will my loved ones be at my bedside?” It’s just more that, this body will stop, and that’s all I know. I think even, in the memoir, there’s that section with the ghost, and I’m having all these suicidal thoughts, and it’s like, “It doesn’t matter. I’m going to die whether I do it or not, so why bother even expending the energy [committing suicide]?”

SG: Can you tell me about the ghost again?

BFL: I hesitate to talk about the ghost becau—

SG: I love ghost stories.

BFL: I love ghost stories, too, and I really want to believe, but I still have a five percent, “Maybe that didn’t happen? Maybe I’m crazy and I was upset and I visualized something?” But it was just here. Right there in that spot.

Brett points over my shoulder, at the bookshelf behind me.

SG: Really? Right here?

BFL: Three nights in a row. Actually, I did see something over Gretchen when she was sleeping once, too. I was wide-awake for that. It was a presence, a shadow. That’s what I mean: I wish something had happened, like someone had said my name, or there was movement, you know? It was really just a figure. Good friends of mine who have ghost stories just have a few more details, to make it seem like, “Of course you saw a ghost.” They went downstairs and the innkeeper was like, “That’s the room in which Maggie killed herself!” [laughs] So, maybe I didn’t, but everything in my body told me that’s what it was. It wasn’t threatening at all. It was actually kind of reassuring.

SG: How was it reassuring?

BFL: It was reassuring to say, “Death is inevitable. There’s nothing you can do to yourself that—life’s just going to take care of that.” The ultimate act of taking your own life, that’s going to happen eventually, anyway. You don’t have to do that.

SG: How did you meet Gretchen?

BFL: Online. We met on a dating site.

SG: Is she in the memoir?

BFL: She’s Ingrid.

SG: Is she comfortable with how she’s portrayed in the book?

BFL: It’s funny, in multiple drafts, right up until the end, they [Soft Skull Press] were telling me that I needed to put more of her in there. I was okay with the book ending—I didn’t want a happy, “And then I met my future wife! Ta-da, you can close the book and we can all feel good.”

SG: You didn’t want a clean resolution.

BFL: No, I did not. Is that something we’re supposed to have in books like this?

We laugh.

SG: I didn’t want that, either, but I knew that not including one would be an unpopular choice. Still, I didn’t want to maintain this delusion of girls with eating disorders just shaping up and eating right.

BFL: Well, my stakes are much lower in telling this story, but I agree. “Oh, you have this really traumatic divorce and you thought this person was the one, and then you date and you find the next one, and that’s how life is?” No, I wasn’t comfortable with that. I was trying to end on a hopeful note rather than a feeling of resolution: It’s hopeful with my mother—but also, just because it’s hopeful with my mother and that might be some kind of resolution, doesn’t mean that when you close the book, that’s the end of the story. I had conversations [with Soft Skull Press] about how much [of Gretchen] I was willing to put in, and how much they wanted, and I think they were right. The book is pretty sad, maybe generically sad: divorce, thinking of suicide, these dating things. To have a breath of fresh air, I think, at the end of the book, is a good thing. To have that hopeful note.

Paper Trail is a monthly column exploring the relationship between artists and their journals.


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