@

I’m the opposite of a hoarder. I give or throw away things a bit too easily. A favorite skirt and T-shirt among bags of donations, my wedding ring with a pile of junky jewelery, expensive pieces of furniture. While a hoarder avoids a decision about an item by keeping it, I avoid the decision by giving it away.

Not so with stories.

* * *

I paid a long visit to Bittertown this winter.

In his memoir, Half a Life, Darin Strauss describes the treatment for Complicated Grief Disorder:

[T]herapists force patients to relive the details of the death, making them repeat the minutiae of their pain into a tape recorder in front of an analyst. The patient then replays this tape – this doting agony chronicle – at home every day. . . .It’s not about making the tape, or listening to the tape. It’s about possession, about having the story in one place. “The goal is to show that grief, like the tape, can be picked up and put away,” [a New York Times article] said.

It’s a little like Buddhism (at least according to the very little I know). Imagine your grief is your hand; trying to smash it down expends effort; moving it is easier; it’s part of you but you can control it. But whereas in Buddhism, you’d release your grief and leave it behind you – your hand would become once again, just your hand – putting away that tape means keeping that tape. Keeping your grief. For writers, Strauss says, our books are our tapes.

No wonder being a writer is one of the most depressing jobs in America.

* * *

In 2004, my husband had an affair. Had an affair and got the woman pregnant. Just like John Edwards. I haven’t written too much about it here. I’m not sure why. Maybe because I blab all about it elsewhere on the internet, or maybe because now, more than a year after I’ve started writing TNB, I feel like I know people here. And for me it’s always been harder to tell difficult things to people I know than to faceless strangers.

Anyway, so this is what my memoir is about. This and our whole relationship. Twelve years. A full Chinese zodiac cycle.

At the time of Joe’s affair, I could only write fragments in my journal:

July 3, 2004: Joe did the most terrible thing. I don’t know what to do.

July 8, 2004: Didn’t sleep again.

July 11, 2004: Felt better this morning but now I feel awful again.

Six months later, I could only write about it in third person.  It was only about a year later, after I finally decided to leave, that I could write about it fully, from my own point of view.

* * *

“This can’t be good for you,” a guy I dated for a (very) short time once said of my memoir writing.

I shrugged, but inside, resented his comment.  One, I wasn’t some delicate flower who could be undone by the mere act of writing. And two, I wasn’t the one who still cried when talking about my breakup, who was so anxious to be friends with my ex that I fell into a depression when an outing soured. I cried enough while it was happening, and I had no desire to be friends with my ex. I didn’t need to prove that I was over him or that I was “grown up.”

In fact, I needed to be far away enough from what happened in order to write about it well.  To see my life as a story and myself as a character.  I needed the grief to be outside instead of in.  My hand, you could say, instead of my heart.

But while I certainly haven’t fallen apart while writing (and revising and rewriting) my memoir, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bring up those old feelings of anger, resentment, and bitterness.

Paying a visit to Bittertown.  Even after you leave, you still smell like it.

* * *

This winter I rewrote my memoir again, taking advantage of NaNoWriMo (and part of December) to flesh out the parts of the book that I had rushed over, and I was surprised to find that unlike with revising, as I rewrote I was plunged deep back into my past life, even more so, it seemed, than the first time I wrote about it.

I was 21 again and falling in love. I was in China. I was with someone for whom nothing was good enough. My parents were worried. I was hiding something terrible from them.

Even after I stopped writing, my head was still back there.  I started to think my boyfriend Alex was like my ex (he’s not). I wanted to go to China again. I was furious again at my brother-in-law’s fiancee for telling me I should wear more makeup, for thanking me like a servant for helping my own ailing mother-in-law, for getting the bigger engagement ring, for snubbing my parents at a party because they were merely Chinese and not Korean.

When I talked to my mom, I worried that she was worried, and was surprised to find that she wasn’t, that she sounded happy, and I remembered that I was no longer with someone she hated.

For some reason, that same rage and hatred towards my ex and his mistress didn’t come up again. Maybe because my anger and hurt were so intense at the time that when it was all over, I had nothing left. Or rather, I simply couldn’t continue living with that rage, if I wanted to survive.

As for the other sections, why was this time different? Maybe because I’m in a relationship now. (My crazy is less obvious when I’ve no one to bounce it off of.) Maybe because those conflicts were never resolved. I never told my ex I felt nothing I did was good enough though I did let loose my fury at his betrayal. I never got into it with my brother-in-law’s wife the way I did with the mistress – calling and hanging up several nights a week, screaming messages on her machine, and one live phone call (Me: “Did you keep the baby?” Her: “Yes.”).

Maybe because it’s been a while since I looked this closely at the memoir. Maybe because in rewriting an already finished thing, I’m fiddling with something already alive. A jiggly green alien blob if you will, that out of nowhere scurries up the stick I’m poking it with, over my arm, and onto my face.

I’m glad to say that as I finished each section, I was able to shake the resentment blob. I booted 21-year old me to the curb. I quickly lost the desire to return to China (in fact I dreamed that I got a teaching job with the same school, then realized I really didn’t want to go back), and couldn’t care less about the woman who was my sister-in-law for a mere two years.

* * *

But remnants of the bitterness remained.

Or I’d like to think so. I’d like to think I can blame the rewriting of the memoir, the whole reliving the past process.

Because I got jealous. Over some woman. Who I don’t even know.

A writer. A successful writer. A successful writer who, quote, oh my god, never wrote before! and was a lawyer for 10 years! and decided one day, what the heck! she was gonna write a best-selling novel! and guess what! three months later she had an agent! and a well-accepted novel that’s making all the top 10 year end lists! and who is Chinese American! and lives in San Francisco! and is not me!

HOORAY!

Yeah.

Bittertown: I’m baaaaaack.

And eating chocolate cake. In my pajamas. Followed by Doritos.

I know I shouldn’t care what other writers are doing, beyond work that inspires me. I know I should just read this author and be inspired by her work, her story. Or I should I realize her story is bullshit, or at least that she is the exception and not the rule, just like every couple who meets by chance, whose hands touch while reaching for the same book, or who get their nonfat chai lattes mixed up, or who see each other across a crowded subway car and know, just know, they’re listening to the same song on their iPods – I know all of that is only the stuff of romantic comedies created to fuck with our heads.

I should remember the quote I saw on a girl’s tote bag on the bus: Jealousy does the opposite of what you want. I should remind myself it’s okay to feel this. (It’s my hand. I can move it. I can let it punch me in the face, or I can let it feed me cookies.) It’s okay to wallow for a day or two. But then I have to let it go.

* * *

Bittertown is a difficult place to visit. There are bad memories and old worries at every turn. The residue of insecurity. And don’t forget those alien blob things. But it’s also familiar. It’s that damaged yet well-known relationship. It’s what kept me from leaving my marriage for almost a year. Do I stay and make do with this awful familiarity, or leave and enter the – possibly more awful – unknown?

Well, I think it’s time to pack my bags. To leave and visit a new place, tell a new story. It’s time to give the tape away, once and for all.

TAGS: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Angela Tung A long-time New Yorker, ANGELA TUNG is a writer in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in CNN Living, The Frisky, Dark Sky Magazine, Matador Life, The New York Press and elsewhere. Her Young Adult novel, Song of the Stranger, was published by Roxbury Park Books.

Her latest book, Black Fish: Memoir of a Bad Luck Girl, chronicles the failed marriage between a Chinese woman and Korean man, both American-born but still bound by old world traditions. Black Fish was short-listed for Graywolf Press' 2010 Nonfiction Prize.

In addition, she's a writer/editor at Wordnik.com, an online word source, and has an MA in Creative Writing from Boston University. Visit her at angelatung.com.

44 responses to “Paying a Visit to Bittertown”

  1. Gloria says:

    My crazy is less obvious when I’ve no one to bounce it off of. I think this is true – for all of us. And I think that, like mixing paint, two people can color each other different shades of crazy and sometimes it’s an ugly, ugly color. So, yes, it’s up to each of us to control our own bullshit, blah, blah, blah. But I totally agree that certain people and certain situations can make you more of a lunatic than others. I hated the me that I was when I was with Him. I love the me that I am now. More importantly, I like her/me. Am I less crazy? Probably not. But thank god I don’t have to bounce it off of Him anymore.

    Reading even that brief exchange between you and the mistress was like a punch in the gut. Wow.

    Does chocolate cake even go with Doritos? That sounds like a bellyache!

    And now I have “Funkytown” stuck in my head, only it’s being replaced by “Bittertown.”

    Won’t you take me to…
    Bitter-town!
    Won’t you take me to…

    You’re welcome.

    I’m glad to see you back here, Angela. Welcome back from your journey. Yes, I agree – comparing yourself to other writers’ good fortune is like comparing your relationship(s) to that old couple that have been married for 124 years and still kanoodle and enjoy each other’s company. Life is only one part volition. It’s also one part luck. (And that Chinese/American writer you mention may have lucked/worked into success, but, for all you know, she could have a staggering case of genital herpes and, really, do you want that?)

    I, for one, look forward to your completed memoir.

    • Gloria says:

      Oh, right. You’re a music-phobe.

      Okay, sing this song:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jlmTELeLRwI

      Only replace “Funky town” with “bitter town.”

      Again, you are welcome.

      • angela says:

        ha! thanks, gloria. i do actually know that song! i’m more into R&B/soul/hiphop sung by (not necessarily) black women, a topic not usually discussed in the music posts here. 😉

        you’re so right: who we are does change, at least somewhat, depending on whom we’re with. i was a lot more clingy and insecure with my ex, though i do still get insecure. it depends on how that person handles it. obviously “tough” love didn’t work but my ex kept trying it, for years and years, while my current BF tries to make me realize what i’m doing, and that, like visiting Bittertown, i’m simply falling into old habits. Alex gives me lots of love, security, and affection but some random thing can set me off, and it’s like all of that is gone and i’m back with my emotionally withholding ex again.

        as for chocolate cake and Doritos, i’m into the sweet-followed-by-salty combo when i’m wallowing. though maybe Doritos are bit too cheesy for that, come to think of it.

        thanks for the welcome back! i do feel like i’ve been “gone” for a little while.

  2. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    Bittertown is like an M.C. Escher drawing. Just when you think you’ve left, you’re looping through again. Escape is difficult, though not impossible. But then you have to be careful about the ticket stubs and receipts you find in your pockets later, reminding you where you’ve been. *sigh*

    It’s outstanding that you’ve been able to purge out through the revision. Please excuse the cliche, but I do think it’s true: the memoir will be more powerful as a result. Go, Angela!

    Oh, and the comparisons. Yeah. Been there. Done that. Will likely do it again. It’s one of our occupational hazards as writers and human beings.

    By the way, did you learn whether the people with Complicated Grief Disorder are helped by the tape exercise? It’s in the realm of those desensitization exercises of cognitive-behavorial therapy, but it seemed, I don’t know, sort of cruel in that it repeats rather than releases the trauma.

    • angela says:

      according to Strauss’ memoir, it seems the results of that particular therapy for people with Complicated Grief Disorder is mixed. one journal claimed it was “twice as effective” as conventional therapy, and faster too, while a reknowned psychologist said that “mourning data” in general was “embarrassingly bad” and that bereavement therapy in general wasn’t very effective. not sure if he offered any solutions though.

      truthfully, i am not sure how that type of therapy would work on me. i used to force myself to write everything down in my journal, even the upsetting things, although that caused me to go through the pain all over again, I think because it was too soon after it happened. i was concerned about not repressing my feelings. but there’s a different between repressing, and acknowleding and moving on.

  3. J.M. Blaine says:

    This is a
    level for you
    so many things
    to think about here
    & wonder why it
    is we choose to do this crazy
    stuff
    to try & figure out who we are
    & because, really
    well,
    we didn’t choose it
    it chose us
    maybe,
    I don’t know.
    But I’m trying to know
    & you are too….

    A guy told me the other day
    he thought the hot lit trend in 2011
    would be really shallow goofy fun writing.
    Like Chelsea Handler?
    I asked

    • angela says:

      “we didn’t choose it
      it chose us”

      i think that’s true. otherwise, it’s hard to answer why.

      shallow goofy writing? oh no. like tucker carlson? that’s not good.

  4. Zara Potts says:

    Oh yes, Bittertown is a shit of a place.
    Like you, I’ve passed through its scuzzy streets many times and I don’t like it one bit.

    However, I’m pleased that you are packing your bags and moving on out. It takes a while, doesn’t it? but you are absolutely right – you cannot live with that much sorrow and rage without it destroying some of the best parts of yourself.

    You are a wonderful writer, Angela and a wonderful human being and Bittertown is too ugly a place for you to take up residence there.

    In terms of my own experience, I have found that Laughtertown is a much better place. As is ThankGodI’mNotInThatRelationshipAnymoreTown – that’s also a pretty good place to reside.

    Happy New Year to you and I raise a glass to our new beginnings and to leaving the past back in the dust where it belongs!

  5. Matt says:

    Somedays I think I was raised in Bittertown. It certainly made leaving home and joining the rest of the world an interesting journey.

    While I don’t necessarily advoacte writing-as-therapy (the results can often be navel-gazing, self-obsessed dreck), I definitely think there’s something to the catharsis writing can bring. We tend to carry these things, whether we acknowledge it or not, and better to deal with it up front that bury it down in the subconscious. A few years ago I started writing a semi-autobiographical novel based in part on a relationship I was in during college; forcing myself to go back and revist those memories made me face up to how big a moron I was at the time, and allowed me to develop a measure of empathy with the girl in question. The novel might not have been much good, but my personal relationships got better.

    Oh, and the hell with that dilettante. It’s just a case of right time, right place, that’s all.

    • angela says:

      i like your idea, matt, of writing being cathartic, rather than therapy per se, and as a tool to be able to look at the past more objectively. good writing has complex characters that are more than victims or villains, and i think writing my memoir helped me to see that i wasn’t an innocent angel, and to gain some sympathy with the other “characters” – my ex, my ex-in-laws even the mistress. the result hopefully are well-rounded people and not caricatures.

      some early feedback i got was that people didn’t understand why i was with my ex in the first place. i had focused so much on the negative stuff. this time around, i went back and filled in those first years of our relationship, how we fell in love and stayed in love for quite some time. it was in a way more difficult to tackle that time period than the terrible stuff that happened later.

  6. Irene Zion says:

    Angela,

    I think you write shitty notes
    or nothing
    while the pain still has you in its grip,
    then
    however long it takes,
    (and God but
    it can take a long time,)
    when the grip loosens,
    when you feel yourself falling away from it,
    you can begin to write
    beautifully
    about
    ugliness,
    you can begin to imagine
    that it isn’t touching you
    anymore,
    you can feel yourself
    apart from it
    and
    whole
    despite the
    small
    black scar
    in the center of your heart
    that is always
    going to be part
    of the new
    you.

    • angela says:

      irene, so lovely! “you can begin to write/beautifully/about/ugliness.” i love that.

      and yes, that tiny black scar will always be a part of me. i’m glad to say it’s gotten tinier over the years.

  7. J. Ryan Stradal says:

    Angela,

    Wonderful work.

    Like you, I’ve found myself getting remarkably unsentimental about possessions during times of sadness. I had never really know how to describe what possibly motivated this, so your statement “While a hoarder avoids a decision about an item by keeping it, I avoid the decision by giving it away” hit home.

    I usually have a similar attitude towards exes and it’s always been an internal battle over whether I’m being practical and self-preserving or selfish and unforgiving. Yet I never truly regret it when I, as you put it, give the tape away.

    There is only one way forward.

    J. R.

    • angela says:

      I think there’s only so much we can do for other people. At some point, they need to make their own happiness, and we need to save ourselves, or what’s left of ourselves, and move on.

      • Judy Prince says:

        “I think there’s only so much we can do for other people. At some point, they need to make their own happiness, and we need to save ourselves, or what’s left of ourselves, and move on.”

        Indeed, angela; and we seem to, in a kind of natural (to each of us) progression of healing, do exactly that.

        Like JR, I too was struck by your saying: “While a hoarder avoids a decision about an item by keeping it, I avoid the decision by giving it away.” It had me remembering a friend who could barely navigate the hallways in her home for the piles of her deceased mother’s furniture. She couldn’t get past despair and guilt, so she kept herself in limbo turmoil. I think of myself as more decisive, venturesome, for giving the stuff away. But as you’ve noted, it’s really fakery. Either action, though, isn’t inherently indecisive. We each need to keep some things and some memories, and we each need to give away—-or, rather, to *exchange*—–some things for others and some memories for others that we build anew.

        Working it through, which’s what you’ve been valiantly doing, is wonderful and admirable. I feel, constantly, that your work-throughs show your strong and resilient spirit. They give me a model for strength and resilience in the face of much that has damaged me. Your courage means I can have courage. Your having your own “hand” in your life means living that life as fully “angela-like” as it was meant to be. And I can live my “Judy-like” life as fully as it was meant to be, as well.

        Happy New Life, angela!

        • angela says:

          thank you so much, judy, for your thoughtful and lovely comment.

          i think i manage to make a decision about most of the stuff i give away. gee, i haven’t worn this sweater in two years? donation! i forgot i had these shoes! donation! but when i was moving from NYC to San Francisco last fall, i got so stressed out about our furniture that i just started giving it away to anyone who asked, although our plan was to keep most of it in case we moved back to NY. oops.

          here’s to living our lives as fully “angela-like” and “judy-like” as possible!

        • Judy Prince says:

          You’re doing great, then, angela, with the giveaways—–and an occasional “oops” giveaway is not so bad anyway. I’m giving away my stuff, but buying used stuff and giving that away, too. HA! One person I met in a charity shop (used stuff store) said she periodically takes all of her furniture to a consignment shop and buys a houseful of used furniture to replace the last lot. The scheme delighted her and satisfied her taste for constant decorating and experimenting. It pretty much freed me up from guilt at getting rid of stuff and getting more.

  8. Writing online is strange. I’ve definitely come across stories I’d like to post here but can’t bring myself to do so precisely because I’ve come to know these people too well. I used to post the most person things anonymously, but since trying to make a name with my actual name… it gets a bit harder. Not that I’ve ever had anything to write about that’s as difficult as you have, of course.

    Also… Oh man, I do miss Doritos and chocolate cake.

    • Also, I totally thought this story was called “Paying a Visit to the Bathroom.”

    • angela says:

      yes, posting memoir-ish stuff online is a weird experience. with print, there’s a delay and very little immediate reaction. writing online is basically like telling people face to face the shit from your life.

      i missed so many foods while i was in China, including baked goods (which the Chinese don’t know how to do, unless you’re in the mood for very light cakes) and salty snacks. i remember trying some “barbecue chips” once, and they just did not live up to the Western version.

      “Paying a Visit to the Bathroom” sounds like a treatise on different kinds of toilets, which I would probably read!

  9. D.R. Haney says:

    I’m a permanent resident of Bittertown, I’m afraid. I’d come to think that I’m immune to professional jealousies, but I’m not. It’s very hard for me to read contemporary fiction for that reason. I think, “Oh, this is the guy that everyone thinks is so great, huh? Well, you won’t find me reading his stuff. Asshole.”

    I wonder if this attitude could be cured with a little recognition. But the successful can be just as jealous as the struggling, as anyone who’s watched old Hollywood movies knows. In fact, judging by old Hollywood movies (which of course never lie), the successful are worse!

    Do I sound bitter?

    • angela says:

      *I* will probably sound bitter saying this but I’m so glad to hear you say those things. It makes me feel a little less small to know that others often feel the same way.

  10. Nathaniel Missildine says:

    “I’m fiddling with something already alive. A jiggly green alien blob if you will, that out of nowhere scurries up the stick I’m poking it with, over my arm, and onto my face.”

    A great image. For me, I have an odd tendency to nurse and sweeten events from my past when writing about them, even when they were painful. Maybe an attempt to justify and place a larger significance on why these things came to pass in the first place. But I can’t help getting nostalgic and sort of amazed to have a memory alive and jiggly once again before me.

    Wherever they come from, looking forward to reading more of your stories.

    • angela says:

      when i was working on an early draft of my memoir, i held back from too much about my sister-in-law, whom i still felt so bitter about. but some people in a class i was taking said they wanted to read it, so i wrote it, and surprisingly, they didn’t even know where i was supposed to be bitter.

      i think we probably come as much more bitter and angry in our heads than we do on paper.

  11. Angela! Good to see a new and wonderful something from you. “A writer. A successful writer. A successful writer who, quote, oh my god, never wrote before! and was a lawyer for 10 years! and decided one day, what the heck! she was gonna write a best-selling novel! and guess what! three months later she had an agent! and a well-accepted novel that’s making all the top 10 year end lists!” There is always this writer! Always. Or so I find. This writer always makes me work harder … and makes me more bitter.

    • angela says:

      thanks cynthia!

      that’s how i should see it, right?  a healthy dose of competition, a kick in the ass. at my old job that’s what pushed me to be more aggressive and ambitious about moving up from my secretarial position – another pissant secretary stepping on my toes!

  12. Richard Cox says:

    This is a great post, Angela. You render with such ease that many of us struggle to name or describe. And with what appears to be real honesty.

    For me writing about painful episodes works wonders. It might be trite, but for me, it’s true. And you know what, those stories don’t always have to sell because the reward can simply be to put certain life events behind you.

    Oh, and now I’m hungry for Doritos. Thanks.

    • angela says:

      thanks so much, richard!

      you know you’re so right that not every painful thing we write needs to be publishable or saleable, and that letting it go should be reward enough. but i’m so not there yet! 🙂

      i have been hungry for chocolate cake since i wrote this post, and have yet to fulfill my craving. i see dangerous bingeing in my future.

  13. I’ve had a lakefront property in one of the nicest corners of B-Town for years. I visit while on vacation from the trashed apartment I usually occupy over in Crippling Depressionville. Which is what most locals now call Seattle. Can you tell I’m bitter that I no longer live in San Francisco?

    • angela says:

      i had the opportunity to visit Seattle for the first time in September. it did rain quite a bit. but at least the coffee is good and plentiful, and the food cheap – at least compared to SF!

  14. Joe Daly says:

    I have a timeshare in Bittertown. I find that I always have enough points to get a good long stay there.

    Over the past few years I’ve worked on exorcising the bitterness and have been distraught/relieved to discover that my bitterness is pretty much just a reflection of crap I created myself. Situations, consequences, etc. When I realized that I create most of my own bitterness, I was stoked because that meant that I was in control of my own happiness. That’s been like gold for me. Although the urge to hit the timeshare still arises, I find that I stay there less and less.

    Good for you working through this, writing about it, and having the guts to run it up the flagpole as you’ve done here. I, for one, salute you.

    • angela says:

      you’re so right! i heard this Buddhist monk speak on the radio once (Speaking of Faith on NPR I think) and he talked about how our suffering is like an artist’s drawing of a ghost – the artist could become afraid of her own drawing although she made it herself and it’s not real, just like some (but not all) suffering and negativity we feel.

  15. angelia says:

    Nice.

  16. Simon Smithson says:

    I might have quoted Australia’s ex-Prime Minister Bob Hawke here before; I saw an interview him once where he spoke about jealousy. He said it was the most corrosive emotion he’s ever seen people experience, that it will erode and destroy you if left unchecked.

    Oh, and also sometimes it makes you want to take people’s eyes.

    No, wait, I said that last part.

    I have, however, also heard the theory that writing is a great release; it gets things out of the brain’s storage and puts it somewhere you can come back to later. It’s your way of saying to the brain: hey, I acknowledge this as real. You don’t have to keep haunting me with it.

    And I love that ghost comment! That’s one to remember.

    I’ll be in SF in February! Let’s get lunch! In a place that has a roof.

    • Angela Tung says:

      yes, there is NOTHING good about jealousy – except maybe taking it and turning it into healthy competition.

      and writing does make what’s in one’s head concrete, and therefore somehow less powerful and scary. while it’s still in your head, it’s this amorphous blob that is both seen and unseen, and therefore terrifying.

      haha, a roof, sure. but simon, don’t you want to have more bird-poopy good luck? see you next month!

  17. […] I married a horse, was cheated on by a horse, and divorced said horse, despite warnings that: This is a relationship that can end in bitterness. […]

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