Step 1: Catch fire
Listen, I’m not going to lie to you—this is gonna hurt. A lot. For a long time. Forever, probably. I’m an optimist like that.
I don’t mean to make you feel bad or anything. It’s just that this first part is essential. It has to be a love like fire for the divorce to be properly devastating, and there’s no point in being improperly devastating.
If you’re going to be burned, be burned by the brightest fire.
There’s this song I like to listen to every once in a while. It’s called “You and Me,” by an old and unknown soul band Penny & the Quarters—rediscovered and made known after the song was in Blue Valentine (2010). That’s why I love the song so much, really; it reminds me of the feeling of watching writer and director Derek Cianfrance’s proxy parents fall in love. He’s already shown us that they are doomed to fall apart, but when it comes to the love part of their story, it’s all too evident that there’s a twisted, hopeless romantic at his core. When their love is shiny and new, Dean and Cindy are all gazes and giggles. It’d be cheesy if it wasn’t just so lovely. It happens immediately, but convincingly enough to make anyone believe that theirs is a match written in the stars a long time ago, waiting to be discovered by the two of them. Cianfrance puts this on 16mm, with a grain that has been scientifically proven to induce dopamine, probably. You look at Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams), at least at this point, and see love incarnate. It’s no wonder they’re blue valentines; the blue fire is the hottest kind.
“You and Me,” with its gentle melody and voices filled with utter joy, is that section of Dean and Cindy’s story in a song. Dean figured as much when he played it for Cindy. Ryan Gosling figured as much when he introduced the song to Cianfrance. I figure as much every time I hear its opening guitar strums. It just sounds like love.
Dean and Cindy, much like my parents (and yours, in these first two steps), fall apart in quite fantastic, heartbreaking fashion; the giggles and gazes die between them. By the end, it’s hard to even remember what that felt like. But for now, for just a second, let the fire burn.
Step 2: Extinguish
Now the fun begins.
Falling apart is far more complex than simply falling out of love. Not everyone who falls out of love has the wherewithal to fall apart. That takes commitment, which starts here.
The trick to falling apart just right is becoming different people. This takes time. It takes little things: microaggressions building up, little comments nesting in the backs of minds, ideas of other things creeping to the fronts. These all shape a person—affect their decisions, paint the way they see things, paint the way they see people. Growing different together is, in some ways, the easy job because it’s what you anticipate doing. You anticipate being with someone for the long haul and growing with them. To grow different apart means hearing the music long before you face it. It means subconsciously deciding to be independent and having to catch up with that decision. I imagine some people never fully catch up with it.
If it were me, I’d just have a kid. That’s the fastest way to become new people because it happens instantly. You just become a mother or a father. You’re fundamentally and profoundly changed. You’re never just you again. And if the partnership isn’t just right, which, given the fact that you’ve picked up this guide, the partnership in question must not be, falling apart is inevitable.
Wildlife (2018) has an innate sense for the quiet drama of becoming different people and, one day, being different people. One day, a husband becomes a father and the next, the father becomes a firefighter. One day, a wife becomes a mother and the next, the mother becomes a person. It’s just a fact and all the more devastating because it’s that simple.
Director Paul Dano, somehow, despite his beautiful fairy tale of love with his co-writer Zoe Kazan, seems to know exactly what it looks like to put out a fire. You have to watch his film twice to appreciate how he does it, but the Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) we meet very briefly at the beginning of the film undergoes a tender, almost Kafka-esque metamorphosis; she’s very subtly not at all the same Jeanette at the end. She hasn’t woken up one day as some sort of bug, but she’s markedly different than the quiet wife and mother we know she once was. Even still, it seems like it’d be entirely possible to ignore her metamorphosis and just let life go on as it had. It’d be wrong to do, because she doesn’t fill the same space she once did, but it could happen.
Her son, Joe (Ed Oxenbould), almost certainly hoped to just ignore the truth of the metamorphosis. As I’m sure you know, the kid always tries to ignore the metamorphosis, to maintain their image of their parents. It’s natural to want parents to remain a unit, even if the people now inhabiting that unit are fundamentally disconnected.
When your parents change, you quickly realize that some truth of who you were has changed along with them. You had no choice in this change, but it’s happened and you just have to live with that. Think of it, if you can, as a clean slate. I know it’s hard, but see if you can appreciate that you get a clean slate. There are only a few of those to go around.
Step 3: Dramatic Exit
Planes, tears, famous last words. Casablanca-style.
I guess my parents’ dramatic exit, which they graciously included me in, was very Casablanca (1942), but it doesn’t feel like that. It just feels like tears, a hug, a little gold necklace, and three people getting on two planes.
But don’t feel constrained—you have plenty of options. There’s something oddly heroic about the Casablanca exit—the whole “for the greater good” of it all—but I also envy a The Parent Trap exit (the 1998 Lohan remake, of course). It’s no more than a throwaway line, really, but I imagine watching Natasha Richardson throw a hairdryer at Dennis Quaid before straightening up, packing a bag, and dashing out the door would have been a funny, poignant and properly dramatic moment.
So feel free to take the hairdryer route. Please do let me know if it’s effective.
Step 4: Learn to Dance
I mean, what else are you going to do with your time? It’s not like you’re having any family dinners.
Me, I never learned to dance. I learned to write. As a result, I spend my life agonizing over things like which sentences are best dashed and which feel better with only a comma. It’s fantastic. I don’t recommend it.
No, learn to dance instead. If you want to be good, go Black Swan (2010). If mediocre is good enough for you (it’s not), go Silver Linings Playbook (2012). There’s more joy there. It’s the little things that can cheer you up post-divorce. For Silver Linings’ Pat (Bradley Cooper), that little thing was love. I guess if it’s dancing you choose, there’s a good chance you will find the same little thing. Maybe that’s reason enough to dance. Maybe you’re already ready to start the cycle over again. Maybe you can change the cycle.
Or, I don’t know. Maybe it’s best—safest—to just learn to write.
Do whatever, just love it and never be good enough at it. That’s the point here.
Step 5: Kill Your Mother
Return the favor.
The divorce changed you, so now it’s time for you to change her. Killing is the most effective route.
Love her. Oh, love her so dearly. She is the best, after all. I mean, apart from the thing, not that you blame her.
Love her, but kill her all the same. Kill her by not being as good as she is and privately killing yourself over that. Kill her by being angry and sad all the time and not knowing why. Kill her by being angry at her and knowing it’s unfair for you to be. Kill her by loving her through it all.
Start with the little things and work your way to bigger and better. Criticize the way she eats a bagel. The way she puts on makeup in the car. Get sent to boarding school. Run away. All that Xavier Dolan stuff.
Though perhaps not his best (perhaps), Dolan’s I Killed My Mother (2009) has to be your guide for this step—and not just for the title. Dolan is a child prodigy—only sixteen when he penned this semi-autobiographical story in three days. Then he acted the lead. Clearly, he decided to write and act instead of dance, with far superior results to mine.
I suggest using this film as your guide for precisely that reason: Its haste to enter the world makes the final product feel raw and unfiltered and honest. When you watch it, you get the sense that this is the true story of how he—Dolan by way of Hubert—killed his mother. You get the sense that he hates how his mother ate bagels.
I know this all sounds very negative but, like I said, I’m an optimist. Watch I Killed My Mother for the realism so that by the time you get to the end, it feels real too. Dolan’s mother, like mine and like yours, won’t stay dead when you kill her because you’re not a killer. Eventually, after you run away, she’ll come find you. It’ll be the moment you’ve been waiting for since she first killed you in the divorce. She’s not a killer either, though, so in this moment, you’ll both come back to life. Just a little, but more than enough.
I know this is an odd, counterintuitive step but trust me, it’s essential. At some point, you’ll want to fight back. You’ll need to fight back. Murder is a tad drastic, I suppose, but very little else will do. Think of it this way: You’re accumulating regret. Starting early. Think of it however you can convince yourself to do it because you have to.
I, of course, would never murder my mother. My dad’s a lawyer. He taught me that murder requires premeditation. Step 5 requires only killing.
Step 5a: Alternatively, Mental Illness Your Mother
Killing isn’t for everyone—I get it—but this process doesn’t work without violence on both sides.
If you can’t kill your mother, go the Hustlers (2019) route. The whole process seems cleaner. No one says it better than Jennifer Lopez, preferably clad in an ambitious fur with cigarette in hand: Motherhood is a mental illness.
If you choose to take this route, you probably won’t have to do much. Your mother will practically mental illness herself, just by virtue of how much she loves you. As soon as she extinguished the divorce fire, all its displaced oxygen went to feeding the fire lit for you. She just loves you so much—and it’s sweet, really—but a fire that strong, at a certain point, can only burn. It won’t be hard to drive her positively insane.
I would never argue against Queen Lopez, but maybe it’s just that love is a mental illness.
Step 6: Live again
However you choose to take Step 5, by Step 6 you’ll be alive again. So it’s time to live again. Now’s the time for some freestyling. I’ll give you some choices to set you on your way.
- Become a Lobster: Try—and, necessarily, fail— to find love. Go to a hotel. Choose your animal. Poke your eye out or don’t.
- Face Fear: Go to the Museum of Natural History and look the exhibit of the squid and the whale square in the eye. It was scary to you once, and it still is, but look at it anyway.
- Forgive: Listen, I don’t know about this one. I’m not convinced it’s real but I saw it in The Meyerowitz Stories (2017) and it seemed very therapeutic. Try some other things first so you don’t get discouraged. It’s probably easier to just go to therapy.
Step 7: Make something out of it all.
Seems productive. I’m still working on this step myself, so I have very little direction for you. Even after passing steps 1-6 with flying colors (if I do say so myself) I’m not sure if anything I make of it all will be worthwhile. I guess I’m just unsure if I have faced the required suffering of writers. But I never learned to dance or anything else so I’m kind of stuck.
Anyway, I suggest using Noah Baumbach as your guide here. That way you’ll make a lot of good things and a lot of great things in your quest to make the thing. For him, the thing is Marriage Story (2019). At a certain point of distance and maturity and all of that, you’ll be able to make your thing, and it’ll be great because it’s good and because it’s honest. That’s Marriage Story: a story that, despite humans’ tremendous capacity to place blame, is at its most honest when it remains blameless. I imagine Baumbach looks at Marriage Story and feels a completeness.
Maybe, when you look at the thing you created‚—when you hold it in your hands—it’ll all be worth it. This, unfortunately, is just a hunch of mine. I’m sorry I can’t be more certain. I know it’s a lot to go through all these steps and not even know if it was all for anything. Trust me, I know.
But listen. My mom always says that everything happens for a reason and, while I don’t currently believe her, I would like to. It’s a nice life philosophy. Kind of beautiful really. So let’s follow this scenario through, Kim-Style. Your parents, despite mine and your best wishes, have, at this point in our steps, successfully fallen apart. I can’t change that for you—I tried and failed with my own. But it’s time to move on from that. It’s time to make at least something worthwhile come from it all. I think it’s important that we trust our suffering. Don’t you think we’ve done our fair share of it?
So it’s time to begin our work. It’s time to use the fire of that suffering—the fire that began this process—and make something of it. Something that spreads the fire ingrained in you to others who can revel in it and, if we get lucky, share theirs with you. We can all create a big bonfire of our stories and the things we’ve made of them. And maybe—just maybe— that beautiful, fiery something worthwhile can be at least part of the reason that all this happened. Doesn’t that sound lovely?
So, anyway, when you make something out of it all, as I suggest we all try to do, put some of that fire in there. It won’t take much effort—just by virtue of being you and being honest to the fire inside you, whatever you make will be fiery. And it’ll be beautiful. And it’ll be worth it.
I’m an optimist like that.
- Blue Valentine (2010, dir. Derek Cianfrance)
- Wildlife (2018, dir. Paul Dano)
- Casablanca (1942, dir. Michael Curtiz)
- The Parent Trap (1998, dir. Nancy Meyers)
- Black Swan (2010, dir. Darren Aronofsky)
- Silver Linings Playbook (2012, dir. David O. Russell)
- I Killed My Mother (2009, dir. Xavier Dolan)
- Hustlers (2019, dir. Lorene Scafaria)
- The Lobster (2015, dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)
- The Squid and the Whale (2005, dir. Noah Baumbach)
- The Meyerowitz Stories (2017, dir. Noah Baumbach)
- Marriage Story (2019, dir. Noah Baumbach)