The Power of Anecdote in Marriage and Fiction

I'm writing this at the ungodly hour of 5:45 in the morning, because my husband brewed me a pot of coffee against my will. Yes, you read that right. Husband. Coffee. Against my will.

Some backstory: I'm a worthless, fuzzy-headed, uncoordinated mess -- not to mention cranky as hell -- when I don't get at least eight hours of sleep. I'm also terrible with mornings; getting out of bed is usually a Herculean task. I'm about as happy as a baby who's been torn from her mother's breast and tossed into an icy river, and I'm barely hyperbolizing here.

I admit, I'm not proud of these uncooperative natural tendencies. So, to outsmart them, I try to routinely do two things: get eight or more hours of sleep and pre-load the coffeemaker before I go to bed. That way, when the dreaded alarm rings, I can take comfort in knowing that I'm (theoretically) well-rested and there will be coffee in less than five minutes.

Sometimes my generally delightful husband, who gets up early-ish for work, will turn on the coffeemaker for me and deliver me a mug in bed. This is generally excellent! Especially when he also brings me my book (right now: Barbara Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer) and the cat snuggles up on my lap and I get to read and drink coffee in bed for an hour or so. (Definitely THE best perk of being a freelancer.)

But this morning was unusual in that my husband got up at 5:30am. Too early for me, thankyouverymuch! Last night, he asked me whether he should turn on the coffeemaker before he left in the morning, and I said "No, thank you. I don't want to get up that early, and the coffee won't stay warm, etc., etc." The coffeemaker is on its last leg, and its idiosyncrasies are well-known -- it emits a scary buzzing noise that makes me worry it's going to burn the apartment down; it has a tendency to shut off mid-brew; and the warming function doesn't work. So you kind of have to babysit the brew process and drink the coffee immediately. Not something I wanted to do at 5:30 in the morning after staying up too late watching the Olympics.

So then this morning, as he wakes me up to say goodbye, he again asks, "Do you want me to turn on the coffeemaker?" I sleepily reply, "No, that's okay" (or something to that effect – I can't be held accountable for my exact words since I was clearly nestled under the IKEA duvet, dreaming about winning Olympic gold).

Next thing I know, my husband is out the door, the coffeemaker is percolating away, and I am wide awake -- spluttering with rage!

But…but…why?!...the coff…the…did I stutter?! I mean, I said NO, right?? What happened?? How is it that my mouth said "No" and his ears heard "Yes"?!

(My emotions can be a little outsized in the morning.)

***

My husband is probably at work right now, patting himself on the back for his good deed, while I'm at home, uncharitably connecting this morning's action to a larger negative pattern in our relationship. Because that's how I think, for better or for worse. No action is an isolated incident. The other day, we got in a fight and I said something cliche about "You don't give me what I want!" and then he said something cliche like "I give you what I want to give!" To me, this is a maddening mindset. If it's my birthday and I say I want a necklace and he decides he'd rather give me a meatloaf instead, that's not a very thoughtful gift, is it?

Of course, he has his own reasons for thinking about giving the way that he does, and I don't mean to invalidate his point of view. But he can write his own damn blog post if he wants to expound upon them. For my purposes, it's enough to say that, with our clashing mindsets, I sometimes end up with "gifts" that I don't want -- like being woken up at 5:45am with a pot of coffee. And in my mind, it's not just a pot of coffee: it's a symbol of the fact that he refuses to hear what I need and want, and that this marriage will inevitably fail because what self-respecting woman stays in a relationship with a partner who refuses to listen to her?!

(Whew! I know, right?)

In fiction, anecdotes like this are absolute gold. In my writing, this is exactly the kind of detail I live for -- the seemingly small incident that says so much more. My friend Erica once told me a story about how her friend broke up with his boyfriend over green-bean casserole on Thanksgiving, and I thought "Yes yes yes, that makes absolutely perfect sense to me!" Characters are nothing but a collection of carefully chosen details, and when those details add up and "pay off" (as we used to say in writing workshops), then the fiction is cohesive and satisfying.

I do honestly believe that this translates to real life -- small incidents do make big points. But in a lot of ways, what's good for fiction is not good for marriage. My husband has many wonderful qualities, and is as changeable and prone to error as any human being. He is a man who wanted to do something nice for his wife; he was probably sleepy, and he might have been distracted by thoughts of work, and maybe my face was smooshed into the pillow so that when I said "No, that's okay" it sounded to him like I said "Okay."

But that doesn't make for a compelling story! I'm still going to crash this afternoon from too little sleep and too much coffee (I've drunk almost the entire pot by now), but this morning's incident was most likely just a bit of misfired communication, with no meaningful core of truth about our relationship or our respective characters. In some ways, it's a bit of a letdown for a mind like mine that likes to find the patterns in human relations. But I guess that's all right. After all, I'd rather be married to the man than to the narrative.