We Need to Tell a Different Kind of Love Story

Friendship stories don't map cleanly onto the Hero's Journey—but why are we still mapping men's stories?

Photo by Andrea Tummons on Unsplash

After four years of writing and rewriting a story close to my vulnerable heart—about traveling home to attend my estranged mother’s wedding—the essay finally appeared in the Huffington Post. My best friend Ellen read it seconds after it went live. She texted me her favorite lines, sending my words back to me with affirmations. She also sent a screenshot of the line, “I cried on the floor of the airport bathroom.” You called me from the bathroom floor, she texted.

On that floor, I stared at a text from my mother telling me I was no longer welcome at her wedding. I crouched under the fluorescent bathroom lights with my head between my knees and called my best friend. I can’t recall what Ellen said. I remember it was exactly what I needed to hear.

In that essay, I wrote about my husband, who had been by my side for the entire trip (except when he waited with our baggage while I panic-called Ellen in the bathroom). I wrote about my mother, whose love I desired most, even as Ellen reminded me my mom did love me, if in the limited ways her strict religious community allowed her to express it. Ellen supported me throughout the entire experience, but I never mentioned her in the essay, not even in passing. It didn’t even occur to me to include Ellen into the story. After she read the essay and saw herself in the narrative, I realized I wrote her out of my family drama, though she’s as close to me as family. All of my publications are about sex and love, relationships and family. I’ve written about all forms of nontraditional romantic relationships, about chosen family and expansive love in polyamory. Yet, I’ve never written about friendship. Until now.

When I realized that I had written Ellen out of my personal essay, I returned to the memoirs that inspire me. How had others written about their friends? I was searching for a literary legacy of writing friendship. Over and again, I noted that friends are often mentioned only in passing. They appear as ever-present sources of support, yet are seldom developed into plot lines or characters. Rebecca Solnit frequently mentions friends in Recollections of My Nonexistence, her memoir on finding her voice and becoming a writer. Few of them are named, all are written about with love and gratitude for their place in Solnit’s story. In Abandon Me, Melissa Febos writes several times about her friend Amit, but usually in just one or two sentences at a time. Yet Amit appears frequently: supporting Febos, being stood up by Febos, writing with Febos at a dining room table on a Saturday morning. Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir, too, about being in an abusive relationship, includes passing mention of a friend who helped her first realize she was being abused—a critical relationship in the story of her recovery. This friend is a mirror who allows Machado to see herself. But we, as readers, never see the friend herself.

A network of friends can muddle a storyline—but I also see it as a sign of a rich life.

I wondered if earlier drafts of these memoirs had included more, if these friends were once complete characters. In my imagination, I saw an editor cutting a friend out in order to simplify the narrative. I have, at least once, cut a friend to get an essay under the word limit. I’ve been in workshops in which someone found the additional “friend character” confusing. I myself have advised students to write a composite character instead of including a crowd of friends. It’s true: these kinds of revisions can streamline a narrative. A network of friends can muddle a storyline—but I also see it as a sign of a rich life.

The erasure of friends has roots much deeper than the editing and review process. The problem is that friends don’t fit neatly into the Hero’s Journey. In 1986, Ursula K. Le Guin implored writers to see past the familiar ease of the Hero’s Journey, shaped like an arrow, centered on conflict, and, importantly, featuring men’s stories. Hunter stories in which violence and domination drive the plot. Le Guin argued that it left out women’s experiences, the gatherers whose days may not be filled with conflict but are busied with care and small pleasures. And yet, the Hero’s Journey is still the dominant narrative form. An earlier version of my essay about my mother’s wedding received a kind rejection; the editor explained that the essay was important, but that the story was “too quiet.” The earlier version was a subtle story of unspoken love between mother and daughter, driven apart by a religious cult.

I revised the essay into a classic Hero’s Journey: I made myself the protagonist, on a journey back home and back into a cult. It was a quest: I would save my mom, or at least salvage our relationship. My husband was at my side, a supporting character, but the story was mine and my mother’s love was the treasure. There was no room in the Hero’s Journey to acknowledge that I was falling apart the entire time. There was no room to show how Ellen helped piece me back together.

As I drafted this essay, I texted Ellen: Why haven’t we written about each other? Seconds later she replied: What would be the conflict? It’s true. Our friendship lacks the competition that we both found so riveting in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels. We disagree at times, but it’s usually petty. I’m sure I’ve disappointed her, given that I have no clue how to support her journey as a mother. In fact, I was afraid that motherhood would draw her further from me and closer to her mom friends. That hasn’t happened, but I know it’ll be a few years before I can hope to resume our regular happy hours. And I know I’ve hurt Ellen when I’ve gotten on my soapbox a time or two, when honestly saying less would have done just fine.

Ellen once told me that she’d started to write a fictional version of our friendship. As I’m writing this essay, she’s revising her novel. Last month, she texted:  I just tried to write from your POV and it was the first time this new book felt . . . easy and alive. To which I responded: I hope it inspired you to write something slutty.

In All About Love, bell hooks reflects on the dearth of stories about love outside of traditional families. She identifies the “privatized patriarchal nuclear family” as the single model in which love stories are told. The nuclear family eclipses all other forms of love, and stories of men’s desire overshadow everything further. For bell hooks—and me—the love among friends is the foundation on which we learn the art of loving. In friendships, women find “our first glimpse of redemptive love and caring community. Learning to love in friendships empowers us in ways that enable us to bring this love to other bonds.” Friendships are how we learn that love is a verb—but the stories of it take shape outside of grand narratives. They lack heroes and conquests.

Friendships are how we learn that love is a verb.

Instead, stories of friendship celebrate the quotidian rituals and small graces. Each friendship has its own rituals. For Ellen and I, watching The Great British Bake Off every Tuesday at 7:30, just after she puts her daughter down for the night, has become its own ten-week holiday season. Ellen’s refusal to let me help with dinner is a commandment. We share the same dream of what a Liz Warren presidency would have been. Ellen texts how are you? each day when I’m depressed. We can both text how’s the writing going? without provoking distress.

If I were to tell the story of the love between me and Ellen, where would I begin? I could start on the 24X bus connecting downtown Santa Barbara to the University of California Santa Barbara, where we both teach writing. Ellen held a different hardcover book from the library each week. We sat toward the front of the bus, two thirty-something white ladies in business professional clothes and sensible shoes, reading novels on our commute. At first, we discussed books, then teaching, then our opinions on all of the overrated male authors. Twice a week, the same routine. Slowly, over bus rides to work, then walks around the lagoon on campus, and then happy hours at the cafe closest to the bus depot, I stopped being intimidated by Ellen the brilliant writer and became enamored with the woman who was my friend. It’s boring content for a love story, but it’s the routine on which our friendship blossomed.

And next? When did our relationship build in intensity? One day does stand out above the rest: In 2019, Ellen and I had a standing Thursday night happy hour at the Endless Summer Bar and Grill on Santa Barbara’s harbor. We chose that spot for the half-price bottles of wine, pink sunset views, free stale popcorn, and bartenders in Hawaiian shirts who always gave happy hour discounts even when we arrived too late for happy hour. We vented about the petty inconveniences all teachers complain about: students who email questions that are easily answered by the syllabus and colleagues who only use reply-all. We talked about the sunset and its hues. We likely complained about yet another New Yorker article that was generating discourse. On this specific night, Ellen shared that she’d realized she was addicted to Excedrin, which she described as the most boring kind of addiction. I had recently realized that my mom was going to get married. Over a few glasses of discount wine, we tossed around the questions: What could knock out Ellen’s migraines if all the medicines caused more problems? Did I even want to go to my mom’s wedding?

“If you go, you could write it. I’d read that essay,” Ellen told me. “I’m not saying you should do it for the content, but you could.” Ellen listened to my story about my mom, and she wanted to read my memoir. She was the first person to tell me that she cared about my story. I hope I said similar things about her writing life, hearting each tweet and listening carefully for every thread of an idea that she talked out over drinks or long walks.

I biked home with a buzz and began writing that night. I kept writing. Ellen told me that my story mattered. Then, in the following months, she taught me how to write it. I wrote about my mom. Ellen read drafts. She listened as I sorted out memories I hadn’t dwelled on in decades. With her help, I learned I could actually rewrite myself: not a rejected daughter but a cult survivor. I spent four years writing and rewriting the story of my mother’s wedding. In the meantime, I published other personal essays, but my identity as a writer started with that essay about my mom’s wedding. I wrote it for Ellen and I’m a writer because of Ellen.

—But wait: am I doing it again? Am I writing the Hero’s Journey, just with Ellen playing protagonist? She is, after all, armed with a pen and encouraging words. Every time I publish a new essay, I tell her: “You told me my story mattered and taught me how to write it.”

“I love you,” Ellen says, “but you’re giving me too much credit. You were always a writer.”

She’s right. I already had a PhD and a long publication history of scholarly articles about women and their desires, and how they cared for one another, even if I never wrote about my own life. In making Ellen the hero who empowered me to write, I’m making the same mistake. In order to fit my story into the classic form, I’m erasing something—this time, part of my own history and agency. And, of course, I’ve also erased other friends who told me to keep writing.

At the end of the day, friendship isn’t a transaction. We don’t tally up who helped whom the most. I’m not Ellen’s friend because she told me my story mattered one day at a bar. I’m her friend because we narrate our lives to each other first.

Friendship need not be a grand narrative. When I looked for friends within my favorite memoirs, I was also looking for heroes, for a literary legacy of friendship, for the people whose smaller roles nonetheless created significant pivots in the narrative. Friendship doesn’t need a man on a loudspeaker or a soapbox. Le Guin offers an alternative to the hero’s narrative: the carrier bag. She writes, “The natural, proper, fitting shape of the novel might be that of a sack, a bag. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us.” The story of friendship can’t be told in a straight line. It can’t be told in one voice. Conflict isn’t its most important feature. The monotonous but enduring care is what holds it together. Friendships are the stories of how we hold ourselves together.

The story of friendship can’t be told in a straight line. It can’t be told in one voice.

This past summer, Ellen and I reached a relationship milestone: we went on our first vacation together. We were both invited to be writers in residence at a writing workshop on a Greek island. For two weeks, I woke up and had breakfast with Ellen. Rich Greek yogurt, homemade feta, ripe strawberries, local coffee, and fresh bread: the meals themselves were worth writing about. Ellen and I sat at our table shaded by thick blackberry vines while her toddler Louisa licked butter off of bread in her highchair. Ellen drank English Breakfast tea with milk. I drank hot coffee (even though it was 85 degrees in the shade by 8 AM). We agreed that the apricots were the best we’d ever tasted, and that the peaches were better in California. We lingered for over an hour, until we were both over-caffeinated, and then settled in to write.

Each breakfast was a practice of loving. It was boring content. There’s no place for heroics at the breakfast table. Each day was the same as the one before. Each morning was like the last. Some days we got eggs, other days there was sausage. Once or twice, I could dish out some gossip from the night before, after Ellen had gone to bed. We lingered as if eating breakfast was the reason we’d traveled seven thousand miles to a Mediterranean island. Our breakfasts became the quotidian ritual of our friendship.    

What makes friendship beautiful—its subtlety and its bonds of love that don’t ask for visible commitments or grand gestures—is what makes friendship difficult to write about. Friendship asks us to tell quieter stories. It requires us to listen to the ebb and flow of everyday love. As we listen to those stories, we also learn to listen for the myriad of ways that love shows up in our lives. Our friends’ love isn’t shouted from the rooftops—but it may be declared with a casserole. It can be expressed with daily texts, and also with infrequent three-hour long-distance phone calls. Our friends teach us how to speak our love in as many different ways as we have different friends. Each story may be quiet, subtle. But together, each friend’s voice echoes through our lives, building a chorus of love that demands to be heard.

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