In February of this year, a doctor I’d gone to see about a painful, swollen knee told me some unpleasant news: the problem was arthritis and would be with me for good. She said I could begin work to ease the pain and to keep possession of my biological knees, in a number of ways, but the most important one—she was not unkind, saying this—was that I needed to lose weight, and keep it off.. Like a lot of people, I’d been eating too much while isolated during the COVID epidemic, and I hadn’t been a small person to start with. I nodded, looked in the proverbial mirror, and got started on a course of dieting and physical therapy.
Now, in July 2021, I’m down thirty-five pounds and am on track to lose another twenty by the time I turn 50 in November. My knee feels better.
Nevertheless, I am cautious about optimism. About assuming I’ve fixed what ails me. I’ve been here before, and I know myself a little too well.
In 1999 I was twenty-seven years old. In October of that year, I lost my first wife, Joellen, to bone cancer. When she died I was very heavy—280 pounds or thereabouts. (I’m 6’4”, and had grown up skinny; in my twenties, however, after my metabolism slowed to a crawl, I never learned to change my eating habits, and when Joellen grew sicker and sicker, I was in no state of mind to stop eating for comfort.) A little over a year after Joellen died—a year I spent monomaniacally working out and dieting—I had lost nearly 80 pounds.
A success story, right? Not really. By 2006 I’d gained a lot of it back. Disgusted with myself, I joined a gym and lost 45 pounds. I slowly gained it back. In 2012-13, I learned how to count calories with an app on my phone, and I put 1400 miles on a road bike, and I lost 40 pounds. And then I slowly gained it back.
And so on, and so on.
I calculate that in the last two decades, I’ve lost around 250 pounds of aggregate weight. I weigh less than that at the time of this writing—around 239 or so. I sometimes marvel that I have gained and lost an entire other large human being’s worth of weight. A whole other me, consumed and then gone.
When I lost 80 pounds, that terrible year after my first wife’s passing, I did it out of desperation and fear. My wife had met and fallen in love with me when I was smaller, and I figured I’d need to be small to meet and ever be loved by someone else. In 2001, when I weighed 205 pounds, I started dating again, and I convinced myself I’d been right: I needed a “normal” body in order not to be lonely. I was exorbitantly proud of myself for having done this. I bought into the notion that losing weight was a heroic thing to have done—an act of steely will, and not a reaction to grief. A fundamental change of self subsumed within the physical transformation.
And if I took that to be true, then, when I gained the weight back, well—wasn’t that a sign of weakness? Of failure? (Never mind that in that same span of twenty years I married again; I began and maintained a writing career; I became a professor and earned tenure and founded an MFA program and saw many students of mine succeed. I was loved and had friends. Yet all that while, I was judging myself, alternately growing and shrinking, stuffing myself and starving in what seemed like a never-ending cycle.)
In 2017-18, finally, I began thinking differently about this cycle, and these emotions. That was, not uncoincidentally when I began writing the novella “Big Guy,” which anchors my story collection You Would Have Told Me Not To. I am not someone who believes that writing fiction is automatically therapeutic. I am someone who writes in order to think about complicated ideas, to see how imagined people might succeed or fail at the trials which have so bedeviled me and others. Maybe that I was thinking differently brought “Big Guy” into being, or maybe that I started writing it caused me to think differently. Both are likely true.
The novella isn’t about me—I write fiction, and “Big Guy,” and all the other stories in You Would Have Told Me Not To, are about made-up people. But Doug, the protagonist of “Big Guy,” could fairly be described as an alternate me, someone I could have been. The version of me who chose to become a high school English teacher, maybe, instead of going to graduate school (twice!) to study creative writing. (Or maybe he’s the aggregate me—the other person’s worth of weight I’ve gained and lost.) This man, Doug, decides, in the wake of a sudden and painful divorce, that he needs to lose 100 pounds in order to be happy, to be loved. He sets about doing it. He thinks that if his body is healthy, all the rest of him will be too.
(A spoiler that really isn’t: he’s mistaken.)
I didn’t know I was writing a story collection until I was halfway through “Big Guy.” I realized, writing it, that the novella was going to be about some of the same ideas that concern several short stories I’d already written, most of them between 2015-2019. That means almost all of this book was written after the election of Donald Trump; and written during the #metoo movement, which showed me that I (and every other man trying to pay attention) knew a lot less about what the women in my life have suffered than I’d ever supposed. The stories I was writing, I saw, were largely about the type of men who cause that suffering, and the fallout from their choices. And maybe I could shape them all together into a book.
Not all of these ideas were new. I’m the son of a violent alcoholic, himself the son of a violent alcoholic. I grew up knowing that my dad’s ideas about masculinity weren’t the ones I wanted to uphold. I’ve spent a lifetime trying to be a different sort of man, and in many ways, I have succeeded, and my earlier fiction reflects that thinking.
But the last few years have caused me to rethink everything. I’m nearly fifty, as I’ve said. Old enough to have succeeded, but also to have failed, a lot…and I’ve been writing about failure, too. About trying to change, and not changing. About how—for instance—the way I think about my body, and other’s bodies, has everything to do with the ways I’ve been getting my thinking about masculinity wrong. That these ways of thinking don’t exist in a vacuum. That our interior struggles, even if they seem minor, can often cause major exterior harm.
The finished collection ended up full of stories about couples, men,and women trying to navigate that harm. Several of them are still trying to reckon with past mistakes, to figure out whether they have changed, or ever can. A violent day laborer, willingly staying out of the eyes of society, meets a man who might be his illegitimate son. A privileged college boy spends a summer cheating on his absent girlfriend, while in thrall to a rich lothario who visits the mountain resort where he works. A woman has to reckon with her complex feelings about her adult son—and the son’s father—in the wake of the son being shot outside a bar. The last story I wrote for the book, finished around one minute before my editor Joe Olshan’s deadline, is about a woman who encounters, by chance, a man she’d hoped never to see again: her alcoholic, abusive ex-husband, now apparently sober and reformed, and engaged to be married again. He’s changed, he says—everyone says. So has she. And yet her hurt remains.
Can we change? I wrote “Big Guy,” learned a great deal, and then ate myself into the doctor’s office again. I write this post aware of the irony. But I also write it in the spirit of optimism, the same way I wrote the stories in the collection. Change, growth, reconciliation, forgiveness—these are hard to accomplish and getting harder. Nevertheless, they are what we all have to undergo.
I wrote this book believing—and believing still—that