We Can Only Navigate With What We Know

An interview with the winner of the $1,000 "Marriage" essay contest

Elane Johnson is the winner of Creative Nonfiction’s $1,000 “Marriage” essay contest. Her prize-winning essay, “The Math of Marriage,” which was chosen by the magazine’s editors from 570 submissions, uses the narrative of her five marriages to explore why we marry, despite the odds. The essay’s concision (it’s less than 1,500 words) and scope are impressive, and the humor throughout adds levity to the often heartbreaking discussion surrounding divorce. “What is it that makes people risk the financial ruin, the emotional upheaval, the gaping wounds of probable divorce? What is it that makes your heart nearly burst from the utter joy of the phrase, ‘getting married’?” Johnson writes, leaving us to answer the question for ourselves.

Elane Johnson’s nonfiction has been anthologized, featured in college creative writing curricula across the United States and internationally, and published in Brevity, Hippocampus, Superstition Review, SonoraReview, the Indianapolis Star, and Current, among other publications. Elane, who is represented by Veronica Park of Corvisiero Literary Agency, holds an MFA (with distinction) in creative nonfiction and teaches graduate-level creative writing for Southern New Hampshire University online. For more information, visit her website, Life in the eLane.

CNF: “The Math of Marriage” begins with an image of you walking down the aisle for the first time. When you began writing this piece, did it feel natural to start there or did you initially begin elsewhere?

JOHNSON: My first wedding was a behind-the-scenes disaster (not to mention the only time I’ve actually walked a traditional aisle), and nothing but the image of the carved Jesus taunting me could’ve fit the absurdity of the experience. That sucker set the tone for my many marches into matrimony, so I had to lead with it.

CNF: You use math as a device in the piece as a way to skillfully include statistics about marriage and divorce. When did you make the decision to include these numbers?

JOHNSON: Before I even began writing the essay, I’d settled on the concept and title because there’s no escaping numbers when it comes to me and marriage; plus, I honestly do love the thought of adding two people and coming up with one entity. Then, the percentages idea started percolating since divorce is so prominent.

CNF: Did you have any difficulty when doing research for this piece? How did you decide when and where to include the statistics?

JOHNSON: Well, now, before Hattie and the fact checkers got ahold of the essay, I’d have said that researching marriage/divorce statistics is so easy that a blindfolded baby with spotty Internet access can do it. But, then I found that I suck not only at marriage and coming up with snappy images for “easy” but also at finding verifiable statistics. It was a low, low day followed by a couple of weeks of research hell. Figuring out when and where to include the stats was the only easy part.

CNF: During your research process, did you come across anything that surprised you?

JOHNSON: I shouldn’t have been surprised, but there is a statistic (“73% of third marriages end in divorce”) attributed to the 2006 U.S. Census Bureau’s report that’s been repeated so often and in so many reputable publications that it’s become accepted as fact although one source, SmartStepfamilies.com, notes that the author of The Good News About Marriage discovered the statistic’s questionable authenticity and that the Census confirms the mistake. The way that Smart Stepfamilies presents the debunking sounds kind of like, “my third cousin’s neighbor’s uncle’s hairdresser’s best friend said…,” but the whole mess is a blaring reminder that it’s best to gather data from original sources.   

CNF: You don’t use any names to identify your husbands in the essay. Can you tell us a bit about why you made this choice?

JOHNSON: Hmmm. There are two reasons for the choice. No matter how much animosity and/or agony my ex-husbands and I have generated, I care about their feelings, as naïve as that may be. (And obviously, in some cases, more now than I did when we were married.) But, the more compelling reason is that I wanted the essay to be less about Elane and more about marriage.

CNF: This essay covers such a large period of time. What are the challenges of writing about a big stretch of time so concisely? Is anything lost?

JOHNSON: Scads of details, explanations and defense of choices have to go when we are whittling thirty years to 1,500 words. But, since an objective of memoir and personal essays should be an exploration of ideas that go beyond ourselves, why not search for precise events that not only show what happened but that offer an unsanitized view of humanity (and possible insights) with which others can relate? The challenge is to recognize that not every little thing that seemed paramount to us is relevant. Choosing what stays in is difficult but fun. 

CNF: Throughout the essay, the voice is funny and sometimes sardonic. Do you think concision allowed you to play with this voice more than a longer piece would have?

JOHNSON: I love this question, so thank you for asking it because it’s unearthed a reminder I needed. “Funny and sardonic” can become “annoying and exhausting” in a longer piece. So, brevity does offer a writer the opportunity to employ a particular narrative voice or tone in an ultimately small dose.

CNF: Are there any details you really wanted to include in the essay, but you didn’t either because you felt they were ultimately unnecessary or didn’t work within the limited space the piece called for?

JOHNSON: I am the quintessential over-explainer, so I’m compelled to go on and on to ensure that everyone understands why I do what I do or am what I am. The tidbit “married five times” naturally inspires some negative perceptions—instability, capriciousness, immaturity, insincerity, artfulness—and I’m loath to be labeled as such. But the essay isn’t intended to explain why we are more complex than our labels, so I had to suck it up and allow the fact of my multiple marriages to illustrate the essay’s focus.

CNF: Ultimately, you ask why we get married in the first place, even when the math is against us, and we know it so often doesn’t work. However, you don’t try to answer that question for us, at least not directly. The answer seems to be in your choice to get married for the fifth time. Why did you make this choice narratively?

JOHNSON: Because even though most of us can rattle off “reasons” that we marry, there is no one right answer. As I mention below, people marry for practicality. Or because their families arrange it or because they need a cover, or they are too damned drunk to realize what happens in a Vegas wedding chapel is legally binding. The motivations are endless and endlessly fascinating. I figured that because many (most?) of us are hopeful creatures with a short memory when it comes to past pain in the presence of possible future bliss, the idea that getting married provides proof that we’re not alone—even if only for a little while—would resonate with readers.

CNF: Can you tell us a little more about why, even after four previous marriages, you decided to get married for a fifth time?

JOHNSON: Besides the fact that I am crazy about Hess (my husband, Stephen Ulrich), our decision to marry instead of just to continue cohabitating was—not to diminish how ridiculously romantic we both are—practical. Too many murky legal/medical/financial questions cropped up, and the safer answer turned out to be an official marriage license. It’s all kinds of stupid to trust that in the event of a disaster, family members (close or not) will even remember one’s wishes or honor them. And, P.S., no matter what age you are, go get a living will right now so that folks won’t have to sweat the details without you. Hurry up.   

CNF: Is there any advice you give to newlyweds or those who are getting married for the second or third time?

JOHNSON: My inclination is to say, “God, no!” because where do I get off thinking I have credible advice for anyone? But, the truth is that each marriage is unique, and what I’ve experienced may not apply one bit to anyone else’s situation. There are infinite paths and directions and detours, and we can only navigate with what we know or believe or feel in the present. Crystal balls are terribly unreliable, and hindsight doesn’t count.

CNF: Are there any other projects you’re working on right now, marriage-related or not?

JOHNSON: Okay. I have a couple of hot things on the stove. First is a true crime book. Until last year, one of my high school classmates was serving a life sentence for the murder of his wife, whose body was discovered in a landfill. The couple’s six-year-old daughter—who went missing at the same time—has never been found. After one of the jurors was tried and found guilty of misconduct in the original trial (and subsequently sent to the same jail where the alleged murderer had been relocated!), the conviction was tossed. A retrial is coming soon, and after ten years, both sides now have the chance to fortify their cases; the outcome is anyone’s guess.

Second is the ongoing blog, “Misadventures in the eLane,” and you’ll just have to check it out because if anyone hands out awards for screw ups, I’m totally going home with a golden naked man or at least a little statue of one.

About the Author

Rachel Ann Brickner

Rachel Ann Brickner was the first Writing Pittsburgh Fellow for Creative Nonfiction. Currently, she's an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Pittsburgh where she also teaches composition. In a previous life, Rachel lived in New York City and San Francisco where she worked in textbook publishing.

View Essays