Miriam Johnson is the author of "The 12-Hour Goodbye That Started Everything", recently featured in the New York Times Modern Love column. Her essay demonstrates a gentle relentlessness in her attempt to process the grey space of the swinging pendulum of requited and unrequited love, and explores the web of intimacy between memory and identity. So of course, we fell in love with Miriam and asked her to interview.
MIRIAM JOHNSON interview
Hi Miriam! Can you tell us a little about yourself?
Hi Amy, thanks for writing me. I live in Toronto. I focused on film and animation at art school, since then I've been drawn to many different types of creative projects. I was a creative director at an apparel company for a couple years before getting involved with documentaries. I also make music and write every day. This essay was the first time I've been published.
You used to work in documentary film and are a songwriter? How have these two influenced how you create written stories, or vice versa?
I love film, journalism, music and podcasts equally. They're different avenues with the same goal of telling a compelling narrative. I absorb stories from different mediums and put them in an internal bank. I draw from that, and dreams, when I need to articulate a thought or feeling.
What made you want to turn your experience from "That 12-Hour Goodbye That Started Everything" into an essay?
I'm a big fan of Modern Love, a weekly column in The New York Times. Every week I'm struck by a writer's willingness to be vulnerable about intimate details of their life and revelations they've found through conflict. The column's editor, Daniel Jones, has carved out a beautiful space for people to write about their hearts in a very sincere way. I wanted to be part of that.
"...and I don't believe in a clean slate. Even when people fall in love for the first time, their backstories collide and merge. I think there are certain times in life where you're not receptive to love, even if you think you are."
Did writing the essay help you process everything, or had you already reached a pretty tranquil point before you started writing?
Many of the lines in the essay are from my journal, which is one of the best ways I know to process feelings. The essay formed organically from journal entries as I moved on from the relationship.
In "Letters to a Young Poet" Rilke mentions that the most comprehensive and the most ideal kind of love will be when two people are able to look at each other firstly as humans and have care and attention to each other hinge off the idea that they are both people, rather than trying to fulfill some sort of gendered social conventions. It seems like a lot of times we slot people into whatever romantic role we have open for them and want to keep them in that slot.
In your essay, you mention that when you met, he was "...working through a break up." Do you think the kind of care people have for each other when romantic conditions are less than optimal is different than the kind of love that is fostered when both people have "clean slates"? Or do you think there's no such thing as a clean slate?
I agree with Rilke, and I don't believe in a clean slate. Even when people fall in love for the first time, their backstories collide and merge. I think there are certain times in life where you're not receptive to love, even if you think you are. Otherwise, I'd be surprised if anyone who's single could honestly say they don't have someone in the back of their mind.
Your essay mentions animals in relation to self awareness and empowerment and also others' perception of you (good or bad, sexy or belittling) through these comparisons. Do you usually write with nature/animal comparisons? How do you think comparing and contrasting ourselves to the animal kingdom helps process our love lives, if it does?
I spend a lot of time thinking about animals. They're a big part of my life and that's reflected in my writing. It was only after reading the essay many times that I realized it was full of animals — an ocelot, hamster, seahorse, deer, salmon, sharks. It surprised me that something so obvious was unintentional. I don't know if it helps process our love lives but I think it helps tell a story, because most people can vividly imagine different animals and their traits.
You have this beautiful key phrase "I feel love for you," rather than, "I love you". I've never heard this before. Where did you pick this up? Was he the first man you said that to? Or is it a phrase you find yourself using often?
He's the only person I've said that to. It's softer and more guarded than "I love you." I've never heard someone else say it.
You have another line, after realizing you can't always contain the person you love: "You can't contain your own love, either." Your therapist's advice was "honor the truth inside yourself and give that to another." If he wouldn't have broken up with you, do you think you would have realized you were not the best fit for each other?
I'm not sure, because I still thought we were a match long after we broke up. I never understood the end from his perspective. Eventually I concluded that when someone ends a relationship, they're declaring themselves an unfit match, so reasons (or lack of reasons) don't matter. Rejection is something to make friends with when pursuing anyone or anything of value.
Have you ever been on the opposite side of the spectrum where you were the one initiating the marathon break up?
I've initiated a number of breakups. It doesn't feel good from either side.
How did that film about sharks turn out?
The film's director, Rob Stewart, passed away while filming. He dedicated his career to shark conservation and was one of few filmmakers bringing attention to how misunderstood sharks are, and how that is impacting their survival. Since then, his family has assembled an incredible team of passionate people to continue making the film in his honor.
What do you think the relationship between solitude and travel is? Do you take a lot of solo trips or do you join up with friends or projects?
I love travelling alone. Most of the trips I've taken overseas have started like that, then I make friends along the way. Travelling alone is important, I think, because you feel very close to yourself.
What are some of your favorite songs about love? Or favorite songs to listen to when you're in love? Songs when you have nobody specific to love?
A line that has trailed through my mind for years is from Suzanne, by Leonard Cohen: "You know that she's half crazy but that's why you want to be there." It applies to creative projects too, where you commit to losing your mind in a disciplined way. I also like "Love Is A Many Splendored Thing" by Connie Francis. Chances With Wolves is an online radio show that I listen to a lot. They play mysterious covers of 60s folk songs and other things I've never heard before.
***Miriam created a playlist for us to accompany her interview. Scroll above, for "The 12-Hour Goodbye."