Putting it in writing

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI grew up thinking how important it was to put things in writing. Putting a contract or agreement or even an intention in writing gave it more validity than verbal agreements. Or so I thought.

Turns out that putting something in writing guarantees nothing. It’s just another one of those great myths.

It my case, dealing with promises put in writing and then broken has created some great lessons in Earth School.


Aspiring writers grow up craving to land writing contracts. Having a book publisher want to sign you up is a big deal in validity. It means that your ideas and your skills as a writer are up to the challenge. A written contract is a form of security. In some ways, it is an answer to all those people who told me/us to give up our dreams and get a real job.

In the 1990s I landed a book contract for a manuscript on online romance I had written. I also got a contract to write a sequel. I was delighted.

With great excitement I invested a few months writing the second book. In the meantime, the publisher ran into issues promoting and selling the first book. He ended up informing me that he would not publish the second book, which by then I had finished writing and he had already accepted for publication with another contract.

Usually, publishing contracts favor the publisher. All he had to do was change his mind, and he was off the hook. In the end, having that publishing contract in writing essentially meant nothing.

(A humorous sidenote: publishers send out advance sales copy to places like Amazon. On an Internet search one time I uncovered a research paper that had cited my book, which never got published, as a reference consulted for the project!)

A little after that fiasco, I was asked by another publisher to co-write a book with her — an insider’s guide to book publishing. She drew up a publishing contract for “to protect us,” since we would be co-authors.

We spent a few months working on the book. She was the authority with credentials, but the actual wordsmith action, which was very time-consuming, was my role. She would be the primary authority for speeches and presentations for the book. I got no upfront money for my work.

Then with mounting business and personal problems, she unexpectedly announced that she was in overwhelm and had to stop working on the book. No matter that she had put her intentions in writing — it meant nothing. That book was also listed on Amazon for years (and ironically did not include me as co-author.)

I was certainly a busy writer of unpublished books!


I used to get tickled when my wife would promise that she would never leave me. It seemed naive to use the word never. She took pride in her promises and swore she never broke them. Amused, I told her to put her pledge in writing.

She did. In a statement written in longhand, she penned these words that will last in infamy: “I promise I will never leave you.” And then she signed it.

A few months later she initiated our (amicable) divorce.

A love pledge in writing offers a security myth. Sometimes it holds forever; sometimes it collapses. I have a signed souvenir from my ex-wife that she will never leave me.


In addition to broken promises, most of us are taught the hard way to “read the fine print.”

The fine print is usually the legal jargon used by corporations or crooks to wiggle out of any promise made by exaggerated advertising or corporate myth. For example, we see all those wonderful commercials about how the insurance companies and a host of other saviors rush to our aid in times of distress. That is, until we actually need help in the real world. Then it’s, “Oh, sorry, not included. Didn’t you read your policy?”

In love relationships, the fine print comes in the form of all the excuses, rationalizations, and justifications for our behavior that attends broken promises. “Oh, did you take my promise that I will never leave you literally? I meant it as an intention. Oops.”


Many of us have great stories to tell about all the times that “s/he reneged on all those promises.” I have many.

There’s a part of me that gets all huffy when I feel lied to — when someone promises to do something yummy or comforting and then doesn’t. When they had emblazoned their pledge of loyalty and love in writing, it seems to justify my anger or injury even more. Look, empirical evidence that they led me on! I am righteously indignant. I am justifiably hurt. I am a victim.

I can frame the piece of writing and hang it on a wall. I can point to it and excitedly demonstrate how I was fed a line of bullshit (although quite frankly, I don’t know what bulls have to do with any of it, but we haven’t advanced our profanity to include “Human shit!” as an expletive.)

But ultimately, what does it accomplish?


When I am disappointed in love, I often wonder if it had anything to do with promise-breaking karma my soul generated in past lives. Was I a crook in the past? Did I romantically deceive and possibly destroy lovers in past lives? Am I being shown why it’s a risky idea to promise someone love and loyalty?

I don’t conceive of karma as an agent of punishment, but I do believe that in Earth School we get growth lessons. One lesson for me has been dealing with disillusionment from hype colliding with reality. Promises dissolve. I don’t always think of it as someone telling overt lies, but I am still left to deal with my emotional wreckage when it happens.

The spiritual lesson I have come to embrace is to live life more in the moment. Embrace change more. Reduce expectations that people will stay the same. I have changed course over my life voyage, so why not give others the same benefit? I don’t think I am a monster for drifting toward new interests or beliefs as I outgrew old ones, so why should I demonize anyone else for doing the same thing even when it means they abandon our friendship?

Disappointments can still bring on body blows to the emotions, and often to the wallet, but festering on dramas of betrayal, victimization, or what coulda-shoulda happened are just not helpful. The best course for me for when people backpedal from their promises is to look for the next bike path.

8 thoughts on “Putting it in writing

  1. N℮üґ☼N☮☂℮ṧ says:

    “Was I a crook in the past? Did I romantically deceive and possibly destroy lovers in past lives? Am I being shown why it’s a risky idea to promise someone love and loyalty?”

    I am reminded of the myth of ‘original sin’. The myth of our past still haunts our cultural subconscious and tells us that we had something to do with the mistreatment and disrespect we received by others, in particular, those we love. That’s reflective of the shame culture we live in, as demonstrated in research.

    One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in life has to do with seasons. Life is about seasons and cycles. It can’t always be Spring or Summer. Relationships are like that, too.

    As far as relationship contracts go, it seems to me that your wife, ex-wife was once riding high on reward neurotransmitters (Honeymoon period) and as soon as effect from the neurotransmitters naturally waned, so did her promises.

    Btw, congratulations on being a published co-author. I’m sorry to read you didn’t get the credit you deserved. From what I’ve read so far from you, you’re an excellent writer.

    • Joshua Bagby says:

      Thank you, Victoria. I think one of the big challenges ahead is to somehow get brain research (and other relative research) in line with how normal society functions through its culture, media, religion, education, etc. It’s astonishing how research can point to directions that run quite contrary to how normal society works. For instance, there is much research on the impact of shame and low self-esteem, and yet shame is a cornerstone of advertising, politics, religion, etc.

      As for broken contracts in work and play, I think most of us have experiences like this where we end up feeling cheated and used. We all have our stories!

      I like your observation about relationships having seasons. I like autumn, the great harvest of all the cultivating that went before it.

  2. Isaac Yuen says:

    Your piece really resonates with me right now as I’m going through divorce. Sometimes I still find myself in that phase of holding onto righteous indignation at being betrayed, but like you say, what does clinging onto that ultimately accomplish? Won’t make things the way they were.

    Hard to realize this when you’re in the thick of it though.

    • Joshua Bagby says:

      Isaac, thank you for your comment. It’s challenging, to say the least, to deal positively with those feelings of betrayal. It’s so tempting (for me anyway) to get caught up in the juicy story of how I got hurt. But then another part of me counters, “So is that the story you want to worship for the rest of your life?” It usually isn’t. It’s much better to use my time inventing new stories about what I want to do with the rest of my life. Then I just have to follow my own advice!

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