|This is not my dog.|
He is only here to
make a point.
I know this is empty nest season. Possibly there's something under the couch or behind the refrigerator that I haven't already said about empty nest, but today I want to write about marriage.
My friend Sharon Hodor Greenthal is an editor of the online magazine Midlife Boulevard, a popular blogger and published writer elsewhere of all things midlife. As she has become more public she has, of course, encountered her share of critics. She's learned to deal. But I'm touched by what she says about her husband: "He has my back."
I love the sound of that because if marriage is and isn't a lot of things, it should be one thing: an alliance - the force of two facing down the challenges of one.
And so, here is an ally story.
Ten years ago, I described the first book I wrote to someone at a party this way:
"Well, it's women's fiction. It's basically about the choices we make and how we defend those choices when we are challenged to make new ones."
I said, "Probably not a book a man would read."
He said, "My wife would never read anything like that either."
I was a new writer and not a very confident one, so I couldn't decide whether he meant his wife was not a reader, or not a reader of women's fiction, or not a reader of "identity" themes, or not a reader of the drek I would probably write, but that smug tone wounded me.
"Maybe she's a reader of what he tells her to read," said my husband, the German Shepherd.
There's a reason writers refer to first novels as the "under the bed" book. They're terrible. They don't have plots, they're about the author, and they are written in such a hurry the characters have the depth of a paper doll. Once, I met an agent who referred to first novels as the "book of me" and I laughed because she was exactly right.
So that was me ten years ago, a fragile new writer who needed helpful critique but didn't handle it particularly well, married to a man who was blessed and cursed with the gift of cutting to the chase. Asking my husband for "helpful critique" without hurting my feelings was like asking a door slammer to check a souffle.
So, I gave him instructions. "Will you read my book and tell me if it's any good, but tell me the good things first?"
With that, he read my first novel and responded like this: "Well, you know some readers like action and plot but not all of them. Some like character studies and stories that remind them of their own lives."
That was a lot of writing ago.
If you visit me here, you know I recently finished a third novel and am now getting ready to submit it. If you're a novelist you know this means I've come up with an ending and will be ready to submit it in about a year after I stop fixing it.
Two weeks ago, I detected a problem with flow. The first three chapters were clunky and uneven and "too". Too much back-story, too little action, too contrived. I began to panic and flipped through, trying to see where it fell off, where it got fat, and the more I looked at those first three chapters (often the only material your target agent will allow you to send with that query letter that took six years to write) the more convinced I became that nobody's wife would want to read it.
"Oh dear God," I said to Gus, my writer-cat. "We actually really, really suck at this."
My husband was leaving on business, "Give it to me," he said. "I'll read it on the plane."
A week later:
"Okay, I read it," he said.
"Sections two and three are fantastic. They flow, it's fast, the dialog is great, I couldn't put it down. Section one? I'll be honest. If I'd picked up this book in the airport, by the time I finished section one, I would have wanted my eight bucks back."
Because I am no longer a souffle, I laughed.
"But I found your problem," he said.
We laid the pages out on the table and went paragraph by paragraph. As he read, he described his reading experience, his attitude, expectations and mood:
"See? Here," he pointed, "I'm thinking, don't tell me what she's thinking, tell me what she's going to do, because I am really waiting to find out."
And so on... where he was confused, where things seemed extraneous, where it worked and didn't, when he was bored.
It took hours after we figured it out, but I fixed it.
And said right out loud as if I were meeting this book for the first time, "Okay, this is good."
Ten years ago, my husband believed in my writing more than I did. Had he made that "eight bucks" comment back then, I might have quit. But when I asked for his honesty this time, it was because I knew it would sting only if he was being honest, and would also be the kind of honest that gets stuff done.
And that is the very nice thing about some marriages; the more you trust someone, the more willing you are to admit when you're lost, and the more willing they are to fetch you and bring you where you belong because that's what German Shepherds do. Even if they must use their teeth to do it.