My editor, my wife: I save her marked-up manuscripts as an unluckier husband might save love letters.

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April 27 2011 11:48 AM

My Editor, My Wife

I save her marked-up manuscripts as an unluckier husband might save love letters.

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"What's wrong with you?" she said. "What have you been doing all this time?"

I hated her that night. I wished I'd never asked for her help. And I hated myself for needing it more than ever.

***

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Five years ago, at a bar in New York, I gave a reading of a short story that would become the opening chapter of my first novel. The place was crowded. My agent was there, and Deborah, and several writer friends. I was happy for the chance to read in public and happier still not to blow it—people seemed to genuinely like the story. What meant the most to me, though, was sitting down the next morning and finding, on my keyboard, a note from Deborah: "I loved being your wife tonight. XOXO."

And that's the thing. To be in love with someone is to want them to want you back, to never give up wooing—even after 11 years of marriage. I'd consider ours a failure if I didn't now and then still remind Deborah of the cocky but smitten grad student who won over the new girl. Writing will always be the way I first swept her off her feet.

Back home, I got to work on another rewrite. Deborah got to work, too, coming home each night with pages she'd marked up on the train. Her notes were about fleshing out the world of the story, digging deeper into the characters, raising the level of the language—things any good writer knows any good story must have, but that I needed her push to do. Pages flew between us as the book went from copy edit to proofs to second proofs. By Christmas, she'd gone through the manuscript three times, making painstaking comments on every page.

Somewhere along the line, the book came together. Scenes came into focus. The narrator finally found his voice. And by the time I turned in my last batch of revisions just after New Year's, the novel had become the piece of fiction I'm proudest of.

"It's surprisingly not bad," Deborah said, with a smile.

***

Once upon a time, repaying my wife would have been simple—I'd have edited her novel. In fact, it wouldn't have been repayment so much as a natural part of our life together.

But Deborah's not working on a novel. A couple of years after grad school, she gave up writing fiction altogether.

"I've told all the stories I have to tell," she said.

We were living in Cincinnati, where I was the executive editor of a literary quarterly called Story, and Deborah was the freelance writer making no money. Shortly after our wedding, we switched places, and she took a job at a magazine in Indianapolis. It was the beginning of an editorial career that eventually brought us East and that has given me the flexibility to write.

I know how lucky I am. And I know Deborah and I are long overdue for another adjustment to our breadwinning arrangement. Sometimes I also wonder if a better husband would find someone else to get feedback from. I have plenty of friends who'd be happy to exchange work. But none of them is Deborah. For better or worse, she is still the reader I write for. So until she says no, I'll keep asking for her brutal, beautiful help.

Will Allison is the author of the novels What You Have Left and Long Drive Home, which will be in bookstores next month.