Last June, I finally got up the nerve to show my wife the novel I'd been working on for almost four years. I didn't want to—not yet—but after several deadline extensions, I had two months to deliver a finished manuscript to my publisher.
"Will you help me?" I said.
"Do I have a choice?"
Deborah and I met in 1993, in the graduate creative writing program at Ohio State. She was a year behind me but four years older, with a tangle of thick brown hair and a long, sure stride. I found her irresistible from the first time she blew me off, at a professor's party for new students. I'd been assigned to be her mentor; she had no interest in being my mentee. I remember thinking—hoping—she'd give me my due once she read my work. And she did. But it was Deborah who turned out to be, hands down, the best writer in the program, as well as a brilliant reader. We became friends over bottles of High Life with the other MFAs in the sticky booths at Larry's Bar, building the trust you need to give and take criticism. And then, like a surprise ending that in hindsight seems inevitable, we fell in love.
Since then, Deborah has edited every piece of prose I've written. Though her criticisms are often less than gentle ("I'm going to throw up" is a representative margin note), she makes my work better. Much, much better. I save her marked-up manuscripts as an unluckier husband might save love letters.
But this manuscript wasn't ready to be marked up. It sat on our bedroom dresser, unread, as the clock ticked. Even though we weren't in the habit of talking about my work-in-progress, the fact that after all this time I hadn't shown her any pages made it perfectly clear that the book was a mess.
My first novel had gotten good reviews and sold, for a first novel, reasonably well; I wanted to do better this time. At the very least, I wanted not to go backward. This novel's success would also impact my next book deal—hell, it might determine whether there would be a next one. And then there was Deborah. She works as a high-level editor at a major magazine; I didn't want to put her in the position of walking into the office the wife of second-rate novelist. The prospect of embarrassing her—of being anything less than a husband she might feel the urge to brag about—was even worse than the prospect of embarrassing myself.
After three days, she started reading.
"There's some good stuff here," she said, "but it needs a lot of work. A lot."
So much work, in fact, that when she finished reading, we seriously discussed killing the deal. Better to pay back the advance than publish a novel before it was ready, right? But I'd long since spent the advance. Not turning the book in, or turning it in and having it rejected, would have meant paying back money I no longer had.
For 10 years, I'd been working as a freelance writer and editor, making money but not a living. It was a good arrangement family-wise, allowing me to stay home with our daughter, but not so great financially or, sometimes, ego-wise. It's one thing to reject the idea that it's a man's job to bring home all the bacon; it's another the 500th time your wife reaches for the check at dinner. And Deborah was ready for a reprieve. This was supposed to be the book that would lead to a teaching job that would lead to more balance, possibly even give her the option of working at home herself and having more time with our daughter. She'd waited long enough.
In September—after a scorching, testy summer of rewriting—I turned in the manuscript. My publisher gave me permission to continue revising as the book went into production. That was the good news. The bad news was, the book was still half-baked. I had until January to basically rewrite a novel I hadn't been able to properly finish in four years.
That week, we drove from New Jersey to Maine for an end-of-summer getaway. When we'd planned the trip, we'd imagined it as a reward—whiling away our days on Sebago Lake with no more book deadline to worry about. Instead, the book was still hanging over me—over us—a darker cloud than ever. It was there as we paddled the kayaks, swam from the docks, snapped at our daughter for tracking sand into the cabin. We were living with a tension that seemed to have no end.
On our last night in Maine, as the two of us sat at dinner, staring out at the lake, Deborah finally let loose a torrent of disappointment. She didn't see how the book could possibly be ready in time. She couldn't believe how little progress I'd made in the four yearsher hard work had bought.
"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.
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.