Writing Like an Orphan and Publishing in The New York Times
February 21, 2017 § 30 Comments
By William Dameron
I resigned myself to rejection several weeks before the email from The New York Times editor landed in my mailbox. This was the fourth essay in as many years I had submitted to the popular Modern Love column. The “Thanks, but no thanks,” email always arrived punctually at the six week mark. But this email came a day or two after twelve weeks. When I read the salutation, Dear William Dameron, my heart sank. I took a deep breath and readied myself for the inevitable rejection. I am interested in your essay.
I stopped breathing.
For many memoir writers, a byline in the Modern Love column is the holy grail of publication. Book deals have been struck based on those 1,500 words and the odds of being published in the column are slim. Out of 7,000 submissions annually, only 52 are accepted, less than one percent. But this one finally took and I was going to give birth to my beautiful newborn essay!
I have an unexpected opening soon and want to be assured that your family is OK with publication. Are they?
“Ok” seemed like a vague term. What exactly was his definition? I thought about my daughters’ role in the essay. In it they chat on the telephone and sleep through my goodbye. They had minor roles; sure, they would be ok with that.
What about the handful of other people in this essay: my childhood neighbor, the college girlfriend, the guy in the bar from more than thirty years ago and the man from Match.com? They were just cameos; no problems there. My mother? She was a little trickier, but I could easily edit those two sentences.
And then I considered my ex-wife.
Here is the thing about writing memoir; you can’t just scratch the surface and expect readers to care. You have to dig deep and expose the fault lines. You must jump into the abyss and then somehow claw your way back to the top. No one makes that trip alone. Sometimes we work together, often we fight each other for a toehold and sometimes we stand on each other’s shoulders. But sometimes, we let go. And this was an essay about letting go.
For the past three years I have been getting up at 5 a.m. to write a book-length memoir. Each morning I think of Anne Lamott’s quote: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” And another one that sticks with me is Joyce Maynard’s quote: “Write as if you were an orphan.”
This essay was not vengeful. Neither was it a tribute. It was truthful and there were two paragraphs regarding my ex-wife that had never been revealed to the public. Those two paragraphs held the others together like a keystone. Without them, everything else crumbled.
I sent the essay to my ex-wife with a note explaining how our story was so important and that revealing yourself, warts and all, was incredibly liberating. Her response? “I can’t believe you even wrote those two paragraphs about me. They need to be removed immediately.” But I didn’t remove them. I modified them and sent the changes back to the editor who was quick with his own reply.
With essays like this, you can’t be coy or evasive or you lose credibility. With the change, you’re making readers fill in the gaps, to speculate, to fumble around. It’s like in trying to walk a tightrope you end up falling off both sides.
I had a sickening feeling in my gut that felt like falling. Falling back into the abyss where I had braided together 75,000 words that lay coiled like a rope on the cavern floor. They would never see the light of day.
Yes, we own everything that happened to us, but do we own everything that happened to others which in turn affected what happened to us? When can we claim someone else’s secret as germane to telling our own? While Lamott’s directive “Tell your stories,” seems clear, reality is not.
I have shared my most intimate secrets with complete strangers in writer’s workshops and received accolades for dubious life choices I have made. “Oh you abused steroids? What a perfect metaphor. You have to include that!” Through the process of writing about my life, I have become inured to the pain and hardships. But I had not allowed others to process what happened to them because of what happened to me.
I took a deep breath, crafted an email to the editor and told him that the two paragraphs must be removed. If the essay fell apart, then I had to accept the consequences.
Four days, three hours and twelve minutes later, I received an email from the editor, certain that it would be “Thanks, but no thanks.”
We’re going to run the essay short and I’ll use the space to promote our college essay contest.
When I re-read the essay I realized it didn’t fall apart, but it had shifted focus and in turn, so did I. This was an essay about love after all and so I needed to show it.
Every morning I wake up early and tell my stories. Yes, I will always write as if I am an orphan, but when I publish them, I’ll remember that I am not.