Writing Like an Orphan and Publishing in The New York Times

February 21, 2017 § 30 Comments

By William Dameronzz dam.jpg

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.


William Dameron‘s writing has appeared in The New York Times, Salon.com, The Boston Globe, Saranac Review and The Huffington Post. He has been named a Blogher “Voice of The Year” for 2014-2016. He blogs somewhat infrequently at www.living-authentically.com. William is currently working on a memoir.


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§ 30 Responses to Writing Like an Orphan and Publishing in The New York Times

  • Thanks for these important reminders. And congrats on the pub!

  • Joanne says:

    Well done, and important. And so glad you included the link to the ML essay in the NYT. It was beautifully rendered.

  • Jan Priddy says:

    “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.” In my braver moment I write memoir. You have given me something to work on. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  • Wow. First, so glad they decided to run that essay – what a piece. So happy it got to see the light of day, and in Modern Love, no less. I give you so much credit for moving forward with honesty and being brave enough to accept the consequences. So many people stop themselves from even WRITING the truth because they’re afraid of hurting someone else, but I think your advice is spot on – write like an orphan, but publish knowing you’re not. Congrats on the placement!

    • wcdameron says:

      That is what has saved me, knowing that I can write anything and no one will see it. When it comes down to publishing is when the hard decisions must be made. Thank you.

  • philipparees says:

    Very interesting ( and for me right now) relevant post. I am lucky to have outlived almost everyone who might have mattered. Do precious ( but inaccurate) portraits others might value count? My ex-husband ( dead) but sanctified by our daughters? Facts and episodes that would strip the masks?

    Yes a minefield of feelings, made worse by the first person narrator that can never hide behind a character. Memoirists are often accused of self importance- the Saint Sebasitian self importance, naked for the arrows!
    I identify with the sense of somehow cheating by deletions, so an alternative to publishing knowing your’e not ( an orphan) is to wait until you are!

    • wcdameron says:

      I have often thought about that, but what if I’m gone before anyone else? 🙂

      • philipparees says:

        Pithy question! So publish and be damned, as long as our motives are not sullied ( by emotions that are unworthy) I do believe little harm will come. None of us should be constrained by fear, otherwise truth ( our truth which is all we have) becomes contorted.

        There are damaging ‘facts’ which may not be as important as the effects of them, ( and can be inferred) but sometimes the critical event has to be faced, and uncovered for the story to have substance.

  • Eliana says:

    I’ve never felt so on edge about someone else’s editorial response. Well handled, probably better than I would have.

  • Julie Dameron says:

    As your mother, it has been hard sometimes to see that I lived in the “Leave it to Beaver” relationship between mother and child and didn’t want to look at reality. Our relationship has grown as I opened my eyes to who you are rather than what I thought you should be. I am very proud of the man, husband and father and writer you are

  • Mary says:

    Intense sequence of events! I’m glad they decided to publish after all.

  • Marilyn says:

    This post clarifies so much for me as a writer with stories to tell but also people I want the best for. You made a good choice and ended up with this excellent post to boot.

  • Maya Morrow says:

    “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.”

    Insightful. Really good advice, though in your case I understand your ex wife’s need for privacy. Classy and very human of you to respect that.

    Your essay is reminiscent of a short story by Raymond Carver titled “The Calm.” Congratulations on the publishing success.

    • wcdameron says:

      Thank you for mention of Raymond Carver’s “The Calm.” Wow, just read it and the similarities are certainly there, right down to the name “Bill” and the final outcome.

      • Maya Morrow says:

        You’re kindred spirits! Certainly you have been connected in past lives. Your story is important and terribly brave. Thank you for giving men the courage to be true to themselves. And the fact that your daughters want to marry a man like you or your husband is the highest praise. Kudos, Dad!

  • Mare S. says:

    Wow. This is eye-opening. Thanks for sharing your experience, warts and all. I don’t know how I’d feel about an ex dictating what I do or don’t publish. Looking forward to reading your story – opened in another tab.

    • Mare S. says:

      update: I’d already read your essay when it published. Bravo. Loved it, it made me cry.

      • wcdameron says:

        It’s tough. Certainly in my book length memoir, I won’t allow people to pick and choose what they want removed, but in this shorter piece, this one scene took on more gravity. Thank you!

      • Maya Morrow says:

        Another option? Write a roman a clef. I don’t know this writer, but her blog is spot-on: http://thewritepractice.com/roman-a-clef/

        My manuscript (memoir/published diaries) is far too close to publication to do it any other way, and I’m likely going to have to soothe some ruffled feathers, but I’m not slandering anyone, and truth is always so much more interesting. Reading this (your blog post) actually strengthened me. One day we’ll all be gone, but our stories will live forever.

      • Maya Morrow says:

        one more thing:

        “…Even if you publish the truth, you may still be sued for invasion of privacy if you disclose private information that is embarrassing or unpleasant about an identifiable, living person and that is offensive to ordinary sensibilities and not of overriding public interest.

        The target must have a reasonable expectation of privacy. Any conduct in public is not protected, particularly today when everyone carries a camera in their pocket. Similarly, public figures can have little expectation of privacy. A movie star lounging topless on a yacht should not be surprised that a camera with a long lens is pointing her way.

        The disclosure must be more than embarrassing; it must harm a person’s personal and professional reputation. Typically, these cases involve incest, rape, abuse, or a serious disease or impairment. Sex videos have triggered a number of suits.

        Even if the information is highly offensive, courts often decide there is no legal liability if the information is of public interest. Public interest does not mean high-brow or intellectual. Gossip, smut, and just about anything about celebrities is of public interest.”


        I found this to be very good news. If it’s of public interest, you kind of win.

  • Thank you for writing this beautiful post. It’s always the quandary, isn’t it? We’re always told to write what we know and be bold about it. Sylvia Plath once wrote, “Everything in life is writable if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise.” But when writing a memoir, truth trumps everything. And yet, how much of our lives and experiences are really just ours? Best of luck on the memoir–I think it’s a brave thing to write. 🙂 Looking forward to reading your essay next.

  • marymtf says:

    Nicely said, William. And a lesson learned. I’m sure that The New York Times keeps a bunch of lawyers on a leash to go over each word with a fine tooth comb, something aspiring writers do not have.

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