The tell-all memoir I decided not to tell

I was ecstatic when I sold a book about my sordid first marriage. But what happened next was the real surprise

Topics: Life stories, Memoir, Writers and Writing, Love and Sex, Coupling, Divorce, Confessional Writing, Publishing,

The tell-all memoir I decided not to tell (Credit: guvendemir via iStock/Salon)

I read the email between my two teaching periods at the University of Arizona. “Emily,” it said, “we got the offer.”

I was 30, about to finish grad school, and a walking cliché. Soon I’d have a master’s degree in creative writing, and if I didn’t sell the book I’d just written, I had no plan B. My agent’s emails had gotten shorter with every publishing house that turned us down. “From Simon & Schuster: I’m afraid it didn’t grab me with the same intensity all the way through,” had devolved to, “Generic pass from Scribner.” We were both about to give up.

Then, at last: Emily, we got the offer.

I waltzed into my classroom and told my freshmen, “I know you don’t care, but I’m publishing a book.”

Funny thing: I was wrong twice just then. One, they did care, some of them, and we had a very sweet talk about perseverance, a lecture I could have used but not led just 10 minutes earlier. Two, I wasn’t publishing the book. Though I couldn’t imagine it at the time, within a few months I would change my mind. I’d walk away from my oldest and dearest dream.

When I was small, I assumed everyone wanted to be an author because, to me, it was obviously the most awesome thing to be. Since I didn’t know any authors, I also assumed that all the adults around me had failed and now led broken lives of humiliated resignation. So every New Year’s Eve, I resolved that I would write and publish my first book, and every December 31st, I cursed myself for having failed again. By 14, I was grizzled. When it came to writing, I was just this side of a Wes Anderson character.

The “and publish” part of my resolution was crucial, because publication, to me, was the obvious line between Real Writer and Delusional Loser, a dichotomy as clear as Cinderella pre- and post-midnight. I believed being a writer meant you toiled in soot-smeared obscurity until — if you were worthy — a publisher appeared and hit you on the head with a book contract that turned your rags into a ball gown. (Or, more accurately, turned your parents’ basement into an older house with hardwood floors and good light not far from the liberal arts college where you had tenure.)

In the small Texas town where I’m from, people got teased for saying they were going to be writers. In a nine-year-old, that ambition was cute. By age 15, it was suspect; by 21, bizarre. When I was 26, I lived in New York and had been writing for magazines for several years. On a visit home, I saw a woman I’d known in high school who asked what I was doing now. “I’m a writer,” I said. She cooed, “It’s nice that you still have those dreams.”



To them, and to me, a real writer wrote books. Any kind of book counted, but essays, profiles, book reviews, interviews, articles and anthology appearances didn’t. So it’s fitting that a friend from my hometown was the first to say, soon after my weird and crappy first marriage ended, “How long y’all think before she writes a book about it?”

The answer, it turned out, was five years. My book was a memoir, a guts-baring game of chicken between myself now and then, between my past defiance and my current, highly Baptist mother-in-law, between the memory of my ex-husband and the part of my heart that’s still afraid of him. To relay the plot here would defeat the purpose of my later restraint, but suffice to say, I had a three-year relationship, it got really dark at the end, and I always knew someday I’d write about it.

That day came during the first year of my MFA in nonfiction at the University of Arizona. My tricksy professor, Ander Monson, made us read “My Dark Places” by James Ellroy. Then he sent us home to write about our “dark places.” I wrote something and turned it in. Monson collected the papers. Then he said to us, “Okay, now go home and write about your real dark place.”

Fine, I thought. You asked.

That massively messed-up first essay became the opening of my memoir. I wrote a whole draft over the summer, sweating so much at my desk that I had to put manila folders under my forearms so they wouldn’t slide when I typed. (We didn’t have air conditioning; I definitely had the first part of the Cinderella story down.) I finished the book and found an agent. Quickly — so fast, in fact, that I barely had time to think about it — I tweaked that raw and desperate draft and sent it out into the world.

The response was not what I expected. I thought editors would either love it and throw money at me or hate it and ask me to reimburse them for their time. I didn’t think they would praise it but pass.

“Surprising, enlightening, and relatable,” said one, adding, “I hope a less timid editor will come forth to do this book justice.” Another said, “Someone is going to take this, but it won’t be us.”

I wasn’t sure what the deal was until I got the following from an editorial grande dame:

“[I] wonder whether this writer’s gifts might not be put to better use than in this kind of confessional — as the personal risks, and ethical ones (her own privacy and that of others, especially [her ex-husband]) are not insignificant, while the upside in terms of audience potential is iffy. These kinds of books can sometimes hit a cultural nerve and get a lot of attention. But they can also cost the author a great deal.”

Another editor declined the same day, adding that maybe I should be writing fiction.

Strange as it sounds, this had never occurred to me. I had been scared of baring my underbelly to the world — anyone would be — and scared of making my ex-husband angry or litigious. But I believed, without knowing it, that if I wanted to make my dream come true, I had to write about the only thing on which I had any expertise: myself. I thought I had to be the human sacrifice to appease my own ambition.

Then, one day, via an email between classes, I got my chance. An old and respectable publishing house offered me actual money to publish my book. I’d waited 20 years for this moment.

Yet I felt only fear.

I said yes to the offer, of course — a key advantage of the Internet age is being able to fake enthusiasm easily. Then I waited to be happy. It never happened.

It’s fear of success, I thought. That’s a thing, right? You just fear the unknown.

But I didn’t believe me.

I’ll just sign it, and it’ll come out, and I’ll move on. I knew it was non-great to have been waiting so long for a moment that I immediately wanted to pass, but what were my options? I couldn’t stop being afraid — a big, cold, soul-swallowing afraid. And it’s not like I could back out now.

But it turns out that book contracts, like books themselves, take a while to write. A few months passed and I still hadn’t gotten my contract in the mail. Meanwhile, my fear grew. I thought over and over about what grande dame editrix had said, about how memoirs “can cost the author a great deal.”

I asked my agent if he would want to sell the thing as fiction. He said, “Short answer, no.”

So I thought about my ex, and how, if I published this book, people I had never met would know me only as his wife. Those were some of my very worst moments, and they could be conjured by anyone at any time. My book might never make it to an airport book store, but that’s what I always imagined: Some bored person opening to the middle, dropping in on the nadir of my life as CSPAN yammered in the background.

Of course, that was part of what I was seeking: To relinquish control of my story, to give it to whomever wanted to hear it so that it wasn’t my little dark thing to carry and distribute sparingly. I’d read an early draft of the book in a warm, cramped library one night, at a works-in-progress event, and I tried to turn off the part of me that lived in fear of being laughed at or sneered at or judged. But as I looked up, midway through, I could see my audience was not laughing or sneering. They had come with me. In my memory, and in my story, I was back in my dark place, and through the miracle of language, they were too. My story was time travel. My past self didn’t know it, but she was no longer alone in that moment. The story had carried them all back there to stand around, invisibly, and witness.

It felt like something broken had been fixed. I wanted to fix the rest of it. I wanted to put everything I was afraid and ashamed of on paper so I wouldn’t have to fear its discovery anymore. I wanted to turn Pandora’s box upside-down and shake it.

The trouble was, even if I overcame my terror of judgment, I couldn’t confess my sins without confessing my ex’s. His secrets and struggles were as much the story as mine were. And while he had been an indisputable dick, spilling those secrets — even though I gave him a new name and height and hair color — didn’t seem right. Our shitty marriage was teamwork, like all marriages, and we had loved each other the best we could at the time. Our best just turned out to be lousy. By growing up and writing a book about our past, I was both owning my mistakes and making a case for why current-me shouldn’t be judged too harshly for them. I was throwing myself at the mercy of the court. But I would be throwing him under the bus.

There’s a long, heavy conversation to be had about the rights and wrongs of writing other people’s stories, especially without consent. And I would never take away someone’s right to write about herself, especially since memoir is a genre where women and minorities often have a chance to speak for themselves instead of being “given a voice” by an established fiction writer or researcher. These days I’m a journalist, and I feel conflicted about reducing full, dynamic people to single moments in their lives — usually bad ones — or single aspects of their situations. Writing about someone always has a violence about it. When it came to my memoir, that was a violence I could bring myself to do to me but not to him.

I also had a less noble reservation: Would I owe him? If my first book was about our relationship and publishing it made my dreams come true, I might always wonder if I could have done it if I had never met him. There would be no way to know.

Still: I wanted to be a “published author,” didn’t I? Didn’t I want to be a real writer, more than anything, and didn’t real writers have books? Yes. Surely my scruples were just fear in fancy dress. If I just signed the contract, I could lob that a book-as-grenade into both our lives and get what I wanted: not to do a brave thing, but to have done it.

What stopped me was that a memoir’s quality correlates to its honesty, and my book deal would be built on a kind of lie. I would only be pretending to be at peace with my past and ready to share its lessons with the world. I’d only be acting like I thought it was okay to dish my ex’s dirt. I’d seem brave, but it would be kamikaze courage, not an earned, owned courage, not one that endures. It occurred to me that writing a memoir should be like posing nude in front of an art class for three hours, not like flashing a camera after a few tequila shots.

So I backed out. I told my agent I wanted to give the book another draft and another year. He was extremely cool about it. So was the editor who’d offered to buy it. I hadn’t signed anything, so there was no contract breakage. I simply walked to the precipice of my lifelong dream, got vertigo, and walked away.

Today, I’m still not a “published author.” But I don’t mind now. I rarely think about my ex. I didn’t bring hordes of readers back in time to relive everything with me, but neither do I have to relive it again and again on demand before sparse audiences in bookstores who thought tonight was Dave Eggers but it’s just me.

Someday I’ll write another book, and maybe someone will publish it. Then I’ll write another one. Or maybe I’ll write 50 books and never publish one. It’s okay.

I thought becoming a writer was a Cinderella, all-or-nothing type deal. But it turns out to be more of a Velveteen Rabbit situation. Love and strife and crimson fever come and go, and I’m still here, typing away in my room. If I keep at it, maybe I’ll look up someday and see that all my fuzz has rubbed off and I’ve become real.

Emily DePrang is an essayist and investigative journalist. She covers health and criminal justice for the Texas Observer. 

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