Those Aren't Fighting Words, Dear --- Laura Munson's account of trouble in her marriage --- was the most forwarded, shared, discussed, debated column in the Style section of The New York Times all year.
It's not hard to understand why.
After almost two decades of marriage, the father of her two children blindsides her with an announcement: "I don't love you anymore. I'm not sure I ever did. I'm moving out. The kids will understand. They'll want me to be happy."
If your partner said that to you, chances are that would be the start of a conversation --- an ugly one.
Laura Munson said, simply, "I don't buy it."
And then, cool as you please, she asked her husband, "What can we do to give you the distance you need, without hurting the family?"
That separation of his problems from her problems, of his problems from the childrens' well being, unnerved her husband. And as the days of his absence turned into weeks, her refusal to deal with situations she couldn't control was sorely tested. But after four months, her husband had begun to deal with his issues. He rejoined the family, reaffirmed his love and their marriage. He even encouraged her to write about their experience.
Most readers were dazzled by her insistence on living in the moment --- and on choosing to make these moments as self-aware and happy as possible. Only a few saw her story in darker terms: "Despite her assurances to the contrary, there is clearly a mother-child dynamic between the spouses. In the end, the errant child returns to the breast of the saintly, long-suffering mother."
But publishers all had the same reaction: We want this. In days, Munson --- who had written something like 14 unpublished novels --- had an agent. In a few more, she had a publisher: Amy Einhorn, she of flawless taste and great editorial skill. (Einhorn is responsible for The Help and The Postmistress.)
And now there's a book, This Is Not the Story You Think It Is. If there is justice, it will do very, very well. Unlike Eat, Pray, Love, it's not the account of a luxury sabbatical, in which a privileged woman, unburdened by children, gets to lick the wounds of a failed marriage with a trip around the world. Unlike The Happiness Project, the author is not a New York wife and mother who has it all and thinks it can be still better. Munson may once have been a private school kid with all the advantages, she may now be living on a ranch in Montana, but when you're looking down the barrel of two kids post-divorce, you're in a zone that a lot of American women know well.
I loaned my copy to a divorced mother of two. It was returned with 30 post-it notes attached to pages she found especially significant. And, on a larger post-it, a review: "This book will fly off the shelf and perhaps save many a marriage. I have a giant girl crush on Laura Munson."
I like this book so much that don't want to quote, summarize, interpret --- I just hope, if you're in any kind of relationship, that you'll get it and read it. Because here's the rare case when trouble came and someone was actually prepared to deal with it.
I had one problem. Munson's piece was published on August 2, 2009. Exactly nine months later, we have the book. I know all about accelerated publishing schedules. But this book is too well told to have been written in a few caffeine-enhanced weeks. And because I'm no fan of the publishing background of Elizabeth Gilbert's memoir --- a publisher contracted her to write a book about a year she had not yet lived --- I had some cautionary skepticism about Munson's memoir. So I asked her how she wrote it. Her response:
What you see in the book is what I wrote during that time. Remember, I'm a fiction writer --- in love with story. After 20 years of writing novels, I see life in scenes. But because I needed to process what was going on in my marriage and in my mind and heart, I decided that it was more powerful to be the main character.
If that time of my life had ended in divorce, I'd still consider it one of the most powerful times I've known. It wasn't a strategy to stay married. It was a philosophy to stay healthy. Letting go of the future is a very powerful concept, and an even more powerful practice. I was willing to be the main character in order to inspire people to consider this option.
So, yes, it's a memoir, written in real time. I didn't journal during this time. I put it all into the book. I knew there was a book there, and I decided to make rules about how much to really expose of my life. That's why I often ask readers to fill in the blank with their own stuff. Because this wasn't some sort of sensationalistic marital expose. It was a personal journey that I invited the reader to join me in the taking. I decided that it wasn't my business to expose my husband beyond what was important to the scene I was depicting, nor to expose my children.
Of course, I went back with my editor and revised --- added in some of the back story in the first part of the book for continuity's sake, but the rest was written as I lived it. Maybe a day or two after the scene that played out so that I had the full scope of it under my belt. But when you see "5:00 AM Montana" that was really 5:00 AM Montana and me here at this desk writing to keep my heart from breaking.
Does that answer your question?
[Cross-posted from HeadButler.com]