Can This Marriage Be Saved? (Or, Can You Teach An Old Dog New Tricks?)

I spent a good part* of two days rewriting the start of my novel. (A novel I have already given a decade to). I took out all the backstory and started where the “story begins.” Still, it needed more work. Lots. I was telling instead of showing. (That “show don’t tell” principle of the craft). I was in the protagonists head way too much. And, the novel needed re-structuring. All these are part of the craft of writing. I was not born knowing these crafts. I have read dozens of books on how to write. Novels worth reading are obviously well-written and include great dialogue, detail, suspense, a strong voice, consistent POV (point of view), conflict and resolution, to name a few.

Just like a marriage.

There use to be a column in a paper (may still be) that was titled, “Can this Marriage Be Saved?” Someone would describe the problems in their marriage and the writer/therapist would give methods to restructuring it. Like restructuring a book — it gets down to unlearning what doesn’t work and practicing the craft that makes stories and relationships sing.

But can we truly restructure our lives, learn a craft, late in life? Can an old-dog like me, at 59, learn new tricks in my (two decade) marriage and in my writing?

Can a “marriage be saved?” after decades of patterns and habits, with so much backstory? Marriages too can get caught up in the “backstory” of their relationship and lose sight of how to start over in fresh ways. When is it time to walk away from a book or relationship and begin an entirely new story with new characters?

When I removed the backstory from my book, I was then “in the now” of the story and wrote forward from there. I did discover other parts of the story that needed more work but the real story was emerging after removing the backstory. Instead of reliving and retelling the past, we can move forward from the moment to moment experience. This keeps the reader engaged and can save a marriage worth saving.

After I took out the backstory, the backstory became the start of the book. The backstory is there, it is the causes and conditions that brought the reader (and the couple) to this point, this “now.” It’s a mix of good and bad. The problem comes up when all you are doing is writing or living your backstory. Of course our present experience is founded on backstory. But the story of now is where life and all its possibilities truly happen. It’s the now-story that keeps the reader reading and the marriage moving forward.

So, can I write the story of now, honoring the backstory of my life and characters?

Is it possible for someone like me to learn the craft of writing fiction after decades of writing nonfiction? Is it even worth the investment of books, workshops, time and effort? Can I learn new tricks in my marriage and other relationships that may need a kickstart?

Perhaps the answers are in the questions. This wondering is a good thing.

If we are truly complete with a project or relationship, then yes, start with a whole new story and character. But, what if there is more to explore, learn and experience with this story? This relationship? My only accomplishment may be “learning the craft” of writing fiction or the skills of a loving relationship. These learning outcomes are well worth all the effort and even detours I may take along the way.

If I walk away from this book (which is in its 4th draft and rewrite), I will lose the experience of completing this novel and its story. I will feel something rich has been abandoned. It’s hard work to keep writing this book. There are plenty of blood, sweat and tears to be shed. I’m not even sure I can pull it all off. And I wonder if fiction writing will ever come more naturally to me? Yet, I sense that if I don’t give up on the book and the craft of learning to write the book, the book won’t give up on me.

I will let go of the backstory and jump into the now-story, as best I can. I’m going to write this novel until it feels completed and ready for publication. I will have to commit to writing every day, and continue to learn and practice the craft of writing.

And my marriage? Same.

I trust that my consistency to learning the craft, letting go of the backstory, with a willingness to restructure my book and self, that I may well end up with two masterpieces.


*(Interesting concept — the good part of the day. Makes me wonder what I give “the good part of my day” to, everyday?

9 thoughts on “Can This Marriage Be Saved? (Or, Can You Teach An Old Dog New Tricks?)

  1. I love this way of looking at writing, Julie. I just re-read the novel for young adults I wrote several years ago, and there was a mixture of the love that remains for the story and characters, along with a recognition that there is a lot of work to be done to make it an enjoyable and meaningful experience for the reader. (You may have guessed from my last sentence that wordiness is one of the book’s issues. :-))

    When I’ve talked to people contemplating divorce, I’ve often asked the question, “How would you feel if this person made a marriage work with someone else?” Sometimes the answer is, “Happy and relieved,” and sometimes the answer is “Jealous and sad.” I could ask the same question of myself in relation to my book. Would I want to hand my book over to someone else to finish? My answer is, “No, no, no.” I am really bonded with the characters. They’ve lived in my head since before they showed up on paper and have been continuing to do so even as the book has been in a drawer.

    So, with that answer, the work begins. I feel a little like the pup in your photo, above — a bit exhausted at the thought of all that effort, but engaged, nonetheless. And your metaphor is very helpful! This is a marriage worth saving.

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