“Used Fictitiously”: A Non-toxic Love Challenge

(I’ve been roiling around with this for six weeks, writing, rewriting, ranting, editing – cutting, restoring, cutting again – alternately feeling angry and bold, then timid and scared, and finally, resigned. I just want to just get this off my chest so I can get back to being stressed out about the far more important stuff happening next week and then get back to regular blogging).

Bestselling author Sue Miller’s recently released novel, Monogamy, is about a widow named Annie from Chicago (but living in Cambridge, Massachusetts), who discovers her late husband had been unfaithful to her. The husband, Graham, is described as a big man with a deep voice, who is, as the character Annie says, “more than a foot taller than she was … Ridiculous, really.”

Reviewers loved Monogamy.

I hated it.

But maybe that’s because I’m a widow named Anne from the northern suburbs of Chicago, who knew her husband had been unfaithful to her, and who fell in love with a big man with a deep voice, partly because of the way he called me “Annie.”

I’ve been blogging about that since October 2017. In January 2018, in an earlier version of a post called, “The Bulgarian,” I described him (the man I fell in love with) as “at least a foot taller” than me. I’ve got a screen shot of it (thanks, WordPress), but I’ll skip it here.

I named my blog “Ridiculouswoman” in part because of the absurdity of my attraction to the Bulgarian. I blogged about writing a memoir telling the story of falling for him while caring for my terminally ill husband. My book was finished in the fall of 2018. I began sending out queries on it in December of that year.

I found Monogamy by accident, when the New York Times book review caught my eye. I had never heard of Sue Miller before I bought Monogamy and read it (with a screaming yellow highlighter in my hand) because I felt I had to. I was shocked, chilled, and pissed off. I made a nine-page, two column document listing side-by-side all the names, scenes, descriptions and phrases in Monogamy that seemed very like, and in some cases were identical, to things in my blog, my memoir, my home and my life.

A snippet of a Los Angeles Times review quoted on the book jacket of Monogamy says, “reading it is like experiencing a passage in our own lives.”

No shit.

I’ll spare you any further recitation of details from my nine-pager. There’s no point. Monogamy has the usual disclaimer:

“Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.”

Plus, the coincidental details I recognize are woven into a story that is very different than mine, with many more characters and relationships. Some, like that Los Angeles Times reviewer, would argue that Miller’s ability to make me recognize my real life in her fictional book is what makes Miller a great writer.

I beg to differ.

There are many reasons I hate Miller’s book that have nothing to do with its similarities to my writing and my life, but a lot to do with the dissimilarities between Miller’s fictional depiction of love and widowhood and my actual experience of them.  

When my husband Mike died, this real Annie tried to close his eyes, and asked the hospice nurse to help get him dressed. I kept Mike’s cancer hats, and pressed them to my face because they still smelled like him.

Miller’s fictional Annie decided not to try to get her husband dressed after he dies in his sleep (not after 20 months of pain and struggle and heartbreak and caregiving), because she thought it didn’t matter. At one point, she presses one of his shirts to her face to take in her dead husband’s smell, while simultaneously thinking to herself what a cliché it was, “how many times she had read it and seen it in films.”

How kind, to describe that genuine gesture of aching grief, as a “cliché.” (It’s also surprising, because Miller wrote a memoir about losing her father to Alzheimer’s disease. She knows something about caregiving and loss. I’d expect more compassion).

The theme of my blog and memoir, and, seemingly, of Monogamy, is forgiveness, self-awareness, and the rediscovery of love. But how Miller handles that theme toward the end of the book is cringeworthy.

Spoiler alert

After her husband’s death, on her way home from a disillusioning encounter with a man she had flirted with in her past, the fictional Annie slips on an icy street, bangs her head, and when she comes to in the hospital, ta-da! Presto change-o! She suddenly remembers she loved her husband!

I found that scene insulting to me and to other widows who lived and worked through long and difficult marriages, finding ways to keep loving and forgiving, for decades. Mike and I did the hard work of forgiving each other, and we rediscovered enduring love, through the unfolding tragedy of Mike’s decline and death. Real widows don’t need the absurd, desperate, damn-I-need-to-figure-out-a-way-to-end-this-novel device of a slip-n-fall to knock them into remembering they loved their husbands.

So how do I react to all this in the spirit of this blog, with love and laughter?

I’m opting for gratitude. Yep, I’m grateful. Monogamy has made me hate my memoir. Seriously, I’m relieved. My story is true, sad, and funny, but I have doubts now about whether it needs to be told. It feels like 300 pages of “too much information.”

Yet even if I didn’t have doubts about my book, I have no doubts whatsoever that, because of Monogamy, there’s no hope in pitching and querying my memoir anymore. In this case, fiction outruns truth, especially because the fiction is by a longstanding, bestselling author. Lesson learned.

It’s time for me to start writing my next book. Maybe I’ll try a novel. I’ll use this lesson -use it fictitiously, of course – as inspiration.

Ready to move on, but wanting the 23 bucks back that I spent to read Miller’s damn book, I remain,

Your real widow Annie from the suburbs of Chicago who fell in love with a big man with a deep voice who was “at least a foot taller” than she, who didn’t need a head injury to remember she loved her husband,  

Ridiculouswoman

Image by skeeze from Pixabay

9 thoughts on ““Used Fictitiously”: A Non-toxic Love Challenge

    1. Thanks for the encouragement. I let this thing block me for too long. Just want to get my writing groove back. Hope you’re well – thought of you when Angelic Daughter and I made our first batch of slime last week!

      Liked by 2 people

  1. You know what? You spent a huge chunk of your life on this MS. And yeah, you might want to put it aside for now. But don’t forget about it. You have to think about what you wrote as more than just catharsis. Think about the craft that went behind it. Consider how you developed your writing style, developed the plot, carefully chose descriptions, threw out what didn’t work and added to what did. This book defined you as a writer and spurred you on to bigger things. If that’s what your MS did for you, then it served its purpose. Now you have your writing chops firmly in place.

    My sister, who is published, has at least 3-4 MS laying around in different forms of completion. She’s also just finished one that’s being shopped around. You’re only doing what’s expected of a writer. And who knows? You may revisit that MS and choose to do something else with it.

    Can I also make a suggestion if you want to read something entertaining yet an example of brilliant writing? Anything by Carl Hiaason. All his novels take place in Florida – so you can go on a little vacation while you read – but he’s also a master of dialogue and description. He writes mysteries, but they’re so clever and funny that I lose myself reading them. And inspiring. Actually, I was having some dialogue issues and after reading “Basket Case,” I gained some insight on how to make an awkward conversation between two characters in my book work better.

    And that’s why you haven’t seen my blogs, either – I’m down to final edits before I turn my MS in! Profusely sweating this one…

    Anyway, glad you’re back!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hey, thanks! I love Hiaason! I haven’t read him in a long time and I’m sure I’m several books behind. I’ve been looking for a new, rollicking read (as a break during my slog through “all the books I should have read by now – currently a pretty stilted translation of Homer) so I’ll revisit Hiaason!

      Have you read The Time Traveller’s Wife? Had it laying around the house for years and finally picked it up a week or two ago. Loved it (and laughed when I found a phrase I thought was my original in it -published 14 years before I started blogging!😅

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I have not, and of course I meant to…that, and about 3000 other titles…maybe now I should?

        Another writer I like is Charlie Jane Anders. She writes beautifully but there’s humor in her stories too. She wrote “All the Birds in the Sky” and “City in the Middle of the Night,” which is new.

        I’m reading Hiaason in no particular order. He just makes me laugh, and we all need that right now.

        When I was in a particularly dark place last spring, I read the entire “Little House” series. Still have my copies from when I was a kid. In a way, it was kind of nice.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I have maybe three books in almost finished but workable pieces on my computer. I am not inspired to self publish right now but unless I find someone to collaborate with, I have to accept that there they will likely remain. I am already pirating my old poems and old songs to reflect my current writing skills which I hope are better than they were. Since I do sporadically blog and have been recording and sharing poems on zoom gatherings (who knew my lack of mobility is now what everyone is dealing with) I am able to share with a larger world than my own head. I say keep your MS close to your heart and know that you have already touched the hearts of other widows- me, for instance, Thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

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