Wide Angle

My Mother’s Novel Was Never Published, but It Taught Me the Most Important Thing

Twenty-five years after her death, I’m still learning from the writing she left behind.

A woman's hand writes in a journal.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Christine Rose Photography/Moment via Getty Images Plus, Paul Fleet/EyeEm via Getty Images Plus, and angelinast/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

After my mother’s death, I found a folder among her files labeled Rejection Letters for Novel. Preserving the end of her creative hopes in a carefully labeled manila folder was peak Mom, and inside it, a small sheaf of typewritten responses from editors all said the same thing—that while my mother was a beautiful writer, her story did not feel compelling enough to publish.

The novel my mother had written—a thinly fictionalized, funny, often sad account of her childhood growing up in a super-WASP family in the Northeast—was the story I believe she had to tell first, the one that would have made way for others. But she didn’t get the chance. After her manuscript failed to find a publisher, my mother picked up the pieces, donned her Manhattan career girl suits, and went back to a job editing academic journals. She died eight years later.

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Did she consider that year she spent writing a failure? I don’t know. I still remember the night at dinner when she told me she wasn’t going to pursue any more publishers for her book. “The first three times I read it, I cried,” she said. “And then the fourth time, I thought it was sort of boring.”

But it was not a failure to me. For a year, while she typed away on an old IBM in her tiny office off the kitchen, her story inching out from a printer my older brother was constantly being called upon to fix, I had a mother who was writing a book. In a moment of rare and glorious impulsiveness, she’d quit her job after her first cancer surgery and decided, “Screw it, I’m going to follow my dream.” And in doing so, she made her dream my dream as well. I was 8 years old, and someday, I told myself, I would write a book too.

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In the fictionalized version of this tale, what happens is that when I grow up, I take my mother’s words, wrap them around my own, and write a book that means something to people. I bring back her voice with my own. But that is not what happened at all.

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When my son was born—tiny, premature, needing oxygen to breathe—I missed my mother with a sort of violence. The night my husband and I brought our baby home, too tired to operate a toaster but in charge of a small human being, I sat holding him for hours, imagining her words, who she would be as a grandmother. I needed her quiet, imaginary presence.

And so I started to go through my mother’s papers, the journals and letters and articles and unpublished manuscripts, the unopened boxes I had lugged from New York to San Francisco after I got married. And when I did, a story started to take shape in my mind—my story of becoming a mother without my mom, of having pages and pages of words but not her. I began to write that story.

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What I didn’t realize is that I was doing exactly what my mother did—telling a story that felt essential to me, but not to others. When my own rejection letters arrived—thoughtful, kind emails forwarded from my agent instead of creamy typewritten pages—they read almost exactly as hers did. Beautiful writing. Moving. Too inward. Not urgent. A small book, not a big book.

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As a magazine editor, and then as a freelancer writer, I am used to rejection, both receiving it and giving it. But this kind of rejection is different. The mix of vulnerability and ambition that goes into writing a memoir, the agony of trying to believe that your story matters so you can write it, and then to fail—well, it stings. But I did it because I thought I could pull it off, that I could bring this homage to my mother and her hopes and dreams across the finish line. I failed.

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I happen to live in a town that mythologizes failure, if not the kind I went through. In San Francisco, failures are embedded in the origin stories of startups and tech companies, emblematic of the bumpy journey that ends in the IPO promised land. But writing failure, creative failure, is a lonely thing here. I’m not sure what meaning I’m supposed to take from it, other than the knowledge that, like my mother, I told the story I needed to tell. And in doing so, the role my mother’s absence has always played in my life became clearer.

Halfway through my manuscript, I recount the night before my son was born. My liver enzymes are skyrocketing to some point of no return, and the doctors are trying to hold off delivery until the lung steroid for my baby can take effect. I am 33 weeks pregnant.

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By 3 in the morning, they have taken my blood so many times that the veins in my arm have bloomed into a delicate purple skein. We are out of time, the doctors say. They will perform a C-section as soon as it is safe to administer a spinal. If my blood stopped clotting, they would need to deliver immediately, under general anesthesia.

My husband and I are then left alone, lying together on the jackknifed hospital bed. “I’ve spoken to the doctors,” he says. “You’re so calm, they’re worried you don’t understand what’s happening.” I laugh. I feel flushed, hyperalert, but unafraid. I’m perfectly aware of how bad things are.

I’m not sure how other teenage girls internalize watching their mothers die, but for me, it convinced me that at some point my body would enact its own furious, silent betrayal. That this is occurring on the cusp of my own motherhood feels almost fitting.

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No doctor would credit this medical theory of mine, but the reason I was able to hold on that night is because of my mother. I wasn’t afraid because I was used to receiving bad medical news; my mother never sugarcoated things for us. I could dig for the kind of unflashy, everyday courage she had because she modeled it for us. And I wasn’t panicked because I had been waiting for this moment, expecting it, my entire adult life. At last, we had found the slumbering, broken thing inside of me.

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This is what I wrote about in my book that many admired but no one wanted. I failed in that endeavor, and in my lowest moments, I feel that I failed my mom as well. She has been dead now for 25 years, and not a year goes by that I don’t look at myself and wonder how much of the woman I have become is because she is gone. What stories would I want to tell if I wasn’t drawn, always, back to her memory?

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As the Mother’s Day marketing machine roars into place, awash in books about motherhood and profiles of successful moms allegedly doing it all, I feel an anguish so sharp it embarrasses me. Could I have told her story, my story, in a smarter, more marketable way? Maybe my mother was too generous to go at her writing with everything she had, and now I have held back too. Or perhaps I thought I was writing this book for everyone, when I was only writing it for her.

I set out to write about becoming a mother without my mom, and I did. But there is another story, the mirror of that one, that unfolded as well. It is, perhaps, the more important tale. My mother often wrote about her fear of dying on her kids, of leaving us half-orphans. As a child, I thought my parents could solve anything, protect us from anything, but after reading her journals, here is what I know. My mother was afraid. I know how afraid she was. You go on anyway.

I am only a few years younger now than she was when she was first diagnosed. As I approach that strange milestone, I know the fear that something will happen to me, that I will leave my own son and daughter motherless, will never go away. But writing this book—unpublished or not—has reduced its power.

It is enough.

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