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  • Writer's pictureJulie Cali

Rewriting Our Love Story: How My Husband and I Elevated Our Marriage with a Writing Competition

Updated: Jan 13, 2023

“What’s for dinner?” my kids asked in unison, ten minutes after I fed them lunch. I ignored them, unsure of the answer, and continued loading the dishwasher.

My husband entered the kitchen after a Zoom call, his hazel eyes evading mine, as he sat to consume the turkey sandwich I left for him. Or maybe it’s my eyes that evaded his. I’ve lost track of our penchant for being in close proximity for months on end while remaining as distant as possible.

He wiped the mustard off his cheek with his pinky, an action that caused rage to build in my body.

“Use a napkin,” I muttered while throwing one at him.

“What’s with you?” he asked. He scanned his phone, his eyes still averted.

“Nothing,” I responded, while the children scampered about the kitchen, foraging for snacks moments after consuming their lunches.

“What’s for dinner?” he asked. He chewed slowly, his perfectly angled jaw moving up and down like a machine in need of oiling.

“You tell me,” I said, while fleeing to the bathroom, my only place of solitude, even if only temporary. They always find me— eventually.

How had it come to this? I wondered, staring at my hair that hadn’t been washed in days, the tea stain on my shirt. Was I still wearing yesterday’s pajamas?

When I met my husband twenty-four years ago as a freshman at Duke, I had been wide eyed and ambitious. I was going to be a Senator and cure cancer, in no specific order. But none of that happened. I got married to my darling dimpled husband, my first true love, went to Duke law school, practiced corporate litigation, and then somehow ended up here.

It’s not his fault— working, not working was something he let me decide. I had wanted this. To be consumed by motherhood. To wake every day dripping in the wonder and excitement my children would provide. Yet, at the peak of the pandemic, my former self, that doe eyed girl, felt hidden.

To combat my feelings of inadequacy, I began walking seven miles a day, started working as a part-time legal aid attorney, and wrote two manuscripts. I also started querying my novels to get an agent and hopefully land a traditional publication deal. But it proved elusive.

My husband remained encouraging, reading both of my novels thoroughly and offering feedback, but our dialogue and interactions still felt distanced. We amicably took turns spitting in the sink when brushing our teeth. Most nights after putting the kids to bed, we split off, him to our living room to watch his show on Netflix and me to the bedroom to watch a different show on Netflix. Since we had always had amazing physical intimacy, the absence of conversation in our marriage had never been a problem. But in my quest for self-actualization, the silence became more profound, more probing. I didn’t want to lose him at the sake of finding myself.

Then one night after returning home from my evening walk everything changed.

I found him asleep on the couch tucked under a blue quilted blanket, the TV playing as usual. “Honey,” I said, shaking his shoulder, sweat dripping from my forehead.

He didn’t rouse. I momentarily wondered if he was alive, but I noticed his chest rising and failing. I shook him again.

“What?” he said, his eyes widened upon seeing me. If he was turned off by my hair being tucked into a shoddily assembled bun or the odor emanating from my body because organic deodorant never holds up when exercising, he didn’t let on. Chubby, thin, pregnant, bloated, ugly, beautiful—he never judges me, something I’m aware doesn’t happen for most women.

“I just got back from my run. You fell asleep. Didn’t you worry an alligator would eat me?” I teased. I sat next to him.

“That had not occurred to me, but I’m glad it didn’t,” he said, while yawning. “I must have fallen asleep while watching TV.”

“It does appear that way.” I wiped the drool from his cheek with my shirt. “Don’t you ever get bored of TV?”

“No. I love TV,” he said. He began nibbling the blanket. “Not all of us need to get fit and become fancy writers. The other night you even wanted to have sex with the lights on.”

I straightened my back. He had always encouraged my midlife renaissance. Was he threatened by it?

“I just lost thirty pounds. I’m still robust. And no one has even read my books yet,” I responded. As I sat there, his eyes fixed on mine. “Leaving the lights on was just a suggestion.”

“I think you are going to get super-hot and successful and leave me,” he joked. His eyes darted to the TV behind me.

I wouldn’t do that. He’s not the type of husband you leave. He’s supportive and loving. But after a lifetime together, I needed more in our relationship than convenience and comfort. I needed interaction.

“If you think I would leave you and raise these children by myself, you have another thing coming,” I joked back. I leaned forward and bopped him on the nose. The idea that had formed in my brain during my walk now made the journey to my tongue.

Already unsuccessfully querying my first two manuscripts, I had decided to participate in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and write 1,500 words a day for the month of November. NaNoWriMo started as a way for writers to write in solidarity, with the goal of having 50,000 words of a brand-new novel at the end of the month.

“Yes. Why don’t you do NaNoWriMo with me? Get your mind going,” I suggested. At this point, I wasn’t even sure I was being serious. My husband, though adorably handsome, had never demonstrated any creative merit. He was perfect Math SAT and GMAT smart, a pure left brain.

“You know I have a job already and work every day,” he said.

“I just thought it could be fun. You’ve been so great at helping me write. I bet you could write something amazing. And we were already fighting over if you were going to Vegas or I was going to that writers’ retreat. We could do NaNoWriMo and whoever finishes their book wins!” I ran my fingers through his hair. Could we reignite the spark of our marriage with a friendly creative competition?

“Not interested,” he said, returning to his TV, and I left the room, my olive branch tucked into my running pants.

But, in the middle of the night, he shook me awake, pulled down my unicorn eye mask, and began telling me the plot of his book until I finally told him we needed to get back to sleep. An hour later, I reached over to pull him close, but ended up touching empty covers. I made my way to his office and found him bent over his computer typing away. “I wanted to start,” he said.

To finish a book in a month takes time and dedication. He worked full time. I worked part-time. We also have three children to manage and corral. To get the writing in, we began rotating the nighttime routine. At 5:30, one of us wrote, and the other one of us tended to the children. Once the kids were asleep, we both wrote furiously. Our conversations at night became lively and animated. We had become our own writing group, trading ideas and editing suggestions. He had always helped me with my writing by reviewing my grammar, but he offered little commentary on the substance, on the plot, on the arc. Those were words he had not understood, but now committed to winning our wager, he was learning how to be a writer.

I watched in awe as his left brain learned to be a right brain, inhaling all resources on how to write a book. He began by consuming the same podcast I started with, The [Stuff] No One Tells You About Writing. Then, he branched out to other podcasts. Suddenly, he was educating me on story structure, inciting incidents, and “all is lost” moments. We were coming at the process from two different angles: My right brain focused on how to write with emotion; his left brain focused on following the patterns that worked for successful novelists, leave it to my husband to use formulas and statistical analysis to write a novel. But, together, our two different perspectives slowly merged, making both of our books better.

His commitment knew no bounds. In bed, one night I leaned over and whispered in his ear “do you want to… you know?”

“Write?” he replied, his voice wet against my ear.

“Of course,” I responded. We both jumped up and headed to our respective computers.

Suddenly, the month had passed, and we had both completed our novels! My book involves a social media mishap that ignites a feud between two dominant females, splintering their beloved book club. My husband’s book focuses on a man who dreams about the death of a woman he’s never met and then finds her online dating profile, leading the pair towards an uncertain future. After getting beta reader feedback, we prepared to query agents with our new novels. But before I could begin querying, I received an offer of representation from Latoya Smith at ArtHouse Literary. When I told my husband about the offer, he twirled me around the room and said, “I knew you could do this.” And I knew he meant it.

Having something in common to rally around has given new life to us as a couple. We aren’t just husband and wife; we are writing buddies. We spend our weeknights writing and running across the house to share new ideas. We follow the same writing community on Twitter, and are often the only ones commenting on our own Tweets. Ultimately, we decided that I would attend the retreat, and he would go to Vegas. We now spend nights lying in bed together listening to each other’s books on audio, our fingers entwined. Married twenty years in August, and we have returned to newlywed bliss.


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