“To my wife, who read all the drafts of my book. I am the lucky beneficiary of not only her wise editorial comments, but her loving encouragement.”
“To my husband, whose generosity of spirit enables him to laugh at the irony that my writer’s solitude has imposed a life of solitude on him too.”
Ever notice how many volumes of poetry and prose these days are bookended by gushing dedications and acknowledgments like the fictional examples above? Writers outdo themselves in expressions of gratitude to their loved ones for their help and patience. It’s as if we’re in the midst of a golden age of support — emotional anyway — for writers.
Unpublished writers, however, can be forgiven for wondering: Do husbands, wives, and lovers like these really exist?
Where are those who grumble about a writer’s slim prospects for a payday? What’s become of the Nora Joyce type, who makes no bones about a lack of confidence in the writer’s work? Or the spouse or lover who, jealous that the writer has a calling, tries to hold him back.
It’s not hard to understand why a writer rhapsodizes about his lover or spouse. Aloft on the euphoria accompanying publication, all is forgiven. Besides, where’s the harm in tossing a few laurels in his direction? (Spanning genders, pronouns are masculine throughout. Also, we’ll call the unpublished writer’s partner Blake.) They might go a long way to eroding his resistance to the work the writer plans to put in on his next book.
Hey, whatever works. But by failing to speak up about road blocks thrown in his path, a writer does a disservice to those who would follow in his tracks. An unpublished writer’s days are already dogged by disappointment. Stumbling across dedications and acknowledgments like those above will just make him feel like he’s the only writer bereft of a partner who’s not only a patron of the arts, but a muse too.
By flaunting his felicitous choice in a mate, a published writer pours salt in the wounds of the unpublished writer, who thinks, if only my partner would stop bundling my dreams into the bath and turning a cold shower on them. Among the problems Blake can pose, perhaps the most formidable is objecting to the amount of time a writer spends writing.
There’s no denying that when Blake threw his lot in with a writer he was in for a surprise. His previous relationships might well have been a round of restaurants, films, and concerts, or, at home, watching movies and TV. Aside from those who are studying for a degree, most men and women who have yet to start a family spend their evenings either out or unwinding at home.
Unless he’s an artist as well, the first time Blake catches sight of the writer retreating to his computer, his heart sinks. Does writing, Blake wonders, mean more to him than me?
Following the advice, however well-meaning, of Beth Mende Condy on WriteFromHome.com — “You must declare to the world that. . . you have the right to write” — will only add fuel to the fire. Of course, if the writer is paid, Blake cuts him some slack — or does he?
We decided to give writers who have attained a degree of success their big chance to come clean. We first asked them if they had ever experienced resentment in a relationship over the amount of time they spent writing.
Kim Addonizio, author of Little Beauties (Simon & Schuster, 2005) reports that a man she lived with told her, “I really should do more housework since I was home all the time.”
Edward Falco, author of Wolf Point (Unbridled Books, 2005), says of his significant others: “I have been in relationships when my significant other rebelled against the ways in which I prioritized writing.” Though he doesn’t draw the conclusion himself, perhaps one form that rebellion took was the interruptions that he’s found endemic to a writer’s life, especially by “someone who lives with you and knows that many of those hours. . . are spent pacing around the room.”
Poet Robert Earl Price Wise Blood (Snake Nation Press, 2004), also experienced resentment. “It took burning through several relationships before I realized that most writers probably need a partner with a life of their own.” (His wife is a visual artist.)
Christopher Klim, author of The Winners Circle (Hopewell Publications, 2006) reports that he’s been down the same road as Price. He “purposely married a strong and independent person who didn’t need me, but preferred to be around me.”
Diana Abu-Jaber, author of The Language of Baklava (Pantheon, 2005), also married someone who “was entirely supportive of my work and the time I put into writing. He’s always trying to help me find ways to get away and improve my focus.”
In other words, a writer mired in a relationship in which his pursuit is not honored, or at least tolerated, would be advised to seek an escape route. Some writers, however, seem to have been spared writer’s resentment entirely.
Phyllis Tickle is the author of The Night Offices (Oxford University Press, 2006), the latest in a series of fixed-hour prayer manuals. “Writing certainly did not pay well enough in the beginning to support a household,” she reports. But her husband, Sam, “supported my efforts at every turn.”
Now that that Phyllis is the principal breadwinner, Sam does the housekeeping. Demonstrating an outlook that no doubt helped attract such a supportive partner, she adds, “It’s all just an indivisible whole.”
On the other hand, we must take care to refrain from reflexively painting lovers or spouses who are less than supportive, like Blake, as intolerant or immature. He could just as easily be called practical. After all, someone’s got to keep an eye on the finances.
Purists, of course, maintain that a writer’s true reward is the act of writing itself. They fail to understand a key point: Generating cash can be crucial to justifying the vast expanses of time to which a writer lays claim. “What most people don’t get,” Edward Falco said, “is the kind of drive and dedication it takes simply to make the time to write.”
However undeniable his calling, an unpublished writer is essentially a hobbyist, no better and no worse than someone who repairs to crafts or woodworking after dinner. In fact, if the writer has children, he may find his writing district gerrymandered to near extinction. It’s not until dinner is done, the kitchen cleaned up, and he’s finished helping the kids with the homework that he’s free to escape to his own zone.
But wait. There’s a final hurdle to clear: Blake is counting on time alone with him to catch up on the day.
Who can argue with that? It’s just that fatigue is already breaching the perimeters of the writer’s consciousness. Worse, in what amounts to an admission that Blake’s jealousy is warranted, the writer fears he’s standing up his muse. Will she ever return?
Even a full-time writer may find himself in this predicament. If he works past his day shift, he’s liable to be met with the same resistance as the unpaid writer.
In his article, “Into the Clear: Philip Roth” from Reporting (Alfred Knopf, 2006), which was excerpted in Poets & Writers, David Remnick captures this dilemma with a quote from the great man himself. (Overlook, for the moment, Roth’s not-so-veiled swipe at his former wife.)
“Usually,” he said, “I write all day, but if I want to go back to the studio in the evening, after dinner, I don’t have to sit in the living room because someone else has been alone all day.”
But, even yielding to Blake’s need for his presence may not be the end of it. If the writer is white-knuckling it, as they say in support groups, Blake will sense he’s looking ahead to writing. Their time together will have been poisoned.
However sympathetic we are to his plight, it’s at this point that the frustrated writer must be taken to task. What did he expect? After all, he doesn’t want one of those passive typist types from an earlier era, does he? Besides, if Blake doesn’t voice his objections, his resentment will only accumulate and, with a writer’s luck, blow sky high just as the writer faces a deadline.
We asked writers if preoccupation was not only an occupational hazard, but a hazard to the health of their relationships.
Niala Maharaj, author of Like Heaven (Random House, 2006), responds: “My boyfriend of nearly 10 years actually threw me out of his house because I was too preoccupied while writing Like Heaven.”
Phyllis Tickle is “not safe around sharp objects,” according to her husband. Conceding that, she adds: “Any writer who says he or she does not move into another zone of consciousness when actively writing is just fooling him or herself.” His partner “must accommodate to the realities and exigencies of the process.”
Edward Falco says, “A loved one has a right to have you present when together, not off thinking about invented characters. But when you’re working on a story, really working, the mind is going all the time, dreaming those characters, living their imagined lives.”
Christopher Klim explains that his wife understands “that’s part of the artistic mind. Whenever I gear up for a new novel or script, I go through periods of intense focus. . . [which can’t help but resemble] self-absorption.” Then he adds, “There are quirks about my spouse that must be honored. It’s the least I can do.”
Robert Price, meanwhile, attempts to head the problem off at the pass. He and his spouse “maintain a genuine interest in each other and each other’s work.” He has learned that “we are both insecure.”
Klim sums up. “There’s nothing to prepare you for living with an artist, only a strong, self-affirmed, independent mind.”
You can warn a young writer of the perils of pairing off with a partner from outside the arts all you want. But a writer, often weighed down by an inferiority complex about his introspective ways, may be drawn to someone whose idea of an interior life is drapes, valences, and modular sofas.
The subsequent unhappy relationship may provide a young writer with choice material. However, one who’s in writing for the long haul soon wearies of the home as a battlefield. He needs a refuge, in which, to paraphrase Wordsworth, he can recollect his conflicts in tranquility.
Isn’t there a tradition that he can fall back on, the young writer wonders, which entitles him to a certain amount of time? Aren’t there industry standards of some sort? Even suggested guidelines that he can present to Blake would be helpful.
Perhaps it’s time that devising some became a project for writer’s conferences. In fact, why not comp Blake a free pass and invite his input? The results of these workshops would be aggregated at a conference of a group like the National Writers’ Union, which exists, in part, to improve the working conditions of all writers. A sample contract may then be drawn up.
Think of it as a variation on a pre-nup. While distinctly un-romantic, it would help Blake understand that time taken from the relationship is the only way for a writer –- or any artist, or even an entrepreneur — to take his shot at success. In turn, Blake can rest assured that nether will he be short-changed. In fact, he’ll see many of his claims on the writer’s time validated.
In the interim, the writer needs to understand that, when it comes to convincing Blake of his commitment to the relationship, nothing beats his full, undivided attention. When Blake sees how present he is, he might learn to be content with less quantity.
In practice, the writer should count on at least half an hour of time alone evenings with Blake. What about weekends? If time management is unexplored terrain to a writer, weekends are virgin territory that await mapping out.
No more than marriage vows, the proposed contract can’t guarantee you won’t end up just another lonely writer. But what choice do we have other than to behave honorably? After all, isn’t empathy the currency of our realm? A writer who doesn’t hold up his end of a relationship is at least at much at fault as a partner who fails to honor a writer’s calling.