Arts/Literature

You love writing more than you love me

balancingactpic1“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Unpublished writers, however, can be forgiven for wondering: Do husbands, wives, and lovers like these really exist?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 Also, we’ll call the unpublished writer’s partner Blake.)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 An unpublished writer’s days are already dogged by disappointment.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By flaunting his felicitous choice in a mate, a published writer pours salt in the wounds of the unpublished writer, who thinks, if only my partner would stop bundling my dreams into the bath and turning a cold shower on them.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.

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13 replies »

  1. Russ, this is easily one of your best pieces. The writing and research are wonderful and instructive. Thanks for taking the time to do this.

  2. Great work, Russ, and as a guy who’s trying to ramp up a book, I’m paying attention. I’m also reminded of this: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.” – Samuel Johnson

  3. “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.”

    Oh, they’re around. In fact, they’re often a big part of why a talented writer isn’t getting published.

    In most cases, the best deal a writer can hope for is a significant other who won’t actively get in the way. The death of many a writing career is active resentment by a partner who gets what an artist’s life is about – and resents it….

    And if the artist is both a writer and musician…or any kind of multi threat…all kinds of fresh hells are possible….

    • In most cases, the best deal a writer can hope for is a significant other who won’t actively get in the way. The death of many a writing career is active resentment by a partner who gets what an artist’s life is about – and resents it….

      Were you ever married to such a person in the ’80s?

  4. Thanks for the compliments. If I had the time, I’d start a Website that would be a forum for artists’ problems with relationships. Where we would attempt to work up the guidelines I’d referred to, which could be presented to those becoming involved with artists, particularly writers.

  5. “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?”

    Yeah. Its called a deadline.

    “A writer who doesn’t hold up his end of a relationship is at least at much at fault as a partner…”

    Nah. I don’t believe that.

    “… who fails to honor a writer’s calling.”

    Most writers I know, including myself are driven. When the ‘push’ comes I either write right then or else the ‘push’ goes away.

    Yeah. I’m working on a novel now. Part of the working title is “…cum incendium et mucro” (with fire and sword).

    Write what you know, know what you write.

  6. Ah, Russ. You have tapped into so many of the themes & dilemmas I wrestle with constantly. One of the big reasons I haven’t posted at S & R in a while is that I feel I “must” do the writing that pays first in order to justify the time I spend cloistered away in an attempt to be productive. But trying to cloister myself is a relative thing, when one lives in a house that is inhabited not just by a spouse who would like to occasionally see me in the evenings and on weekends, but two children who feel a need for their mom on a much more frequent basis than that. Despite my insistence that a closed door means “don’t interrupt Mom,” it’s a veritable invitation when resentment bubbles up and efforts, even subconscious ones, are made to sabotage whatever rare episode of “flow” I might be momentarily achieving. I really wonder if the only true solution is for both partners to be artists. It doesn’t get around the issues that may arise if one is enjoying greater success than the other, but at least they are more likely to ‘get’ what it takes to carve out that time that creativity absolutely requires.

  7. Actually, I should add that my husband is quite supportive when he can be; it’s the kids that have a harder time finding it justifiable that Mom is “working” while home. But given the demands of my husband’s own job, which is out of the house, and keeping things on track with two kids and three animals and the multitude of tasks that are involved with managing a family and its doings, the practicalities intervene even more intrusively than the relationship dynamics between two individual partners.

  8. Being the significant other of an unpaid writer, (who happens to post his pieces on S&R on a regular basis), I fully appreciate your piece, Russ.

    Somehow, we’ve developed a mutual respect and understanding of each others’ needs over the past four years – be it creative, personal, or what-have-you. Currently, our biggest problem has nothing to do with understanding the demands of the writing process, but with our shared computer. I’m in my last semester of Graduate School, requiring the computer most evenings. My significant other works full-time during the day. Therefore, both of us need the computer at the same time. The problem not only lies in our limited resources, but in wanting to compromise for each other, e.g,. he always offers to give up the computer to accommodate my needs, and I tend to do the same. To avoid a “Gift of the Magi” situation, we’re looking into buying another computer!

    Regardless of how we resolve the current computer issue, I’m very thankful for your unique insights. I would like to believe that I know my man’s mind better than anyone – but its is reassuring to know that he may be silently struggling with issues I’m unaware of. Either way – I feel like I’ve been let in on a secret usually reserved for “members only.”

  9. “I would like to believe that I know my man’s mind better than anyone – but its is reassuring to know that he may be silently struggling with issues I’m unaware of.”

    The word “reassuring” was a poor choice. What I meant is that I’m thankful to be cognizant of potential problems. – until reading this piece, I’m not sure if I would have been aware…

  10. I don’t mind the interruptions when I’m writing all that much, though once in a while they catch you in mid thought and it takes time to get back where you were, but I do mind having to explain that when I’m not writing and seem to be staring off into space I may be thinking. Somehow non writers never connect actual thinking with writing. Though considering some writiers …

    It’s not that I don’t care, but when I’m trying to confont the dreaded blank page I don’t really need to hear what Dr. Phil has just said to a phillandering husband. I realize that I’m at home, and when I’m at home it doesn’t seem fair I’m not available, but that’s the nature of the beast. We should all be as lucky as Richard Condon who built a second house in his back yard and went to it every day like an office, or Evan Hunter who actually kept an office to write in. Alas few of us will ever be successful enough to have that option. Perhaps we should all just find a friendly coffee or tea shop like J.K. Rowling. But, let’s be honest, if our spouse was the one doing the writing, we’d no doubt be bugging them. It’s the bored five year old hiding in all of us.

  11. Great post, Russ. I’m a writer married to a fellow artist who is a tv producer. I think our mutual commitment to the artiist’s life helps when we have deadlines and projects that require attention and focus. It probably also helps that we’re both introverts who like quiet time anyway. Maybe the 8- and 10-year-old who live with us will someday be introverts or artists, but for now, whenever they’re in the house it means that one of us needs to be *not* off doing the artist’s thing or the introvert’s thing. Negotiating who’s “up” is what can be a source of humor or tension, depending on the day!