If I’ve learned anything in the past 40-odd years, it’s that anyone, even a relative geek like me, who never once sat at the cool kids’ table, whether the table was in the high school cafeteria or at Yaddo, can lead a writing life. You just have to keep writing even when the world doesn’t make it easy, even when the world makes it really hard. I don’t know what it’s like to be Nicole Krauss or Ann Patchett (though I am a big fan of their work and I don’t mean to imply they’ve had it easy either) but I do know what it’s like to try to keep writing when the world does make it really hard and that’s what I’m going to be talking about in the next several posts. How to have a writing life sans early success, sans grants and fellowships and high profile, low-courseload teaching jobs. Think of it as a guide for the rest of us, the 99%, who still have something to say, something we must say, but not a lot of time to say it.
One of the first orders of business is how you choose a life partner, if such a partner is important to you. If it’s not, you might just want to read along for entertainment value or because who knows, the information might come in handy someday.
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of finding the right partner if you want to write. I’ve had writer friends who were and were not successful in this endeavor and it really matters. I can’t say whether my choices were all that deliberate but I did let some specimens go early on that in retrospect were not terribly supportive of my work. Case in point: the traditionalist high school boyfriend, who dutifully read my nascent stories with the sole purpose of finding fault with them — fortunately nothing that the addition of a few Charles Bronson-esque characters couldn’t fix. That wasn’t the only reason we broke up, but it didn’t help.
On the other hand, the college boyfriend had a long list of stellar qualities. Although he wasn’t ultimately the “one” for me, I’m pretty sure that as I write this he is a great “one” for a lucky somebody out there — he was just that kind of guy. He wasn’t terribly into literature, though, and that was a problem. There was also a brief interlude right after college with he who shall not be named, but the less said about him the better.
And then there was the “one,” my husband, whom I met in graduate school and who is so perfect for me God might as well have wrapped him up in shiny paper and duct taped a bow to his head. There. Now you know how embarrassingly, geekily, schoolgirl crazy I am about my husband after almost 25 years (if you didn’t already know after reading this post). But you also need to know why he’s the perfect kind of partner for any writer for the following reasons:
1) He supports whatever I do.
He’d probably draw the line if my life’s goal was to become a top-ranked kitten juggler, but otherwise he understands that writing is something I need to make time for in my life. He doesn’t resent it. He doesn’t snicker at it. He’s not standing behind me while I work, tapping his foot and wondering when I’m going to make it pay. He understands that this is just a part of me and since it’s a part of me, he loves it just like anything else.
2) He believes in equality in a partnership.
I know, I know, I shouldn’t have to write this in the 21st century but if you’re going to be able to carve out time for writing, especially if you’re a woman, you’re going need a partner who believes in sharing the work of family life. You’d be surprised how many women I’ve known over the years whose writing time evaporated once they got married, and especially once they had children, because their partner thought they’d also picked up a shirt ironer, suitcase packer, laundress, chef and nanny in the bargain. My husband and I both work full time as university writing professors. He does his own laundry, irons his own shirts (unless I’m on a roll and feeling generous; the poor guy has a lot more to iron than me), cooks ninety percent of our meals (his choice, I do all the cleanup), would be horrified if I went near one of his suitcases and does as much for our children as I do. You get the picture. Divide the labor in any way that makes sense to you both but please find someone willing to divide it evenly. There’s a flip side to this for men as well; do you want to partner with someone who expects you to do all the supporting, and in a certain style to boot? Think about it, guys. Think hard.
3) He is also a writer, an incredible one.
I realize that not every writer can partner with another writer but based on my own experience, I highly recommend it. Fellow writers understand like few others what you’re trying to do, what you need to do and why you need to do it. There’s no learning curve when you take up with another writer. They get it.
In my case, another benefit to being married to this particular writer is that he is literally the hardest working writer I know. When he’s not doing all the wonderful things I mentioned above, or being a great writing teacher, he’s writing. Constantly. During the semester, he usually gets up at 4 a.m. to make sure he puts in the time at his desk. 4 a.m.! Try whining about finding time to write when your partner gets out of bed when it’s still dark to do it.
4) He doesn’t have a competitive or jealous bone in his body (and neither do I).
John and I met in a writing workshop and later took several more together. People always marveled at how supportive we were of each other; that we never sniped at each other during a critique session or seemed jealous of one another’s successes. This mystified us. When you love someone, all you want is for that person to be happy, right? That’s what makes you happy. Nothing makes me jump up and down more (literally) than when he gets a bite from an agent or places yet another story in a magazine. I’m his biggest fan. I always will be. And he’s mine.
I realize that there may not be enough writers for everyone and there’s certainly only one John Vanderslice (he has three brothers who are also pretty terrific but alas, they’re all taken) but I hope you get the picture. You want to share your life with someone who is willing to do the extra work that’s required so that you’re fulfilled, just as you are willing to do for them. You want someone who makes your dreams their own.
If your current relationship doesn’t exactly fit these parameters, I’m not suggesting you break up with your partner. But sharing this post with them, perhaps, sitting down together and making a plan for how you’re both going to support each other in leading fulfilling lives might be a good idea. And if you’re still looking for a partner, perhaps now you have a better sense of what to keep an eye out for.
Finally, some of you who follow the independent music scene might have already guessed that I wasn’t being totally honest when I said there was only one John Vanderslice. There actually is another one and he’s a famous indie songster. From what I hear he’s quite the musician. I have no idea how he rates as a partner, though.
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