Writers have a reputation of being notoriously difficult to live with.
Pretty much all creative types, but writers seem to get it the worst.
You doubt? Two words: The Shining.
It’s that need for solitude, both physical and mental. All that time spent cooped up in a room, looking at a screen or a sheet of paper. All that time with our minds light-years away from our bodies. Even when we’re there, we’re not always really there there.
This can take its toll on a relationship. The writer who wants to maintain happy co-existence with a significant other has a balancing act to work out. You both do. But it’s mostly on your head. Not all, but most. Call it 60/40. Because you’re the one who gives the appearance of withdrawing, just by the nature of what you do.
It Made Me Ache To Even Read This…
Recently, in the Comments section:
“My wife just accused me of wanting to be a writer more than a husband. It’s an awful thing to have to choose between, isn’t it?”
It is, yes. Or would be, if that’s what it really has come down to. I don’t believe it has to be a choice, unless someone’s issuing an actual ultimatum … and if that’s the case, it’s another issue entirely. What to do when a partner refuses to accept what is intrinsically important to you is beyond the scope of this piece.
This is about finding a way to make it work. About finding the balance.
In my own life with my mate, Doli, it works because we give each other the space we need to grow and keep being the person the other loves.
But that hasn’t come without conscious effort, and going through bumps, and resolving issues, and doing some recalibrating, particularly in myself and my ways of being.
Which Is Mightier: The Pen, Or Cupid’s Arrow?
The last thing I want is for this to come off like trying to tell anyone how to live, or how to conduct their relationships. Mostly I’m trying to identify some of the key wedge issues that come up. How you sort them out is up to you.
For The Writers
It’s not all about you. Your partner is just that: a partner. Not staff. Like anyone doing anything that takes a long, challenging time, you need emotional support, encouragement, understanding, appreciation. But that’s not a one-way valve. Your partner needs these same things from you. Which you undoubtedly know, in your head. But may still find it easy to postpone, from your heart.
Your partner isn’t a mind-reader. This was my single greatest failing, early on. I just expected Doli to know. Know what, exactly? Everything, pretty much: When I was in active work mode. When I was in passive work mode. When the psych-up process demanded most of my mental energy. When the aftermath left me too depleted for any kind of emotional engagement.
My thinking went like this: She’s seen it before, she’s seen the symptoms, doesn’t she recognize them by now?
Whether she did or didn’t was immaterial.
She still needed to hear it from me. Just so there would be no doubt. She could deal with pretty much anything, as long as she had a clear idea of where I was, and didn’t have to guess.
All it took was communication. For me to say, in effect, “I’m in this place right now,” or “I need some space to tackle this,” or “I love you, but am so utterly wiped that I just can’t focus.”
This wasn’t easy for me. I didn’t grow up with a good example of it. Breaking the silence was something I had to learn, but for the sake of our relationship making the effort was vital.
There’s this and there’s that. “Be here now,” goes the old Buddhist tenet on mindfulness and being in the present moment. Western productivity paradigms advocate the same thing, just in different words. The gist of it is this: When you’re working, be fully present in your work; when you’re in your home life, be fully present in your home life. You have to find a way to leave your role as writer at the desk, and fully inhabit your role as partner.
A certain amount of carryover is inevitable. Things will linger. Characters will nag. But while imagination is a beautiful thing, a life spent predominantly in an imaginary world is no substitute for living truly, madly, and deeply with the fellow inhabitants of your everyday 3-D world.
Besides, you don’t have to actively think about your work to put your mind on it. Your subconscious is happy to shuffle things around while your conscious focus is elsewhere, then bring you the results when you’re receptive. Which is why so many eureka moments happen in the shower.
For Those Who Love Them
It’s nothing personal. Have you ever seen pro athletes interviewed immediately after a game, and they can barely string together a coherent sentence? Or they just loop, repeating the same thing? They’re not stupid. Their brains literally haven’t made the transition yet. Their minds on still on the field, on the court.
Writers in work mode can be like this. Sometimes we genuinely may not hear you. Or if we do, we may not be capable of processing what you’ve just said. We may scarcely even see you, or register the fact that we have. We’re not being rude or dismissive or dense. We’re just still on the field.
Working doesn’t always look like work. Writing isn’t always about pounding keys. Sometimes writing means lying on our back staring into space. Sometimes it means doodling on a piece of paper. Or going for a walk, alone. Or an infinity of other forms. It may even look like playing an Xbox 360, although I wouldn’t stake my life on that.
So please don’t think we’re wasting time even though outward appearances may not look productive.
Back to The Shining, in which Jack Nicholson laid it out in unequivocal terms:
“When you come in here and interrupt me, you’re breaking my concentration. You’re distracting me. And it will then take me time to get back to where I was … When you come in here and you hear me typing—” tap tap tap “—or whether you don’t hear me typing, or whatever you hear me doing, it means that I’m working.”
And please don’t take what looks like downtime as an all-clear to engage. It just escalates to the axe-through-the-bathroom-door stage, and nobody wants that.
Your writer isn’t a mind-reader either. I said earlier that I had to learn to communicate better…? So did Doli. Not that this was ordinarily a problem. She’s a champ at communicating. But there was a time, when I’d be in Sustained Heavy Work Mode, that she’d keep one thing and another to herself, so as not to bother me.
But little things, squashed down long enough, tend to turn into big things. And when they blow, they blow with pressure.
Eventually we learned to meet each other halfway with this communication stuff.
So. If you, our partners, are feeling lonely, left out, ignored, or that you miss us … tell us. Tell us sooner rather than later. Tell us before it turns into a Big Deal. Tell us before it becomes an accusation.
And, um, try to pick a good time, if you can. When we’re in the middle of working? Not a good time. Remember, your objective is to get through to us. Not to try to interview us while we’re still on the field.
How Others Have Managed It
Normally, Warrior Poet comes solely from my own perspective. This time, though, it felt important to expand beyond that a bit, and bring in other points of view.
I contacted a few people who are friends, acquaintances, or colleagues, and asked them to chime in with whatever seemed particularly relevant. Their backgrounds are all different, but their aims are the same: harmonizing their work within a shared home life. This could mean establishing clear priorities, resolving issues, or finding a partner who’s wired the same way.
Barb Hendee. “I’m in a somewhat unique situation where my partner of twenty-seven years is also a writer — and we collaborate on a series — though this wasn’t always the case. He and I went to college together. We raised a daughter. We’ve been busy having a life. But throughout our adult lives together, I’ve always put the needs and feelings of J.C. and our daughter before the writing. I think that is the key. Of course having time to oneself and the writing are incredibly important, but our partners and our children have to come first. Always.”
Mark Alan Gunnells. “I found it almost impossible to write with him in the house because despite saying he understood how important it was to me, when I was writing he didn’t seem to consider that I was ‘doing anything’ and would interrupt me endlessly. He seemed to be annoyed at how much time I spent online trying to promote the books, talking to my publishers, doing interviews, that sort of thing … The way I dealt with it was writing a lot during downtime at work and trying to limit the online promotion machine to certain days.”
Elizabeth Massie. “My writing certainly wasn’t a plus to my relationship with my ex, and though it wasn’t the primary cause of its downfall, he never understood my need for solitude (which I really didn’t ask for very often; I tried very hard to balance things) in order to write and he often felt resentful. Now, however, I’m in a domestic partnership in which both of us make a living by creative freelancing. I’m a writer. Cortney is an illustrator. We understand each other’s needs for time alone. Our relationship thrives because we have can have our quiet time, our alone time, and then share what we’ve created for input or critiquing.”
Brian Keene. ”Writing cost me two marriages. At least, that’s what I tell myself. In truth, it was really me.
“My first marriage dissolved when I was trying to become a professional writer. We lived in a trailer and had about three dollars to our name. I worked all day in a foundry (and later as a truck driver) and then came home at night, and focused on my word processor, rather than my wife. I was young and dumb and it never occurred to me that my equally young wife might like me to spend some time with her rather than writing. Even when we did spend time together, we didn’t really communicate. She was usually watching TV while I had my nose buried in an issue of Deathrealm, The Horror Show, Cemetery Dance, New Blood, or one of the other big horror lit magazines of the time. When she left, I had that word processor and those horror magazines for comfort, and not much else.
“My second marriage lasted eight years (after an additional eight years of courtship), and dissolved long after I’d become a professional writer. By then, I was old enough and mature enough to have figured out that I should spend time with her and talking to her after putting in 7 or 8 hours at the computer. Despite that, communication was still the culprit in the end. There were things I was unable to properly communicate — the pressure of deadlines; the stress of fame (because even a little bit of fame can be a very fucked thing); how it felt to live under a public microscope that examined and often took issue with everything I wrote, said, thought, or did; the paranoia and self-loathing that creeps in when everyone — even your once closest friends — seem to want something from you; how utterly demoralizing it was to me that I didn’t have a weekly paycheck, health insurance, or a 401K to provide for my family the way every other husband I knew did.
“I should have tried harder to talk about these things, but I didn’t have it in me. I didn’t have it in me because after 8 hours of writing, I was emotionally and mentally exhausted at the end of the day.
“I don’t believe we choose to be writers (or musicians, painters or any other form of the arts). I believe we don’t have a choice. To be given an ultimatum like the one that inspired this Blog — to be told ‘choose me or the writing’ — is no choice at all. I probably could have saved my second marriage by quitting writing and walking away from it, but doing so would have been a lie. Writing isn’t like a sales job where you quit one firm and go to another. I’m a writer. I could no more quit than cut off my arms or voluntarily drag my balls across six miles of broken glass. Believe me, I thought about it. I thought about it long and hard. But in the end, quitting would have destroyed my marriage even more assuredly, because I would have been miserable, unhappy, unsettled, and eventually dead. That’s not hyperbole. That’s a certainty.
“They key is communication. I look back now and shake my head in disbelief that a guy who made his living communicating to the general public was unable to do the same for the people he was closest to in his private life. I’m currently in a relationship with a fellow writer — somebody who has been doing this just as long as I have, and has gone through and experienced all of the same things. And while we both intimately understand each other’s need for everything from solitude to the pressures of deadlines, we still make a concerted effort to communicate when we’re done. Because we both know just how hard it is to be in a relationship with a writer. There really are four of us — me, her, and our muses. It’s important that all four get a chance to talk.”
Simon Clark. A word, first, about Simon, the only guest here that I wasn’t already personally acquainted with. There’s a quote of his I’ve hung onto for years, which includes this line: “I think as a writer you have to sacrifice a hell of lot, and you must develop the iron-will and sheer bloody-mindedness to put your ambition firmly in the center of your life.” Yet I knew he’s a long-time family man. So I was interested in the input of someone who could say that — and mean it, and walk it — but still not regard the work as his sole center of gravity:
“I’ve been a full-time writer working from home for almost twenty years. My wife, Janet, and I have probably (almost!) got used to this life-style by now. But I appreciate that she must find life trying at times. After all, writers spend a lot of time living in their head. Even when not working at the computer, they can be distant and distracted by story ideas whirling round inside of them. This must be frustrating for Janet. I know she summons up vast reserves of patience when she has to repeat the same question two or three or times, because, in my imagination, I’ve been battling monsters in the jungles of Borneo, or whatever the current story happens to be.
“I do try to live in the real world, and what helps me achieve this is to work office hours. When I switch off the computer at 5.30 I do STRIVE to be engaged with home life. Another huge help was our children. Children cannot be ignored of course. So being in their lively, boisterous company dislodged me from thinking too much about the novel or story that I was working on.
“Now I realize being able to leave the writing world behind during the evening and weekends was vital for a harmonious family life, and vital for my writing. I think it does a writer good to stand back from their work and gain some perspective on what they’re doing. The image of the poet secluded in the attic room, surviving on dry bread and green tea, while they work in perfect solitude may be romantic — but, for one: they’ll be heading for health problems, either mentally or physically, and, two, I’m sure there ‘master work’ will turn out to be self-indulgent drivel.”
Both/And, Not Either/Or
This past weekend we watched Into The Wild, the film adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s 1996 nonfiction book on the short, intense life of Christopher McCandless, who, straight out of college, lived as a vagabond before retreating to a Thoreau-like existence in the Alaskan wilderness.
It didn’t end well for him.
Near the end, he writes this in a book: Happiness is not real unless it is shared.
You can certainly debate the truth of that, or the nuances of what McCandless may have actually meant … and people have. It’s interesting to see the different takes.
I don’t believe it, myself. I’ve had, among other spells of solitude, no end of happy times when it’s just me and the words. No writer could tell you otherwise.
But I do believe this: While happiness may be every bit as real when it’s just you, it’s better when it’s shared.
Awesome people share.
You are awesome, aren’t you…?