Today is our wedding anniversary. Gil and I have been married 26 years. It’s a lot of time since our engagement party, at a Russian bar in Brighton Beach, New York!
People always ask, How can you possibly stay married to another writer? It’s not something everyone does, and in fact the matrimonial union of two inkstained wretches is almost as rare as the Javan rhino, of whom less than 60 now exist.
Some other writer-couples make it work. Novelists Paul Auster and Siri Hustvedt are a famous example. Well, they live in Brooklyn, and perhaps that artsy atmosphere gives them sustenance. Also consider the Beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, together from 1954 until Ginsberg’s death in 1977. They chanted. They stayed loose. They were happily hip.
Once upon a time there was Mary Shelley (Frankenstein) and Percy Bysshe Shelley (Heaven smiles, and faiths and empires gleam,/like wrecks of a dissolving dream). It was wildly romantic, she running off with him when he was married to another woman and she was 16. Anais Nin and Henry Miller also managed to have both a torrid love affair and a meeting of the literary minds.
Yes, there were couples that were cursed, like Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. One dead by her own hand, one forever tortured by her demise. A similar dark story in Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. He stole well-turned phrases from her journals, and things turned out badly (him dying of drink, her in a mental hospital fire).
So what makes a writerly marriage work? Gil and I have been writing our own stuff and collaborating with each other ever since we got together. We actually met in a poetry writing workshop in New York City, led by the wonderful Sharon Olds (she won the Pulitzer for poetry this year). In the early days we didn’t have much space. I remember a tiny studio in Los Angeles with a single surface, a kitchen counter, where we set up our computers across from each other. And we produced books there. Today in the Cabin we have a bit more room, two separate offices (mine in the living room!), but we seem to often end up working side by side. Somehow our literary life together succeeds.
So I will offer you my suggestions about sharing your life as a writer with another writer.
Accept debate. Disagree, argue, even fight over language. Just don’t come to blows. Try not to be hardheaded over a word or phrase or plot point. Be willing to kill your darlings, as they say, if your partner advises it. (Also praise each other’s work to the skies).
Celebrate the milestones. Little as well as large – the nice, toss-off comments of an acquaintance or the brilliant review. The copyedit as well as the first pristine hardback book copy. Raise a toast together, no matter which of you got the kudo, the contract, even the mot juste.
Ride the ups and downs. And there will be downs.Publishing is a fickle business and you can’t let the market ruin your mood or your relationship.
Embrace change. When we were married, I was an aspiring poet and Gil wrote plays that were produced off-off-Broadway. We made ends meet with editorial jobs. We grew, we branched out. We were the same people, but we became different sorts of writers. Between us, articles, screenplays, nonfiction, memoirs, fiction, even this blog…
We don’t know what will happen in the future. What writer does? Just be prepared to be perpetually surprised by your writerly mate, as you are surprised by yourself. Said Andre Maurois: In literature as in love, we are astonished at what is chosen by others.