Life With a Writer

In honor of Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d present you  with a two-part look at life with a writer.  Today I’m going to focus what life with a writer is like.  Next week, I’ll  focus on the question of what writers owe those with whom they live.

One Writer's Haven

One Writer’s Haven

I feel pretty qualified to write about this because, in addition to having been a full-time writer since 1994, I’ve been seriously working on being a writer since I finished writing my doctoral dissertation in 1988.

Additionally, I’ve been on the other side of the equation.   I lived with writer Roger Zelazny.  Before that, we were avid and enthusiastic correspondents, so even before we were living under one roof, I had a good idea of how he dealt with the demands both of  being  a writer and a member of a family.  Most of  you know that my husband, Jim Moore, is an archeologist.  What you may not realize is that archeology – especially the type that Jim does – involves a lot of writing.  So, in a sense, I’m still living with a writer.

Jim and I just celebrated our sixteenth wedding anniversary, so we’ve  done a lot of thinking about how to live happily with a writer.  Here are a few things we’ve figured out, presented in a semi-logical order.

One: Writing involves more than writing.

A writer is writing even when fingers are not moving either pen or keys or anything at all.  In fact, the times when a writer is staring at the wall, apparently doing nothing, or playing solitaire on the computer, or reading, may actually be when the writer is working very hard indeed.

So, the worst thing you can say to your writer at these times is, “Since you’re not doing anything, could you…”

Really, you’re likely to start fireworks.

Two: Life with a writer is not cool.  In fact, it’s excruciatingly boring.

Several writer friends have told variations on the following tale.  They get into a relationship with someone, in part because that someone thinks that writing is “cool.”    Then, once the relationship is underway, the non-writer is shocked that the writer needs time to write…

Sounds stupid, but I’ve seen it happen a lot.  Don’t get into a relationship with a writer if you can’t take that he or she is going to spend a lot of time with other people and traveling to other places.  Even worse, those people and places don’t exist, so all those rules in relationship guides about making yourself interested in your partner’s life and interests simply don’t apply.

Maybe your writer will want you to know every bit about a work in process.  In that case, you’re going to need to struggle against boredom and repetition.  Maybe, like me, your writer won’t want to share anything until the project is done, so you’ll just get a lot of fragmentary comments.

My friend Sharon Weber has been known to say, “My husband has a mistress.  Her name is Honor Harrington.”

Three:  Writers are very different from each other.

Seriously.  Except for the fact that they all make up stories, most writers have little in common.  Some are like me: they write a bit every day and end up with a book.  Others are binge writers.  They might not seem to do anything for weeks and then go nuts.  Some can work a nine-to-five sort of schedule.   Some need to work at night, when distractions are at a minimum.  Some need to start first thing…

There is no one guide book that will suit every writer.  However, if you’re going to live with a writer, you need to learn that particular writer’s signals: when things are going well; when they’re going horribly; when there is a real obstruction in the creative process, and when it’s just a temporary stoppage.

Back in my Wandering for 1-26-11, I quoted a passage from Agatha Christie’s autobiography where she talked about her recurring problems at the start of each novel.   She also noted how how her husband, Max, reacted.    I recognized that reaction.  It’s very similar to how Jim reacts to me.  I wonder if it has anything to do with both of them being archaeologists?

So, just as you’d learn the care and feeding of an exotic pet, you need to learn the care and feeding of your particular writer.  He or she will appreciate it – and so will you, especially when you find yourself being praised for being such an important part of the creative process, even when you don’t write a single word.

There’s a reason that every book I’ve written since Jim and I have been together is dedicated, in all or in part, to him.

Four: Writers Need Stroking.

Why?   Because, most of the time, they don’t get any at all.

Really, this is true.  Even the most famous of the famous – unless they decide to make a career out of being famous – spend a lot of time alone, working really hard at something that won’t be seen by its intended audience until months or, more probably, years after it is concluded.

When writers do get attention, it’s disproportionately small in regard to the work involved.  A book may take a year to write, then another year going through various stages of production.  When it finally comes out, there is an intense month or so of interest.  Then, for maybe the next six months, there might be late reviews or interviews.  After than, all anyone seems to care about is what’s next.

Five: Writers have different times when they want to celebrate.

For me, the day that I finish a manuscript in rough –  so that it has a beginning, middle, and end –  is actually my day of greatest celebration.  Jim has learned this and goes out of his way to share my pleasure.  He knows perfectly well that I’m not done with the book, but he recognizes that for me this is a special time.

Jim also realizes that, for me, the release of a book is more a time for trepidation than celebration.  That’s when I need to worry about reviews, about giving interviews, about doing my best at book events.   However, he reminds me about the good stuff  – especially to take pleasure in the book’s release – and so helps me keep my balance.

In between, when I’m just struggling to get words on the page, to keep up my enthusiasm in the face of very human doubt, Jim provides encouragement.  I really value how often he asks, “How did the writing go today?” even when the sour look on my face promises a grumpy reply.

Okay…  So that’s a bit of a look at what it’s like to live with a writer.  Next time, I want to look at what writers can do to make living with  a bundle of creativity a bit less maddening for their loved ones.

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12 Responses to “Life With a Writer”

  1. Alan Robson Says:

    I’m only an amateur writer — I put words down semi-regularly and it’s a very important part of who I am, but I’m not a writer in the same sense that Jane is a writer. Nevertheless I recognise everything she says here –it’s all so familiar. Robin knows that I get twitchy if I go anywhere without a notebook (I scribble all the time). She knows to leave me alone when I’m staring into space, she understands when I wake up giggling in the night and disturb the cats. Unfortunately the cats don’t understand…


    -Alan

  2. Chad Cloman Says:

    Please note that the referenced Wednesday Wanderings article about Agatha Christie on 1/26/2013 is actually on 1/26/2011. Here’s a link to it.

  3. David Dunham Says:

    Thank you. Thank you so much for this.

  4. Paul Says:

    “One” reminds me of the late Nelson Bond, who once told me about his wife, early on, when he’d be staring into space, “What are you doing?” And he would reply, “I’m working.” Eventually, she understood. “Two” reminds me of Asimov’s reaction when his publisher wanted him to do his autobiography, and he protested that being a writer made for a dull life, only researching and writing. (As he put it in the book, she quelled his protests in this way: “‘Isaac,’ she explained, ‘just do it.'” He ended up doing it in several volumes, so he had more to write about than he thought he would.)

  5. Heteromeles Says:

    It’s great to see this. I wonder if there are a few broad patterns that successful writers tend to fall into, or whether every writer’s muse is a special snowflake.

    • janelindskold Says:

      I think there are broad patterns — one of the most common is plotting out in advance or letting the story evolve intuitively. However, when it comes to living with a writer, all the rules for living with another person come up… and more.

  6. Barbara Joan Says:

    I love Heteromeles comment.

  7. Debbie Smith Daughetee Says:

    I think I might add one other thing. Writers are always writers. No matter what we’re doing, we’re looking at the world for material for our stories. I always tell my friends, “Be careful what you tell me because it just may end up in one of my stories.” Luckily I live with a man who is able to following my disjointed conversations and realize when I’ve just been struck with a story idea.

    • janelindskold Says:

      I’m actually very careful with using actual people and events. There’s one story where I use Jim and his frequent co-director, Jeff, by name, but I got their permission first.

      I wanted my friends and family to be able to read without fear of finding themselves parodied — I hated how James Joyce, for example, did this.

      However, Debbie is absolutely right… Life is the best raw material.

      • Debbie Smith Daughetee Says:

        I’m with you there, Jane. I don’t use actual people I know in my stories. But if a friend tells me a story about her grandmother who won’t leave the house without the dress she wants to be buried in and the book with all the things she wants done for her funeral–well, I’m just saying…

  8. Jayden Says:

    Ridiculous story there. What happened after?
    Take care!

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