What a Writer Owes

Last week, I took a look at living with writers with special emphasis on some of the oddities involved.  This week, I want to take a look at what writers owe those who live with them.  In my last piece, mostly for reasons of convenience, I presented matters as if to a writer’s partner.  In this piece, I’m going to expand a bit and include family and even friends.

Salad Days

Salad Days

One: So you’re a writer.  So what?

Writers are pretty funny creatures in that they expect the people around them to take an interest in what they produce.  They want their partners to read what they write, to comment on it, even to get enthusiastic about it.  They’d like their family members to do so as well.  Even nicer would be if their friends would express an interest.

Early in my career, I was on a panel  where the participants were asked about whether their family members read their work.  Most said that they didn’t.  Several told stories filled with pathos about giving their latest work to a spouse or parent, only to have it put by unread.  The audience was so sympathetic that more such tales were elicited.

I was actually embarrassed to admit that not only did my spouse read my stuff, so did my parents, most of my siblings, and even a few family members who had never read SF before trying mine.

When you think about it, this expectation that family members should take an interest in the writer’s work is very egocentric.  Does an accountant come home and expect everyone to go over that astonishingly complex incorporation agreement he wrote that day?    Jim writes long, scholarly archeological reports.  I read some parts.   I read the articles he writes for a more “popular” audience, but he certainly doesn’t expect me to follow all his work.

Why then should I expect him to follow mine?

I don’t.  I’m lucky that Jim was an SF/F reader long before we met and that he happens to take an interest in my writing.   I’m lucky that he is also a great first reader and editor.   But that’s the point – I’m lucky.  I know I’m lucky.

Being a writer does not make you the center of the universe.

Two: I’m a writer.  Leave me alone.

I touched on this last week from the writer’s perspective.  However, when you think about it, this is an insanely selfish point of view.  Yes, to write you need some time and space, but what do you give in return?  Many writers expect to be given their space, but don’t give much back.

My feeling is that, if you expect to be left alone to write, then you need to give time in return.  In my case, I try to write when Jim is also working.  Occasionally, he comes home to find the house dark and cold and me in the office pounding away on the keyboard.  I look up and say “The Muse hit at 5:30, sorry!  Just a sec…”  However, I don’t make a habit of this.  I made an adult choice to get married.  I think I owe my marriage at least as much attention as my job.

Maybe the fact that I was “widowed” relatively young (Roger died when I was 33) gave me this un-American perspective toward my writing.  Maybe I’m just an advocate of balance.

As I said last week, there is no one guide book for how to live with a writer.  I’ll stress here that my solution is not everyone’s solution.  I know one night owl writer who goes out his way to make sure he’s awake and up to have dinner with his family before going to write.   I know another where the writer (who also has a full-time job as a mom) makes sure her writing time is when her kid is otherwise occupied.

The point is, if a writer wants a healthy relationship, then part of the responsibility is on the writer – not solely on everyone else.

Three: The Other Side of Staring at the Wall.

Last week I mentioned how writers can be working very hard indeed at those times when they don’t appear to be working at all.  I’m not saying this is incorrect, but I am saying that the rest of the family deserves some indication of when the writer is brainstorming and when the writer is just taking it easy.

I’ll tell Jim, “I’m a bit stuck.  I’m going to go make tonight’s salad and see what comes loose.”  Then he’s not completely surprised when he wanders in, and I wave the paring knife at him and say, “No!  Don’t talk to me!  I’m writing.”

Or I’ll tell him, “I’m done for the day.  I’m going off to…”

I think it’s only polite to supply some indication of what you’re doing.  Otherwise, can your partner (or kids or parents or whatever) be blamed for thinking you’re just goofing off?

Four: Don’t Expect Them to Read Your Mind…

I mentioned last time how writers need a certain amount of stroking.  Jim and I have been together long enough that he knows my creative pulse points pretty well.  This wasn’t always the case.  I needed to explain to him why the arrival of – say – the cover art for a new book wasn’t automatically a cause for jumping up and down.  Instead, I might want his thoughtful assessment of whether he thought it was good or bad or suitable.

Give a hint of what you’re looking for.  “What do you think of this cover?” rather than “My new cover came today.”  Or “I’ve just been reviewed in PW, I’m happy about that, but what do you think of…”

You’ll both be a lot happier.  You, because you’ll get the feedback you crave.  Your associates, because they’ll be able to avoid guessing what you’re angling for and be helpful.

Five: Remember – You’re Sharing the Space

Perhaps because the wild and crazy artists are the ones who get the press, some writers have the idea that being rude or inconsiderate is part of the turf, even what is needed to be a “real” writer.  I don’t believe it.   If wearing a little black beret puts you in your “artistic” mind set, by all means, wear the beret (or sweater or whatever), but don’t go raging all over the place, shouting about how you can’t write without it…

Yeah, it sounds pretty dramatic – that is until you substitute “account” or “data process” for “write.”  Then it just sounds weird or self-indulgent.

Equally, if you need to play loud music to cut out the world, make sure the rest of the family can deal with it.  If not, consider alternatives: closed doors, headphones, sound proofing.  Or if you can’t stand their music, consider ear plugs.

You might even need a separate office or to go to the library.  Moreover, if you can’t find a compromise, consider why.  It could be an indication of uneven expectations on one side or the other.  It might  even indicate that you’re trying to find excuses not to write and hoping to shift the blame to too much noise or too many distractions.  Be honest with yourself and look for a solution, not a target.

So…  There are a few thoughts on how a writer can be a part of a vital relationship – or relationships – and still be creative.  I’m always curious about how other people manage to find the balance.  Any thoughts?

10 Responses to “What a Writer Owes”

  1. paulgenessesse Says:

    So true. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    Very true indeed. I would like to bring up another landmine I’d heard about, but never run into before last week: being asked to write by others. As I mentioned in the last column, I’ve been dealing with an odious EIR (comments due February 25th) as a volunteer. I got called by someone else working on this thing who was in a panic, wanted to get a draft done, and wanted me to edit what they’d written. Since this one’s important, I said sure, I’d help. So I spent my day rewriting this letter, because it needed much more than an edit. It still does, in fact, because the other person said (paraphrasing), “yeah, whatever, thanks,” and pitched what I’d written.

    I had a long chat with that person about wasting my time.

    However, it wasn’t entirely their fault, because I didn’t make a big deal of being a professional writer who wants to get paid for my time. Truth is, I do a fair amount of volunteer writing. Someone has to, just as part of that little thing called public participation in democracy. I’ll even admit I’ve got a certain amount of contempt for the oh-so-precious professionals who won’t touch such a project unless their $100/hour fee gets paid. On the other hand, I truly hated having my time wasted by someone who took “volunteered” for “of little value.” That attitude is increasingly common in our society, and even more odious.

    The upshot is that I’m going to have to learn a lot more about setting boundaries, about when to volunteer, when to say no, and how to explain to others where the boundaries are. It’s complicated, because I’m not even sure where all my boundaries are yet.

  3. Sally Says:

    One thing I try to keep in mind when friends or family show no interest in my writing is that they may not want to take the chance of finding that they dislike it, and then have to deal with that (tell me and risk hurting my feelings; avoid the subject; lie; etc.) This of course may or may not be true, but at least it provides a cushion for my ego.

    • Heteromeles Says:

      Hi Sally. I’ve had the same issue. I used to dread “looks fine” on any draft I wrote in school, because it meant that the person hadn’t read it.

      There seem to be ways of saying “it’s okay if you don’t like it, just tell me it needs more work,” or “just tell me where you stopped reading” and thanking them for their effort gets some people to read things. It varies with the person.

      It helpful not to argue with them. I read something by a family member that contained a section that really offended me. I’ve been told several times I was wrong to be offended by that section, and that it’s staying in the next draft. Oh yeah, I’m looking forward to reading this again.

      • Sally Says:

        Yes. Rule of thumb is that the correct answer to any constructive criticism (and probably the not-so-constructive kind as well) is “Thank you!” And the constructive kind is always useful, even if you decide not to take it.

        Arguing is just rude (and a sign of insecurity/inexperience).

  4. Nicholas Wells Says:

    I’m still searching.

    Though I will say this. I still live with my parents, and I make an effort to spend time out of the hole with them. In some ways I feel like it’s token, since the times are often things I’m into anyway. Yet, there are times where it’s things I’m not as into. Sometimes I might want to watch another show that’s on at the same time. Or I’d rather watch a football game alone (for reasons I don’t feel up to sharing). But they’re family. I can’t ignore them.

    Well I could, but it wouldn’t feel too good.

  5. janelindskold Says:

    Hmm… I can see that the question of asking for and soliciting criticism is one people are interested in.

    Since I’m just about to turn the manuscript of _Artemis Awakening_ to Clare Eddy at Tor, I’m certainly thinking about that topic!

  6. Paul Says:

    I *think* that Jane and Jim have a unique and enviable writing relationship, as writing families go. My wife read my long-ago first attempt at a novel, but mainly because she was sick that day, confined to bed, and lacking for a diversion (this was before the days of computer games, “aps” and TVs everywhere). Don’t think she’s read anything I’ve published since, except one short story, but that’s OK. We have other interests in common. I would hesitate anyway to show pre-published work to family or friends (unless, like Jim, they know something about the kind of thing they’re reading), as i’d fear getting positive but meaningless comments (“Oh, that’s very nice, dear,” from family, and “Hey, you’ve published a short story? Give me a copy of the book,” from friends.

  7. janelindskold Says:

    Interesting that this turned into what WRITERS want, rather than what their family/ support staff wants!

    I guess that says something about the people who comment… They like to write!

  8. valorandcompassion Says:

    What a fantastic, relevant topic, Jane–and I appreciate your insights about writers and their families, especially about how we writers can be better nurturers of our family relationships.

    I’d like to note that family members’ interest in and praise for one’s work can be alternately helpful and an impediment. My parents always encouraged me in my writing, but alas, because they weren’t writers themselves, they were more of a cheerleading squad than mentors. It’s not that I expected them to critique or correct my writing, but it would’ve helped me if they’d pointed out to me early on, “Mar, it’s great that you love to write, and you have a talent for it, but writing’s like playing the piano: you have to keep practicing in order to improve, and often you’ll need guidance from teachers and fellow writing students. Why not take a writing course? How about a conference?”

    I offer this observation not to blame my loving parents for not learning more about the writing world and guiding me accordingly, since this is my quest, not theirs, but instead to point out how even supportive family members are no substitute for writing colleagues and mentors–that is, professional connections.

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