I always wanted to be a writer, but I never wanted to marry one. Intelligence I wanted, of course, and that “bang smash” passion Sylvia Plath details upon meeting fellow poet Ted Hughes, but I didn’t need a literary man. Let writing be my thing. Let my husband have his own thing.
Whether or not a writer should partner with another writer was a topic of frequent discussion in my MFA program. (We were all writers, and what do writers like better to talk—or write!—about than other writers?) The general consensus was this: Better to have a spouse who didn’t write, at least not professionally. You could wake up early to put on the coffee, spend mornings at your desk, do some light housekeeping in the afternoon, and give your spouse the joy of knowing that he or she helped you to birth your opus by supporting you through the five or ten years it might take you to finish said opus. (If you’re National Book Award winner Ben Fountain, try eighteen years.) Better to have a
patron spouse with more lucrative work.
Then I met Dan my second year of graduate school. He was called “Dan from Texas,” although there were no other Dans; this nickname had more to do with his friendly grin and sometimes drawl. I fell in love with his ambition, his intellect, and his general wonderfulness. We made eyes across the table of our writing workshop. We took drives in his white pickup on Sunday afternoons, stopping at tiny towns to eat fried dinners in Michigan dive bars. On our first cross-country road trip, Dan and I repurposed a beer cooler into a cache for all the used books we collected. His writing wasn’t why I loved him, but I did love his writing.
Of course, there are dangers in weaving our vocations and our romance. In her essay “Envy,” Kathryn Chetkovich writes of dating Jonathan Franzen: “This is a story about two writers. A story, in other words, of envy.” When Dan and I both submitted our work to the big graduate writing prizes, he won ten thousand dollars, while I won zilch. We share our drafts and try to give honest feedback. When Dan told me he was disappointed in the draft of a new project I’d given him to read, I felt like I couldn’t write for a month. When he complained this past September that he felt he hadn’t had enough success, the fellow writer in me tallied his recent accolades, while the sympathetic partner in me disappeared.
And every year for the remainder of our lives, we have to answer this question: Who has to make the money and who gets to write?
In the spring of 2013, New York University offered me a job at their new campus in Shanghai. I’d applied on a whim, and only because Dan had promised to go with me. That August, we moved to Shanghai (and moved in together for the first time). I worked, commuting an hour by train to the temporary campus, planning new lessons to meet the new curriculum, and spending my weekends grading. Dan had the year to write. Sometimes he made the bed. He bought vegetables in the wet market and brought me dumplings on the mornings I was home and listened to my complaints when I was frustrated and generally made everything better, as he always does. I appreciated his support, and I knew I wouldn’t have gone to China without him, and ninety percent of the time I was just grateful that we could be together, eating xiaolongbao and fumbling through Mandarin. The other ten percent of the time, I felt an angry resentment. I wanted the unfettered time to write. The resentment itself also made me angry, because I didn’t want to be a woman who resented her partner’s opportunities. I wanted to be generous.
Dan’s dream is part of my own now, because part of my dream is to have a husband who can pursue and fulfill his ambitions. But Dan’s publishing a novel won’t be the same as my own publishing a novel, not in the same way that, say, buying a house or raising a child can be a shared realization. However hard we work to support one another, Dan’s writing will always be his own, as mine is always my own. Dan’s career puts mine in sharper relief.
Our genders also matter here. My novel will probably have flowers on its cover and its title in cursive script, while Dan’s will announce its importance in a bold sans serif. Although we are both writing literary novels that are essentially romances, Dan’s first novel is much more likely to be reviewed by major publications. Mine may be damned as “women’s fiction.” If we continue to work in the academy and also try to have a family, our children will increase Dan’s chances of success while decreasing my chances of tenure. Like many couples in academia, we will suffer from the “two body problem” (the slim odds of finding two satisfying university jobs in close proximity). We may have to prioritize one career over another, at least for awhile. Dan has promised me my Year to Write and I know he’ll be good for it, but if my year to write coincides with, say, The Year of the Complicated Pregnancy or The Year of the Toddler and a Nursing Baby, how can I guarantee that the writing won’t be swallowed up? Or that we will be able to justify the cost of childcare on only one salary? We will have to be careful to consider all kinds of work, writing and teaching and parenting, work that is paid and unpaid. It’s a challenge that seems daunting to me. How we manage this will be, I suppose, a careful balance and a shared dream of happiness for one another and building a strong life together.
Writing—like anything worth doing—is hard mix of pleasure and suffering and doubt. Perhaps my greatest worry is that despite Dan’s relentless encouragement, I won’t have the courage to go through the difficult parts. I will let myself become the wife of the writer, instead of the writer herself. Vera Nabokov chauffeured her Vladimir around from national park to national park to examine butterflies and carried a small handgun to protect him at all times. Zelda Fitzgerald was, evidently, also a novelist, but who knew? This worry is more about me than it is about Dan. It’s about valuing my own time and talent, even as I’m confronted with and relish my partner’s gifts.
Last week, Dan and I visited an ashram in India. We lay on the roof, waiting for the midnight chanting session to start. The eager ashram student next to us went on and on to his fellow students about finding the balance between moksha and family life, the Canadian military, anything, it seemed, to keep talking. The other students grunted uninterested responses through the shawls they’d thrown over their faces to keep away mosquitos. Dan and I exchanged a glance. I knew he had his pocket notebook; I had no pockets in my sari.
“We’ve got to get this,” I whispered. Dan reached for his pen. Now it’s just a matter of who gets to write the scene first.