Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Marriage for Writers

Today is another personal holiday: married to Damon 23 years today. I wasn't going to write about it because this isn't a personal blog; but then I realized - marriage is a huge career choice for a writer, yet it isn't treated as such by society.

If you look at literary marriages through history, it's not hard to see how important it is. Sometimes (especially reading the biographies of the Romantics) it seems that writers are simply horrible spouses; other times (especially reading the biographies of female writers) it seems that ghastly marriages drive writers.

How many Victorian women took up the pen because their husbands couldn't or wouldn't provide for the family, and no other respectable occupation was open to them? Charlotte Bronte never published a word after she married Mr. Bell. Elizabeth Barrett's only major work after she married Browning was Sonnets from the Portuguese. (Which, okay, is a major major work!) Louisa May Alcott foreswore marriage; Jane Austen opted out of it, and we have to wonder if she'd have produced her six so-nearly-perfect novels if she hadn't. E. Nesbit wrote her influential and diverse body of work in the context of a chaotic marriage to a man who carried on an affair with another women in the same house as his wife. (Nesbit adopted the children of this liasion!) George Eliot defied convention to live with a married man in what today would be a conventional second marriage but in those days cut her off from polite society.

Robert Louis Stevenson's peripatetic lifestyle included a supportive, hard-working, strong-willed wife who was slowly going mad and with whom he often got into a mutually self-destructive loop of bad behavior. (I'm supposed to stop smoking for my lungs but you're supposed to eat fewer sweets. You had cake so I get a cigarette, so there.) Thomas Carlyle's wife Jane died a virgin. Dickens regretted his marriage and used it for literary fodder, trying to work out on paper acceptable roads through the minefield of duty, love, happiness, and gender roles and never finding his way.

And then there's Leonard and Virginia Woolf; he set aside his writing career for her's in a reversal of traditional sex roles (possibly predicated on a realistic judgment of their relative talent; but we'll never know now, will we?). Tolkien wrote against a cozy domestic background of wife and young 'uns and steady paid employment, which ate up time and forced creative writing into late nights and leisure hours. C.S. Lewis's domestic arrangements are far more fraught and mysterious than anything else in his life - what was his relationship with Mrs. Moore, exactly? Is it possible for an outsider to see through the romanticism and sentimentality of Shadowlands to the reality of his marriage to Joy? And how does that interact with his strictures on marriage in his apologetics or his portrayal of women and sex in Narnia, the Space Trilogy, and (what I consider the best but least read of his books) Till We Have Faces? Could Charles Dodgson have become Lewis Carroll if he'd married, and would we be as obsessed with figuring out his sexual proclivities today?

The most straightforwardly beneficial marriages I can think of off the top of my head are same-sex pairings - Gertrude Stein/Alice B. Toklas, and Christopher Isherwood/Don Bachardy. But the biographies of Margaret Wise Brown, W.H. Auden, and other homoerotic luminaries will demonstrate that this is an artifact of my sampling method and that the complexities of the literary marriage are amplified by the addition of societal disapproval, legal restrictions, and the peculiar public morality that makes the cruel hoax of bearding more socially acceptable than honest living.

For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer - who you marry will affect what you write, when you write, how you write. I recommend that every writer who is contemplating marriage read a few biographies with that in mind, and consider how this person fits in with your writing life.

In my opinion, writing as a profession is sufficiently difficult that no one should even mess with it unless it's the most important thing in the world to them. Much, much, much casual and unpaid writing is worth doing; if you are satisfied by writing your church newsletter, the occasional poem in a little magazine, and posting fanfic, you are still writing and no one has the right to look down on you. The whole time and energy black hole with no promise of adequate compensation (not to speak of reward) of the write-revise-submit process is simply not worth it if you don't want publication and a place on the library shelf more than you want the other ways you can spend your time.

If that's who you are, marriage to someone who doesn't get that up front is not fair to anyone. A writer's spouse who is not as committed to the career as the writer is will kill the career, or kill the marriage - and is not to blame for that. Because if the career comes first for the writer - the marriage does not.

That's a hard reality that will make life easier once you look it in the face, internalize it, and learn to work with it. A marriage does not have to fit any of society's ideals for it in order to be a good one for the individuals involved. Nobody else has to be pleased by it or even understand it. Biographers disagree violently about Lewe's treatment of George Eliot, but there's no reason to think she could have had a career at all in a different relationship. Louisa May Alcott was almost certainly correct in her estimation of how her life would have been harder with a husband; but she might have lived longer and enjoyed it more had she taken a wife! (I'm not making assumptions about her sexuality here; she had the role of Victorian husband vis-a-vis her "pathetic family," and might well have benefited from somebody, of any sex, to take the role of Victorian wife to her.)

Ideally, modern marriage is supposed to be an equal partnership. In reality, it's hard to see how things balance out in any given case and most marriages look lopsided at one point or another. No one can be married for 23 years and not accumulate reasons for divorce. Damon has reasons to divorce me and I have reasons to divorce him; these are nobody's business unless we act on them, and we do not. From certain angles we look like the ideal couple. From certain others, we look impossible, but which one of us is accumulating debts to the other that can never be repaid depends on where you put your emphasis. Fortunately, love is not a market economy.

And the bottom line for me is that he gave me a context in which I wrote and published 12 middle-grade novels, and which eventually allowed me to quit the soul-sucking day job.

Good, and good enough. Happy anniversary to us.

1 comment:

  1. Happy anniversary to two of my favorite people. Here's to another 23 years and 23 more after that.