At first glance, it all seems quite romantic. One might think of Jane Austen and the stirring melancholia of England in the 19th century. Or perhaps Anaïs Nin springs to mind and with her the Paris of the ’30s, bohemian and erotic. Everyone knows that writers are a little crazy. In my experience, they are, but not in the way you think. Because if there is one thing writers adore more than sleazy affairs, cisterns of alcohol, and mindless self-destruction, it’s sitting in one place for a really, really, really long time and writing. Writing is what writers do, and they do it all the time.
Here I am reminded of the lamentable suicide of the great Ernest Hemingway, a man famous for fighting in wars and hunting wild animals, but who was plagued to the end of his life by simple hemorrhoids. Think about it. It may not have been the ghosts of the battlefield that drove Hem to the brink, but sitting on his ass all those years, writing!
And the disease of the pen is contagious. Consider this. While my writer was working on her latest book, I would awake at strange hours in the night with a feeling that something was not quite right. I’d drift through the darkness of our bedroom to the top of the stairs, from which I would sense the orange glow of electric lighting on the first floor. Who could have left the lights on? I’d wonder. Then I would descend the stairs to the dining room. And there she would be, behind the table, punching away at the keyboard, hair in her face. “What time is it, honey?” I would ask. “I don’t know,” she’d mumble. Then I’d look up at the clock on the kitchen wall. “It’s 3 am.”
Her latest idée fixe is a travel novel, a story of strange men and exotic islands, of scrapping everything in frustration and rebuilding your life piece by piece. When I read the draft, I felt the usual way, like a small boat on top of an enormous tide. From sentence to sentence I felt the water rushing, rushing and rushing, and I kept reading and reading. And the most mysterious thing is that all this water, all these words, all this electricity slipped simply from her fingers in our dining room in the middle of the night.
When I catch her during one of her zombie writing spells, I am grateful that I too am some kind of writer. I lack the near religious devotion to the art that she does, but I imagine that if I didn’t comprehend the narcotic-like allure of a creative project, living with such a person would drive me or any other reasonable person mad. And the interesting thing is this: few people write about what living with a writer is like. Everyone wants to read their great books. Who needs to know about the sleepless nights spent laboring behind the keyboard?
There is one more detail. When you live with a writer, you are not only a caretaker who provides energy-sustaining coffees, or midnight editor who cheers the creator on with her endeavors. Often times you are a character in the books too. In this world of reality television, there are now reality books, because who doesn’t want to read a story that’s at least partly true? And so there you find yourself, in fine print, described from another’s perspective with lines of insightful dialog that you may or may not recall ever saying.
How does it feel to be a character in a book? You’ll know it when it happens. I’ve come to understand the huge gap that exists between what is written and what is reality. I now understand that even if the scene is constructed perfectly, the dialog edited from a digital recording, it still is not and will never be a precise rendering of what happened. No matter how hard you try, fiction always finds a way in.
I think I am the kind of person who enjoys living with an artist. There are different types of people in this world. Some are analytical academics. Others are fiery activists. But a small group of them are artists; people who can make water rush from their finger tips. It’s not easy being married to one of these characters, but it’s worth it. After weeks of devotion and labor, her she said her manuscript was finished. An eerie blanket of calm fell upon our household. Could it be? Was her book done? She insisted that it was, but I didn’t believe her. Some part of me still doesn’t.