Advice on writing and love!
“I’ve spent most of my adult life resisting the possibility of romantic love because I feared how it would distract me from my writing work.”
Welcome to the latest installment of my occasional advice column. Note: This week I’m also trying an experiment in communal reading that I’d love for some of you to join—details after the advice.
Dear Subtle Maneuvers,
I’ve spent most of my adult life resisting the possibility of romantic love because I feared how it would distract me from my writing work (I’m 33). Truthfully, I also avoided it, of course, because I was scared of the vulnerability, time, and risk it would entail—all things that I was less afraid to lavish on what I always thought was my one true pursuit, my writing.
Well, out of the blue, I seem to be falling in love. With a person. I am completely flummoxed, blindsided, so so happy, and also so incredibly confused. Where did this come from?! It makes me realize how I wasn’t just scared of love for so long, I also very deeply believed that I did not deserve it. So much of writing, for me, has been entwined with self-flagellation, self-punishment, self-deprivation. All or nothing. Previous romances have very often ended because of my tendency to prioritize work over anything else—though I now realize that, in addition to this reason, I also often didn’t entirely love the person I was with. And for the past decade or so, I’ve worked under the idea that the amount of anxiety, care, and pain I put into my work basically winnows it into its best possible version. You can imagine how unpleasant it probably was to be in a relationship with me if you didn’t have similar tendencies.
Now, these structures on which I’ve built my life seem to feel like they could suddenly change. I want that—I figured out that I wanted to change my life in some fundamental ways before even meeting this new partner—but I’m terrified that I’m going to blow it: my new love, and also my new and serious book project, on which I’m standing at the cusp. My new partner and I are of the same persuasion: addicts, basically, who have been addicted to their work, primarily, with other things thrown in here and there. As such, we’ve vowed to go really slowly, to see each other twice a week on specific days, to keep communication as open as possible, to give each other lots of space and also support. But I’m wondering what else I can do to open my life and my work to love, and the reverse—to finally find the support I didn’t realize that I dearly needed, and have it somehow dovetail with the space, time, focus, and independence so essential to my writing. I want this so badly: and I’m only now realizing that if I play it right, both love and work, hand in hand, might be possible for me.
All the best,
First of all, congratulations on your new love—and your new and serious book project! What wonderful (and, yes, also terrifying) developments to carry forth into the New Year.
I wanted to start by congratulating you because I know I tend to greet good news by jumping straight past enjoyment into simmering apprehension, and it sounds like you might do the same thing. Such a bad habit! Not only because we miss fully savoring things, but because sometimes I think all our worrying has the opposite of its intended effect: Instead of staving off the negative outcomes we’re trying to avoid, we can end up manifesting them, as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s like when you’re a kid learning to ride a bike: If you focus all your energy on not riding directly into that tree, somehow you end up riding . . . directly into that tree.
Now I’m certainly not saying: Just relax! I very much empathize with your worry over combining serious writing and a serious relationship because, yes, it’s hard! Especially when your writing has historically been “entwined with self-flagellation, self-punishment, self-deprivation”—which, if it makes you feel any better, is how a lot of writers and other creative people operate (myself very much included).
As you admit, these tendencies can make us, well, less-than-ideal romantic partners, because we need a lot of time and space to burrow moodily into our all-consuming (and at the same extremely fragile) work—and then, after all that burrowing, we’re not always the most chipper and lighthearted individuals. As the writer and environmentalist Edward Abbey once said, “A writer must be hard to live with: when not working he is miserable, and when he is working he is obsessed.”
The good news is that, in fact, some humans can tolerate this set of behaviors in their partner, and can even provide the support that us insecure masochists need! In all seriousness, if you’re the kind of person who has, until now, “very deeply believed” that you don’t deserve love, I think it’s good and healthy that you’re now thinking in terms of support and that you realize how badly you crave that in a partner.
I also like that you’re thinking in terms of rules. In the early days of Covid lockdown, I wrote a piece about coworking spouses in literary/art history, and while it was largely examples of how not to live and work with your romantic partner (e.g., no whistling, please!), at the end I settled on the power of rules in circumstances like these. Just sitting down and having a frank conversation about how much time and what conditions you each need for your work, and engaging in some creative problem-solving about how to get those needs met—that’s worth a lot. And it sounds like you’re already doing that.
As for the part about your new partner also being “addicted” to work, that could be a good thing or a bad thing. A lot of writers and artists end up marrying other writers and artists because, well, they get it. As the artist Eleanor Antin once said, “if you’re an artist, I don’t care what they say, you should be married to an artist. If not, forget it. If you aren’t married to an artist, what would you talk about?”
But, of course, two work obsessives can be a lot for one relationship to bear, and in my Daily Rituals research I ran across a lot of examples where one partner’s creative needs dominated. One example I was thinking of this week involves the Australian painter Stella Bowen and the English writer Ford Madox Ford, who met in London after the First World War, fell in love, and moved to the countryside together, with the idea that he would write, she would paint, and they would live simply in a quaint little cottage.
Unfortunately, Ford’s needs as a writer ended up completely subsuming Bowen’s painting. In her 1941 memoir Drawn from Life, Bowen wrote that she quickly became the “shock absorber” in their relationship: She paid the bills, prevented Ford from learning the full extent of their debts, and shielded the sensitive writer from interruptions. (When Ford was finishing a book, he required that no one speak to him or show him the mail until after he had finished his morning’s work.) Bowen wrote:
Ford never understood why I found it so difficult to paint whilst I was with him. He thought I lacked the will to do it at all costs. That was true, but he did not realise that if I had had the will to do it at all costs, my life would have been oriented quite differently. I should not have been available to nurse him through the daily strain of his own work; to walk and talk with him whenever he wanted, and to stand between him and circumstances. Pursuing art is not just a matter of finding the time—it is a matter of having a free spirit to bring to it.
I find their story touching because I can relate to both sides. On the one hand, I can so easily see how Bowen was unable to paint in the vicinity of Ford’s suffocating neediness. On the other hand, I can see how Ford did need someone to protect him from money worries and interruptions and the stupid mail! At the end of the day, none of us should expect another person to be our full-time “shock absorber”—but perhaps, in a good relationship, two partners can take turns being shock absorbers for each other?
That’s what I wish for you, and I think the way to get it is to do what you’re already doing—to know what you want and articulate it, not just in an anonymous advice-column query but to your new partner, with whom you’re engaged in this delicate business of melding your two lives. It is possible!
Lastly, I want to say that if you have a “tendency to prioritize work over anything else,” and if you believe that the quality of your work is proportional to the amount of “anxiety, care, and pain” that you pour into it, you may want to consider the possibility that these attitudes are not only making it tricky for you to open your life to love—they may also be hurting your work! I’ve struggled with this myself, and I keep trying to remind myself that one absolutely essential part of writing is taking it seriously and putting in the work . . . but another absolutely essential part is actually living your life so that you have something to write about! So in addition to anxiety, care, and pain you may need silliness, rest, and escape. And it sounds like you’re poised to get them.
Please let us know how it goes! And, readers, as always, please weigh in with your own thoughts and recommendations in the comments section below.
A COMMUNAL READING EXPERIMENT 🤓
I mentioned above that Stella Bowen’s 1941 memoir Drawn from Life is one of my favorite pieces of writing about the challenge of protecting your creative space within a relationship. Unfortunately, the book is out of print and used copies are expensive. However, you can read a scan of the book via the Internet Archive—or you can join me in a little reading experiment:
I’m currently trying out a new app in development called Threadable, which allows people to create “reading circles” where they can add comments to a text that everyone in the circle can see and reply to. It’s a neat idea—a way to discuss a text in the text itself. If you’re curious to check it out, you can join me in reading my favorite chapter from Bowen’s memoir in the app, and see my comments/annotations and add your own. (It’s all free.)
To participate, first you have to download the Threadable app from the App Store (sorry, Apple devices only for now). Then you have to log in using your Google or Apple account. Finally, enter this code to join my reading circle: 5 2 1 4 6
Hope to see some of you there! If you have any questions, send them to firstname.lastname@example.org or just reply to this email.