Date a Creator
Q (if you're single): Call to mind the most attractive & un-writerly person you know. Now imagine beginning a romance with that person. What artistic-temperament-related warnings would you need to dish out, upfront? Do you think that person would be capable of adjusting? And if you had to lightheartedly prognosticate, how would this all play out, long-term?
Q (if you're coupled): How does your partner handle those periods when you need to be in your head, be alone to talk to yourself, to lament the latest publisher's rejection, or otherwise tend to your creative life—how does your partner make room?
respondents: two poets, a musician, nine essayists, novelists, and/or journalists
I’m a poet. I’m a Gemini. INTJ. My first name is mostly hopeful. This won’t be fair. It’s good that you like to unwind with yr boys and get blunted and go places I don’t haunt; that’s yours. You’ll need that when I’m stingy with my time. Don’t invite me—unless I haven’t been writing or haven’t been writing well, in which case you should invite me as a formality. I probably won’t accept—unless I anticipate that y’all will be performing in public displays of peak mannishness and I masochistically want to observe it. I’ll need fodder for the poems I haven’t been writing. I do a lot of back-slitting shit like that. When we’re not having sex, I’ll customarily keep many things from you and save them for the page. You’ll feature heavily in a manuscript and know nothing about it. Still, come to my readings. No, not all of them, I don’t even want to attend all of them.
It’s unlikely you’ll want to move in with me, and before you even begin to think you might like the idea, I’ll tell you how much you don’t want that. When I wrote my Will Smith essay, I didn’t wash for days and chain-smoked through the night til sunrise. My teeth were fuzzy and my own stink offended me. At least a week’s worth of dishes sat in the sink. The writer I am these days wouldn’t give up that process. I’m not saying I’ll expect you to adjust to all of this—just most of it. And dick me down on the regular so I don’t have to write about that, too.
I like to fantasize that, in the long run, were there ever a long run, you’d get it. You wouldn’t wait for a reply text or an answered call if a poem were happening to me, which—if I’m as serious about you as I am about this poem—is about the only occasion for which I wouldn’t reply. I’m needy like that. Surprise. And yes, we’d still be phoning. Because we still won’t live together.
The officiant told us marriage would be hard. My husband needs a locked door to write and I need a clean house. We are so miserable at finding time, but it comes. We ride the rejections together, and the success is, well, weird. It’s always brief and never enough. Maybe we’ve acclimated to rejection so well we can’t take our winnings right.
What’s terrifying is that we’re dependent on each other for time, and it’s not the easiest thing to ask for. Casey begs me to work. Sometimes I go to a very sad Barnes & Noble at the mall and check Facebook for two hours, or I write something that wins an award or is lucky enough to get a personalized rejection or is no good to the world at all. Casey needs a type of isolation and privacy that’s hard to provide in a small house, where it isn’t unusual for someone to scream out in joy, or pain, or need, or boredom. I’m terrified that sometimes we hinder each other’s production—that I could be keeping him from writing the next Great American Novel because we’re out of toilet paper,
or the toilet overflowed… Imagine?
I have a manic energy when I need to work, an irritability, and I’m connected enough to Casey that he sees the look and sends me away. I hope I know Casey as well, because we couldn’t love properly without the work in the back of our minds, or in notebooks, or open somewhere on our desktop.
The "artistic temperament" question is one I've grappled with a lot. The trope of the stormy, brooding writer is so common that it's almost self-perpetuating. How can you possibly be a serious writer if you're not moody, and often withdrawn? I gave up on that trope a while ago. The fact that you write poetry doesn't give you a hall-pass to be negligent, even cruel, to loved ones. The harder, and greater thing is to be self-possessed—to remain kind, attentive, and present. Our "writerly" woes are not so unique as to permit bad behavior. Be thoughtful, not mercurial.
My partner isn't a writer, or artist, but she's transformed the way I look at silence. I come
from a loud, bawdy family; if a conversation disintegrates into silence, it's not a good sign. Silence, especially one on one, is a sign of awkwardness, discomfort—in some way, the conversation has miscarried. Growing up, the thought of spending time with someone in complete silence was acutely unpleasant. But this is not the case with my girlfriend—for her, silence isn't a sign of failure at all. Early in our relationship, if a dinner conversation fell into a long lull, I would panic: had I said something wrong? Whose fault was it? But I gradually learned that, for her, silence is more a sign of contentedness, peace, or satisfaction. An inarticulate peace that I'm learning to savor. It also reminds me to shut up every once in a while.
There is a quote I love by monk, author, and poet Thich Nhat Hanh: "You must love in such a way that the person you love feels free." This defines my relationship ideal. Life isn’t always as simple as that, but my partner and I have become pretty good at allowing each other to be who we are.
I guess since I’m a “creative type,” I need a lot of time alone. My partner isn’t in a creative profession, but he needs his time alone also to read and garden and hang out with friends and everything else that he likes to do. We each have our things, and they are not always the same. Over time, we’ve come to understand these boundaries. I don’t consider this “making room.” I think it’s a baseline standard for long-term compatibility.
I had a hard time with this at the beginning of our relationship, but my partner isn’t invested in my dreams the way that I am. He’s invested in me, certainly, and our relationship, but he isn’t shattered by my rejections the way I might be. And when I do well, he’s proud but he doesn’t look at me like I’m a different (and more impressive) person. I used to think that I wanted to be with somebody who felt as deeply about my successes and failures as I did, somebody who shared in my dreams as if they were his own, but I’ve since realized that it’s easier to not be so intertwined. I think it all goes back to this idea of allowing a person to be free. Sometimes showing love is not about attention and affection and the need to interact, but instead restraint.
This question is everything. My partner is a clothing designer, painter, and musical saw player, and all of that involves trying to build a portal into an often ephemeral creative world where wispy half-formed ideas like little sprite lights or vague color pulses must be ferried back to reality. And that involves some serious time alone with one's own mind, as does writing.
We both work in the same New Orleans apartment, and so pretty regularly at least one of us is going to need to be alone for this sort of creative thought. Karen meditates a lot, for many hours at a time. And I know to leave her alone in those times. What I usually do when I want creative space is put on headphones and listen to music like Radiohead or the Sunshine soundtrack at full blast and spew outrages at the computer screen, sort of the opposite of meditating. And Karen knows to leave me alone during those times.
I would like to spend more time meditating. I mean, like Alexandra David-Kneel discusses in her amazing book, Magic and Mystery in Tibet, not just hours, but days, years. There are some people that she meets in her travels who have devoted an entire life to sitting alone in a cave and meditating. I am deeply inspired that people like that exist in this world, and I think that they are reaching for some of the same things you point out in your question, the need to be in their heads, be alone to talk to themselves. These people have just set aside a much longer time to figure all of that out.
I learned years ago to be uncompromising when it comes to prioritizing the muse. If I'm inspired, I don't want to lose that because I'm worried about what someone else thinks, or forcing myself to be present when my mind is somewhere else. When my love for words and my imagination spark with something special, it deserves priority. My husband is no stranger to pausing Netflix mid-show as I jump from the couch and run to the computer. And he's certainly not surprised to roll over in the middle of the night and find my side of the bed cold and hear me plunking away at keys in the other room. But I'm lucky to be married to a man who understands... He's a musician, and is prone to his own bouts of creative abandonment.
There are many nights when I am writing to the soundtrack of his guitar playing, and life is perfect. Here's the thing though, part of loving someone is knowing what is important to them, what ignites their fire or soothes their soul, and if you can't put that person and their soul first, well, that's not really loving them. For me, and my hubby, it's less about making room for the other, and more about operating in a state such that there is always room available when needed.
I’m laughing now, because right as I sat down at my desk to answer this question, I received a “how’s it going” text from my partner. I’m a direct communicator, so I said, “I have to answer an interview question before I talk to you”—the timing of this scenario was brilliant. I told him that the question is about how my partner gives me space when I need it. His reply: “Gives you 160 km of road.” He lives a three-hour train ride away from my apartment, in Transylvania. So when I’m home, I really have my space. My partner is also a writer. He understands the need to be alone, inside your head.
I’m really good at being social and looking natural in social environments, but I’m an introvert in disguise—an INFJ—I require a lot of decompression time after readings, poetry festivals, teaching workshops. I’m easily overwhelmed by texting and social media messaging—the immediacy of the responses, the number of active correspondences going on at once. I’m an email or a letter-writing kind of girl. I’m an I-managed-to-write-two-poems-this-year kind of writer. My partner understands all of this. He listens when I need to be alone or in my head, and doesn’t take it personally. (When we first met he would text and message me on Facebook simultaneously—now he knows this short-circuits me.) When we’re in the same house, he’ll often make room by going into the kitchen and cooking a beautiful meal (I’m spoiled, I know). That is my favorite thing.
Sometimes, though, it’s impossible to get space—he and I work on literary translations together, and right now he’s editing the Romanian translation of my book, The Amoeba Game, with me, on a nightly basis. This—trying to get my poems to be precise and accurate in a non-native language—is difficult, stressful. But it’s also been one of the best ways to really get to understand our tendencies, limitations, needs. Sometimes I get frustrated when I notice something that needs to be changed in a poem but can’t find a solution. Sometimes I keep asking different versions of: are you sure? Making room isn’t always about physical location, sometimes it’s a matter of listening or giving an understanding response. And he does this, is patient. And, as for lamenting the latest publisher’s rejection, I’m a real oddity—I don’t get upset about 99.9999999999999999999% of the rejections I receive. I love everything about the submissions process—it’s oddly calming to me.
Since I’m currently not living with a girlfriend or spouse, my children are the ones who feel the need to point out my many writerly idiosyncrasies. I write mostly at my kitchen table with a view of a glorious old elm tree and a side street that connects a liquor store where one can buy booze with an arroyo where one could drink it. Because I was young and stupid, I never learned to touch type so I use my index finger to hunt and pound letters into words and then sentences. Laptop keyboards are too sensitive so I connect an older desktop keyboard and a mouse to my portable Dell. There are many days when my son London will enter the kitchen, watch me bang on the keyboard, shake his head and leave. It’s worse when I haul the odd future-meets-past tech to a coffee shop so I can write while he does his homework and pretends he doesn’t know the weirdo in the corner.
Other times he’s not so subtle, nor is his sister. In that same kitchen, I often hang sheets of butcher paper on the walls and list names of characters or places as well as sketch plot arcs or character development. I like to entertain and my daughter Poppy sometimes joins my friends and me. She’ll often come over early to chat or help cook. “You’re going to take that down, right?” she’ll ask right away, pointing to the blanket-sized strips fastened by clear packing tape. “And what exactly is this?” she’ll say, slapping some odd phrase or unintelligible question I posed during revision.
“What does it matter?” I’ll ask her, thinking my friends care more about how spicy the barbacoa tacos taste than what I hang on the walls of my old adobe.
“Are you kidding?” she’ll answer and deliver a look of disapproval that only a daughter can give to a father.
I didn’t think I had to be precious about having time to myself to write until I had a child. Then I realized, yes, I’m an introverted writer who likes to lock myself away in a room for long periods while I make up imaginary people and I get upset if I’m unable to do that. (Kids. Don’t they know that Mommy is busy pretending?)
I wasn’t aware of this about myself because of my husband. He’s a self-proclaimed geek and spends his time thinking about computer security. Believe it or not, there are more similarities between a computer geek and a writer than you might think. For example, we both spend time creating systems that we strive to make elegant and logical, it’s just that mine are built out of words and his are built out of numbers. Or, we’re both happy spending copious hours alone on our separate computers. In fact, we’re in the same house right now, and my husband just sent me an email.
There are things he doesn’t understand. He doesn’t have patience for my propensity to frame everything as a story. He doesn’t like wishy-washy questions like, “What did you think of that piece I wrote?” He has never experienced creative rejection, and that can cause friction between us when I’m feeling discouraged. But he’s great at creative problem solving, such as helping me figure out sticky plot points or character motivation. He’s my best reader, and a good editor too. And he comes up with great titles.
I don’t think you need someone who does the same thing as you. In fact, I think that could be a hindrance because of professional jealousy and unhealthy competition. You need someone who believes in what you do, thinks you’re talented, and matches your natural rhythms in a way that makes you feel supported and free. Lucky for me, that’s what I found.
I have a wife who is an artist. She’s a painter and an introvert. She spends a lot of time in her own head. And so, she understands and appreciates that I sometimes need my time too. I don’t know if this need for personal territory is something unique to the mythical “artistic temperament.”
I sincerely believe that everyone has the entirety of potential human experiences within him or her. On a fundamental level, nothing I can feel is closed off completely to someone else. My ability to love is as potent and as meaningful as anyone else’s. Granted, some people have been broken in ways that can make that path more tenuous—but likewise, that pain—it’s pain that I too can access in my own travels. This is why art is so universal. We’re all feeling creatures with similar fears, joys, desires, frustrations, and ambitions. Connections are possible.
My partner knows I need to be alone because she needs to be alone too. And isn’t a good relationship all about proximity? You are intimately close but you give each other space to be distinct. Despite this popular bit of biblical poetry, I hate the notion of “two becoming one.” I love my wife as someone who is NOT ME. We are separate creatures with similar feelings and different histories, with similar needs and different perspectives, with similar experiences and different lives. I don’t want us to become one person. I want her to be herself.
However, I’m glad I married a painter and not another damn writer.
It’s not the competition thing. I’m not a jealous person by nature. It’s more that a visual artist shares a similar space that doesn’t completely overlap. She understands the rejections and frustrations that can happen in a creative vocation, but in a different context. It’s an ideal vantage point. During those down moments, which we all experience—artists and artisans, poets and proletarians, crafters and consumers—we sometimes need space. A loving partner knows how far to stand from you, without losing sight of you.
My ideal creative space is a tranquil attic office with wide windows and plenty of natural light. Time stretches in front of me, my to-do list empty save for writing. There are snacks.
I settle for hunching over my laptop on my couch late at night, grumbling about the noisy upstairs neighbors, stress-eating cookies, and booting my partner from the living room because, oh my god, even seeing him absentmindedly tap his foot out of the corner of my eye is enough to drive me mad. He complies because he is kind and supportive and forgiving in ways I could never be myself and in ways I may never fully understand. It all makes me feel like kind of a jerk.
The divides in our relationship mirror the split in my work. For journalism, the issue is time: Rushing to the office, waking up for early-morning calls, poring over edits. Fiction squeezes into my meager spare time. For that, creative energy and space are key. It’s a dance between chaotic scheduling and necessary moments of quiet.
I remind myself to make room for our relationship, to even pencil it in on my calendar if I must. It is worthwhile because: love. But also, if you are as lucky as I am, your relationship does not drain your creative life but, rather, enables you to do “the thing.”
My partner is my first reader, the one I trust with breaking the seal. He is there in the aftermath of harsh critique groups, rejections from magazines, eviscerating rounds of edits. He does chores and gets take-out for dinner when I’m crazy busy. And I don’t know what I would do without him at the times when I finally look up from my laptop, drained and drawn, and really, really need a hug.
I asked him how he deals with it and he said he sees us as a team: My wins are our wins. (Though I suspect it also has to do with his super-human generosity and the fact that he is, baseline, a far better person than me.) But perhaps he feels this way because I take his gifts and, in turn, try to give him the best of my work, of my gratitude, of my trust. It’s not enough to repay him, but it’s what I know how to do—and he gets that.
My wife Meredith and I have been married for eleven years, but we’ve been together for thirteen. I think we’ve always been respectful of each other’s head space. When we need to relax, she likes to veg out and watch the Kardashians. I play RPG’s on my Playstation 4.
When our brains, however, are switched on, we support each other by taking over the day-to-day duties. We’ve got three kids, two of whom have special needs. When I’m on a deadline, or am feeling an urgent need to be creative, she’ll take the kids to a trampoline park or to the museum—she’ll do something with them that’ll take up a few hours—and vice versa. When she needs to write a paper or get some grading done, I’ll load the kids into the car and head on out to a museum or a play center.
She knows my moods… she has seen me when I get cranky after weeks or months of non-writing time. I’m a real whiny pain when I want to get to the desk. I’ve gotten better about telling her when I need to clear my calendar and my head space, mostly because she doesn’t want to put up with my grumpiness. We haven’t had any confrontations about my mood and tone during the fallow periods—Meredith instinctively knows when I need to work.
I have someone who’s got me figured out.
"You'll keep her in your pocket where there's no way out. Put it in the safe, lock it, it's home sweet home."
–Jack White, "You've got her in your pocket"
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