I have a widget on my blog that lists the most popular posts in a sidebar. The one that has slowly grown to the number one spot over the last year is about women writers and ambition. It was prompted last year by VIDA’s Count – a now annual expose on the percentages of women writers represented in various literary publications and book reviews. The point of my essay went beyond the outrage of gender disparity and focused on why these publications and reviews matter to women – in those late-night conversations that couples have at their kitchen tables, deciding how to make ends meet, maybe with a child sleeping in a bedroom down the hall, trying to figure out who deserves the investment of time, which is what every writer needs if they’re to have a real career. My point was that a woman writer’s argument that she has rightful claim to that investment is bolstered by a literary publication in, say, The Paris Review, and a culture that takes women writers seriously. I also mentioned that it’s often the case that the woman writer has to first convince herself that her career is worthy of the investment of time.
Then, today, as my column deadline loomed, my husband, Dave, and I were talking about what I should write. I wanted to follow up on the ideas about women and ambition, but, in truth, my path has been very different. My kitchen table conversations weren’t arguments. Dave and I have done things differently. Finally, he said, “Write about how to support a writer. This time, write a letter to the people behind the scenes in a writer’s life. Tell them how it’s done.”
The problem is I don’t know how it’s done. I was the stay-at-home person for the first six years of our marriage while our oldest three were little, but my husband has long since taken over that role. We’ve been married twenty years and have four children. I see my husband do it every day, but it’s like watching someone sing opera. There’s something about breathing, something about making notes and the resonance of the space you’re in. But I’ve got nothing.
I’ve been the one in the room, writing for long hours – the sole breadwinner, trying to make ends meet. I’ve been the one who stays in that room until I have something to show – in large part to honor his daily work and sacrifices to give me that time. In the long hours of his days – driving children around, grocery shopping, cooking, leaning into what can be the isolating, frustrating, and ultimately the noble and beautiful work of raising a family – all I know is that he has the ability to say, “Keep going. Write.” Where does that come from? Some wellspring.
So I’m not going to write that advice to those who support writers. I’ll let him do it.
And Dave takes over. [David G.W. Scott is a poet, writer, former communications director, newspaper editor, semi-pro soccer player, and teacher, who is currently Julianna Baggott's creative (and life) partner. ]
First of all, this is Julianna’s sneaky way of getting me to write. We met in grad school, almost immediately after her mother had dropped her off with the parting line, “Whatever you do, don’t fall in love with a poet!” I was getting my MFA in poetry at UNC Greensboro, and I became that poet her mother was so afraid of. But maybe her mother was afraid of Beat Poets (or Language Poets), and so she accepted me.
The question is how do you support a writer.
1. The most basic and obvious is to let them do it, give them time. But it’s more complicated than that because so much of the time spent writing yields little results. In this way, I’m spoiled because Julianna is working on so many projects, and works so quickly, that she always has something to show me.
2. Be interested, but you don’t have to be a critic. Quick story: Julianna and I had known each other for a week and I saw a story of hers sitting on the table. I made some snarky “workshop” comment about the first line, and she said, “You’ll never read a word I write again.” And in the most obvious ways, I haven’t. Mainly, I have let Julianna read her work to me for years. I comment on the things I love, the images she creates in my head, what I’m confused about. But I don’t play critic. I turn off my I’m-so-intelligent nervousness, and I just enjoy her work.
3. When you give time, let it be a gift, not a barter. Believe me, I’ve gotten so much from Julianna’s writing, but I always remind myself that it’s not part of the deal to say, at the end of my day, “Here. I’m done. It’s your turn now.” No matter how many loads of laundry, no matter how many dishes or dinners, I know she’s engaged in a difficult process that demands her energy, her empathy, and often leaves her exhausted. I haven’t been perfect on this score, but I try never to punish her after giving her the gift of time.
4. Don’t be a jerk. The stereotypical writer is a self-centered, drunken loud-mouth. But most of the writers I’ve met are very sensitive and generous people who want to tell stories with words. Supporting a writer demands your energy, your wit and sense of humor and your patience. Your writer is practicing empathy and understanding of her characters; you can have that same empathy for her.
5. Failure has many faces. The writer’s supporters must be as resilient as the writer. When one of Julianna’s early books got a bad review, I took it personally. I was really mad. In a way, this helped Julianna be less upset by it, and move forward. When sales figures aren’t what I’d like them to be, I tell Julianna I’ll go back out and become the breadwinner, one way or another. But she still must write.
6. Both of you should work your asses off and then never fight over who’s working harder. Julianna and I made this rule early on in our marriage. The arguments about who’s working harder are tricky. They take all kinds of different forms, but you have to be able to recognize them and then just stop and acknowledge that you’re both working full-tilt. Appreciate each other.
I’ve talked about this enough over the years to know that some of you are going to want to know what happened to my career. Some are going to want to defend my honor and believe that I sacrificed my own art so that Julianna could have hers. Not true. When you see someone writing the way she does, you realize what that is, and I didn’t have that kind of headlong desire and focus in me. It wasn’t the same, and that’s fine by me. It’s not that I haven’t written here and there. I have, and she’s been my greatest supporter; but I didn’t need writing the way she needs it, and I mean that in the best sense. She explains her relationship with the page more clearly than I can. And I love my work – in the house as well as being a creative sounding board.
Lastly, for beginning writers and their support staffs, I want you to know that publishing will not solve your life. Whether it’s a book or a story in a magazine, you are still going to have all your issues and problems — and you probably won’t be rich. I love Julianna Baggott. Letting her access and express the greatness that she has is the way I love her.
About Julianna Baggott
Julianna Baggott is the author of of eighteen books, including Pure, a New York Times Notable Book of 2012; the sequel, Fuse, will be published in February. She writes under her own name and under pen names Bridget Asher and N.E. Bode -- most notably, National Bestseller Girl Talk, The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted, and, for younger readers, The Anybodies Trilogy and The Prince of Fenway Park. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Best American Poetry, Best Creative Nonfiction, NPR’s Talk of the Nation, All Things Considered, and Here & Now.