How to Love a Writer: On the Care and Feeding of a Creative Marriage

This Valentine’s season, my wife Stefanie offers me gifts sweeter than chocolate. She helps my writing flourish and grow. Of course, she was always supportive throughout our twelve years of marriage, but in the past two, she has really stepped up her game. Now she’s more of a midwife to my writing life (although I don’t let her read the earliest drafts). Stefanie’s emotional capacity to support me is due, in part, to her gender transition, which has brightened our marriage.

Authors thank significant others profusely in book acknowledgments, but we rarely talk about the specifics of how people live with, and love writers. As a college student attending Smith College, I read with great interest about Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes exchanging and critiquing each other’s poetry in their life before kids. It sounded mutually beneficial, and it was fascinating to read about how writers worked—until Plath and Hughes’ lives fell apart, of course.

Beth Kephart’s recent Lit Hub essay on Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s marriage is written with such silky smooth assurance, the narrative resembles a canoe gliding over an early morning lake—even as it describes another fraught and tumultuous marriage ending, like Plath’s, in suicide.

Kephart described Leonard Woolf’s role as Virginia’s, “…first reader, her quasi-agent, her editor, her companion, her champion […].” She goes on to describe her own relationship with her artist husband, and her longing for him to be a sounding board for works in progress. In contrast, Stefanie is now an early reader for sure, but since we already share a bed, a tiny apartment, two children, and everything else (including, since her gender transition, shoes and clothes), I consider writing my one personal space amidst the glorious claustrophobia of marriage and motherhood.

I have searched for articles about writing and marriage, but haven’t found anything that fully resonated with me. Feminist writers often invoke Salinger and other long-dead white males with anger and envy when describing their wives’ self-sacrifice, but they don’t offer other scenarios for how to marry a writer. Reading about J.D. Salinger’s wife bringing him meals on trays in his isolated shed, and caring for all of the household and family needs, doesn’t sound super healthy for either partner. We can’t get away from the fascinating trope of the self-sacrificing writer (think: Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife and its film starring Glenn Close). However, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Are these women not married? I ask myself, checking the authors’ bios and confirming that they are. So why don’t we hear about their role in anything besides conception?

In Mrs. Porter-Lowe, forthcoming from JackLeg Press in December, Jo Salas writes a fictionalized biography of Thomas Mann’s translator, Helen Tracy Porter-Lowe, who struggled to make her own literary voice heard despite discouragement from her husband and Mann himself. Despite being trapped, Porter-Lowe fought for her voice. I love stories like these that show women pushing back against society’s limitations.

I have also appreciated the ballooning new genre of motherhood lit, with the even newer sub-genre of “Should I have a baby or not?” lit. Sigrid Nunez reviewed two works of autofiction published in 2019 that I gobbled up during my second pregnancy: Sheila Heti’s Motherhood and Jessie Greengrass’s Sight. Both books explore the question of how the life of the mind can be possible, especially for women, when one is consumed by domesticity. Good question!

However, I shared Nunez’s complaint and puzzlement about the “paucity of information about [Greengrass’s partner] Johannes.” I adore Nunez’s use of the word “paucity” here. In fact, I have experienced this frustration in almost every article I read about writer-moms. Are these women not married? I ask myself, checking the authors’ bios and confirming that they are. So why don’t we hear about their role in anything besides conception? (This could probably be a whole other article, but again… we need to hear more about marriage!)

Domestic narratives have become too crowded with childrearing angst, and we don’t make enough space for couple-hood, which may be a reflection of today’s reality. Ayelet Waldman’s New York Times Modern Love from 2005 is still quoted often today because of its stark statement that she loves her husband more than her kids. I don’t find the piece as controversial or shocking as others, although I’m unclear why the author wanted to quantify or measure her love (isn’t it like comparing apples to oranges?). But I agree with Waldman: you have to put your marriage first; how can you have a family without a foundation?

This is precisely why the “paucity of information” about spouses in motherhood narratives can be perplexing—and leaves us feeling isolated. I read memoir and autofiction for companionship, but since I don’t read much about writing while married, I feel a bit lonely. Of course, I know that some great fatherhood/husband memoirs exist too. I just didn’t tread deeply into those waters (that could be my next article).

When I reached out for interviews on social media, I only heard back from (surprise, surprise) cis-gender women. However, there was one woman author, Morgan Baden, who emailed with quotes both from herself and her husband, the YA writer Barry Lyga. When Baden and Lyga published their bestselling coauthored teen book, The Hive (Kids Can Press, 2019), they discovered a refuge from the stresses of life with two kids under age three. It bolstered their relationship. In a Facebook message, Baden shared that she and Lyga argued about everything but the book they were writing together. Lyga chimes in, adding, “We were so in sync on The Hive that it was almost scary… We would hand scenes off to each other and it all just made sense and clicked perfectly.” It was the couple’s first time writing together.

I’ve been nosy about creative couples over the years, but I’ve also noticed my tendency to back off after I’ve picked up the basic facts.

Since then, Lyga has written a 215,000-word book, Unedited and its companion, Edited (both out from Blackstone in 2022). When Lyga says that neither book would have been completed without Baden’s unending support, I was tempted to send a follow-up question to ask for details. But something inside me told me to hold off, and just read the works themselves. Sometimes, two people just have chemistry together—and so does their prose.

I’ve been nosy about creative couples over the years, but I’ve also noticed my tendency to back off after I’ve picked up the basic facts. (Perhaps I just want to know a few juicy details, but then I’d rather leave the rest to my imagination). Long-married writers Victor LaValle and Emily Raboteau made waves as cover models for Poets & Writers in 2013. The striking cover featured a very pregnant Raboteau beside her husband. I remember staring and staring at the cover because I’d never seen marriage and domesticity merging with literary greatness before. Love and writing—it’s possible! My eyes welled up.

Stefanie and I had just had a baby ourselves in 2013, but she presented as a man then; we presented as hetero. My writer’s free spirit was feeling a bit squashed (as was Stefanie’s closeted trans spirit), but that magazine cover set me free. I began googling to dig deeper, and found an article about Raboteau’s decision to write in the couple’s living room and let LaValle inhabit the study. She reasoned that it was only fair because she had a private office at the college where she taught, and he didn’t really have a private setup at work.

However, once she attempted working in the living room, she “…felt frustrated, and worried that she would become resentful.” I deeply appreciated the unvarnished reality of the article, the story of Raboteau’s quest for space which echoed my own as Stefanie and I moved seven times in as many years. I didn’t find out the end of the domestic story—but Raboteau’s professional story seems to reflect her success at home. She has published steadily for the past decade.

How can both people in a couple end up feeling satisfied with their careers—writing and non-writing—when they might not have exactly the same amount of time, space or other resources? Amy Shearn, author of Unseen City (Red Hen Press, 2020) published a fantastic New York Times op-ed this fall, “A 50/50 Custody Arrangement Could Save Your Marriage. ” When I asked Shearn to riff on themes of “fairness” in the article, she said:

“I tell my children frequently, fair doesn’t always mean that everyone has the exact same thing. If it feels right, in your partnership, for one person to do more of the paid work and one person to do more of the household work, then sure, great, go for it. The key, to me, is: does it feel right? Are both people getting what they need? Sometimes this doesn’t happen at the same time.

“I imagine it’s strange to be with someone who always has this massive other priority, a giant passion outside of your relationship with them.”

But over the years, everyone should at least get turns getting what they need. It’s like what my kids’ pediatrician told me when my daughter was a really picky toddler: look at the nutrition she consumes not in each meal, but over the course of a week. Maybe both partners don’t get what they need every day, but are each person’s needs tended to each week, at least? Or each month? You know what I mean?”

Stefanie and I have had healthier, and less healthier seasons of marriage, but we’re both nourished. A pair of introverts, we both require long stretches of alone time, so we trade off childcare like divorcees, as Shearn recommends. On weekends, one of us disappears with the kids for a whole day while the other wife uses her solitude for cleaning, napping and writing—or, in Stefanie’s case, drawing, researching New York City history, and listening to the Gender Reveal podcast. Stefanie isn’t a writer, she’s an architect/artist, but it’s close enough. She gets what I need.

“Here’s the thing with writers,” Shearn wrote in an energetic email to me. “I think we are pretty fun to get to know and to date… We can be sort of charming! [But] I imagine it’s strange to be with someone who always has this massive other priority, a giant passion outside of your relationship with them. Plus you might get written about?! Stay away from writers, probably.”

Stefanie has always been great about me having a “massive other priority,” and in recent years has allowed me to write about her quite a lot. Sarah Terez Rosenblum, author Herself When She Is Missing (Soft Skull Press, 2012) and numerous shorter works, shared her perspective that rumination is essential both to writing and love. When she’s in a relationship, the imaginary characters dissipate because the real-life character—her lover—consumes her thoughts during morning runs. She longs to make space for both.

It’s true, these three-dimensional humans can be even more demanding than people on the page. Marie Myung-Ok Lee, most recently the author of The Evening Hero (Simon & Schuster, 2022), is married to fellow Columbia University educator, the “fun professor,” Karl Jacoby. When I asked about her marriage, she sent me a missive that appeared, on the surface, to be about everyone she loves except Jacoby. However, when I read between the lines, I sensed Jacoby’s caring, dependable presence everywhere.

Lee and Jacoby’s young adult son, J., is severely autistic and medically fragile and still lives with them. Although Lee describes herself as the more home-based parent, she doesn’t quantify the percentage of care she offers her son in comparison to her husband. She is a visiting professor or adjunct rather than a full-time educator like her husband because her primary career is writing, and because someone needs to be available for J. But Lee also travels often for work, and travels to Minnesota frequently to care for her mother, who has dementia. “I feel I’m not the sandwich generation, I’m the panini generation,” she reflected.

Lee’s life sounds harrowing. Both her son and mom have grabbed her arm while she was driving—and also opened the car door while she was on highway. To make emotional space for writing, Lee often rises at 4:30 am. Emailing me from the airport in Minnesota, Lee shared that she was going to touch down in New York, visit her family, and then take off again for a writing gig. So where was Jacoby in all of this? Lee wasn’t effusive; she didn’t describe her husband as a cheerleader or say, “I couldn’t do it without him.” Her lack of sentimentality inspired me. It seemed more real than those author acknowledgment pages.

I asked Lee point-blank if she felt her needs were being met as a wife and a writer. “Yes,” she replied. “Karl is a spouse I met in college who knew I always wanted to be a writer.” Lee isn’t even finished her book tour for The Evening Hero yet, but she and Karl are already revving up for the release of her next book this spring. I hope Stefanie and I can hang out with Lee and Jacoby sometime; I know we can learn from them about how to be married, and maybe, if we’re lucky, write some books along the way.