Ignore for a moment the amount of solitude writers require, how we insist on the best room with the best light for our offices, how we ditch out on parties and trips to the in-laws for a chance to work on our novels, how we suddenly get an idea and get out of bed or refuse to go out even though we’re dressed with our tickets in our hand. The real problem with dating a writer is that frequently, writers are only partially there when they’re there. Driving, dancing, working, walking, we day-dream. My roommates have finally been trained to ask, “Are you writing?” when they want to talk about our dog-food shortage but find me in (my favorite) trance-like state.
The lover of a writer has to understand that we are chemically different from other people. You see, beta states are for linear thought; alpha waves are for creative thought, and theta waves are deep sleep. As a writer, it is a psychological/chemical requirement that we live a certain number of hours each day or each week in the alpha state. When the world insists that we are in beta too much, not able to dream or to write, it’s a chemical deprivation. One of my ex-lovers, coming through the door to the smell of a delicious home cooked meal, the apartment vacuumed and the furniture moved, would glumly say, “bad day writing, Jess?” He knew it had been a day of too much beta.
The lover of a writer is forced by default into a non-monogamous relationship. A writer has an entirely separate world going on in her head that is populated by fascinating people whom she cares about deeply, controls utterly, and ponders incessantly. She has up to two dozen people whose backgrounds, physicality, motivations, and emotional growth are of paramount importance to her. A writer lives on at least two different planes, the physical one and one she’s inventing.
And the physical plane is a much more difficult place for a writer. Ignoring the fact that a large portion of my money goes to writer-type equipment and activities, and that I believe that the best thing money can buy is time for not making money, I have trouble with the basic linearity of life; difficulty with the time and space of it. Like most writers, I have tried hard to cultivate the ability to really feel on a gut level many things and experiences that I haven’t actually lived through. Sitting at my desk, I feel cool water against my skin the way my character does as she’s skinny-dipping at midnight. The ability to feel what isn’t real is one I have cultivated for years. As a child, I used to ride in the car with my palm against the window, trying to call into my hands the feel of each leaf, tree bark, light pole, dog fur, house siding that I passed. I got good enough at it that on the train back and forth to college the sensations would flow into my hand in a stream that picked up pace and raced into my hand. It’s a good technique for writers. Our job is to break through the barrier between concept and physical sensation, between past and present. For a writer, to think it, is to feel it. Our sense of reality must be permeable, mutable. We dwell in what isn’t and our success depends upon our being able to experience what we haven’t, to call up events from the past and re-live them, to synthesize the experiences of many and to bring them so close that we can feel them on our skin. We don’t just live in a world of unreality in our minds; we bring that unreality into our bodies, our fingertips, the palms of our hands, the pit of our stomachs.
But this tendency makes us some what undependable as a spouse. How do you build a life with someone who actively cultivates a tenuous grip on reality? When my ex would say, “have you seen that blue envelope?” the answer would have to be yes.
Envelope, blue, sure. As soon as it is said, I feel it. I’ve seen it on one plane or another.
“Was it there yesterday?” Well, now I’m completely screwed because another layer of linearity has been introduced. Time. That’s the hardest one for me.
“Did you give the dog her pills?” I can see it. Dog’s throat, little white pills. I can feel dog lips on my fingers. Yes, I did.
“Did you give them to her yesterday morning and last night?” Now, morning and evening feel palpably different so I can tell them apart, but yesterday morning? Which morning, I don’t know. Some morning, the dog got her pills.
So, our sins are these: we nurture a group of intimates that don’t exist, we purposely detach ourselves from reality, cultivate a physical relationship with things we can’t touch, dream when others would be thinking, think when other would be doing. And we lie. Writers will say anything that is well said: One-liners about ourselves that are exaggerations; embellished stories that make our lovers seem funnier, meaner, more stupid, more selfless or self-absorbed, more the victim, more the companion. Truth gives way to the well-turned phrase. And we steal. We tell other people’s stories, we boil our friends down to amalgamated characters, we walk off with the gestures of people in the street. If we don’t consciously develop a personal code of ethics, writers can turn everything and everyone into fodder for our fiction.
Now, let’s ignore for a moment the fact that writers are intense people stating overblown emotions (because the process of writing dilutes everything, really. Passion that starts at a very high level translates onto paper as mild interest). Let’s ignore the fact that writers are subject to mood swings depending on our ability to transfer the world in our head onto paper, and that we frequently blame our lovers for an emptiness in our lives that can only be filled by our imaginary characters and the time we allow them to come alive. If you’re going to be a lover of a writer, I say memorize the protagonist’s name and when your adored writer demands more of you, tell her to get it off her protagonist.
Which is not to say that you shouldn’t honor the writer’s dilemma, which is, in some ways inherent to the art form and in some ways symptomatic of the arts in America. Writing is extremely solitary and yet writers are driven by a desire for external reward and fame, perhaps only a notch less obsessive than actresses. And writers are terribly undervalued, judged by book sales and money which has little to do with art, and so they struggle with a type of schizophrenia working day jobs.
But the communication issues are real ones that astound me with regards to writers. We are a font of ideas. They come in an endless stream, like six years olds with finger paints. What if we did that? What if we changed it this way? Wouldn’t it be funny if we…? I honestly tell you (no embellishment here) that I didn’t think to teach my partner to greet my ideas with the retort “interesting material, Jess. You’ll have to use that somewhere” before I had completely destroyed the relationship with my deluge of ideas. My partner had made the mistake of taking me seriously and judged me to be, shall we say, tediously inventive.
I had further damaged my credibility by my mistake of telling my ex that I talk to myself so much, and have so many internal dialogues, that at times I don’t really know if I have spoken out loud. Now, that doesn’t seem odd to another writer, because we know the amount of time and energy spent on trying out dialogue, refining a line, thinking up plot lines, developing the internal world. But to a partner who wants to know why they didn’t know that the dinner date had been moved to another restaurant, this internal dialogue seems to be a problem. You can swear up and down that you know that you do, in fact, verbalize in an audible manner whenever the information pertains to that foreign soil called reality, but once your lover knows that you’re confused by the linear plane, you’re sunk.
My ex is now dating an accountant (well, that’s an embellishment). And me? Did I say out loud that I was single? (Not true but I hope it was well-said.)
Causes Jess Wells Supports
Doctors Without Borders, Amnesty International, Friends of the Urban Forest, The Heifer Project, Forests Forever, NRDC