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What Writers Wish Their Spouses Knew About Them

One evening, my wife, mother, and I were eating at a sidewalk cafe in Maui. A homeless man walked by, stopped, and we began a discussion for the next ten minutes. He was tanned and carrying a fistful of change. He wore a plaid fedora and a matching vest (without a shirt). During the conversation, he hailed the Archangel Michael, quoted sections of Barack Obama’s first Presidential acceptance speech from memory, and ranted about the public showers on the island. If our food had not arrived, he would have kept talking.

When he left, I said, “Wow. That guy would make a great character in my next novel.” My wife did not seem to share my excitement.

Sometimes, I wish I could go places without foraging for characters.

Someone once likened being a writer to hunting quail. Here you have a guy with a vest, creeping through the brush, cradling a loaded shotgun. His steps are slow, methodical. He is not in a hurry or he may scare the critters. The hunter is ferreting out birds hunkering in the reeds, fully prepared to drop ‘em.

So the writer.

For us, leaving the office, pushing ourselves away from the computer, and venturing into the “real world” is akin to trudging into the sticks, armed, poised and ready. Because ideas are lurking everywhere! Whether it is watching the evening news, grocery shopping, or eating at a sidewalk cafe in Hawaii, the writer must be on the ready for ideas — plots and characters and quirky dialog — darting from the brush and skating skyward. Ever prepared to nail them on the spot.

Even if our significant other detests us always bringing along a firearm.

Writing is unlike most careers.  At the end of the day, a mechanic can point to a purring auto, a salesman to the neighborhoods he’s combed, and a comedian to his audience’s laughter. But apart from actually publishing stuff, the writer’s life can seem unusually unproductive. Character arc. Plot development. Points of View. Narrative modes. Dialog and Pacing. Beginnings and Ends. These are the concerns of the average writer.

Writers’ spouses? Not so much.

A successful day for a writer might be honing a villain’s tic or deciding a method of murder, trimming a beefy intro or beefing up a spindly middle. Thrilling, isn’t it? My wife asks, So how’s it going? I push myself away from the computer, bleary-eyed. Great, I say. After 25,ooo words I decided that first-person omniscient POV won’t work.

To which I’m met with a blank stare.

A custodian can, at least, find consolation in the smell of bleach stoking the urinal. The writer does not have that luxury. Our victories are often far more nebulous.

For the most part, a writer’s life is uniquely interior. And that’s something their spouses don’t always understand. You can’t shut up a character, especially one that has origins in your cranium. Can you imagine Captain Ahab in Melville’s noggin, all those years stewing, Holmes trying to decipher his way out of Doyle’s mind, or The Cat in the Hat gestating inside the good Doctor? Stephen King suggested that stories were like fossils, awaiting excavation by some patient author. Well, “excavation” is a process — tedious, at that — and does not just happen when I turn on the computer.  “Fossils” often come into view at the oddest hours — during a walk, while reading the newspaper, mowing grass, or sitting at a sidewalk cafe in Maui.

See, this writing thing is not a 9 to 5 endeavor.

And if you see a writer get that “spacey gaze”, their gift is often kicking in. Yes, it looks like detachment, and to the overly-sensitive or uninformed, disinterest. But don’t take it personal… especially if they start searching for something to write on. You are privileged. Writers live in multiple worlds and one of them probably intersected yours.

No doubt, every writer is different. Some are more sociable, less quirky; some can leave their writing to the study and cordon their creative inspiration. Some manage to stay married, stay sober, and stay sane. Not every writer is a schizo.

But for me, I daydream, talk to myself, find amusement in the obscure and fascinate in details. I sit for long hours with virtually nothing to show for it. Words matter to me, and often I niggle over them. I need my space and wither without it. I watch people closely, and their stories intrigue me. Reading is part of my DNA. I’m not sure I could survive without it. And, maybe most of all, I don’t expect you to fully understand me.

Perhaps this is why writers often find so much inspiration interacting with… other writers.

That same aforementioned trip, I made the mistake of telling my wife that one of my best memories from our vacation was the two hours I spent every morning, from 5-7 AM, writing at a local coffee house. She rolled her eyes and said, “Gee, thanks!” Yes, the picturesque scenery and romantic sunsets were wonderful. But that small block of time at the laptop, pre-dawn, unraveling the story in my heart, is something I relished.

She didn’t understand.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, a “normal writer” is an oxymoron. So how much more abnormal is the person who puts up with them?

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{ 25 comments… add one }
  • Kat Heckenbach April 17, 2013, 5:45 AM

    The one thing I wish my husband understood is that reading IS writing. That I’m improving my craft and cranking the writing engine every time I pick up a book. It’s leisure, yes, but in more ways it’s work.

    Fortunately, I think he does “get it” when I comment about weird people making great characters. And as long as I don’t hole away the entire time during a vacation, he’s pretty understanding–he’ll take the kids to the pool so I can stay in the hotel room or camper to write.

    The one thing I find myself doing that I think is odd and something none of my other writer friends have ever mentioned doing is finding great/unusual character names on name tags of cashiers and whatnot while I’m out shopping or whatever. I love the way words *look*, the shape of them, the way the letters go together in certain ways, so when I see cool names I end up scrambling for my notepad to write them down (or scribble them on the receipt) and always wonder if the cashier/waitress/whoever thinks I’m nuts.

    • Mike Duran April 17, 2013, 7:10 AM

      I do that too with names! I’ve got a list of names for characters that I’ve scrabbled here and there. I also love phrases and have collected them as well.

      • Kat Heckenbach April 17, 2013, 7:25 AM

        If you’re into names for characters–it’s something that is really important to me–I use the site http://www.behindthename.com/ because you can look up names by spelling, meaning, country of origin, and a few other criteria, and if you look in the sidebar on the left, there is a tab for doing the same with surnames as well. I could spend ages searching on there!

  • Morgan L. Busse April 17, 2013, 5:46 AM

    “And if you see a writer get that “spacey gaze”, their gift is often kicking in. Yes, it looks like detachment, and to the overly-sensitive or uninformed, disinterest. But don’t take it personal… especially if they start searching for something to write on. You are privileged. Writers live in multiple worlds and one of them probably intersected yours.”

    Yes, this happened to me last night. I had a great idea hit me, one of those I might actually write someday. So I’m laying in bed, watching the story unfold in my head when my husband asked me what’s wrong. I brought my mind back and said, “huh?”

    Apparently I looked very concerned, like I was dwelling on the state of our society. I explained to him that I had this brilliant idea and told him the premise. He wasn’t as excited about it as I was. If only he could see the fireworks going off in my head 🙂

    Of course, he’s used to it. My best thoughts or ideas come right when we go to bed or when I’m in the shower. What’s with that? Then I rush to grab my laptop and capture the ideas. I’ve even been known to grab a napkin at a restaurant if there isn’t anything better to write on 😉

  • Jason Joyner April 17, 2013, 6:40 AM

    Too true Mike. I had a patient in for a physical recently. Something he was wearing caught my attention and, “Boom!” my imagination was off and running. I just about forgot what I was doing as ideas cascaded through the crevices in my head. I also fought the silly grin on my face when I thought, “Little does he know what he has wrought.”

  • Johne Cook April 17, 2013, 7:02 AM

    In his writing HOWTO book, Sometimes the Magic Works: Lessons from a Writing Life, Terry Brooks noted he had finally trained his wife to understand that when he hit the hammock in his backyard, he wasn’t being lazy, he was working, because that’s where he would work things out in his head. With writers, what you think you see isn’t always what’s really happening.

    Although, if you’re snoring, you’re busted. 😉

  • Barb Riley April 17, 2013, 7:17 AM

    Mike, thank you for the laugh (and truth) this morning! I’m going to send my husband the link to this post. 🙂

  • Jill April 17, 2013, 7:35 AM

    My husband is highly unusual. That’s all I have to say.

  • Lynette Sowell April 17, 2013, 8:01 AM

    Clearly we’ve been eating in the same restaurants, just not in Maui.

    My husband is a saint. He also has a huge imagination and is quirky himself, so I rarely have to explain myself. Except once, when I was at the computer, sniffling and crying. Over a character.

  • Jessica Thomas April 17, 2013, 8:37 AM

    I’m suddenly feel sorry for my husband. Not only am I constantly distracted by the stories in my head, I also can’t talk to him about my day job.

    Well, it’s not that I *can’t*, I just generally choose not to subject him to it.

    “What did you do today?”
    “I went to an EBI CDR for SCR 2457 FM ERP Integration.”
    “You asked.”

    I know that blank stare very well. 8-|

  • Heather Day Gilbert April 17, 2013, 8:40 AM

    Yes–writers live in multiple worlds. Spot-on, Mike. My hubby listens as I drone on about my stories…and I wonder, is it like when he talks about law to me? Is he secretly checked-out? But no, he actually seems to like how I talk about my characters, etc. That said, he still hasn’t read any of my books. I’m waiting till they’re published, then I’ll place a copy in his hands. B/c I can’t handle his criticism–anyone else’s, yes. But not his– because he’s lots smarter than I am, and he doesn’t say things lightly. I’m hoping for a “Well done” on that first pubbed novel from him. And a “Yes, all those insomniac nights and bipolar reactions to emails were worth it!”

    • Kat Heckenbach April 17, 2013, 9:00 AM

      “B/c I can’t handle his criticism–anyone else’s, yes. But not his–”

      I can so relate to this! My husband is smart, but in different areas than I am, so that’s not the issue. But he’s an engineer. His job is to troubleshoot and improve the design of things, and it’s part of his nature to do that with everything. I cannot have a single idea without him giving me “other options.” I know he’s not trying to be a know-it-all or putting down my ideas, but it is something I can’t deal with during the creative process. So I don’t let him see anything I’ve written until it’s published–then he has no say :P. I was so nervous when he read my first novel, but he loved it :).

      • Heather Day Gilbert April 17, 2013, 9:07 AM

        That’s encouraging, Kat! Yes, I think he’ll like it when he reads it. He just has to understand that I think in a totally different way than he does. And I think that’s what he likes about me. Hee. Thankful for these supportive, brilliant hubbies!

  • Johne Cook April 17, 2013, 9:09 AM

    You know what’s simply the best? When we’re out to dinner somewhere and I read a little bit of my WIP and my wife laughs at all the right places. That’s the best.

  • Katherine Coble April 17, 2013, 9:58 AM

    Wow. I must be incredibly lucky. My husband talks to me at great length about by books and the people in them. He asks about them, how their day went, etc. He provides insight and guides me from the bad ideas toward the good ones.

    Sometimes I think that’s one of the best things about a) marrying young and b) marrying your best friend. Or maybe it’s just that I married the right guy.

    • Melissa A. April 17, 2013, 10:14 AM

      Agree with you, Katherine. My husband is also my best friend and has always been very supportive of my writing career. It makes a world of difference.

  • Melissa A. April 17, 2013, 10:13 AM

    My husband has always been quite understanding of my various quirks and I can’t count the number of times I’ve bounced ideas off of him. Even if the idea he offers won’t work, it will often spark one that will.

    I was deep in thought mode yesterday on my novel when going to pick my daughter up from school, so much so that I almost missed the turn. I think my husband and my daughter are both aware of the “distant look” that I get sometimes, and forgive me for it, too.

  • Bob Avey April 17, 2013, 11:16 AM

    I totally understand your dilemma. I had to fight for years to get my own space to write, a small corner of a room behind the kitchen. Now that I have a house with an office, my wife cannot understand why I want it to be my office, and not a collection depot for computers, bills, tax receipts, etc. For most writers, a personal space in which to write is not a luxury, it’s a necessity.
    And I, too, always observe people, places, and things for possible stories when I’m out and about.

    • Melissa A. April 17, 2013, 12:18 PM

      Yes. “A room of one’s own.” I finally was able to get that room last year when we moved into a house. Now my mother is temporarily living with us and guess where her room is? Yep, my office. I miss it a LOT.

      • Johne Cook April 17, 2013, 12:28 PM

        My computer desks are in the Dining Room running along one entire wall. My ‘room of my own’ is achieved primarily through really good headphones. It works at work, it works at home.

        • Kat Heckenbach April 17, 2013, 1:29 PM

          Johne, my writing desk is the same set-up, on the wall of our dining room. Which is totally open to our living room. And also serves as our homeschool room. Headphones are *invaluable*. Even if they don’t block all the noise, they work as the “leave me alone, I’m writing” signal.

  • Mark Carver April 17, 2013, 10:21 PM

    I mention my writing to my wife every once in a while but I know that she can’t get excited about it much as I can, since I’m the one doing it. She’s Chinese and while her English has improved dramatically since we’ve been together, she would have a hard time reading my books (though I know she’ll get there in a few years – she’s awesome like that). So I can’t really share my writing with her other than summarizing what I’ve written, and she listens politely and asks a question or two, but I know it’s not her thing and that’s fine. She asks me how I’m doing and compliments me when I’ve hit a good streak, but I have my writing friends for the heavy stuff. Everyone has their own compartments in their lives, and a spouse should show interest in what the other person is doing just to let them know that they care about that person, even if they don’t really care about what that person is doing.

  • Matthew Sample II April 20, 2013, 7:03 AM

    It’s hard being a creative—living “in multiple worlds” is a good way to put it. But I’m concerned that sometimes we (as in “I”) settle too much for the world’s in our heads. I would love to learn GK Chesterton’s marvelous way to live very fully and vibrantly in this real world—the world God created—and yet very productively dip into these worlds in our heads. Someday I will figure it out.

    But til then, I’ll just longingly look out the windows of my mind into the great world that God has made.

    “All my mental doors open outwards into a world that I have not made.” -G. K. Chesterton from Colored Lands

  • Iain January 16, 2015, 7:05 AM

    Be vewy, vewy quiet: Mike’s huntin’ chawecters, huhuhuhuhuhuhuh!

    Sorry…couldn’t resist…

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