Union of future literary titans

 

Twenty-four years ago this June, Chris and I set up our first shared apartment. Possessions: a double bed my mother purchased (“don’t tell your father”); one brown vinyl couch with no rear legs picked up off the street, so if you sat down on a humid August night in shorts you wouldn’t be able to peel free until October; and a tipsy round table with white plastic bucket chairs from a university surplus sale. We took a further step and made things legal twenty years ago this week; the wedding was a wonderful celebration. Our most momentous decisions, though, occurred in the summer of ’89, when Chris was managing the database of a regional theater in Montclair and I was buying an improbable number of texts for my first graduate courses. We moved in the wee hours, because the new tenants of my previous house claimed possession at midnight. Our friend Scott Nicolay had a truck or a station wagon, I can’t remember, but he was always game for adventure, so he shuttled our belongings over to the first floor of that old stucco house in Highland Park, New Jersey. We were babies, but we were also somehow right about each other.

 

The stickiest problem, besides the couch, was merging our book and record collections, although after a little wrangling we devised a system that compromised my alphabetical ordering with his topical clusters. Chris and I got to know each other through Anthologist staff meetings—that’s the Rutgers College poetry magazine—so books were at the center of our friendship from the beginning. I studied his copies of Watchmen, Cerebus, and Dark Knight, and then handed him my Charlotte Brontë. We read Dante to each other at night and Adrienne Rich. We argued about chores and Derrida.

 

We were also reading each other’s pages, learning how to deliver tactful critique to the person you sleep with but more importantly cheering each other on. I was and remain mostly a lyric poet; Chris began that way, but his poems started mutating into thirty-page collages. He spent a lot of time in rare book rooms reading missionary diaries back then, learning about the Lenape. Probably Scott got him started—Scott grew up nearby, found arrowheads in his suburban backyard, and made the history of the area vivid for both of us—but in any case, Chris was thinking through problems that required large, complex architectures. Within a few years, he would shift his primary effort to novels and stories.

 

We were writers. We had plans. Art and marriage were intertwined endeavors. One day we wanted children and better furniture and a house of our own, but we also wanted magazine publications and author photos and artistic triumph. We were fascinated by Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris, devouring their books as they hit publication, gleaning what information we could about their glamorous writerly marriage. Okay, it didn’t turn out so well, but we were striving for some ideal version of that. Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath without the carnage.

 

You know the bit about “wives of geniuses I have sat with” in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, really written by Gertrude Stein? Chris and I, over the years, have taken turns playing genius and wife. We’ve both struggled not to feel invisible and dull while the other was fêted. Mostly, though, we root for each other strenuously and help each other materially. Magazine publication started to click for both of us when our kids were little. Our first books were accepted the same year. Perseverance is key to getting anywhere and I wonder if I would have struggled so insanely hard without Chris’ model. Rejection is constant but if you’re always telling someone else to suck it up and keep going, maybe you talk yourself into the necessary persistence, too.

 

Right now Chris is revising a novel for an excited literary agent. Could be the big one. Another thing we’ve learned together, though, is about the randomness of it all: you get a major acceptance and then the press crashes, but then another day some prize or honor hails on you out of the clear blue. Even more peculiarly, you attain the goal you’ve been striving toward for years and then it starts to feel ordinary. Every success is shadowed by some could-have-been, dwarfed by some higher peak in the distance. The only cure for the constant sense of inadequacy is writing itself, although it’s nice to have company for the ups and downs. 

 

Twenty years ago, twenty-four years ago, though, if we could have seen our 2013 resumes, we would have been damn impressed. All we had then was our unreasonable faith in ourselves and each other, vague plans for world domination, a crazy work ethic, and a promise to stand by each other through it all. We have those bylines and decent couches now, although we’re still waiting on the paparazzi.

1989

I’m sorry I’m abandoning you all

All it takes is a wobble
of ankle or attention—
the other racers fly ahead
and I’ll never catch up.

This is a stupid way
to approach a cherry
blossom. With fear,
I mean. What if,

I ask my spouse, I waste
this gift of two weeks?
I will have betrayed
my family. Counting

games and recitals
at which I will not
cheer, mushrooms
I will not fry. This

week I helped my son
imagine how to draw rain.
I mailed my daughter’s
lopped ponytail to a cancer

charity. All that honey.
Now she runs light.
And I pack the car
with tea bags, soft clothes,

books about other books
because who knows what
a mother of teenagers
will do with solitude?

My spouse laughs.
His first gift to me,
a quarter century ago,
was news that my terror

is funny. We keep walking
past a drowned young
green snake, curled
in a spiral, along the brown

creek, all roiled up
by last night’s rackety
storms. Surprised, he admits,
I slept through the thunder.

My NaPoWriMo poem drafting frenzy continues. One of the most fun projects I’ve started is a collaboration with visual artist Carolyn Capps–she sent me an image, I wrote a poem by way of reply, she’s going to create another image and send it to me, and we’ll see where it goes from there. More on that later, I hope.

This morning’s poem, posted above, had several triggers. My daughter is now on the track team. I read an ominously beautiful poem by Jack Ridl in the new Poet Lore called “Within the Moment of Indefinite Suffering” that begins, “All it takes is a tick.” And, obviously, I took a walk with Chris. He’s just back from Pittsburgh, where he’s settling his mother into assisted living. I’m off tomorrow to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, where I’ll have a studio, three effortless meals a day, and woods to walk in while I think poetic thoughts. I’m obviously feeling guilty and panicked. I’m wondering if I’m the only person who’s dumb enough to approach the amazing privilege of a 2 week fellowship, no strings attached, with this level of fear, or whether this is a totally normal angsty writer way to siphon off the joy from an amazing spring adventure.

Living with a writer

“Page two is a verb tense tour de force,” he says, and I puff right up. I’m pretty new at creative nonfiction as a genre, but prose storytelling is his mastery zone. Who knew the personal essay was all about verb tenses? Transitions, yeah, understood they were trouble. And bending accuracy for elegance (we sometimes ate upstairs from trays, but he wants me to say we ate upstairs from trays): those choices shape poems too but the pressure seems higher when the “I” is more plainly me (“speaker,” hah). Where do I write “Richard Attenborough” and where “John Hammond”? Does “curator of cloned dinosaurs” cover it, in an essay littered with Jurassic Park references? You’d think I’d be worried about the family business I’m rolling out in these sentences, but we agree on ethics quickly, having been discussing them since 1986. That was the Cretaceous Period, when we worked on the Rutgers literary magazine and flirted across the editorial table.

Then he says, “But I think this is the kind of piece that you need to sit on for a couple of months,” and I deflate miserably. I always let poems cool off at least that long but I just wanted to finish something, send off something, and I thought this was it. He spends the next twenty minutes trying to take it back while I make tragic eyes at him.

This is the core of living with another writer. It’s no joke finding time and energy to read each other’s stuff with jobs and kids and domestic crises to tend. When you do, you might like it or you might not, but be careful how you comment because you’ll be in bed with that person all night. And none of it is separate from all the other conflicts that percolate between two people in the same house. One always seems to be finding more writing time, or winning more accolades, or earning more money, and that absolutely affects the force with which the frying pan is lowered onto the stove. What can look from the outside like a steady climb is full of morasses, like when a press closes right after printing your novel and you’re completely on your own for promotion (buy Chris Gavaler’s School for Tricksters now!)  

Competition was much alleviated when we parted generic ways in our early twenties (his poems got longer and prosier while I cheered from the sidelines). I was genuinely happy about his successes, but my congratulatory exclamations still felt cleaner once I started having some success of my own. I didn’t like it at all when he started writing short stories about a stay-at-home dad whose English professor wife got pregnant by another man; by the time he posted an offprint of “The Best and Worst Sex Scenes of All Time” on the department bulletin board and colleagues started waggling their eyebrows at me, I’d had it. I regret asking him to get his female characters the hell out of my job description, though, and now I second-guess myself when I want to say: don’t write that, this one’s too personal. The kids deserve veto power but after all, reader, I married him.

Despite the appearance of kiss-and-tell (that character really WAS NOT ME), he’s a better writer-spouse than I am. He reads a higher proportion of what I produce, with less show of angst, and comments more generously. He often fails to notice that a poem is in iambic pentameter (oh yeah, it does rhyme) but he’s invariably smart about structure, where I need to cut or expand, whether I’ve gotten to the urgent you-must-read-this material or whether I need to keep digging. I rarely publish something before incorporating a few of his suggestions.

Except blog posts.