I was curious to find my own place among all the sorts of “Writers’ Wives” described by author and literary critic Malcolm Bradbury in his piece “The Spouse in the House.”
The piece, one in a collection titled “Unsent Letters,” has been written to an imaginary advice-seeker asking how to become a Writer’s Wife, the phrase originally capitalized lest the species be, perhaps, unduly devalued.
To Bradbury, there seem as many writers’ wives as there are types of Writer’s Wife, but let me name just two for the purpose:
1. The “first-class Writer’s Wife, who looks after reality while the writer is absent from it, which is most of the time.” I’d say we all fit into the mold.
2. The “good Writers’ Wives,” who know exactly how to deal with “writer’s block”—although they themselves don’t know how, they encourage their writers to do whatever they have to do (“a trip to the Amazons, an orgy in the brothels of Cairo, anything, indeed, that can later be explained… as ‘gathering material’”) to get themselves unblocked. Fortunately, my own writer, Vergel, has his handy—and safe—collaborator, the guitar, to do it for him.
The other types I won’t bother with; doomed to exit or be replaced in time, these types don’t, and won’t apply to me at all, I’d like to think.
As my writer himself says, “I cannot be imprisoned in one craft; I won’t even pretend to be a writer”; and he proceeds to cite his patron saint, E.B. White, who himself chose to be described simply as a “writing man.”
In other words, he could yet become something else. What’s more, in our relationship, there’s no exit door, again, I’d like to think.
However, Bradbury does come up with warnings I find applicable in particular to couples who, like us, are both writing people. He thinks it best for them to write in different genres, which we happen to have been doing, though not necessarily on his advice—it just happened.
Bradbury also discourages critiquing each other’s work, saying its pitfalls don’t outweigh its value. Well, we are discouraged; we’ve always done it, been each other’s sounding board, before we set anything down, as we do, and when we’re done.
In fact, we have only recently discovered another type of collaboration, one that gives us some of our best laughs—me writing, him drawing to illustrate my piece, and us doing the captions together.
At a writers’ lunch, I have had a peek into how other women writers deal with their writer or non-writer spouses in their senior years. Arriving late, one shows mild irritation at her writer husband’s insistence on driving her to the lunch.
“He actually takes longer to get ready,” she explains, “and so, whenever he makes the gallant offer, I end up coming late.”
A knowing remark comes from one who admits to a shortening fuse with regard generally to habits of her husband, a corporate executive, although not denying her own share of the blame for it—“Must be the summer heat or age.”
A writer from academia feels only too grateful to rake up one bad moment with her husband, himself an academic—he has just recovered from a serious ailment. The youngest and the oldest happen to be both widows accepting the finality of their losses and trying to move on. Another has long been in a potentially enviable situation known as amicable separation. And me—I’m on my second marriage, well-taught, I’d like to think, by the first failed one.
Still, there are first lessons to learn. During Holy Week, Vergel and I had an unexpected reversal of roles. Younger and definitely more physically fit, it was always he who had had to be patient with my forgetfulness and my below-average aptitude with cell phones, computers and other electronic things.
But when for a few days he lost his hearing after swimming, it was I who had to be more patient and sympathetic.
The situation a first for us both, we became uncharacteristically touchy. When in one of those testy nights I got locked out of the bedroom, he left me unwelcomed, knocking on the door until my knuckles were blue. When he opened the door, by mere fortune or, perhaps, telepathy, we were both out of our usual sense of humor. We got wiser in time, though.
That night Vergel was restless. Deaf for the first time in his life, he understandably felt sensitive, vulnerable. But it was his refusal to medicate that irritated me—not fully recovered yet from the lockout!
Usually hardheaded about going to doctors, but dreading the prospect of going to an important meeting the next day deaf, he called his daughter, a pediatrician, for a referral. One short session of suctioning restored his hearing, and I don’t know who felt better, he or I.
When an unexpected situation arises, couples could be in danger of becoming unmatched, if not unhinged. And what would seem to me the ultimate case is becoming eternally parted. As desperately as we wish we could do it together—in the fashion of ready, get set, go!—we know it’s ridiculous.
At this time, when the phrase “in sickness and in health” has become increasingly relevant, being kinder and more appreciative toward each other—writer or no writer—is the more meaningful and, indeed, useful thing to do.
As one American wife I’ve read says, “Even if you have to take out the trash yourself!”