One of the topics to which we keep returning is writing as a couple. This topic isn’t easy for us to tackle, and we sometimes find other writing couples hesitant to write about it, too. Maybe it’s difficult to articulate the writing part of couple relationships in which much goes unspoken or taken for granted. It’s personal. We don’t want to jinx it. What works one month may change the next.
We are especially grateful, therefore, that Eric Wasserman and Thea Ledendecker are willing to share their take, or their give-and-take, as a writing couple. We’ll post Thea’s piece next time (click HERE for hers). This week, we feature Eric, who was raised in Portland, Oregon, but waxes nostalgic his time in Southern California. He teaches at the University of Akron and is on the faculty of the NEOMFA. His story collection, The Temporary Life, is already out, and his novel, Celluloid Strangers, will be published this year.
After you read Eric’s post, check out what his wife has to say about writing as a couple HERE.
THE SPONGE AND HIS SQUEEZE
I recently completed a new short story. My wife, also a writer, hates it.
I can live with this since we’re only talking about eighteen pages. However, I was not so live-and-let-live when it came to her critiquing the various drafts of my novel, Celluloid Strangers. Over the course of its six-year journey from drafting to publication, there were some pretty heated exchanges I had with my most important and trusted reader.
My wife and I own a house in Akron, Ohio, with separate offices where we can close our doors and each write in solitude. However, when I started working on my novel, we were living in a tiny apartment in Santa Monica, California, where my writing desk was literally part of the open kitchen (she typed on a laptop on the couch five-feet away). Cramped quarters would be an understatement; it was the only time in my life when my writing regimen resembled a contact sport. I’m not nostalgic for those bad old days. There’s zero romanticism in having no money as aspiring young writers. It sucks.
A lot has changed since then, but one thing about our writing life together has not. My wife forever remains the quintessential squeeze to my sponge.
Allow me to explain.
The strongest image I have from those days when I was deciding whether to have car insurance or health insurance, since I couldn’t afford both as an adjunct instructor who was freeway-flying between four different community colleges in the City of Angels, is that of my personal angel sitting cross-legged on the floor of that little apartment with the manuscript for my novel in her lap. I always had a working draft printed out and kept in a binder (if the apartment caught fire, I saved this after the cats were safe). My wife was opening and closing the binder to remove pages. And those not removed were covered in her purple-penned scribbles with uncountable demands for eliminating everything from phrasing to whole paragraphs.
When a fiction writer plucks observations from life or modifies slightly autobiographical information into an imagined narrative, readers ideally release themselves to the world of make believe. For instance, from the few things I have learned about Jonathan Franzen’s life, I can guess that certain aspects of his novels The Correction or Freedom are possibly autobiographical, but it’s a passing thought. The problem with deciding to share the rest of my life with another writer is that nothing gets by her.
This is a good thing.
My wife knows what serves and does not serve my stories in ways others never will. She is my first line of defense, the one who says, “Good God, I know you heard that on NPR when we were in the car the other day, but you didn’t need to put it in the novel,” or “Come on, just because you’re fascinated with every aspect of Charlie Chaplin’s life doesn’t mean readers care. A few details capture the character’s personality just fine. Get rid of the rest.”
I am the type of writer who is cursed with soaking up everything around me like a sponge, especially when I am conducting research for a story. What my wife does is give a strong squeeze to that sponge to make sure the very few items remaining, which I have plucked from the life we share, really are relevant to the imagined worlds and characters I am presenting. Sometimes I accept her squeezes immediately. Most of the time, it takes her several drafts of coaxing. In the end, she’s usually right.
We were recently in Washington, D.C., and had the chance to see the new exhibit on the 1940s at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art. My forthcoming novel is set in 1940s Los Angeles and has a film-themed component. We saw two paintings I had never known existed. The first was Edward Biberman’s “Tear Gas and Water Hoses” (1945), which depicts the studio trade union riots on the Warner Brothers lot. My wife, excited, said, “Look, it’s that scene from your novel!” I had just approved the final text of the book shortly before this trip. Then, we turned a corner and saw another painting I had never discovered before, Paul Sample’s “Movies — Canton Island” (1943), which depicts World War II G.I.s watching a Hollywood film in the desert. My wife’s instant reaction upon seeing this was, “Thank God you’ve already approved the final manuscript.”
She knew that she, as the squeeze to my sponge, would have had to rinse out the image of Sample’s painting from my novel, had I had the chance to incorporate it prior to approving the final text. Fair enough.
But now that I think about it, that new short story she hates might be beyond squeezing to her acceptability all together.