When we met Margaret Lazarus Dean, we didn’t realize that her husband was a writer. We struck up an exchange with Margaret because she wrote a novel steeped in the space shuttle program, The Time It Takes to Fall. Read her guest post HERE. When we watched Atlantis lift off, that was Margaret’s head at the bottom of the frame in our photograph. Margaret’s husband, Christopher Hebert, was at home in Tennessee.
We’re pleased this week’s guest blogger is Christopher Hebert, a man we’ve never met and someone who expresses little interest in the space program but who has a wonderful take on what it means to be part of a writing couple. His piece connects with some other guest posts, like Eric Wassmerman’s (click HERE for that and his novel is just out) and also with some of our recent regular posts. (Click on the title to read “The Luck and Obligation of Writing,” “Writing Together, Writing Apart,” and “Writing Apart, Writing Together.”) In fact, we inadvertently adapted Hebert’s title a couple of times. Hebert’s guest post, though, stands on its own and beautifully captures the evolution of one writing couple’s habits. Also, for readers who are punctuation nerds, he uses the colon and the semicolon seamlessly.
Christopher Hebert is the author of the forthcoming The Boiling Season, due out in March from HarperCollins (pre-order now from Powell’s HERE). Hebert is an Antioch College alum who’s spent time in Guatemala and Mexico. He and Margaret earned their MFAs at the University of Michigan and teach at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
LOVE IN A WINNEBAGO: ON WRITING TOGETHER AND APART
The first conflict I remember having with my graduate school girlfriend had nothing to do with romance and everything to do with writing. It was the summer after our first year of graduate school. At the time, she was living in a wood-paneled, shag-carpeted efficiency we affectionately referred to as “the Winnebago.” A good part of the affection was relative; compared to me, she was living in splendor, enjoying not just a refrigerator she could access while standing erect, but a full complement of plumbing.
In my apartment, the bed doubled as a chair for the dining room table. I had no bathroom of my own, and there was never any guarantee that the one I shared with my neighbors would be free when I needed it to be.
If I close my eyes and really concentrate, I can envision my girlfriend setting foot in my apartment maybe three times.
Without ever really discussing it, we began spending all of our time at her place. So much time, in fact, that her landlord—a daffy old jack-of-all-trades who didn’t believe in privacy—threatened to raise her rent if I didn’t produce a copy of my own lease.
That summer, my girlfriend and I were in love and classes were over and we’d both won grants that freed us from having to get jobs. Life was perfect, except for one thing: we were getting our MFAs in creative writing, which meant we were supposed to be—well, writing.
She was the one, after weeks of quiet despair, who finally mustered up the courage to point out that, if we were ever going to get any work done, we’d need to be alone sometimes.
It was the first realization for us of what it meant for two writers to come together—that in addition to love and friendship and family, we would always have this too: a relationship in writing, with all the pitfalls that came with it.
But her announcement also established an important precedent: that of equal importance to the time we spent together would be the time we spent apart.
As soon as my lease ran out, we caved into the inevitable and moved into the slightly larger attic apartment above her old Winnebago. Here we had separate spaces we could work: for her, a child’s desk crammed into a corner of the walk-in closet; for me, in the cramped living room, a scratchy love seat from which we’d evicted a dead mouse.
Two years later, we got married in a judge’s living room, in front of a wall of commemorative mugs. The vows he read referred to sickness and health and good times and bad. But they didn’t say anything about writing.
These days we have a house. It’s not big, but it has two separate offices. Margaret’s has an adult-size desk; mine has a full-size sofa, entirely free of rodents. The place is somewhat modern and minimalist, with a nice open floor plan. The Winnebago and the attic are long gone, but it’s hard not to feel nostalgic.
Margaret doesn’t like to write at home now. It’s one of several differences in our habits: she also prefers not to talk about what she’s working on. Or to share it, until it’s as close as possible to perfect. But when she’s ready, she brings it to me, eager to know what I think.
I’m inclined to pester her with every brainstorm and every draft I write, and then I wait for her to tell me what to do.
And our books, too, could hardly be more different: hers about space and mine about a turbulent Caribbean island.
But these differences don’t matter nearly as much as the things we have in common: even when we’re apart, in our private spaces, our separate books feel like pieces of a larger whole.
And now, in addition to our lives and our writing, we share a child too—proof that we can also make something wonderful together.