Only another writer would understand

On Sunday, my husband and I had one of those little tiffs that remind me just how difficult it sometimes is to be married to a writer.  I’d gotten up early that day, raring to get to work on an article I’d promised to a magazine, and I sat right down at my computer.  About an hour later, hubby yells up the stairs: “Are you coming down to breakfast, or should I just eat BY MYSELF?!!”

He’s grumpy that I’m working before breakfast.  I’m grumpy because he’s interrupted my train of thought.  Words are spoken.  A Sunday is ruined.

It’s just like the good old days.

Early in our marriage, while I was still working as a doctor, hubby  thought my writing was just a nice little hobby.  Sort of like, oh, stamp collecting.  He used to resent the hours I spent late at night, scribbling away.  He resented the times I’d get that faraway look in my eye, because he knew I wasn’t really in the room with him; I was somewhere else, with other people.  Who didn’t exist.  He also resented the fact that I wasn’t pulling my weight in the income department.  He’d married a doctor!  He thought his wife would be earning big bucks!  Sure, he’d agreed that I should cut back on my practice hours when our kids were small.  Once the kids started pre-school, though, surely I was going to be a fulltime doctor again…

But by then, I’d sold a few books to Harlequin Intrigue.  While my writing income wasn’t anything to crow about, I was determined to stick with the new career.  A career that my husband still considered my “little hobby”.  The more focused I got, the hotter he steamed.  Did I really think my writing would amount to anything?  I was delusional!  And I was self-indulgent.  Worst of all, I wasn’t paying attention to him.  

Then, in an instant, everything changed.  I got the earth-shattering phone call from my literary agent telling me I’d just been offered a million-dollar deal for HARVEST.

My husband and I can laugh about it, now.  He’ll be the first to admit that he didn’t have enough faith in me, and that he was wrong.  He’s turned into my strongest supporter, my first reader, and my chief cook and bottle-washer. 

But there were times, early in my writing career, when the marriage was rough going.  

I hear this from other writers who are having trouble in their marriages.  Non-writing spouses don’t understand how much mental energy we writers have to devote to our work.  We’re never off the job.  We’re never really on vacation.  If we’re not thinking about a current plot problem, then we’re thinking about the next book we’re going to write.  Or we’re worried about our sales, or we’re pissed off about a bad review.  When you catch us lying on the couch and staring into space, we’re not goofing off.  We’re working.


Stephen King was once asked, “What’s the secret to a successful writing career?”  He answered: “Stay married.”  And I think he’s mostly right.  Writers need stability.  We can’t afford to waste mental energy on a turbulent divorce or in chasing new lovers.

Sometimes, though, a writer’s marriage simply isn’t salvageable.  Sometimes the non-writing spouse simply refuses to accept that his or her spouse was born to create.  I’ve heard horror stories.  One husband was so resentful of his wife’s writing that he “cleaned up” their house while she was away, and “accidentally” threw out the manuscript she’d labored over for a year.  Another husband (of a multi-million-dollar author) never read any of his wife’s books because he thought they’d probably be crap.  Spouses can sabotage us in so many ways, with put-downs, ridicule, or repeated interruptions.  

Sometimes, the only solution really is divorce.

But spouses who care enough about each other learn to adapt and accept.  

I’ve learned to keep my writing (for the most part) to five days a week.  I’ve also learned to stop when the dinner hour comes around.  I’m not able to switch off the mental process, though; that continues 24 hours a day, even into my dreams.  

Some things, I’m afraid, are non-negotiable.


24 replies
  1. David Montgomery
    David Montgomery says:

    Thankfully, my experience has been the complete opposite of the horror story. Not only has my wife been an amazing supporter, reader and cheerleader since the beginning, she actually encouraged me to quit my job so that I could focus full-time on writing.

    And yes, I wait on her hand and foot. I’m no dummy.

  2. Elaine Flinn
    Elaine Flinn says:

    Great post, Tess! I know there are many writers out there who will nod in agreement. I’ve heard a few horror stories from other writers as well-so I count myself as one of the lucky ones too. My husband has been great and has become such a good cook, I may keep writing until I drop just to savor his creativity!

  3. Lorra Laven
    Lorra Laven says:

    Thank you for posting this. I thought this was only happening to me. Like you, I write or think about my characters from the moment I get up. My reward? Just yesterday, my husband told me that when he retires someday, he plans to be just like me: he’ll watch television every night and just play the days away. Argh!!

    There is no explaining this process to him. The only thing he would understand would be a big, fat royalty check. When I received a nominal check for optioning the film rights, he was very supportive of my writing endeavors . . . for one whole week!

  4. PJ Parrish
    PJ Parrish says:

    Oh man, does this sound familiar. My husband is extremely supportive (he greenlighted our decision for me to quit my newspaper job so I could write fulltime). But it was touchy in the early years. What really used to get me, though, was one of our friends who seemed to enjoy asking me, “so when are you getting a real job again?” Ex-friend, now.

    I tell novice writers this all the time: There are many people in your life who want to sabotage you pursuing your dream. I think it is because it makes them painfully aware of their own inability to do the same.

  5. margaret
    margaret says:

    I couldn’t survive this biz without the support (in every sense) of my spouse. I, too, have heard the horror stories of the career-sabotage or mental grief a jealous or insensitive or threatened spouse can cause. Heartbreaking.

    Knowing what a fabulous breakfast your hubby can cook, I think I’d easily put down the ms.–dedicated though I am to my craft!

    Sometimes my guy makes our dinner, and I always use that extra bit of writing time to the max. So I’m all too familiar with the line, “Are you having dinner, or should I just eat BY MYSELF?!!”

  6. Trish
    Trish says:

    Tess, I always appreciate your candor. What a timely post for me to be reading… I’m just beginning the process of getting a divorce and the interersting thing for me is that since I moved out six weeks ago I haven’t written a single word! I haven’t even looked at my book or any of my short stories…I’ve barely even read! But I’ll be moving into new digs in a couple of weeks and I’m exciting to see how I develop my writing into my new life.

  7. JanetK
    JanetK says:

    My husband is supportive (mostly) of my writing, but I don’t think it’s possible for a non-writer to truly understand — especially when the non-writer is also a non-reader.

    Thank heavens for the Internet! I’m not sure I’d still be writing if it weren’t for the support and encouragement of my web-found friends.

  8. Nadja
    Nadja says:

    Ah, yes. That’s a familiar situation. My husband doesn’t get it either. I have to give him credit, though. I write gay romantic suspense, and he’s uncomfortable with the gay issue, but he’s still very proud of me for just selling my debut novel. I love the man!

  9. NewMexicanAnn
    NewMexicanAnn says:

    Howdy, Tess! As you can see, I’m back in the saddle again thanks to you and your webmaster!

    Anyway, would your husband ever consider being polite and inviting your characters to dinner so you could all have a pleasant meal and great conversation? Hehehe!

    As for always thinking about your story even when you’re supposed to be “off duty”, I can sympathize with that. Many a time, I’ve hated to have to do my day job when I’m burning to write a scene in the novel I’m half-heartedly working on. And, you know, I just love the setting so much (mostly set in 19th century American West) that it’s a place where I love to linger. Coming back to reality really is a ***** in this case.

  10. NewMexicanAnn
    NewMexicanAnn says:

    Okay, writers! When things get tough between you and your loved ones, remind them in no uncertain terms that there ARE advantages to having a writer in the family.

    Around my house, my nickname is The Human Dictionary. Dad asked, “How do you spell Guillermo Figueroa?” Hehehe!

    And then at 2 am today, my bro wakes me and says, “Hey, I have this letter I want to get ready to send to the FCC tomorrow regarding the re-licensing of a local TV station.” I read the first paragraph (very formal, dry, and TECHNICAL) and asked myself if I had to read anymore. The answer was yes. So, I go through it, change a lot of prepositions to the right ones, change passive sentences to more active ones when I can, cross out half of what is in a long sentence, and invert sentences because they’d sound a lot better. Oh, and re-write two lengthy paragraphs. Now, it’s 4 am. 🙂

    Did I mention I don’t get paid for this stuff?

  11. Sandra
    Sandra says:

    I think my solution is to be partnered with another writer. That’s what I’ve done for the last 33 years and it’s worked wonderfully. Everything is understood.

  12. JT Ellison
    JT Ellison says:

    This is such a touchy subject — thank you for tackling it. I’m going to send the link to a few friends.
    I’ve been very blessed to have my husband behind me 100% — allowed me stay home and write, doesn’t get too touchy about computer time, and attends conferences and workshops with me. It makes life a lot easier. Though we still have our moments — he’s not a reader, so many times my excitement falls on deaf ears. But hey, I’m not complaining. He’s my #1 fan, even when I forget the laundry. I couldn’t do it without him.
    He enjoyed meeting you in Phoenix, and watching me flub my lines when I introduced myself to you. He’s gotten a lot of mileage out of that.

  13. Tess
    Tess says:

    knowing how difficult it is to live with ME, I’m not sure I could manage having another space cadet writer in the house! It’s nice to hear that you two are managing so beautifully.

    without our spouses behind us, this job would be impossible. You and I are both lucky! (and I never even noticed you flubbed up when you introduced yourself!)

  14. Richard Cooper
    Richard Cooper says:

    This topic is HUGE for a lot of people who would love to spend more time writing but have competitive issues such as day jobs, relationships, and grad school getting in the way. There are 168 hours in a week, minus 56 for sleeping, minus 45 for a day-job, minus 15 for eating, minus 10 for studies, minus 5 for date-night, minus for 5 for down-time, minus 4 for errands, minus 4 for cleaning, minus 4 for reading, or whatever… leaving 20 hours for everything else, including writing. Everyone makes choices. I would certainly choose to not steal time from my relationship unless it was very, very solid.

  15. Nadja
    Nadja says:

    Richard, I liked your listing of all the hours in the week and how we spend them. I saw immediate room for improvement. Eat while you write, do errands, date and read. Read while you do errands (books on tape for car/on iPod etc). Forget the cleaning part altogether. Combine the down-time with reading or dating.

    Hmm. Yes, I can see more writing hours already … 🙂 And twice the relationship hours.

  16. Gabriele
    Gabriele says:

    I’m different (I always am, lol). I’ve lived alone since I moved out at 18. I never played the dating game, there was none who interested me enough to invest the time of a dinner with him, and that was long before I started writing. I’m 44 now and don’t think that will change.

    It has some advantages. 🙂

  17. Barbie Roberts
    Barbie Roberts says:

    I liked Nadja’s suggestion “forget the cleaning part altogether”…. 😉 I’m all over that!

  18. writeforlove
    writeforlove says:

    My story is similar in nature, but slightly different in content. I can certainely relate, as I am a journalist as a second job to being a graphic designer. I do all of it from home (owning a design business). So, usually, it’s work around the clock for me and sometimes I leave the office only for food and bathroom breaks. Most of my days are filled with meetings, ad campaigns and desing work and nights with writing articles & columns and concepting editorial ideas. If i’m not writing, I’m stewing over ideas, all the while in front of my computer. My husband is extremely understanding, and it’s an ongoing joke that I have two husbands (my laptop being the second one),but at times he wants to padlock the door so I can’t get in past 7 pm. He’ll get upset if he goes to bed before I do, without me or if I can’t make it out to an after-work event during the week because of never-ending deadlines. He’ll see my stress levels rise from the creative overload, but in the end, it’s what I need and want to do. I’m fortunate to have such an open line of communication with him, but I don’t think he’ll ever understand the concept of not leaving the office at 5 pm. In some ways, I’m jealous of his ability to do so, but mostly, I wouldn’t be satisfied any other way.

  19. Jen
    Jen says:

    I’m glad that you’ve found out the secret and right way to be a successful and happy author, wife and mother.

    One of my friends is a very talented writer and she claims on Ernest Hemingway’s way of life.
    Alcoholism is already one of her problems, tho she is only 19.

    What do you think about authors with an alcohol-problem?
    Does alcohol inspire writers that much?
    Could that be a solution of an authors life?


  20. Rob Gregory Browne
    Rob Gregory Browne says:

    My wife has long supported my writing. Been witness to all the successes and the many, many dismal failures. She’s been optimistic when I needed her to be and brought home the bacon when times got really rough.

    So I have no choice other than to be successful in this business. I owe it to her.

  21. Tess
    Tess says:

    I know that writers and alcoholism are supposed to go hand in hand, but among my close writer-acquaintances I just haven’t seen it. Yes, we like to indulge and when you go to a writer’s conference, you’ll find most of them hanging out at the bar. I couldn’t do without my evening cocktail!

  22. Allison Brennan
    Allison Brennan says:

    My husband has been very supportive once I sold, but you could have written this post about me (except, of course, for the million dollar deal 🙂 . . . when I was still writing for me with an eye on getting published “one day,” my husband would get upset or frustrated that I wasn’t spending my evenings with him. But for me, the only time I had to write after working all day, getting the kids fed, played with and put to bed, was to write at night.

    Fortunately we made it through those years and now I only get an occasional grumble when I leave for a few days for events.

  23. Steve Clackson
    Steve Clackson says:

    In the future I will expect a note seeking approval before you put my life story up for everyone to read:)

    Two years ago I sold my Real Estate Investment Company and as I looked for new opportunities my old love of writing came back with a vengeance. The result was Sand Storm and retirement income and a spouse who still works….some days could be easier.

  24. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    Thank you SO MUCH for writing this. I know it was a year and half ago, but this one blog post has saved not only my sanity and my marriage, but my writing career.

    I thought I was the only one going through this. I had no idea that this scenario can be typical of the “non-writing spouse.” Our relationship is wonderful on so many levels, but this constant rift between us has deeply threatened our relationship. I’ve been thinking about ending it because I couldn’t understand why and how he could be so horrible to me when I’m doing nothing more than being who I am.

    Whew! What a relief. So now all I have to do is get that million dollar contract and everything will be okay again, right? 😉

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