It's Hell to Live With a Writer . . . or Is It?

TV-One has been airing a re-broadcast of Roots: The Next Generations all week. (They also showed the original Roots miniseries a few months ago, marking its 30th anniversary.) This afternoon, I set the TV to the continuing story of the Haley family while I was working around the house. I was particularly touched by the episode that depicted the ill-fated first marriage of Alex Haley. His wife put up with a quite a bit before finally admitting defeat and leaving him.

Of course, both parties were painted as sympathetic. Alex Haley was shown as losing a mother he dearly loved when he was a young boy, to what I'm guessing was uterine cancer. He had difficulty adapting to his father’s remarriage, a situation not helped by his father’s annoying references to his stepmother as “your mother,” plus the father’s domineering personality. His first wife, Nan, was portrayed as a bright and enthusiastic young wife genuinely in love with her husband, who felt like she and their children were being pushed to the background while Alex pursued a writing career until, one Christmas when he typed through the night and into the next day at the Coast Guard offices, completely missing the holiday, when she took the children and left him. (That’s the TV version . . . I’m sure the real end of the marriage wasn’t nearly as dramatic.) But the biggest message was in this episode was by far that it is hell to live with a writer.

I don't think I'd agree with that. I have vivid memories of my first date with my husband. I was newly separated, 33 years old and had no idea what I was going to do with my life . . . other than I wanted to write. Anyway, I was working on a project (the computer went to me in the divorce) while I waited for him to come and pick me up.

That project eventually was rejected. So was the one after that. I began to feel like I’d never realize my dream of being a published novelist. My husband was with me the entire time; we became practically inseperable after that first date and married after my divorce came through. He would kiss away my tears and assure me that my day would come, then he’d go get my favorite Thai mixed rice and spring rolls from take-out, and I’d be laughing before the night was out. Now, he hasn’t read a word of my writing, ever (remarkably, neither has my mother, my other favorite person), but he was right. I guess he figured I’d have to be completely hapless if I didn’t make any progress after trying so hard.

Yes, writing is a solitary profession. I get most of my work done early in the morning, before my husband gets up, because I do enjoy the quiet . . . to a certain degree. I tried the writing full time thing last year, and it was too much quiet and too much solitude. I don’t believe that writers are meant to be alone, and I certainly don’t believe that writers neglect their spouses and children. I don’t even believe that the divorce rate among writers is as great as that in other professions (like the Navy or the police force.)

I guess it all comes down to balance. And I know my husband would agree.


Gwyneth Bolton said...

I think there are times where it is hell to live with a writer, especially if the significant other needs a lot of attention. In our house, we're both creative people. So most times we can go off in our separate corners, create and be fine. I can see how that would be different for others though... And we don't have kids yet. I can see how that would change the entire picture.


Donna D said...

I'm with you on this one, Bettye. I'd bet that Haley's first marriage didn't end solely because of his writing. There were probably other issues and the writing obssession was the last straw.

My husband supports my writing, not as well as I'd like, but he tries. But if it came down to my marriage or my writing, I'd give up writing forever. Fortunately, I don't think I'll ever have to make that choice.

bettye griffin said...

Kids will definitely change the picture, Gwyneth! I just spent some time with my husband's grand-niece and nephew, ages 5 and 9. It brought back memories of my stepchildren when they were little. But when the oldest was 11 or 12 and I was working full-time at home transcribing medical records, he was able to keep the others from knocking on my (open) office door every two minutes with some petty argument over this one was monopolizing the TV or the computer. In fact, I would usually check on them before lunch, during lunch, and after lunch, and they didn't bother me at all (I do admit to bribing them with promises that as soon as I was done I'd bring them to the pool, or the bowling alley, or the movies, or their favorite restaurant, or Blockbuster video, or even to the mall for ice cream if they were good).

I seem to recall a number of writers with small children saying they do most of their work in late evenings/early mornings.

bettye griffin said...

I guess that being in the Coast Guard and out to sea was somewhat of a handicap, Donna. From the way the story was told, it looked like this went on for several years at least before he was transferred to the journalism division. When I lived in Jacksonville, Florida, the location of a major Naval base, I was floored by all the divorces I saw. I knew women who were clearly getting fed up with having to be both mother and father to their children and take care of everything by themselves.

My husband left for a business trip this morning, and he'll be gone Monday through Friday for the next three or four weeks (fortunately, he's coming home weekends). I can deal with this for a few weeks without a problem (it'll give me a chance to re-organize our bedroom closet and have stuff strewn all over while in process,) but it would be difficult to do in the long term.

Patricia W. said...

I saw that episode and felt so badly for Nan and Alex. Then I saw Sunday's episode, where Alex was in a long-term relationship that also died on the vine. His work on writing his family story was an issue but really the bigger issue was his need to pursue his life's purpose, which became writing the book ROOTS and opening up America's eyes to slavery and its legacy in a new way.

What stuck with me was how unsatisfied he was with his life--even with wife, children, girlfriend, job--until the found the thing that made his heart soar.

May we all find and pursue our thing.

bettye griffin said...

Thought I posted this already, but since I don't see it maybe I got interrupted or something.

"May we all find and pursue our thing." - Patricia W.

What a lovely sentiment, Pat!

I did miss all but the final few minutes of the final segment. For once I was able to watch a Cold Case Files episode that didn't make me cry (because the victim was such a cold-hearted bitch), so I started flipping channels and there was Alex Haley, portrayed by James Earl Jones, breaking down with emotion as he met his distant African cousins (I understand that skepticism over whether this event actually occurred, coupled with the plagarism (sp?) that Alex Haley admitted to, has kept Roots off of a prestigious listing of American books, the name of which I can't remember). Regardless, I puddled up like a thunderstorm. It gets me every time I see it!