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Tuesday, November 13, 2007


Living with another creative

A charmingly polite and complimentary lurker, Emi by name, has posed the following question:

What happens when you live with someone and you're both creative types working on different things? Does one person necessarily overshadow the other? Is it reasonable for one person to expect your support and readership? Does that interfere with or drag down the creative process? In short, can two creative people healthily live and work together without driving each other mad?

It's an excellent question, which I'm happy to take a stab at answering, with the proviso that whatever anyone does has to work for them, not for the person giving the advice. Hence, anyone who thinks I'm talking rubbish, Emi included, is free to ignore everything I say.

I think it's entirely wrong for one person to overshadow the other. One of the easiest ways this can happen, I'd guess, is that one partner is more successful - more published, more popular, more well-reviewed, more confident, more (perish the thought) talented, more whatever - than the other. Under those circumstances, there's always a temptation to feel that the successful one gets to rule the roost. This, in my opinion, is unfair. For one thing, there's no saying the other one might not get even more successful in the future (though the chances of that aren't so good if they're made to feel their creativity is less important than their partner's). More crucially, your own creativity is always of vital importance to you, and should be respected as such by your partner. If not, it's basically one partner considering themselves a more important person than the other, which is a problem in the relationship, never mind the arts.

On the other hand, this doesn't mean the less successful one has the right to get passive-aggressive. Envy, or less malignly, frustration, can come out in ways that are difficult to live with, and a less successful partner playing the 'Don't think you're better than me' card needs a word in their ear. The thing to remember in that situation is that just because your partner is more successful than you, it doesn't mean you have any less power over their feelings than they do over yours. You can still make them feel pretty bad. In its most destructive form, that can wind up with the successful/prolific/happy one feeling as if their success and their partner are natural enemies, and they may find their creativity diminishes for fear of upsetting the partner. That's dangerously close to what abusers do - damaging the self-esteem of their victims for fear of being unable to cope with them as their best selves.

In short, no relationship should get turned into an artistic competition, and just because one is doing well, it doesn't mean they have to compensate by losing rights in other areas; neither does it mean they get special privileges. A relationship should be first and foremost a relationship, and that means caring about each others' emotional needs, not trying to gain footholds over who's entitled to what.

If one partner suddenly gets more successful, their emotional needs may change a bit - no matter how it looks from the unpublished point of view, success can be very stressful, because suddenly you've got something to lose, and something to live up to - and likewise, the other partner may need some reassurance that their beloved still wants and respects them. But those are about emotional needs, not about the writing itself, and they need to be addressed as such. You both have to keep remembering that you're still the same people you were before the publishing contract/movie deal/Pulitzer Prize came through, and you still need the same things everybody needs from a relationship, which is trust, kindness, support and honesty. Circumstances change, but they shouldn't shake the relationship's foundation.

There's also the simple problem, that can happen in creative and non-creative relationships alike, that sometimes one person has a bigger and more demanding personality than the other. Again, this needs massive diplomacy to work out, and will vary from relationship to relationship; that one is just too complicated and various to comment on.

What I'd say, fundamentally, is that it helps to work out what your creativity means to you. Is it a form of self-expression? Of spiritual channelling? Of venting emotion? Of aspiration? Once you know what the underlying need is, it's easier to address.

When it comes to giving each other support and readership, personally I'd separate those two things out. If it's a healthy relationship, you have an absolute right to expect support for your creativity; however, that doesn't necessarily mean you have a right to readership of your creations. Some people can love each other dearly, but just not share each other's tastes. If you have a situation where one partner simply isn't interested in, or partial to, the kind of stuff that their loved one produces, it can create a lot of difficulty, but it doesn't have to be a deal-breaker.

If you really do like each other but not each other's work, the best thing is probably not to read it - better for both of you. It spares the reader from having to try to be nice about something they didn't enjoy, but, even more, it spares the writer from losing hope. Nobody ever fooled anybody with faint praise; you can tell enthusiasm for your work when you see it. And if the first person you show your work to is unable to respond with anything other than an earnest attempt to be polite, that's actually very discouraging. I'd recommend the movie Topsy Turvy for a lot of reasons, but one of them is for a pair of scenes in which W.S. Gilbert reads out some newly-written scenes from The Mikado, first to his wife, and then to his partner Sullivan. As he's a difficult man to live with, his wife is continually a little edgy around him, and when he reads her the lyrics of a comic song, she says anxiously, 'Very amusing, Willie' - with the clear undertone being 'Are you about to get annoyed again?'. She doesn't actually enjoy what he's written, and as a result, he gets morose and stops reading. However, when he reads to Sullivan, Sullivan sits behind him smoking, laughing out loud at the jokes and clearly enjoying the writing; Gilbert is far more encouraged. Someone trying to be nice who cares about your feelings but doesn't much like your kind of art is a terribly depressing Constant Reader, and, in the worst case scenario, can end up accidentally putting you off writing.

If, on the other hand, what your partner is supporting is the act of writing itself, that's a better scenario. You can ask for time alone if you want to work on an idea, congratulations for having written something that your partner isn't going to read but is happy exists, sympathy when you're blocked without necessarily having to hash out ideas, and generally speaking, support for each other as creative people, but as parallel streams rather than intermingled ones.

It's easy to fall into the habit of expecting your partner to fulfil your every need, but art is a separate case; more than anything else, it's the part of your life where you have to be responsible for yourself. If your partner isn't a good artistic match, it's best to seek out other teachers and readers, or to manage on your own; not everyone can do anything. In general, art and love are two of the most basic human needs, but they tend to need different circumstances; love needs company, and art, even with love, needs privacy.

If they actually enjoy your stuff, it's reasonable enough to show it to them - but again, it may be wise to be careful. What a reader says about work is always going to influence its subsequent development. It can't be helped; comments get into your subsconscious, and once they're in there, there's no knowing which way they'll start burrowing. If you've been in the habit of not showing work to anyone, and your partner is dying to find out what happens next, it might be best to hold firm unless they can promise not to make any comments unless you're absolutely sure that those comments will be good for the work. The risk is this: if your partner likes a particular element of your work, they may praise that element to the extent that you start doing more of it than you meant to, and find the work has, without your realising it, overbalanced. Killing your darlings is much harder when there's another parent cooing over them. Some people are good to show work in progress to, and some are not, and if your partner doesn't happen to be one, then there are other kinds of togetherness.

A problem with living together is that it can cut into alone time, especially if you don't have enough space to work in separate rooms, and alone time is vital to creativity. In such situations, as in many relationship situations, the only thing to do is negotiate. If there's one good writing space, you can take turns to have it while the other one gets the bedroom, for example, or you can look into libraries and other places. You also have to work out how not to feel neglected if your beloved is sitting alone writing and basically wanting you to go away. This is easiest to bear when your own creativity is also flowing; you have an equivalent alone time that's equal in heft to theirs, so their alone time is less threatening. If, however, you're not feeling so good and your partner still wants alone time, you have to give it to them - but it's fair to expect that they'll shower you with appreciation once they come out of it.

The best guide to whether the creative process is being interfered with or dragged down is always going to be the feelings and output of the creative individual. If you're producing good work that you're happy with, you've probably got everything you need; if, on the other hand, you're struggling and blocked, something needs to change.

This goes beyond just supporting each others' creativity to supporting each others' selves. I've mercifully never lived with an abusive partner, but there's a rule of thumb that applies to most people: you need to be all right to be creative. A partner who's wearing down your self-esteem in other areas is bound to have an knock-on effect upon your faith in your writing; a partner who's exhausting your emotional energies will leave less for you to put into your work. Everything in your life winds up in there somewhere.

There's potential awfulness if one of you is blocked and the other isn't, because there are few things worse than being blocked. In that scenario, there's a danger to both partners. To the blocked partner, there's the risk that their partner's fluency will make them feel worse about their own block; block-demons are resourceful and will use any weapon they can find to beat you up, and ssss, look how useless you are, you only managed twenty words today and your husband wrote a thousand, ssss is not a phrase you ever want to hear. To the unblocked partner, there's the danger that guilt or concern for the blocked partner will lead to them starting to feel responsible for the block, which can end up blocking them as well. The best thing an unblocked partner can do in that situation is to reassure the blocked one that (let's stick with those genders for the sake of convenience) he doesn't think the less of her, he has faith she'll come good, and to keep creating himself. Letting her block drag him down just hurts both of them, but providing an example of healthy creativity will act as an incentive for her to get healthy again. Be nice, and set a good example.

I'd highly recommend the book The Artists Way by Julia Cameron; it's a wonderfully wise and kind system of writing, which includes a lot of good advice on how to manage your habits.

Artistic anxieties, because they're so intense can seem like emotional mandates, but it's important to be honest, to say 'I'm worried about X' rather than 'You have to do X or you'll be a bad partner.' Otherwise, it's putting the responsibility for your creativity onto somebody else, and nobody works well when they're using that excuse. It's also being manipulative. You can ask your partner to provide the conditions you need to write - alone time, congratulations, encouragement - but the writing itself has to be the responsibility of the writer.

At base, I think it is perfectly possible for two creative people to live healthily together, but they have to make a commitment to being healthy. Excuses are the plague of the artistic life - I'm too busy, I have to support my blocked partner, I'm not as good as my partner, my partner doesn't like my stuff - and two people can bolster each others' excuses every bit as effectlively as they can bolster each others' artistry. Added to that is the fact that art depends on audience reponse, but, while you're within your rights to ask your partner to treat you how you wish to be treated (within reason), it's unrealistic to demand that your partner react the way you wish them to react when confronted with art that might or might not naturally provoke the desired response. The former is about dealing with each others' behaviour, the latter about controlling each others' feelings, and the latter isn't healthy for life or art.

Best, in the end, to set art aside for a bit and and think about how you want to live, because that is the province of the partner. The best way to support each other as artists is to support each other as people.

I don't know if this actually answers your question, but feel free to ask further if it doesn't. :-)

It does, quite well. I'm blocked, he's not; I'm full of excuses about writing/drawing, he writes easily; he's eager for me to read his work, I hate sci-fi but don't want to hurt him. You're spot-on about showing your work to others and the difference in the audience you want and the audience that will help, and I'm glad to hear a writer articulate that difference, because I often thought I was telling myself that simply to feel better whenever I was reluctant to read my boyfriend's latest scene.

Thank you. This really helps!
Being said boyfriend in this conversation, and having been directed here by said girlfriend, I hope no one minds if I weigh in.

I was surprised by the spot-on diagnosis about the awfulness of one partner being blocked while the other isn't. Though I don't often feel blocked myself in those situations, I do feel guilty about it. More than once (closer to seven billion or thereabouts) I've wanted to help her work through her own blocks. Needless to say, nothing I do ever works.

As a boyfriend pained by the sight of his blocked other, is there a way to be of help, short of just swallowing my own selfish need and letting her solve this problem on her own?

Thank you.
You're very welcome. I'd definitely recommend The Artists Way if you're blocked, as it's all about recovering from blocks.
Hi Will, your post crossed mine - I'll be right back with answer, but I've just accidentally deleted my first draft!
Okay. I speak as someone who's experienced both sides of the situation, so provisos: this is just my own opinion, and you guys know more about what you need than I do.

I'd say, Will, that you need to draw a line between good and bad selfishness. Art is good selfish; it has to be, because it's created by the self. Guilt helps neither of you; that's just letting the block-demon rule you both, and the thing is, it's your enemy as much as hers. It hates you both: hating her is its function, so inevitably it hates anyone who wants to help her. The first thing they teach you in lifesaving is that your top responsibility to is not to drown yourself; saving the other guy is number 2 on the list. There's no point having two corpses instead of one.

Not being blocked yourself is a blessing, and enjoying it is not the same thing as crowing over your blocked beloved. It's hard not to feel bad for a loved one, because you're a nice person, but really, it really is okay.

In my experience, having someone try too hard to help you overcome your block isn't necessarily a good thing: the block-demon is liable to start whispering you can't solve this block without your partner's help. In the end, it can make it harder to recover; creativity always means having to stand alone, and feeling like someone else might help you only leads to procrastination and self-doubt. Your help can turn into a lucky charm that they don't really need but feel they can't function without - and as creation is solitary, it can't be there at the important moments. Hence, at the crucial point, the talisman is gone, and the reaction is likely to be oh no, I can't do it now, I don't have the talisman! It's actually discouraging. More than once I've received kindness and help from people I love deeply, and while it might help in the short term, it's only ever a patch job. Long-term, it's a killer. That's the demon's fault, not theirs, but the fact remains: too much help catches up on you.

The emotional energy used to 'help' with the block is probably best used to help create a sense of safety so the partner can go off alone to try writing and come back knowing they'll be liked no matter how it went. It's like standing on the sidelines with oranges and a towel; basically being supportive as a romantic partner rather than an artistic one, which is the job you signed up for.

Another thing I've found is that you can say all sorts of sensible things to your partner and they probably won't listen. And then a month later they'll hear exactly the same thing from another source and find it a revelation. It's frustrating, but there it is: your partner telling you you're talented, especially in an established relationship, is like your mother telling you you're good-looking. They may or may not be right, but they're certainly not impartial, and that gives the block-demon plenty of ammo.

The best way I've found to work through blocks, as described in Artists Way mentioned above, is a practice called 'morning pages'. First thing in the morning, you sit down and write three longhand pages of anything. Like, anything. 'I'm really not in the mood to write these pages and anyway this room is cold and I wish I was back in bed bananas bananas bananas now I want a daiquiri' is fine. It sounds simple, but it teaches a wonderful thing: nobody dies if you write rubbish. You get conditioned to finding the act of writing pressure-free, and pressure is the ultimate toxin when it comes to art. You just write any old nonsense that comes into your head, put it away without showing anyone, and nothing bad happens. I do it, and it's been a huge help to me.

I hope you guys get through this. If there's anything else you (or anyone else reading this) wants to ask, feel free; otherwise, good luck. :-)
Hi Kit,

Just finished Bareback this evening, wanted to let you know I thought it was great. I emailed the address on you site, but it bounced back and said the address has been 'disabled or discontinued'!
Thank you! Yeah, sorry about that, I really need to fix it but my website skills are a bit rubbish,
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