This week is a big one for me. I’m celebrating both the launch of Chance Harbor, my fourth novel with Penguin Random House, and my twentieth wedding anniversary with Dan. As I pop the champagne, it’s a good time to reflect on what marriage has taught me about living a creative life.
You Must Commit with Your Whole Heart.
Standing beneath a tent in our backyard with our four young children, Dan and I vowed to love and support one another with our whole hearts. It hasn’t always been easy, especially during the days when we were thigh-deep in children, but we have constantly reaffirmed our devotion to each other.
Being a writer requires the same devotion and determination to forge ahead no matter what obstacles cause you to stumble, fail, weep, or rage because you feel weak from rejections or from wrestling a thorny manuscript to the ground. You must always look forward and reiterate your vow to keep writing daily, if not hourly.
You Must Be Flexible.
Dan is a software engineer. He plans things on lists and flow charts, and pays attention to details. If you load the dishwasher the wrong way or don’t put the tape back where it belongs, you will hear about it. Me, I’m the impulsive sort, a noisy mess of a person who uses the spare bed as a horizontal filing cabinet. You see the problem there, right? Yet, by being flexible, by adapting to each other and appreciating our differences, Dan has learned to let go of trying to control every little thing, while I’ve benefited from learning how to be more organized.
In my novels, I have learned to be more flexible as well. Each one poses a new set of challenges as I wrestle with different characters and story lines. You think you know how to write a book after you’ve written one, but oh, no. The challenges of each new manuscript are different from the last, and so is the process of getting it written. That’s part of the joy.
It Takes Time to Get Good at It.
Writing, like marriage, requires a long apprenticeship before you’re skilled at it. Dan and I traveled to Italy for our honeymoon, where I had a tantrum and went stomping out into the olive groves after Dan said my Italian sounded more like Spanish. Now, twenty years later, if Dan made that same comment I might snap at him, but then we’d both laugh. We know small things aren’t worth getting in a lather about,with so many more important things between us.
I had many doubts about myself as a writer before publishing my first novel. (And now, too, sometimes.) Along the way, my rejected manuscripts gathered dust on the shelves. “I should just quit writing and get a real job,” I’d moan after every rejection. “This isn’t worth it. I’m wasting my life.”
Dan always convinced me to keep going. He believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. And you know what? Those hours weren’t wasted. No artist—or plumber or race car driver, for that matter—can perfect a craft overnight. It took me a while to get good at marriage, and it has taken me years to become a successful novelist. It takes time to succeed at anything.
You Will Fail.
Being married means that you will fail each other. One spouse might forget that the other hates tarragon, or will do something worse, like lie about a credit card bill or be tempted into an affair. Staying married means learning how to accept failure, learn from it, and move on, stronger than before.
Writing is one failure after another. Over the past two decades, I have probably thrown away a dozen novels that simply did not work. They were in every genre from paranormal mysteries to romances, from detective fiction to serious literary works, and they really were terrible. As my agent said after reading one of them, “This book repels me.”
By now, I know that I can learn as I go, in marriage and as a writer. Each book teaches me how to do something better next time. I have even gone back to some of those old manuscripts and plucked out good scenes, characters, or even entire plot lines to rework into a new book.
It’s Worth Making Sacrifices.
Dan and I have made sacrifices to support our family. He has always worked full-time, keeping up a steady income and family health benefits, too. I have chosen to work part time, and out of the house, so that someone could be home after school with our five children. This has meant sacrifices. We never drive new cars. We buy clothing in consignment stores. We don’t take a lot of trips. And now, with our last child in college, the restaurant budget is minimal and we’re in debt.
It has all been worth it. Occasionally, I have considered giving up being a novelist—not the highest-paid profession—and doing something “real” like public relations or marketing. Every time, Dan says, “But you’d be miserable, and then I’d be miserable.”
He’s right. As all spouses know, especially those with children, supporting a marriage and a family means you must give up certain things, like those spontaneous pub nights or all-night raves, or buying a used Honda instead of a new BMW. Similarly, if you’re going to live a creative life, you will probably be shopping at Target, if you buy anything new at all, and that’s okay. You are living the life you chose with love and joy and passion, and that’s worth any amount of sacrifice.
Trust the Process.
Dan and I have learned to trust the process that is marriage, the way it forces us to come together again and again in an attempt to make peace with ourselves and with each other. Because of each other, we have become better people.
Writing, too, has forced me to do things I don’t want to do, to confront that stubborn blank page or that silly plot or the characters whose emotions keep eluding me. I have learned to trust the process of writing, to believe that patience wins every time. The reward is that these books are born.
Happy anniversary, Dan. And happy book birthday, Chance Harbor! There will be parties, but the parties are secondary to the true celebration, which is the joy I feel every morning when I wake up and get to do it all again.