Your Alter-Editor: Living with a Non-Writer

by Carolyn Burch
The Internet Writing Journal, February 2002
It is an undeniable fact that living with a non-writer is difficult, time and effort consuming, at times even downright treacherous.

For the non-writer, that is.

Oh, I know we love 'em, but that doesn't make it any easier, now does it?

In my house, I've been living with a non-writer for almost 16 years. For me, that is almost half my life on this earth, starting when we were just high school sweethearts. But I can tell you that having grown up with him really hasn't made it easier for either of us to accustom ourselves to each other's unusual habits. Habits in particular that have deepened with age. They say that opposites attract, and I think that's true. We all seek that which we instinctively know in a moment's glance they have that we lack, whether or not in fact we really need it. In our case, we've come to understand that my eccentricities, mood swings and regular wifely absence when the muses attack are a part of my unique brand of art, and that his regimented desire to get places on time, his slightly under motivated (in my humble opinion) desire to read, and inability to communicate as clearly and succinctly as I sometimes wish are a part of his more left-brained style. And we'll leave the discussion about the toothpaste cap and socks on the floor out of it altogether.

Suffice to say, we have two very different styles of living, learning, and especially doing things. And such is probably the case with you if you also live with your alter-editor. I have heard rumors and tall tales about couples who merge their creative abilities and both become successful writers together, but frankly I cannot imagine that. Have him help me proof my work? HA. I would really hate that. Share a dictionary: Hmm. Go to literary club together and not be the exclusive center of attention? Oh, I think not. Or heaven help us, both of us be candidates for an assignment at the same time? Oh dear, please no. We find ourselves so competitive with each other that we can hardly jog down the street without turning it into a race. I distinctly recall passing him in such a race one time and being pushed into a puddle. "Did I do that? I'm sorry!" He mused, Family-Matters' Erkle-like in tone.

And playing Monopoly, well, as our kids will tell you, that's simply out. In the end after we have bankrupted all our children and sent them to the poorhouse, it becomes this ugly challenge of two capitalistic conglomerates playing last man standing, who want nothing more that to bankrupt each other and hoot their own praises when they win. There might even be a dance of sorts, if I remember right. But then, I usually lose, and waste no time taking my leave, and then a hot bath while pouting. Oh, don't worry, he gets his. Every time we play Upwords.

Domestic Bliss

We do, however, work out of the home together and have on a part-time basis for about five years now. Before that, we ran several offices and businesses together day after day -- to our friends' vast amusement. We do, it is a fact, make an excellent team as long as each of us has our own job description and neither is boss. In most of them, I simply did the creative and tactical work, and he did the computer guru and analytical stuff. I worked with the people and he worked with the money. It worked out well. Last year, however, we made working together closely official. We built an office onto our home. It would have to be, we decided early on, large enough to accommodate two custom desks, an entire printing area complete with cutters and four printers, two faxes, and three workstations, and all the clutter we would likely accumulate. We should also be able to see, talk to, and if need be, in moments of extreme urgency, zing paperclips at each other. We made a joint venture of it, and to seal the deal we networked the computers.

And in the end we argued far less that I thought we would about where my desk would go. When I recall fondly the fights with throwing of chalk until we both giggled at our aim as we drew it out (and battled for position) on the bare concrete floor, it dawns on me now what the neighbors must have thought. We were working out how to fit a highly creative and persnickety writer in the same time and space as a computer oriented technical guy who also happened to be a busy contractor. And, just like connecting network computers, our two basic operating systems didn't always want to talk. Separate faxes were a must, we agreed, and slowly we came to agree on the essentials.

The neighbors, however, had different ideas about what we were up to.

You see, we put the whole thing in where our two-car garage used to be. We couldn't get our tremendous family-hauling suburban in there anyway, and the space we needed just wouldn't fit anywhere else. One neighbor joked that he thought I was building my husband an apartment. My husband's friends asked him why he didn't just get a pumpkin shell for me. Another neighbor, who apparently doesn't appreciate color like I do, asked my husband how long he was going to be on strike in our garage. When he asked what he meant, the neighbor mentioned our picket fence, which I recently painted a lovely sage green, about which admittedly we'd had some discussion. In Arizona, where the Saguaro cactus is king, and gravel front yards a mainstay; I'll admit the Victorian look of ivy-covered arches, roses, grass lawns, and picket fences don't exactly match the neighborhood. But darn it, it is our yard! But then, clarifying the point with "It feeds the muse" probably is lost on most people. My husband included, who when I first told about the muse, thought he was about to discover that he'd married the woman straight out of Three Faces of Eve. Seeing the look on his face, my protestations of "But, but, dear, mine is more like a narrator than a voice in my head...!" didn't seem to bring him much consolation.

A Partnership Between Species

Or at least that's how it feels sometimes. Artistic people have, for hundreds of years, been known for their oddities and habits that are often counter to the general population, and most of the time that's just on the street. I have great sympathy for any non-writer who takes on a writer to live with, dwell with, or otherwise share space with. I know we cannot be easy to take. Memories of The Odd Couple come to mind. But that said, as noted authority on writerhood, and author of The Artist's Way, Julia Cameron mentions in her book, often non-writers are really shadow artists, who seek us writers and artists out because a part of them wants, deep down somewhere, to be more like us.

"Maybe I should write an article sometime..." my husband muses out loud one day just after I had sat, extremely self-satisfied and gloating at my newfound success after having gotten a new acceptance letter for a particularly large magazine on the very first day of the New Year.

"Oh, yes you should. I think you'd make a great writer." I answer truthfully. And he would. I've seen the contracts and proposals he writes for his business, and he does have a flow and way with words not at all unlike mine.

And then, as he sits over there clicking and thinking, as much as I wish to support him in his goals and desires, I also vow to get out ten more queries this week. "I mustn't let him catch up to me...ever…. I just mustn't...!" I think quietly.

Carolyn Burch **Carolyn Burch is a freelance writer, columnist and contributing editor to several sites on the Web in the areas of parenting and family, home, writing, marketing, and Human Resources and is the editor of the new WriteAngles Ezine, and the lead instructor for 2001-2002 at Cornerstone Creative Writing's One Month Intensive Workshop series. She is also a mother of four, and the wife of an extremely talented husband whom she hopes doesn't turn out to be a better writer than she is.

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