June 4, 2018KR BlogBlog

Literary Wife

A few years ago, a fellow writer and I were chatting about a famous male author when she leaned in and said, “He has a literary wife, you know.”

A literary wife. I’ll admit that the first thing that came to mind was a wife who is literary—a prolific reader and writer in her own regard who also happens to be married.

Instead, as my friend explained, a literary wife is a woman who supports her husband’s writing career by handling life’s drudge work and minutia so he can get on with his brilliance. A man with a literary wife doesn’t need to do laundry, cook dinner, vacuum the carpet, or even watch his own children. His work comes first, and his wife is there to shield him from any banal chore that could interfere with his writing.

This arrangement is old as the written word. It’s a division of labor that continues today, including in some so-called egalitarian couples, and even when the literary wife is also a writer herself.

The concept of a literary wife was intuitive to me, something I’d long witnessed in many cases among others. I just didn’t have a name for it.

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I was in my early thirties when I decided to finally pursue an MFA. I was also married and a relatively new homeowner. After I received my acceptance from Bowling Green State University—one of the closest fully funded MFA programs to my home in Cleveland—I started plotting how to make this work.

First, I’d resign from my job as a trade magazine editor. Next, my husband I decided he would stay in our home in Cleveland while I’d rent an efficiency apartment near campus. Depending on my class and teaching schedule, I’d be at Bowling Green about four days a week and return to Cleveland for three-day weekends.

One of my coworkers at the time—a young, newly engaged woman—listened with interest as I described this part-time arrangement.

“Wow,” she told me. “You’re lucky. My fiancé would never let me do that.”

He wouldn’t let her. He would forbid it, and she would be expected to obey.

My graduate school plans wouldn’t work for everyone. I know this. Not all married couples would embrace that amount of distance. It might strain some marriages, or perhaps the separation might wear on the writer and impede her progress, which is counterintuitive to the whole plan in the first place. But there’s a difference between acknowledging an arrangement is not ideal for both parties—or for both partners to discuss the issue thoughtfully to see what might works best for them—than for one partner to unilaterally withhold permission.

As the months passed, I heard from more and more women a version of “You’re lucky—my husband would never let me do that” whenever I shared my plans.

Even when the husband or boyfriend wouldn’t think of objecting to his partner’s creative pursuits, I’ve noticed too many women feel lucky to have a partner who embraces their writing ambitions.

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There’s a lot I can say here about how my husband supports me and how that support has helped my writing life feel more secure. When I got into Yaddo this year, for example, I initially responded to the acceptance by panicking over my work schedule, the writing workshop I’d already committed to teach during my granted residency period, and other real-life concerns that made running off to an artist colony seem daunting. But my husband was there to remind me of what mattered.

“If you turn down Yaddo,” he warned, “then I might as well buy a tombstone for all your hopes and dreams.”

That might sound dark, but it was exactly what I needed to hear. I didn’t waste any more time feeling anxious about leaving the regular world to head off to Yaddo—I just went. And while I surely would have ended up going either way, it helped knowing my partner was steering me toward the experience that would better my work.

Lately, however, I’m noticing a divide between genuine gratitude on the personal level and the larger, more universal way women writers (in heterosexual relationships, that is) sometimes talk about their partners. And that includes me.

In the past, I’d praise my husband to friends by saying things like, “He always supports the fact that I’m a writer, and he never complains when I hole up at my writing desk for hours on end.”

Now, I suspect that sentiment boils down to saying I should feel lucky to be with someone who doesn’t complain about my artistic pursuits. It’s a point of view I’ve witnessed almost exclusively among other women. A male writer simply isn’t as likely to point out how fortunate he is to have found a female partner who encourages his creative career. (I fear there’s a stronger tradition of men thanking their wives for typing their books than for deigning to “let” them write without complaint in the first place.)

To be clear, my husband has never indicated that I should feel grateful for his support, or that he’s doing anything out of the ordinary by offering it. I also don’t think men are wrong to expect their partners’ respect and support. Instead, I wish this could be the standard for both men and women.

Instead, I’m balking at our deeply ingrained social response to a man wholeheartedly supporting a woman’s artistic pursuits—that we consider ourselves lucky to have found partners who embrace our dreams and our autonomy to pursue those dreams.

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A female acquaintance who is far more traditional than I am once complained bitterly about another woman’s behavior.

“She is a wife,” this acquaintance told me with indignation. “That’s not how a wife acts!”

I didn’t need to ask how, exactly, a wife is meant to act. The prototypical wife always puts others first, is self-sacrificing, and forever serves as the emotional and domestic glue that holds everything together, no matter the cost to herself.

While these are admirable qualities that all people—no matter their gender or marital status—would do well to embrace at one point or another, I reject the view that wives are automatically beholden to those ideals at all times. I reject the notion that there’s only one way to be a wife in today’s world.

I am a wife, but I am not a wife.

And so I return to my original, mistaken conception of what it means to be a literary wife: a wife who is also literary.

In my ideal world, the “literary wife” title applies to someone who reads and writes with abandon, who freely pursues her own artistic dreams, and yes, who has the support of her spouse. She’s married, but she doesn’t operate under the weight of an unspoken cultural expectation that a man’s career is ultimately more important, or as if the husband who embraces her writing is engaged in a form of literary community service.

She’s a wife but perhaps not a wife. She’s a writer who puts herself first from time to time, and she’s able to do so without the burden of guilt or luck. And when “literary” is used to describe her, it’s a term meant to define her own pursuits, not those of her spouse.

Even this, she claims as her own.