When your partner doesn’t support your art
The toughest thing about writing this post will be keeping it from becoming a way to bash my husband. The easiest thing will be to slip into it being a way to bash myself. If you’re reading because you’re looking for solutions or resolutions, this isn’t that kind of post. If I had the solutions, I don’t think I’d need to write this. If you need to know that you’re not the only one facing this situation, read on. You are not alone.
On my refrigerator there’s a little plaque given to me by a friend and fellow writer that reads, “Don’t ever be ashamed of your art.” She gifted it to me not long after we had a conversation about how our spouses dealt with us deciding to enter the world of romance writing. Writing wasn’t anything that took away from familial or occupational responsibilities; we had both reached the stages where we were getting back regular “me time” in our lives after raising small children and starting professional careers. Her husband clapped and cheered as she took on a task that had always been a dream: writing novels, sharing stories. He beamed with pride, bragged about her to his friends and family, and did what he could to help out at home so she could expand the pursuit of her dream.
And then there are writers who have a partner like mine.
When my husband and I first met in college, I had already penned several books, short stories, and had filled notebooks with poetry and journal entries. Though not intended for publication, my portfolio included two fully written novels at that time: an epic fantasy and a sweet (meaning nothing more serious than heavy kissing) historical romance. Even though they were amateurish and written only for practice and my own amusement, my husband asked if he could read my books. I concurred, preparing myself for the three worst things I could think of him saying: one, that he found them silly (which was true); two, that he didn’t understand them (my prose at that time was occasionally rambling and incoherent); or three, that he just plain didn’t like them (which was fine- fiction wasn’t his thing and he wasn’t exactly my target audience.)
What I never imagined him saying was that my work was morally reprehensible and something of which I should be abhorrently ashamed, and that for my own reputation and his, I should give up writing immediately.
It takes a lot of courage to share your art with someone you don’t know. It takes even more to share it with someone you do. A stranger’s personal criticism is without context of character; it’s easily rationalized. When that criticism comes from someone with whom you share your life, who you expect to support your dreams even if they don’t entirely understand them, you can’t help but connect that with their general opinion of you, your relationship, and everything else in your world. (Maybe that’s a woman thing? It’s possible, but having never been a man I can’t knowingly comment.)
For many years after that, I didn’t write a word outside of academic requirement. In hindsight, it had more to do with the obligations of life. Children were born, cross country moves were made, careers and businesses were launched… But as I finally got to that brilliant time in motherhood where I had time to do something just for me, I found my creative spirit awakening, longing to stretch muscles long left dormant. Past criticisms had left a mark, scarred confidence that doubted it could ever heal. An injured artist’s heart which mistrusted the sound of its own beating. But the stories kept coming to me, to the point where I had to write. It wasn’t a choice; my soul felt an obligation. I needed to try to reach for my dream. I wanted to see if I could really muster the courage to do that which I knew I was always meant to do.
But the cruel words my husband had spoken haunted me. I told myself that we had both been younger and quicker to judge each other back then. We’d grown, we’d come to accept and respect each other much more, I’d thought. I didn’t want to do something that was going to embarrass him or me, however, or something that would bring shame to my children. Especially not if it turned out to be a failure. He’s the type of guy who believes in process. In prototypes, and user testing, and promising results, before pouring himself in to a project. I needed some evidence, I convinced myself, that this wasn’t the horrible, sleazy activity he presumed it to be. That I could write the stories that had come to me, and that people would read them and be entertained, not disgusted. So, hiding behind the secrecy of a pen name and only telling a handful of friends about my efforts, I set out to find evidence.
Fanfiction became my safe zone, my sandbox. The support and positive feedback from the community of readers began to knit my wounds. For the first time in years, I found confidence in my voice, and pride in my work. At the end of the day, though, I couldn’t bring myself to open up to his review again – especially since my plot lines had matured along with my life experience. I never wrote something that could be called erotica, but I definitely did skew towards romantic fiction and some of my stories did include mature scenes with what I like to think were intellectually- and emotionally-charged descriptions of amorous activities.
Eventually, I was invited to speak at a writing conference that would require my traveling out of town for a few days, and I approached my husband about accepting the invitation. How proud he’ll be now, I thought. My writing is so beloved that someone wants me to go clear across the country to speak about it! This will show him that all his worries were for nothing, and it’s perfectly acceptable for a grown woman to write stories about people in love acting on that emotion. Over the next few nights, my husband downloaded all my online stories and read them. My hope was that the hundreds of positive, encouraging comments left online by readers would also bolster my case.
When he was done, he was overwhelmed. He said my stories broke his heart, that he couldn’t stop from crying over the shame he felt when he thought about people reading the horrible, disgusting, immoral things I had written.
I reached that point so many in similar situations do: asking yourself if pursuing your art could lead to the break up of your family. Or, alternatively, is there a middle ground, one where we can still chase our dreams even knowing of our partner’s disapproval? After some negotiation, my husband and I reached a compromise. Basically, it’s this: I have a whole portion of my life which feeds my soul, gives me joy, and entertains thousands, and he pretends it doesn’t exist. Is it a happy compromise? No, of course not. But it’s something that allows me to pursue my creative spirit without breaking up my children’s home. I won’t lie, though. It’s a painful, lonely, and sometimes an overwhelmingly depressing reality. When I was nominated for an award a few years ago, I danced around my room for about two minutes, then went to the kitchen and made dinner like nothing happened. When one of my books shot to the top of Amazon’s Movers & Shakers chart one day, I celebrated by posting the news on Facebook and Twitter, but not making a peep about it at home. When one of my readers recently passed through town and I had lunch with her, I heard for the rest of the day how selfish it was for me to take time away from my family for that.
So, like I said, there are no solutions I’m presenting here. Friends will offer support; take it, even with the grain of salt that some of them chalk the solution up to leaving and don’t understand why it’s not that simple. Sometimes what stands at odds to gain isn’t worth what it would cost in loss. Your partner can behave in this truly horrific and hurtful fashion, and still balance out in the positive when all the aspects of your life together are taken into consideration. I only want to say, if you’re in a similar situation, and like me, you’ve decided to advance your creative pursuits despite the ridicule or indifference of your partner, I want you to know one thing: Despite feeling that the 100% opposite is true, the fact is, you’re not alone. I’m right there with you. And maybe if we both know that, we’re not so alone anymore after all.