Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Living With a Writer’s Brokenness

by Susan Cushman

I recently read The Paris Wife  by Paula McLain. It’s a novel about Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage, to Hadley Richardson, written through her voice. I thought I’d share some of it as part of my post here on what it’s like to be married to a writer. (NOTE: I wrote this before I read Karen Harrington's post, but at least we're giving a bit of a different take on the book.)

Ernest and Hadley were married during the time he lived in Paris and wrote The Sun Also Rises, which fictionalizes quite a bit of their hard-drinking fast-living life with a colorful circle of friends in Paris. It was Hadley’s lot to be his wife during his early years of struggling to find his voice as a writer, as she struggled to hold onto herself as a woman while being his wife and muse. This sentence shows some of Hadley’s struggle:

“I close my eyes and lean into Ernest, smelling bourbon and soap, tobacco and damp cotton—and everything about this moment is so sharp and lovely, I do something completely out of character and just let myself have it.”

Why was it out of character for Hadley to let herself have that lovely and intimate moment with him? I think she took her role as muse and supporter to a brilliant artist more seriously than her role as his lover and wife, so she devalued herself as a person. McLain creates lots of dialogue that shows this aspect of their relationship:

“I’m not sure I get it completely, but I can tell you’re a writer. Whatever that thing is, you have it.” (Hadley)

“God that’s good to hear. Sometimes I think all I really need is one person telling me that I’m not knocking my fool head against the bricks. That I have a shot at it.” (Ernest)

And then she shows the complexity of their relationship through interior monologue: (Hadley thinking)

… it struck me how comfortable I felt with him, as if we were old friends or had already done this many times over, him handing me pages with his heart on his sleeve—he couldn’t pretend this work didn’t mean everything to him—me reading his words, quietly amazed by what he could do. . . .

And the limitations that Ernest’s work put on the marriage: (again through Hadley’s thoughts)

Hadn’t I just felt us collapsing into one another, until there was no difference between us? It would be the hardest lesson of my marriage, discovering the flaw in this thinking. I couldn’t reach into every part of Ernest and he didn’t want me to. He needed me to make him feel safe and backed up, yes, the same way I needed him. But he also liked that he could disappear into his work, away from me. And return when he wanted to.

I have to get away from my home, and from my husband (whom I love) in order to get serious amounts of writing done, which is why I spent the month of November writing at the beach. And sometimes I just need hours of quiet to think, before ever putting words on the page. I found it interesting that Hemingway also felt that way, and Hadley wished he wouldn’t leave:

“It’s been so long since you’ve even tried to write here at home. Maybe it would work now and I could see you. I wouldn’t have to talk or disturb you.” (Hadley)

“You know I need to go away to make anything happen…. I have to be alone to get it started….” (Ernest)

A couple of weeks ago I went to the Yoknapatawpha Summer Writers Workshop in Oxford, Mississippi. One night the workshop leader, Scott Morris, gave his annual craft talk, this time on “Voice.” (Read more about the workshop and Scott’s talk here.) One thing that stuck with me long after his talk was what he said about the writer’s cross—that we will always be reaching for something just beyond our grasp, using words to make sense of the world and to make peace with our suffering:

“The novel will just sit down in that place of suffering and spend time there…. The great novel trades in regret…. This type of writing is up against the dominant culture of the day…. Great writing is about going to those wounds and staying there.”

This reminded me of something Hadley thought about Ernest lately in the novel:

It gave me a sharp kind of sadness to think that no matter how much I loved him and tried to put him back together again, he might stay broken forever…. He wanted everything there was to have and more than that.

We are all broken creatures, but I think that artists and writers carry our brokenness in a more intense manner. It’s hard on our families. Although my husband is also a writer, he’s a physician and his writing is scientific. He has no problem writing an article for the New England Journal of Medicine while I’m in the room with him (and a football game is on television and he’s checking email on his Blackberry). But I need physical and emotional space in order to create words on the page, and he gets that. Our kids have been out of the house for ten years now, and we celebrated our 41st wedding anniversary on June 13, so he’s been living with my brokenness for quite some time.  But unlike Hadley and Ernest, we’re not "collapsing into one another." We’re two fully realized persons who don’t need the other person to complete us. Instead, we are learning to be supportive of each other’s careers, which we are both passionate about.  Hopefully we’ve dodged the bullet that destroyed Ernest and Hadley’s marriage, which McLain describes in the Epilogue of the book, thirty-five years after their divorce, when they are both married to other people:

“Tell me, do you think we wanted too much from each other? . . . . Maybe that’s it. We were too hooked into each other. We loved each other too much.” (Ernest)

“Can you love someone too much?” (Hadley)

He was quite for a moment. “No,” he finally said, his voice very soft and sober. “That’s not it at all. I ruined it.”

Susan Cushman has nine published essays, one novel and two memoirs tucked safely away in a drawer, and a novel-in-progress that she hopes to publish one day. Later this year, her essay, “Chiaroscuro: Shimmer and Shadow,” will appear in the second volume of the anthology, All Out of Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality, from the University of Alabama Press. She is a guest blogger on Jane Friedman's Writers' Digest blog, "There Are No Rules," and her personal blog is "Pen and Palette." Susan is director of the 2011 Memphis Creative Nonfiction Workshop coming up in September. (Registration is open and spaces are filling quickly!)


ficwriter said...

Brilliant post, Susan. I just finished reading The Paris Wife, and I loved it. Like your husband, I can write with chaos around me, but I prefer time alone. And not just to write. To ponder, to walk, to play, to dream, to be. And then write. After three decades of marriage and raising children, I seem to need it more than ever.

Emma Connolly said...

Wonderful words Susan - the relationship portrayed in The Paris Wife was co-dependent and immature, but is certainly not unlike many young marriages I've seen. I think it is when a couple can grow up and through that stage and become autonomous beings, while still remaining connected, that makes for a marriage like you and your spouse seem to have. Writers live in their heads so much of the time (speaking for myself), and you really cannot think through and develop those stories and characters when living inside a video game (which life gets to be at times). My husband and I are so similar in personality type that we understand each other's need to have quiet and chaos-free time to write. There are days when he sits in his study, and I sit at the dining room table, and both of us are writing. But we also know the other is breathing down the hall and we remain connected. A miracle in this modern world. Thank you!

Herman said...

Great post, Susan. Ginger (wife) is very supportive of my writing. She is a multi-tasker and can jump from one to another and back with out losing her focus. She does not understand it takes me time to reach that place, just outside myself, where the words flow, and a single interruption is like a bubble burst that can't be regained. Another can be created but something may be lost. I'll have to put "The Paris Wife" on my reading list.

Mary said...

Great post -- and I just finished the book also. I loved it and it was hard to read -- all at the same time. My heart ached for both of them and for Hemingway's loss of himself. He poured so much into the writing that there wasn't enough left over for Hadley.

book publishing said...

Awesome post to read,
I enjoyed a lot after reading this.
and i liked Hadley's statement "I’m not sure I get it completely, but I can tell you’re a writer. Whatever that thing is, you have it."