Thursday, January 19, 2012

Artist couples and the politics of envy

This week, my family has gone to the beach for a holiday, without me. On the couple of strange, formless days that I have spent at home without them, I have been writing. But I have also been digging out those twisted clumps of mouldy, neglected clothing compressed into the bottom of the washing basket, and hanging load after load of these long-forgotten items on the line.

I know that when my partner is home alone for any length of time without me and the kids, the idea of performing this kind of task wouldn't even enter his head. Instead, he would have focused all his energies on his creative work and come up with the goods, in a far more substantial and satisfying way than I ever seem to achieve.

Last week on Triple R's Aural Text program, Peggy Frew and I had a long chat about a 2003 article, "Envy", written by writer Kathryn Chetkovich.

Chetkovich is the wife of literary superstar Jonathan Franzen, and what starts as an astoundingly honest personal story about professional envy goes on to encompass so much more about the nature of creativity, particularly that desire for a sense of "permission".

She and Franzen (who she only refers to here as "the man") met while they were both struggling early-career writers. Not too long into the relationship, though, she was still struggling, while his efforts had produced an international smash-hit.

She quickly realised that, for her, struggle means battling the external demands and the dilemmas that chip away at her confidence. For Franzen, writing may at times be a struggle, but his sense of conviction remains intact.

When two artists live under the same roof, one of two things is eventually bound to happen: success or children.

After that, a couple often has to draw upon every reserve of generosity in order to keep supporting each other's work and not become bogged down in resentment and competition.

Chetkovich notes in the article that in the time it took Franzen to draft several hundred pages of his novel, she had penned a 15-page story, a short play and part of an "inadequate" screenplay. Under normal circumstances, that wouldn't be such a bad effort, surely. But she was comparing her output to the behemoth that was The Corrections.

When you have fallen for another artist, you are confronted by what Chetkovich calls "its peculiar calling card": the fear of what you want for yourself. And she is extremely honest about the impact of her husband's success -- the proof that the world wanted and needed his work -- on her own creative life, and on their relationship.

She admits that she sometimes withdrew from him emotionally and sexually as a form of revenge; that at times she wanted to drag him down and see him fail. "That if I could not be happy I was ready to make us both miserable."

How to mantain a sense of equality and not be mired in envy when your partner's success only serves to highlight your failure? What does it mean when you are no longer your partner's best and purest champion?

When the British rights to The Corrections are sold, "The part of me that was his girlfriend put her arms around him and told him how happy she was, and the other part, the miserable writer within, kept her distance," Chetkovich writes.

But what Chetkovich also exposes in her remarkable article is those differences that persist between male and female writers: the inner conviction men seem to possess about their right to create; the way women are held back by their desire to be attractive and likeable; how easily they are drawn into a life dominated by caring and servitude; the ever-present fear that writing is an unnatural occupation for a woman, and that unless her work is doing good in the world, it is mere self-indulgence.

All these elements generally make women's hold on their creative convictions far more tenuous than that of their male counterparts. Franzen's previous wife gave up writing when their marriage broke up; but if she had found success first, Chetkovich feels sure that Franzen would have kept writing with the same robust resolve he had always possessed.

"What I envied were what his talent and success had bestowed on him, a sense of the rightness of what he was doing," she writes. "I wanted what women always want: permission."


Chicane Champagne said...

Rachel - turn your back on the washing line. I command you to maintian the following schedule for the rest of your alone time.
7am wake up eat breakfast
7.30am check email and headlines for 15 mins ONLY
7.45 WRITE
11.00 Elevenses
11.20 WRITE
1.00 Lunch with a friend in fave cafe
3.00 WRITE
4.30 Long walk to peruse fave shops
5.30 READ
7.30 Dinner
8.30 READ
10.30 SLEEP
(I have virtual eyes everywhere. I WILL know if you waver)

Rachel Power said...

Heh heh. What lightning speed! Seems it's already past my bedtime then. Thank you Ms Champagne. Perfect advice. Think I might even skip the emails... Sweet dreams.

Kate Moore said...

I get the sense, Rachel, that you see this as a man/woman thing? Yes? I would say it's something more. I can't say what. My partner, a woman, and I are both journalists and there is a definite battle for professional supremacy but also creative time. At the moment that centres around her study and my wish to do more writing and because mine doesn't have a piece of paper attached to it, as such, a degree, I mean, it's not as valid. So, like you, while my partner was away for a week recently, I sorted out the house and had it cleaned and aired - which in turn allows me the freedom to sit down and write. I need a space that's clean and aired to feel ready to write. (My own impediment, I know, but there you go). Anyhoot, partner returns and piles of stuff start filling corners and encroaching on the light and air I've made. The laundry basket is overflowing, my partner is a scatter-brain so things are half done in the sink, on the back table and the like. In the same way your husband would not consider doing the washing, mine just moves from one thought to the next and if that thought is committing to study for four solid days with only paid working days to break that - that's what's done, family and household be damned. It's not just a man/woman thing. It's a struggle to find that creative space in any relationship. I dare say it's not a creative thing either. My stepdaughter was bemoaning just a couple of weeks ago about the angst created when her fella wants to head out with the boys. What is it then? Some of us - you and me - are hardwired to care, fix, be available, mend. Others are more selfish in their motivation. More able to let things go. My partner does not understand why I bellyache about washed up but not dried and put away dishes and washing still in the machine, done and not on the line. I bellyache because it falls to me.

Jill in a Box said...

I think I would kill my husband if he wanted to be an artist/writer as well. You've made me think of Drusilla Modjeska's Stravinsky's Lunch (family and spouse's needs are way secondary to the ego of the male artist and his creative space is sacred)and Reel Girl's post re why she thinks depressed males can still create their art while depressed females are much less likely to. Here if you are interested.

I'm also planning a post around some of these issues. But I gotta sit down and concentrate!

Rose Wintergreen said...

Fantastic article Rachel. I TOTALLY agree with Chicane Champagne. That washing can wait! Creative types aren't meant to be clean-freaks anyway! This is YOU time, time to create, and time to have creative dates with yourself, doing things you don't usually have time to do, but that you know inspire you.

Damon Young said...


As you know, Ruth and I both write and kid-wrangle and enjoy the excitement of domestic chores.

I feel like I spend half my waking life asking for permission. But I suspect that, like many women, I'm only asking myself.

This doesn't make me any less prolific - in journalism, anyway - but it is exhausting.

Rachel Power said...

Yes, I know this is a repetitive theme/preoccupation for me -- thank you all for your coomments (and you patience!). I think Kathryn's essay is well worth reading for anyone who is part of a couple that work in the same or similar fields. It really does cover a lot of territory.
I do think the fact that this word 'permission' comes up time and time again is fascinating. And, yes, for women it does tend to be a kind of grand social/cultural permission they're after. Damon, I'm curious -- what do you mean when you say you spend your life asking yourself for permission?
And Katie, I'm sorry that I keep generalising like that and you keep having to remind me that this is not just a gender issue. In hetero relationships I think those conventions more commonly persist, but of course that dynamic can be there in any relationship. It is incredibly difficult to know the answer to living with anyone who is more single-minded and selfish in pursuing their ambitions, and who can ignore the conditions under which they work! But then, I often feel that the reason my partner is able to be like that is precisely because I am not.

Frances said...

What an interesting article by K Chetkovich, Rachel.
I was totally absorbed in "The Corrections" - I knew those people, altho' of course I did not know those people.
I was totally disappointed by "Freedom". Although lauded by critics, I had no interest in this predictable, strangely dated tale of a WASP marriage and its infidelities, rebelling children, dah de dah etc.. and I think some other readers found the same. Has Franzen written his one great book? What pressure is on him for the next? Is he necessarily on a downward spiral? Or has he become a literary guru whose words are, by associaton, gold?
CChampagne has wonderful advice. Unfortunately, I have always found that given unexpected freedom and space my thoughts flee, my mind goes blank: it seems that any ideas are for me forged by pressure.
Houses, even without families, shout "you should!" at you...dust, vacuum, clean the windows, weed or floss the cat's teeth,(quote). Ignoring them and saying, "I'm going to do what I want" is what giving myself permission means to me.
I really don't think that the solution to your dilemna is yet known, Rachel.

Damon Young said...

Thanks, Rachel. On permission, I regularly remind myself that I'm making money, or doing publicity. So it's fine to spend two hours away from the whole catastrophe to write a column (or have a meeting, or take a phone call, or do radio), because I'm doing a job.

I recognise this is different to many artists, who don't have the justification of income.

But it's the same impulse: it seems like my work and brief liberty are luxuries (even as they're weekly chores), and I must give myself permission.

AmeliaDraws said...

i find this all fascinating. thank you i will read the recommended essay. i recently had to forstall my artistic output as my third pregnancy saw me experiancing perinatal depression. i have had to re-organise my priorities, at least through this stage of parenthood and shift the expectations i place upon myself . i told this to a local shop keeper: a woman in her mid forties, (i am 30) and she said "don't worry hun, when you do pick up the reins of creativity again it'll be great: you don't have to ask the world for permission...." Permission such an interesting word