2 Books, 1 VU: Writing Couple Faces Double Deadline in Cramped Apartment

(Dana Fineman-appel)
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By The Writing Life
Sunday, May 25, 2008; Page BW11

She Says

I imprisoned my husband in the bedroom of our four-room apartment for six weeks last fall. When, after spending hours writing on his computer at his sun-drenched desk, he emerged to relax and read the newspaper, I forced him back whence he came and, with some asperity, shut the door; evening was my writing time, and my computer is in the living room. He accepted his fate with remarkable forbearance.

The tables were turned during the day, when, to avoid interrupting his train of thought, I had to knock softly on the door of that same bedroom and try hard to remember to say "Are you working or can I tell you something?" every time household business needed to be conducted or the garbage needed taking out. We were navigating a predicament both rare and treacherous to marital accord: Each of us was finishing a book. And even though our topics were as different as our politics and our professions (the liberal psychotherapist was finishing Death Benefits: How Losing a Parent Can Change an Adult's Life -- for the Better; the conservative historian, George Washington on Leadership) we also happened to have the same publisher (Basic), the same editor (Jo Ann Miller), and the same deadline (much too soon).

The non-overlapping nature of our projects made it easier. We weren't competing for readers or publicity, and 27 years of marriage had made us exquisitely, subliminally attuned to each other's process and progress. I had to force myself to block out the sound of his relentlessly efficient typing as I struggled (far longer than he did, it seemed) to find my next insight. He didn't have to cultivate discipline; it came naturally. Writing is all he does, while I divide my time between writing and seeing patients, so I constantly had to change gears, while he always seemed to be in the groove. His task was easier, too; everybody he writes about has been dead for 200 years, and none of them is related to him. As D-Day neared, I forgot to eat for the first time in my life; he just wrote a little more briskly -- and ordered take-out for me every night.

I finally put on a burst of speed, cancelled patients, and became a creature possessed. I fear my schedule made us both sleep-deprived. Many was the pitch black night that I tried unsuccessfully to sneak silently out of the aforementioned bedroom to scribble down a thought; the most potent ones tended to announce themselves in the middle of the night, and I soon learned that they were impossible to reconstruct if I waited until morning. Who else would have understood? When a computer glitch wiped out the most wrenching part of the autobiography I was writing, he became the therapist's therapist and got me through it.

Choreographing life to avoid getting in each other's way emotionally as well as physically took tact, but the payoff was huge. I think our different sensibilities infiltrated each other's work in just the right way: My prose got clearer, his more psychological. He was the perfect first audience and the most useful of critics, laughing at my jokes, misting up at moments I hoped were moving, and he listened patiently and repeatedly to every word of every draft. I couldn't really hear my own voice until I read aloud to him. In most ways it was ideal, consoling and exciting to have him around. Ultimately, both books were better because they were born together.

-- Jeanne Safer

He Says

Despite her professional empathy as a psychoanalyst, my wife makes one calumnious statement, arising from her living room perspective. It is not easier to write about long-dead strangers, only differently difficult. We approach them from a greater emotional distance than we do our deceased parents, but knowing them requires more research. She did not have to decipher wavy letters by her subjects on Library of Congress Web sites or try to understand their lives by hunting down books on colonial tobacco culture and 18th-century battlefield drill.

Two authors working on books in the same household is like two bands recording in the same studio -- less cacophonous, maybe, but still a nest of cross purposes and sideswiping energy. Communication deteriorated during the brief intervals we conversed.

ME: "George Washington did not expect to be dealing with smallpox as Commander-in-Chief."

SHE: "Hmm."

Half an hour later came her riposte.

SHE: "This playwright really found his voice after his father died."

ME: (shouting from the next room): "What's that you said!?"

The common topic was bare necessity.

"Free for lunch?"

"Just give me a paragraph . . . "

Occasionally we emerged together from our workplaces to forage for milk or toilet paper. Sleep, as Macbeth noted, knits up the ravell'd sleeve of care -- except when one of us started up at 2 a.m. to jot down some thought sparked by a brain in overdrive. (I heard her, and, since I am larger, I'm sure she heard me.)

But if, when we were alone, we were like zombies working at parallel tasks, we drew together whenever we socialized with others. No one else in our world was similarly engaged. When our friends talked about the news of the day, we listened politely, as to travelers just back from distant parts. If they raved about a movie or a play, we filed the information away for future reference. We had no time for theatrical arts until the written ones were under control. If our friends talked about their children, it was a little less strange -- we were gestating offspring, too, though ours, we hoped, would earn us money, instead of draining it away.

My wife is absolutely right about the benefits of different in-house perspectives. It is like switching from ordinary lenses to ones that see near and far. As someone who had read a lot of very good journalism (by Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine), I could tell her when she had hit the right grab-the-lapels note. "That," I would say admiringly, "is a moving human document and a slick sales pitch." Since my wife was a newcomer to Britain's imperial crisis and the early American republic, she always asked the necessary, forest-before-the-trees question. What exactly is country party politics (a term of art in early 18th-century England and late-18th century America)? Is it the politics of people who live out in the country? That is actually close to the truth, though it needs more explanation. Living with a reader who is also a writer, and who is literally over your shoulder gives you a head start on your editors and your audience.

Many writers have had in-house audiences. Molière read his jokes to an old servant, Wordsworth read his poems to Coleridge. Jeanne and I took it another step: We married our ideal readers.

-- Richard Brookhiser


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