In a 2010 interview with Vanity Fair, Lady Gaga said something I’ve never forgotten. “I have this weird thing that if I sleep with someone,” she explained, “they’re going to take my creativity from me through my vagina.” She was laying out why she didn’t have a partner, why she worried about the depletion of artistic energy that stripping bare in front of someone could precipitate. “I’m lonely when I’m in relationships,” she continued. “It’s my condition as an artist.”
I remember thinking, Maybe she’s onto something: 2010 was one of the high points of Gaga’s career. The year prior, she had released “The Fame Monster,” and she was then on her Monster Ball Tour. She was peak Gaga: unapologetic, grotesque-glam and unabashed. I stored that quote away in my brain for later. There it was, in black and white: Dating could sap you. There it was: If you want to be your fullest self, it’s possible a partner will weigh you down.
I’m not saying the best artists are single ones. I know there are thousands of supportive spouses who have productive artist partners. There are many works dedicated to significant others: All you have to do is flip open a few books, and you’ll see name after name of people who were ballast for one harried writer or another. But how many of them also belong on another list, the one with the names of spouses, often women, who labored for their partners at the expense of their time, health or even their own creativity?
Consider Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of F. Scott, who used her diaries as fodder for his fiction. Scott was lauded; Zelda spent the last years of her life in and out of sanitariums. Consider French writer Colette, whose first four novels were published under her husband’s name; when she wanted to have her own name on her work, he locked her in a room and forced her to write. She ditched him and eventually gained fame as a writer on her own, but only after a period of poverty.
Why do these extreme examples of the perils of partnering up strike a nerve for so many women even to this day? Whether it’s a marriage where one partner takes the credit from the other or a date at a brewery where a woman has to listen to a man yak about his podcast without asking her about her own endeavors, the creative imbalances are often stark.
Zelda and Colette aren’t the only women who’ve been positioned that way. In 2017, BuzzFeed examined the #ThanksForTyping hashtag. Novelist and English professor Bruce Holsinger was curious about all the times he had seen male authors thanking their spouses for typing up manuscripts in the acknowledgments of their books. One wife was thanked for “typing and retyping most of the manuscript 15 or more times.” Another man thanked his wife for typing drafts while also caring for their newborn child and working part time. I wish I could say I was shocked when I clicked through the hashtag, but I wasn’t. Women are so often expected to perform emotional labor for their male partners that typing up an entire book seems almost minor compared with some of the bolstering women have had to do for the men in their lives: being the silent smiling companion at events or award ceremonies, delivering paintings or negotiating a commission, talking someone down from a violent rage or out of a deep depression.
I have my own #ThanksForTyping experiences. The few times I’ve been involved with other writers, it’s always ended in me putting my work aside to edit their manuscripts or give advice on a female character they “based off my voice.” When I asked those same partners to look at my own work, I either got eviscerated through careless edits or simply ignored. “Your writing is too intimidating for me,” said a man for whom I had edited two books. “I just didn’t have any edits to make!”
So I wrote my own book. I did the labor: I worked full time to be able to write in the mornings. I went grocery shopping at 11 p.m. after my evening shifts ended. I typed all my own words for the dozen or so drafts I wrote during the nine years it took to write the book, edit the book, get an agent for the book, get a publisher for the book.
And I kept remembering that Gaga remark. It’s not that it actively guided me into being reticent about romantic attachment; truthfully, I don’t particularly want to go through life alone when so much of the world seems designed for pairs. It’s just that her words cropped up in my mind every time I was heartbroken, every time another foray into the world of partnering up fell flat. When I was lying in bed crying, when I was drifting dazedly through my commute, when I was obsessing over what I could have done differently, that motto would beam like an invitation to an alternate reality, a world where I could spend my energy on something that would be guaranteed to flourish if I put work into it. And then, finally, at the end of 2016, as my edits started to ramp up for the book, I closed down my dating life. I wasn’t going to give any more energy to things that were out of my control: I was going to direct all that energy onto the page. I was going to make a name for myself through something tangible.
Soon after I made my big choice, the universe seemed to reassure me I was on the right path. I chose my publisher, McClelland & Stewart, on the morning of Valentine’s Day in 2017. Instead of rolling my eyes at couples fawning over each other on social media, I spent my Valentine’s Day dancing around my apartment, welcoming this new and different form of romance. I’m not woo-woo about fate, but it seemed as if something was reinforcing my choice. And now I know: I’d trade a thousand lousy dates for this, the feeling of creating a legacy that can be held in someone’s hands. Now I cry, but it’s over my characters. Today, I’m the only one who can break my heart.
Nine years on, and Lady Gaga isn’t single anymore; in fact, she’s engaged. Maybe she changed her mind about losing her creativity through her vagina. Maybe she found a worthwhile way to balance her love life and her artistic life. Or maybe she found a partner who understands just what she needs. She’s also in a new stage of her creative endeavors, garnering nods for her performance in a film about a woman exploring her creative identity and finding artistic success thanks to her relationship with a man. I admit this leaves me wondering: Am I wrong? Am I mistaking a fear of dating, of becoming vulnerable, for a sign that I should be focusing only on writing? Am I closing off a crucial part of myself and telling myself it’s necessary?
I don’t know what the future holds. I don’t know whether I’ll relax my embargo on dating after this book is out in the world. But whatever happens, I’ll never forget Gaga’s statement: It was weird and wonderful, blazing and brash, and it gave me freedom to release myself from the constraints of society’s expectations regarding a woman’s singleness. In that quote, I saw my own creative aspirations churning. I found the freedom I needed to become a writer.