Tag Archives: writing life

The Novelist’s Wife Speaks Out

To wrap up my series on writers and their secret worlds, I’d like to share with you the thoughts of Amanda Palmer, a musician who happens to be married to a writer whose secret world is as big as they come: Neil Gaiman.

I’ve always had a deep and abiding respect for Neil Gaiman. His work brings to mind Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory: seven-eighths of the meaning is hidden beneath the surface. Reading him is like dipping your toe into what you think is a puddle but turns out to be an entire freaking ocean. That is the most important quality a writer can have, in my opinion. The power of subtext, the ability to say things by not saying them.

Amanda Palmer isn’t like that. As an artist she admits she’s often very literal, not well-versed in metaphor, The Queen of Feelings. The experiences of her life go into a blender on low speed and come out only slightly pureed. She’s not afraid to repurpose her life for the sake of her art.

When Neil Gaiman was writing his latest book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, he read it aloud to his wife each night before bed. To her it was terrifying and beautiful but ultimately, just a story. When the galleys came in, and she could read it for herself, she started to see the meaning behind the words, but it wasn’t until her husband patiently explained the significance of the story that it finally hit her. This was a glimpse into the secret world of the man she loved.

I just started The Ocean at the End of the Lane last night, so I only know what the few glowing reviews I’ve read reveal, but I do know this: it’s personal. Amanda traces it back to a moment the two of them shared–or more accurately, failed to share. Neil wanted to tell her something, something personal, but she had a new song budding in her head so she asked him to wait until she could get it out on piano. Later on, when she was ready, the moment had passed. The window into her husband’s secret world had shut with them trapped on opposite sides.

Neil writes on the dedication page:

For Amanda, who wanted to know.

And Amanda writes, in the blog post:

one thing i have learned, being an artist married to another artist:
you cannot separate the self from the relationship and you cannot separate the relationship from the work.
call it poison, or call it the muse.

I’m very conscious of what I choose to share about my marriage here on my blog, but in my writing, my fiction? Anything’s game. I’ve been writing about crap that’s happened to me even before I knew it was happening.

Marriage? It’s traumatic. It knocks you upside the head, knocks you flat, even when you think you’re ready for it. It’s two completely separate lives trying to merge. Things are going to break. People don’t tell you about that. Going into it, you think you’re immune to those kinds of problems.

So I know my marriage is going to come through in my writing, because everything does. I can’t help it. I write about relationships, and marriage is the ultimate relationship. When I write about someone’s feelings getting hurt, I will pull from my memory of stored emotions. Ditto falling in love, feeling misunderstood, feeling drawn to someone you shouldn’t like, resenting someone you should. And if these feelings are produced by my marriage, so be it. I’m thankful that I’m able to feel and express the wide range of human emotion, able to make sense of it, able to relate to others and make connections.

But I’m not going to write about it on my blog. Not in any deep and meaningful way, not without permission from my husband. He’s not an artist. He’s not interested in baring his soul before the world. I’m not going to betray his wishes for something as silly as a blog. Even Amanda Palmer, The Queen of Feelings, has come to the same conclusion:

…but our *actual* relationship…the feelings and fevers and discussions and layers of attachment and complication underneath…that’s….for us. our close friends follow the intimacies of this strange journey we’re on with each other. but it’s not for the blog, it’s not really for the public.

Go read her post, “The Ocean at the End of the Lane (A Book & Marriage Review).” Very rarely do I come across something that resonates with me so deeply. (And she’s not even a Neil Gaiman fan. How incomprehensible.)

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Our Secret Worlds and Facing Reality

Near Dinas Emrys, Wales, one of my secret worlds. Photo by me.

We writers live in a secret world.

It’s evident from our faces, which go blank at inappropriate moments, our eyes searching for something we can use to scribble down a line. It’s evident from our obsession with subjects that wouldn’t interest most people past a Wikipedia stub, and it’s evident from the massive gap that appears between our world and our attempts to ground it in reality. All artists, I believe, live in such a world, and all art (from the Latin word for craftsmanship) is an attempt to bring those worlds into fruition.

When I was younger, brimming with an entire universe of secret worlds, I thought this set me apart from everyone else. After all, none of my friends had characters banging on the inside of their skulls and threatening death and dismemberment unless they hurried up and finished the dang book. (True story. Please don’t call the mental health police.)

In fact, outside the online community, where it seems everyone and their illiterate cousin is writing a book, you many never once run into another writer in the wild–and if you do, you’ll most likely be too buttoned-up for either of you to know it.

But that’s okay, because everyone has a secret world. We writers just have this overwhelming drive, like all other artists, to share ours with others. And for some reason, we think this makes us special, when all it does is isolate us from those who cannot help but fail to “get it.”

Because that’s the thing about secret worlds. They’re intensely personal, the sum of all our life’s experiences, and how can we possibly hope to properly articulate that? Sometimes I envy all those people who are content to simply occupy their secret worlds, never once feeling the urge to share it with others. It would certainly make relationships a whole lot less complicated.

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I have a piece of personal writing planned for an upcoming post, but first I wanted to write about the ability writing has to isolate us from the rest of the world–because that piece clearly illustrates how I let that happen. And there’s the key: I let it happen. I made the choice to go where my friend could not hope to follow, then held it against her to the point of souring our relationship.

The truth is no one can follow us into our secret worlds, not even other writers. That’s why we put so many hours in front of a keyboard or holding a pen: we desperately want to communicate our worlds in ways others can understand. Without others, we’re alone.

The title of my personal piece is “How To Lose A Friend,” and I wrote it a couple of years ago during a particularly low point of my life. Naturally, in trying to make sense of it, I blamed it on someone else (which is so easy to do when you’re no longer speaking). Even though I’m happy to report we’ve patched things up, having both gone through the painful process of growing up and experiencing life’s uncertainties, I feel compelled to share this piece because I think it’s a mindset we writers fall into so easily: Us and Them. Us, the great misunderstood, and Them, the uncultured cretins.

(What’s particularly interesting about it, I think, is the friend I lost happens to be an artist herself, and a rather good one. Make of that what you will.)

I’ve taken the liberty of changing her name, not because I’m afraid someone might recognize her, but because in the end, it wasn’t really about her. It was about my narrow-minded selfishness. I chose to isolate myself within my world, and I paid the price most bitterly. I can only hope that I don’t make the same mistake again.

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