On balance and trust

When is it time to focus on your creativity and when is it not?

I spend a lot of time thinking about the form in my writing, if what I want to say will be helped or hindered by the way I say it. The same thing can be said about a marriage, too. How do you manage a solitary creative process when you also have a partner to consider?

We're in the jeep at the end of the driveway just as the recycling truck stops and the long metal arm stretches out to scoop up our bin. In one jerky mechanical motion, the pincher jaws wrap around and lift it high in the air, tipping it over, showering the open receptacle with bottles and plastic containers.

“I never tire of watching that,” says my spouse, Janyce. Across the street our neighbors are still at it, raking the last of their lawn and lining up large brown bags along the curb. Our yard is still covered, the gutters full, the garden overgrown. Janyce drives over sticks that are strewn on our street and I can hear them crunch beneath the wheels. We’ve just left the house, after spending hours at the kitchen table trying to get our cruise excursions booked and our questions answered. And now we are on our way to walk the dog at his favorite spot.  

“I hate to do it, but I think we need to order those water bottles and have them delivered to our room on the ship,” she says, while driving in a wide arc to pass the recycling truck. I’m looking out the window at the oak trees as we ride by, one of the few trees that still has its leaves. 

 “Mrs. Ramsey is trying to knit the family together, concerned with everyone’s emotional lives,” I say. “And Lily Briscoe is trying to figure out how the shapes in her painting go together. They’re doing the same things.”     

“Oh yeah?” says Janyce.

One of my favorite books of all time is To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. I reread it a lot. I sometimes read it on the beach, when I want to look out beyond the dunes and down the long path to the tiny Chatham lighthouse in the distance, pretending I am searching the Outer Hebrides from the shores of the Isle of Skye. And early this morning, I reread parts of it again in bed, jotting down notes onto a pad of paper. 

As is true of any great work of literature, you can find a new interpretation each time you read it. This morning, I was noticing the similarities between the two central characters. I was also noticing how the formal techniques used in the book illustrate the ideas, how each character’s stream of consciousness thinking advances the action, effectively moving the novel forward.  

Janyce rounds the corner and the dog in the backseat starts to whine with anticipation. He knows where we are headed by the turns in the road.

“I think I might want to stop by and see my dad later today, because he still has questions, too,” she says.

I reach over and search near my feet for one of my gloves that I dropped. Just last week, we walked the dog around the pond as sunlight shimmered on the water reflecting a clear blue sky. Today it is cloudy and cold, and we’re bundled in layers of jackets. 

The plot in To the Lighthouse can be described simply as one family’s late summer stay at a vacation cottage by the sea in the early twentieth century. One of the central characters, Mrs. Ramsey, a married woman with children, is trying to create a sense of belonging and beauty for all members of her large family. She does this with the only material she has to work with: her intuition, the daily rituals involved in making a home, and the art of conversation.

And Lily Briscoe, the novel’s other central character, an unmarried woman and a family guest, spends most of her time standing at her easel, working on a painting, concerned primarily with how to balance one shape against another, and how to get the painting to resemble what she sees.

“Maybe I could use those two central characters to make my point,” I say to Janyce as she turns into the parking lot and swings the jeep into the last available space. “Or I could write about the gender issues we were talking about the other day. Or I could…”   

Janyce is a step ahead of me and has the back door to the jeep open, the folding stairs leaning against the bumper so our old dog can make his way out of the back and onto the ground. 

“I think any of those could work,” she says. “You have plenty of material.”   “Treat! Come on boy, let’s go.” 

We wind our way along the trail through the woods and I can see the the train tracks clearly through the thinning trees as we approach the small hill. Several people with dogs on leashes step aside and let us pass.

We’re roughly halfway through the loop, and Janyce has turned quiet. Up till now, we have been having separate conversations— hers, continuing from this morning at the kitchen table, about our trip in a matter of weeks—mine, about the minutia of what I’m going to write about. 

I have this artist friend who makes beautiful ceramic pieces with original screen-printed designs. He once told us that one of his designs was keeping him up at night, and that during the day he was so eager to get the ideas worked out that he was talking about it nonstop. His spouse finally had to pull him aside and put a time limit on how often he could bring up the subject. They now jokingly refer to it as the “ceramic minute.” 

“I’m doing it again, aren’t I?” I say.  

“Little bit,” says Janyce.

I grab the branch of a small pine tree and pull the needles off, vowing in my mind to change the subject, but that lasts all of a few seconds.

“I think I don't fully trust that I will have anything good to write about, you know?” I say. “I mean, maybe I won’t be able pull it all together.”  

“Kris, you always do,” she says to me. “Try to relax.”  

I spend a lot of time thinking about the form in my writing, if what I want to say will be helped or hindered by the way I say it. The same thing can be said about a marriage, too. How do you manage a solitary creative process when you also have a partner to consider?

There are so many ways that Janyce makes space for me and my obsessive ruminating about writing. And I think the reason our relationship works as well as it does is because I also have my own way of supporting her. I like to think of it as the creativity I bring to all the domestic spaces in our lives. Just like Mrs. Ramsey, I rejoice over planning dinner parties, about making the table beautiful, and assigning seating so that conversation has a chance to flourish between people in unexpected ways. I care about staying in frequent contact with our friends and family, and I like finding ways to open up silences so those who are less talkative, like Janyce, have the space to share their thoughts.  

So when do you get out of your own solitary headspace to focus on your partner, and when do you not? Just like any creative process, I think, it’s a question of balance and trust. 

Almost an hour has now passed and we’re back in the jeep in the parking lot. Treat is munching on his cookie in the back seat and Janyce is looking into the rear view mirror as she starts to back out. I decide to stop all my thinking and try something new.

“How about… we go home and grab a blanket,” I say. “I will make some lunch and you make a fire, and maybe we can hang out on the couch a bit?” 

“I like the sound of that,” says Janyce.

“And then I’ll read you some chapters from To the Lighthouse.” 

“How about not,” she says, smiling at me from the drivers’ seat and tapping her watch with her finger. “Your ceramic minute is up.”