Around our house, we don’t talk as much about writing as we do about not writing. My wife and I like to take turns complaining about how little we’re getting done. We also take turns offering each other advice on ways to be more productive. I don’t think I need to tell you how that usually goes over.
It’s never uncomplicated when writers try to help other writers write. When the writers are married to one another, it gets really interesting. Christopher Benfey gets at this in a review of Elaine Showalter’s A Jury of Her Peers in the New York Review of Books. Showalter’s book, a history of American women writers, mentions that Mary McCarthy was urged into fiction writing by her second husband, critic Edmund Wilson, who “shut her up in a room for three hours and ordered her to write a story.” For Showalter, it’s a paradox that “during the time when she was most dominated by a man, McCarthy began to create a new image for American women.”
But Benfey writes: “Where is the paradox? Wilson’s insistence that McCarthy allow time for her writing was overbearing, perhaps. . .But wasn’t it better to shut her up in a room with a typewriter than to hand her a broom and dustpan?”
For the record, neither my wife nor I have ever ordered the other into a room to write. Nor do we do much handing out of brooms and dustpans. But I’m not sure Benfey’s distinction matters much. Whether you’re handing someone a typewriter or a broom, you’re still taking upon yourself a position of authority--the assigner of tasks.
I’m also unconvinced about magic happening whenever you lock a writer in a room. A while back I mentioned the story of Hitchhikcr’s Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams being locked in a hotel room by his impatient editor. “I sat at the desk and typed and he sat in the armchair and glowered,” Adams is supposed to have reported. Maybe if my wife and I tried something like this, we’d be more productive. But I’m not sure we’d survive all the glowering.