Magazine | April 20, 2015, Issue

Writing à Deux

Our apartment in the city has four rooms, two desks, two PCs, and two authors. In the last 35 years, 18 books have been written there, twelve by me, six by my wife (her sixth is in process, but coming down the home stretch). I consider that moderately heavy traffic — neither the Anthony Trollope interstate, nor the Ralph Ellison turn-off to Death Valley. We have written simultaneously, and we have written out of sync. Just now we are out of sync.

My wife’s desk, at one end of the living room/dining room, is a beautiful thing, the gift of a generous father: dark, almost purplish rosewood with austere bronze fittings. Where the right hand grasps the mouse the finish has been bleached to a paler shade. Her chair has never been so handsome: We have gone through several contemporary office numbers in the hope of finding one that, after a few hours, does not make her back feel as if it had been massaged by an iron maiden. She also suffers from her view — four feet to a built-in closet. If she flipped everything around to look in the direction of the street windows, she would be sitting in a hallway. Her concentration is so intense she probably doesn’t miss it.

The hierarchy of my master-bedroom work station is reversed. My desk is made of something cheap and synthetic, the product of ingenuity operating on waste, made respectable (and invisible) by white paint. My chair is wooden and retro, oak with slats in the back, such a one as lawyers in suspenders rise from doggedly to cross-examine. I look out the windows at paradise — pre-war apartment buildings, a stone church spire, plane-tree tops rising from an invisible park, pigeons, crows, a distant neon hospital sign. What more could you need for energy, history, country-in-city, everywhere, romance? When photographers do odd shoots on the roof of the building directly across the avenue, it is paradise with a short story.

You read of couples who must live or work in different towns, sometimes on different coasts. I had a cousin whose husband spent six months a year with the Navy in Antarctica. Because of our skewed schedules my wife and I live on different planets, sharing 900 square feet — Write World, and Other World.

My wife has a typical daytime: day job (patients), errands, exercise — what Other World calls living, what Write World calls The Enemy. So she writes at night. Since she is a night owl, when she gets going she will not stop until 1 a.m. (If I go out of town she pushes herself until 3 or 4.) While she writes I have to go elsewhere. I understand and agree; even if I promised to sit silently reading the paper, my wife could not risk my blurting, while she was in mid-thought, reax to the latest amusement or outrage. So I go into exile.

If I have some short assignment of my own, I can do it at my desk, fine; if I’m dining out, finer. But I write fairly fast and I don’t like to be away from my wife, even if I cannot talk to her. So, for the longest time, I would go to my desk and — what? Once I would have read — anything. My favorite browse reading was the eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Second, The New York Review of Books. Both wallow in minutiae, though the first has the charm of distance — steampunk without punk, Flashman in earnest. But the Internet has produced a change of consciousness. Even though I came to it full of years, it has altered my expectations and my attention span. Next to it television (which I do not watch) and tabloids (which I do read) seem like Milton. I find myself e-mailing; checking my e-mail; tweeting; checking my incoming tweets; getting the forecast from NOAA; reading three favorite websites (ours is one, Kathryn!); clicking through articles on Wikipedia; listening to Beatles songs; listening to old rock novelty songs; Googling my friends, current and former; Googling myself (yes, I do, sometimes to the nth page); then doing all the above again.

If I am dry, I go to the kitchen (I can emerge for brief forays) to grab a bottle of seltzer; if I am hungry or tired, I go to the kitchen to snap some squares off a chocolate bar. Sometimes I will take up an old friend of a book and reread a favorite passage: Henry Adams describing the Virgin in Majesty at Chartres, Holmes getting the truth about the blue carbuncle out of James Ryder, the Crocodile telling the Elephant’s child what he has for dinner. Then I go back online. We have an evening meal: My wife cooks, or we order in kabobs or California rolls, or we go to the restaurant where we go so often they bring our drinks unasked. This is our communion and our refueling. After, she goes back to work, and I to limbo.

The result of it all is that I have not just damaged my mind and my soul (my rereading apart) but I have damaged my body. Staring at a screen at night under a desk lamp gives me concrete traps and rebar neck. My fix was to go to the other bedroom, my wife’s office, and sit in her upholstered shrink’s chair. Since there is no PC or any other device in this room that I must read, I cannot throw my back out of whack.

From time to time my wife calls me in to hear the latest. I lie on the sofa, listening and offering occasional line edits. It is like hearing a serialized novel, books on tape without tape, Homer at home. When I write, I tell her about Abraham Lincoln and Aaron Burr; when she writes, she tells me about narcissists, and about a young woman who was once her. Reading is great, but it is also great to live with a writer.

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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