My wife has been home for the last six years with the kids, and I have been the breadwinner. I am an assistant professor at a school that actually pays pretty well, so Cara and I decided that we’d both be fine if she took care of the boys for a while. This changed last week, when she started working part-time as an assistant to an art therapist and re-enrolled in graduate school.
I am happy that Cara is back in school, and pleased that she has found part-time work she likes even though it pays very little—about the same as the cost of our younger one’s day care. (Except for the fact that she could be making more money, in the short term, if she worked full-time right now, grad school is not really an economic issue, for various reasons: low tuition because she is at my school, some help from her folks, and a small university stipend.) But I am troubled and, although I haven’t yet spoken to her about it, a bit angry that, without consulting me, Cara decided to put all her art-therapy earnings in a separate bank account. The account where my salary gets deposited is a joint account, and has been since before we were married. So is our small savings account, all of which is either money from my earnings or sale proceeds from a house I used to own before we moved in together. She is the beneficiary on my 401(k) and insurance.
I just don’t see why the money I earn is our money, and the money she earns is her money. What do you think?
—Dubious in Durham
I think that, in general, a married couple should either combine all their current income and assets, or else agree on some equitable way to own or handle some of the money separately. On the face of it, your situation does not sound equitable, since your income, but not hers, is going into the family pool.
Nevertheless, I can understand why Cara may want the sense of independence she gets from this small separate account. For the past six years Cara has not been earning any money. No matter how accommodating and egalitarian you have been about the family finances, she may have felt dependent and disempowered. And no matter how enlightened you both are, or say you are, about the value of her unpaid work at home, she may have internalized society’s emphasis on the value of earned income. For these reasons, she may not have seen your income as really being hers, and longed for money “of her own,” to spend as she pleased without having to explain or apologize to you, or even to herself.
You may reasonably reply to all this that, for at least six years, you have not had any money of your own, either, since the account was joint; and that is not as if you were drawing on it to buy yourself gold cufflinks and fancy guitars during that time. This is a totally reasonable point of view. But, again, Cara may not see things that way. If she is like many stay-at-home moms I’ve known, some part of her may have viewed the family money, or at least the checking account, as your money, from which she was allowed to draw on as needed but about which you had some sort of societal-given right to have the last word if it ever came to that. Even if you did nothing at all to encourage this view, I can understand why Cara may have held it, at least to some degree. Even now, the culture abounds with jokes about women who run up credit-card bills for designer shoes with “my money,” or about its being “our money: I make it, she spends it.”
Cara’s starting her own account may thus be a way of claiming money nobody can question her for spending. It may also have a related, but in some ways opposite, basis: some couples, especially when the wife makes much less money than the husband, think of the wife’s wages basically as “pin money,” not unlike the allowance wives used to be given to use for their own personal, and some household, needs. Viewed in this way, Cara’s separate account is really just a slightly more private and pleasant way to buy what she has always bought, for herself and her household sphere—hardly empowering, though, since the underlying assumption is that we are still not talking about real money here, just women’s money.
Of course, I can’t be sure what is motivating Cara, since you haven’t even spoken to her about the matter. This separate account may be no big deal to her, perhaps even some routine direct-deposit into the art therapy office’s customary bank. On the other hand, for all I know, Cara may be acting out of pure selfishness, or hiding some illicit activity, or taking the first step in a long-term escape plan. But a good working assumption is that she’s just trying to get a little extra enjoyment out of her new, if modest, sense of financial independence, or had some other benign reason for setting up the account. If that is also your assumption, here’s what I suggest. Go over the family finances with her one night, but as a whole, not just focusing on this one account. Discuss day-care costs. (Are they a new expense? Can they be easily absorbed by your current salary?) Discuss what other spending you both think will be necessary this year, and what discretionary spending you would each enjoy. Ask what she sees as the main purpose of her separate account. Perhaps she wants to establish independent credit, or to buy you gifts in secret at holidays, or to keep certain matters like graduate school costs separate for her own budgeting purposes.
Then decide together how to handle the separate and joint accounts. If you as a couple really do have almost no discretionary income right now, and if you handle all the bookkeeping, you may both come to agree that it makes sense for Cara to close her separate account. But a better solution, even if you are almost broke, may be for her to keep the account but pay some fixed family expenses out of it every month. Or, especially if money is not all that tight, the best solution may be for her to keep that account and use it as she pleases, and for you to start a separate account of your own where you deposit some small percentage of your pay—your own empowerment, or your own pin money. Maybe it’s time to start saving for that custom Strat.
I graduated from law school several years ago. Since then I have worked at a mid-size firm where the pay is good if not great, the work is okay if not deeply meaningful, and the number of hours I have to bill is not totally crazy. I have managed to pay off my student debt, save some money, do some pro bono work, and even find two or three hours a day (and six on Sunday!) to write fiction, which is what I love. I wish I could just chuck the law job, but that probably will never happen, especially since it looks as though my partner and I will be settling down soon to a life of kids, dogs, mortgage, commuting, etc. But that’s all okay. I think I can live quite happily and gratefully with a very-part-time writing life…as long as my day job doesn’t totally sap whatever ability I thought I had to write effective non-legal prose.
This is my problem. By day I draft contracts and parse legislation. It’s all about precision and analysis and thoroughness. It is very much not about elegance, vividness, or narrative flow. I will work all day writing some agreement or reading some statute that refers endlessly to its own subparagraphs and never uses five memorable words if 5000 deadly ones will ensure against some highly unlikely ambiguity. Then I will hurry home to my cozy den and try to continue my novel or story, but it is getting so I can’t type a simple declarative sentence without adding all sorts of terms, conditions, and clarifications. My stories just get longer and longer. My novel died at 980 pages. And I find that I can write for many paragraphs without ever mentioning a physical detail: no sights, colors, places or sounds, just abstractions and conjectures and the most wooden of descriptions. My characters all sound like John Does. I feel the need to explain everything. What can I do?
—Flailing in Flatbush
I have heard fiction writers say—in fact, I once heard myself say—that a day job totally unrelated to writing might be easier on their creative process than the day job they do have, as lawyers or medical writers or grant officers or even copy editors. At the end of the workday, a job like that can leave you weary of words and impatient around them, to say nothing of bleary-eyed and achy in the back and wrist.
And it is true that the way we speak and write, or the skills we learn, during the rest of our waking hours can seep into our fiction. This need not always be a bad thing, though: grant officers and litigators often become aces at storytelling, and copy editors can save themselves lots of time by crafting polished early drafts with much less effort than the rest of us.
But I have to admit that legislative analysis and drafting contracts call on skills, and create habits, that might sometimes conflict with writing fiction. I have faced this problem myself—although, thankfully, not recently. One of the worst problems I had when making the switch from legal work to fiction writing was one many new writers, whether lawyers or not, also face: stemming the urge to tell what feels like a more complete story by letting the reader in on everything you “know” about your characters and plots. You include the kitchen sink because your character happened to pass by it. Then you tell us about a mosquito bite on her ankle because it was there, and you’d thought of a cool way to describe it. You explain why she was curt with her grandfather just in case some inattentive reader might not be able to guess, or even wonder, about this; and, of course, you include several disquisitions on intergenerational love because, well, that’s one of your book’s most important themes.
One way to control the urge to over-include or over-explain is to pause every so often, especially when you find yourself spending lots of time or words on something totally unanticipated, and ask yourself how the current passages are likely to advance your creative purposes. There are plenty of convincing justifications here, including that you have happened upon a description or insight that strikes you as so glorious you just have to include it, to delight or edify your reader. But you may find that what you are writing does nothing to enhance your piece, and turns out to be an example of adding “terms and conditions,” as you put it, to writing that has already done all it needs to. In that case, move on.
I find, though, that when the problem really is too much writing, rather than lifeless or unoriginal writing, it often makes more sense just to plow through and prune later instead of stopping to second-guess yourself every half hour. Most attorneys are skilled revisers, and this is an area where your analytical chops, and a little lawyerly ruthlessness, may come in handy. Revision is hard but, even so, it is almost always better to create a first draft you end up cutting in half than to realize that you’ve actually only written half a draft…or, even worse, that you’ve second-guessed yourself into timid, tentative writing the first time around.
You write, though, that you also have problems with style and characterization, and that your creative prose just does not work. If your day job really is a major culprit here, I suggest that you always end your day-job writing, and start your creative-writing, by reading works that may serve as an antidote to the former and an inspiration for the latter. Try the King James Bible for gorgeous prose. Read Jane Austen, aloud if possible, for irony and dramatic dialogue. Check out the great hard-boiled detectives for plotting and audacious metaphors. Read William Trevor and Alice Munro for what they include, and what they omit, in their perfect stories. Read poetry to make your prose more musical and allusive, more rich in connotation. Of course, the choices should be yours, not mine.
I suspect that some of your problems may derive not so much from your law job as such, but from trying to go it alone as a writer with relatively little time and, perhaps, little advanced craft training, insufficient sleep, and no writing community. Have you considered a coach or a workshop? Do you have writing buddies? Could you go on a retreat or summer workshop, or even enroll in a non-residency degree program?
Whether or not you work with others, I suggest that you look over your recent writing and try revising it based on the self-critique in your letter. What would enliven your characters? Have you written character analyses or backstories for them? Can you come up with details that reveal their stories in relevant ways, and insert the details seamlessly? Can you look over your dialogue and break it up with short descriptions or narrations? Can you go through a story or long scene, delete everything that seems in any way like a “term and condition,” and see what has been gained or lost? Can you rewrite a story in the first person, as told by one of your currently John Doe-like characters? Can you shorten your abstract passages? (By the way, there is nothing inherently wrong with long abstract passages, or even with an outsize novel. Neither of these may be the height of current literary fashion, but they have their merits. You may have a gift for philosophical, or sweeping socio-historical, fiction, or for some kind of fiction that has not occurred to either of us. And you may need to respect your gifts if you are to continue loving creative writing the way you do now. Just a thought.)
Art is long. You may just not have realized yet how hard it is, and how much time it takes, to write good, original fiction. I am impressed by how disciplined you are in setting aside time for creative writing. Now what you have to do is be (or remain) courageous, patient, and equally disciplined in how you use it. I hope and trust that a verbally skilled, self-aware, dedicated writer like you will find your way, no matter what terms and conditions the law may impose.
Cleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at [email protected]. Find more columns by June in her attic.
Image credit: Good Free Photos on Unsplash