When Creatives Become Couples

The math gets complicated

Author Todd Alley and his musician wife, Ames Asbell
Author Todd Alley and his musician wife, Ames Asbell
December 13, 2018
Todd Alley

Any committed, loving relationship faces inevitable day-to-day cycles of emotional ups and downs. When studied from the macro, these cycles comprise a years-long sine wave of euphoria and mundanity, intimacy and distance, triumph and trial. Thus has been the ebb and flow of every couple working to stay a couple since The Couple was first created (by a Mesopotamian startup with Series-A funding).

So what happens when the relationship consists of two work-at-home creative professionals passionate about their craft? Well buckle up, because the wave form gets far wavier. I should know—I’m a freelance writer and producer, my wife a classical musician. Over the course of our courtship and marriage, we’ve experienced a series up upward waves swooping to higher, thin-oxygen summits, and plunging into melancholy chasms—often within in a single day.

Make no mistake, the high points of our creative habitat are ethereal indeed. There are golden mornings when I hear her viola whispering strains of Puccini, and it feels like I’m living in a coffee commercial, as my words effortlessly pour out on the page with my every smug sip of Nicaraguan fair trade.

And there are the other days, when the fog of creative constipation engulfs the house. I labor at a script re-write with a series of frustrated grunts and gasps, a crisis deadline barking at me with every keystroke. She’s faring no better, fitfully practicing a piece for her experimental string trio, Krampf. Between sighs, she stabs her bow at the strings—in sync with a beeping metronome—PracticingTheSame, PracticingTheSame, PracticingTheSame piercing, atonal musical phrase over and over. I am certain an aneurysm is imminent, and I welcome the sweet release it would bring. Cause of Death: Extreme deadline pressure and D minor fugue to the frontal lobe. Yes, I could don military-grade headphones, or pack up and do my writing elsewhere. But to tune out (or flee!) creativity in our household would make me a disrespectful partner, and be majorly bad karma. (Creative types are nothing if not superstitious.) And who knows, maybe my work would benefit from absorbing her dogged creative determination—no matter how tone-deaf it sounds. Rule #1 of living the creative life: Embrace the creative process. Always.

Speaking of which: When a major creative challenge is about to storm into the household, it’s critical to know the warning signs—like the barometric pressure drop before a hurricane, or flight attendants strapping themselves in before turbulence. When there’s an impending writing deadline, major speech or presentation, concept to be developed, rehearsal or performance making one of us a borderline sociopath, the other will invariably pick up on our partner’s subtle cues and evaluate ways to be supportive. The need for space, affection, cocktails, inspiration, a little quiet, a welcome distraction—utilize every tool in the compassion toolbox. When I see that thousand-mile stare of creative panic in my wife’s eyes, my go-to solution is saying, “Honey, I’m running to the grocery store for…a week.” I return with wine, flowers, gossip magazines, bath bomb,
cigarettes, and dark chocolate (much of which I share with her!), then simply follow her lead on how I can best help her though the process. Rule #2: Creative work is hard and lonely. Help creative folks bring ideas into the world any way you can.

Anyone earning a paycheck faces work-related pressures. But creative folks deal with uniquely different pressures, because uniquely different ideas are what we’re expected to create. Again and again. And more often than not, these pressures are self applied. The drive to be different, to do the never-before done, can take a psychological toll. Will my idea be laughed at, or worse yet, ignored? Is it different enough, inspired enough, or am I settling for average? Creative types carry these thoughts to work each day like a sack lunch. But the compulsion to defy boundaries and dream up something truly different isn’t limited to a creative person’s professional life—it also colors our mundane personal moments. My wife and I have asked ourselves everything from “Is our wedding invitation too normal? Is our home nurturing enough creatively? Is our kid’s worldview (and his Lego creations) too mainstream? Was our vacation too generic?” This sort of mania leads to the clinical over-analysis of ideas—which is NOT creative thinking. And forced creativity isn’t creativity at all. Rule #3: Don’t make creativity about you. Keep it organic and let go of your ego.

My wife and I adopted the rules above after many struggles, breakthroughs, and cans of beer. We can attest to their calming and uplifting effects on our work, and our relationship. So take heart. Two creative types under one roof can thrive amid high highs and low lows. All it takes is a little creativity.

creative process

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