A look into how you can be happily married and still be creative.
That morning I had read John Kenney’s depressing piece in the New Yorker called “Valentine’s Day Poems for Married People.” When the title popped into my Facebook feed I couldn’t help but click. It was Valentine’s Day, and I was married. I expected the poems to do for me what poetry does—to tell my heart a truth it already knew but couldn’t express by itself.
I read a lot in one day. But those poems didn’t shake off me like the typical screen-surfing fare I scan and forget. The people in the poems had tasted marriage but digested it badly. Their love was like the padlocks on the Parisian bridge—weighing it down. They go to bed with the lights off, unable to stomach the inevitability of their own saggy underpants, dream of people they would rather be with, and awaken not so much with each other as with each other’s bad breath. I sat stunned as I read. The unmetered series of passive-aggressive barbs at married life—meant, I think, to be funny—made me feel sick. A shadow fell over my heart. Is this the truth? Once the explosive angst and cupidity of early love dies away, is marriage actually a joke?
Mercifully—and not mercifully—the poems ended:
The guys and I had one . . . fine, three drinks after work.
I have forgotten the milk.
And the bread and the pasta and the pull-ups.
And the allergy medicine at CVS.
Why are you dressed up?
Wait. Today is Valentine’s Day?
Is that all there is to marriage?
I am still thinking about the poems that night. My husband is playing the guitar in the living room, learning by ear “City of Stars” from this year’s awards darling, La La Land. He adopts the posture I used to sketch him in when we were dating: elbow slung over the honey-blonde instrument, the cogs and wheels behind his face working. The baby is fast asleep upstairs, the company gone home, the floor swept. I sink into a chair.
He asks me, “Any requests?”
It’s Valentines Day, so I say, “Play me that song you used to play me.”
He played and wrote many songs for me back then, when our love was starting. But he knows the one I mean.
He begins to play, fishing for the words, finding a few phrases, freezing above the strings. “I don’t remember the rest. I’m sorry.”
Jonathan and I have been married for almost three years. We like each other better than best friends. We fight hard to work with instead of against each other. We feel like we are beginning to crest the learning curve of living together as two creatives. We bounce outrageous ideas off each other without bashfulness. At times we perform the hardest sacrifice—lending each other time to practice our art in solitude. (“I’ll take the baby, you go get coffee and write.”) We are happy—happier perhaps than anyone we know. One thousand times happier than the misanthropes pictured in the poems. And yet—it feels outrageous to admit—the thing we miss most about being single (and the early days of love, before marriage) is the angst. The angst gave us so much to write poems and songs about. Our angst and then our early love knocked our artistic sensitivity up to 120 percent. It is hard not to sigh about this. We were ourselves back then. Art sprang from us almost without effort.
Cynicism, at least in the case of the Valentine’s poems, does not make good art. It just makes an arrow for the heart of the reader. But angst makes a sublime subject for art. You know that if you saw La La Land. You can’t forget the ambivalence warring in Emma Stone’s virtuosic expressions while the could’ve-beens of her life flash before her eyes. La La Land’s angst does what art does: tell a truth our hearts already know but can’t say without help. Its truth is the same angsty one Robert Frost gifted to us long ago in our high school English classes. (You remember “The Road Not Taken”: “knowing how way leads onto way, I doubted if I should ever come back.”)
How to be creative, even after the angst wears off?
But what artistic motive remains for happily married creatives? We are no longer angsty and refuse to crust into cynicism. I loved La La Land. But it did make me wonder this: Could a movie of this caliber be made about creatives who are right for each other, happily married? Not about them finding each other, but about them after they are married? Isn’t the true adventure of this world life with the right people? If it is, can we make art out of it?
I would like to find a third way for the artist, the way between angst and cynicism. I would like to find a way you can take when you are at rest in the common days of life, happily building a home with the right person.
Perhaps the creative but happily married person, even one with saggy underpants, can take a cue from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130.” His “mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.” Her cheek’s aren’t rosy. Her voice doesn’t sound like music. “Black wires” grow on her head. She even has bad breath like the spouse in “Love Poems for Married People.” But the poem’s speaker has too much kind strength to descend into cynicism: “And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare/ As any she belied with false compare.”
We could use more poems like that one. We could also use more artworks about actual love—the persevering friendship kind. With such needs, I refuse to believe I am too happy and too settled to keep making art.
I don’t think my husband will stop his art either, even though it does not always come as easily as it once did. He is the kind of person who can never let a creative puzzle rest. Because of that, he continues above his guitar, stopping and restarting the rusted old song. I supply the missing words. Then he remembers the ones I have forgotten. We hobble through the song that way, helping each other along. At the song’s end we congratulate ourselves. We did it. We remembered the rest.
Since earning her literature degree from Patrick Henry College, Chelsea Boes has been writing and editing WorldKids, a news magazine for kids aged 7 to 10. Chelsea has published poetry and many essays and lives in Central PA, where she spends her days writing about lava and dinosaurs and laughing with her kind, brainy husband and baby daughter Bravery Grace.