The first e-mail I ever got from my husband included an attachment: an essay he’d written on The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. We’d just met over dinner in the dining hall, and somehow the conversation had turned to this thing he’d written for a literature class class (of which he was clearly very proud, mainly because he’d managed to make a big joke out of the assignment while still demonstrating that he could write with intention and precision). I’d smiled and nodded (dude was bragging about his English paper) and quite possibly said something along the lines of “mmhm, I’d like to read that,” not thinking that he’d take me at my word. The e-mail arrived minutes after I’d returned to my room. Subject: “I hope you’re impressed.” Body text: “With the essay.” File attached.
Not quite five years later, reader, I married him (that line was his idea, and it was better than what I had there originally). Was it the essay? Not all by itself, but let me put it this way: it wasn’t not the essay.
Fourteen years, a child, and a mortgage later, he has a blog (not unlike this one) to which he sends me a link every time he posts something new. I’m clearly not positioned to be an objective critic of his work, but I hear that others agree he’s a really good writer. I’m stumbling as I try to describe it, because I honestly think it’s better than mine. It’s intellectually curious, it’s aware of its white-male-ness in a way that doesn’t feel overstated or angling for a pat on the back, and it conveys what he means to say with an exactness that I…wish I could approach in my own writing. Yes, of course, this is going to come back to a comparison between him and me - after all, my years as an academic trying to be as smart and unassailable as possible and always falling short have ensured that virtually all good criticism is on some level triggering for me. And in the case of my husband, it’s even more acute because I know that he is doing this purely for enjoyment, that he has a demanding job and a young child, and that on top of it all he takes an equitable share of the household duties!
I’m still better at roasting red cabbage than Tristan is. But really, does he have to be so good at this?
I read his writing and at times, I struggle not to be bothered by how self-assured it feels, how decisive and confident, especially as my own writing so often loses the battle to fit itself into my ever-expanding work schedule. It’s been a couple of weeks since his blog went live, and I have observed the comings and goings of these feelings towards it: pride and appreciation on the one hand, and jealousy and insecurity on the other. Why does he have to be so effective at this thing that I work so hard at (often without feeling like my results are nearly as good), and why does he have to be good at it so casually, joyfully, and in his spare time? A rhetorical question, on one level, and yet at the heart of it lies the truth of why we are a good match, now as ever. Our marriage began with the gift of three seasons of the TV show Mad Men, which was at the time nearing halfway through its run. Having previously thought ourselves too intellectual for television, we were swiftly converted into prestige TV snobs, devouring season after season of the critically-acclaimed shows of the era and also reading episode-by-episode reviews of each one. Cultural criticism became our shared vernacular, and What To Think About Art (yes, that is the name of his blog, and it’s a damn good name) has defined itself as the question we most love to explore together. Sometimes in a sort of playful banter, sometimes in emotionally territorial arguments that ended in tears. These are the ones that are not really about the art, though we don’t always realize it right away; what starts as a conversation about whether to continue watching Big Little Lies together can rapidly become “HAVE YOU NO RESPECT FOR ME OR WHAT I STAND FOR?”
Judging art is a subjective, personal, vulnerable pursuit, in part because art can give rise to feelings that are as inconvenient or unattractive as they are undeniable. Good judgment and good criticism come from, first and foremost, good listening and good reading, combined with receptivity, both to one’s own reactions and to the reactions of others. I think this is fundamentally what makes Tristan’s blog so good. With all the confidence that suffuses his writing, there is also introspection and a desire for meaningful discourse. And I know that that desire is genuine because of the alacrity with which he sends me the link, every time. I am reminded how I felt upon realizing in 2005 that he actually wanted me to read his English paper, react to it, admire it. I guess you could say I was impressed. With the essay, yes, but also with the fact that he saw me as a reader, an interlocutor, someone whose admiration he wanted to earn. I don’t think anyone had ever sought my approval so directly - seeking the validation of others had always been my thing, a habit I tended even as I pretended not to notice how I let it define me.
All of this is uncomfortable to write about, in part because my feelings about my own writing and about other writing that I admire are so deeply tied to my relationship to my own ambition, past and present. I spent all my grad school years admiring the critical analysis of others and trying to emulate it, desperately wishing for the approval of all the men whose job it was to decide whether I’d be one of the chosen ones or not. I tried on various shades of imperviousness to their opinions - I was going to write what I wanted to write, damn it - but in a very real and material sense, their approval meant everything. I’m still outgrowing my need for that specific brand of male validation, my bowing and scraping at the feet of their style and their standards (it’s no wonder I was such a poker-playing cool girl in college). I find myself feeling deeply conflicted, in other words, about my admiration of my husband’s writing and my wish on some level to be more like him as a writer. Will I ever read him without comparing myself to him? Will I ever read Emily Nussbaum, Lili Loofbourow, Emily VanDerWerff, Daniel Ortberg, all my current favorite writers, without pangs of self-loathing interspersed with wishes that I could write like they do? Who am I to aspire to their level, to ever think for even a minute that I could?
That is the audacity that in my husband’s writing is an afterthought; the belief that what he has to say is worth saying, and that he should be the one to say it. The clout is what I envy, the seeming freedom from the mire of am I allowed to want this? and the morass of what if this really sucks? And yet knowing him the way I do, I know that of course he wonders whether it really sucks - of course he wrestles with whether this is something that’s okay for him to do. He sends me the link first every time because he trusts me to tell him if it isn’t, perhaps knowing that my relative caution is as necessary to him as his assuredness is to me. When we were first dating, we were both taking piano lessons from the same teacher, and she liked to schedule us back to back so she could “accidentally” let my lesson run five minutes over and then “whoopsie, Tristan since you’re here, let’s have you two try a duet!” As soon as I heard the first discordant note, my hands would involuntarily as Tristan soldiered on, now several bars ahead of me. The teacher would scold me: “Sarah, why did you stop? You didn’t even play the wrong note, he did!” That was really us in a nutshell - me laser-focused in my fear of touching the wrong key, him cheerfully playing right past the mistakes, keeping time perfectly. It’s no wonder he was always the fun one. And yet here we are: I have been writing publicly for almost a year, sometimes as fearfully as I used to play those piano duets, but writing and posting and even tweeting. My husband didn’t admit but rather avowed that his own blog was born of the inspiration this gave him. And as he notes in this essay (which I think is his best so far), he has learned a bit of caution, himself, over the years. I think of both of these blogs as artifacts that I hope our daughter reads someday, in the event she ever gets curious about our inner lives. Maybe she will remember a mother whose great struggle in life was the overcoming of her need for male approval, and whose great triumph was the naming of her own ambition.