Brendan Jones is currently a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. His novel, The Alaskan Laundry, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in Spring 2016.
So yeah – what’s up with no guys responding to Ann Bauer’s Salon article “Sponsored By My Husband”? Laura Brogan in Dame Magazine argues about the importance of commitment to the craft, Allison Williams and Kelly Sundberg in Brevity on the pros and cons of supporting oneself. But where’s ol’ Chad Harbach when you need him? Ben Percy? Too busy on a man-weekend? Why no high-test males chiming in on how nice it is to have a “very loving [partner] who shows up at the end of the day, asks me how the writing went, pours me a glass of wine, then takes me out to eat.” Foot rubs and salted baths and all the rest of it.
The idea of being a kept man rubs a guy funny, and not in the good way. We pretend to be good postmodern dudes, striding around in our skinny jeans and v-neck t-shirts, feminist-leaning, using all the right words in the presence of the opposite sex. But when it comes to the “crass” subject of money, this idea of being supported by a woman makes us flinch. I mean, I doubt Hemingway ever bragged to Dos Passos over how Hadley bought him his first Corona typewriter (true).
So I’ve got a couple things to say about guys and sponsorship, and then I’ll tell you why I think Bauer’s article sucks.
I’ve always had jobs other than writing, from age 12 on, leaving school at 19 to work in Alaska’s commercial fisheries. But one balmy evening in April 2013, while having a beer in the Great North, I got a telephone call from a Palo Alto area code. A woman with a gentle Irish brogue told me I had been awarded a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford. And, like that, friends, I had my introduction to what it felt like being a kept man. And let me tell you, it’s really nice. There are trade-offs – even as I sit here now in Oakland in my Stegner-sponsored apartment, tapping away on my Stegner-sponsored computer, I feel useless, lazy, a particular anxiety of not doing anything.
The fellowship will only last another few months. At which point I will return to Alaska to have my first child with my partner, who is a lawyer on the small island where we live. We will be married in December.
Over the course of the engagement I’ve caught friendly flack from writer friends for “marrying well.” Money is not something I’ll have to “worry” about. This all came to a head the other night out at dinner. As I passed the salt to my stepfather he said: “So do you think you’ll be a stay-at-home father?”
My hand stopped midair. You kidding me?
But it was a reasonable question. My wife’s earning potential is greater than mine. Yes I have a book coming out with a great publisher. But why not just stay at home with the wee one and write your next “heady little book,” as Bauer calls it, while your wife makes the serious money? This is how I took the question.
I clacked the salt down in front of him. “No.”
On the way home, vrooming through the dark Oakland streets, I thought about the Bauer article, which Suzanne had recently sent me.
Listen – at the end of the day, there’s no doubt Bauer is right. In the first couple months of the fellowship I watched my troubles deliquescing in Stanford’s hot sun of money with a shit-eating grin; having three thousand dollars show up in your bank account at the end of each month really isn’t so bad. But I have no intention of bringing this dynamic into my marriage. Even if my wife respects what I’m doing, as she certainly does, I’m not going to be spending every workday at home, changing diapers with one hand and writing my little books with the other, giving the manuscript a good wipe-down for poop and spittle before sending it off to my editor. I’ll be changing roughly half the diapers, and I know my fiancée expects to do the same.
So there’s the rage at his suggestion that I be sponsored by my wife, at least the obvious edge of it, dry powder set off when traditionally-minded folks like my stepfather, with nine to five jobs imply writing isn’t real work.
But what’s more interesting to me is how this breaks on gender lines. Perhaps I was feeling an inverse of the annoyance women experience when people ask if they regret committing themselves to their careers instead of having children. It doesn’t seem like that much of a stretch. I know that “stay-at-home father” seemed, especially in the words of my stepfather, whom I deeply admire, a euphemism for “deadbeat.” After twelve years of making a living with my hands in Alaska, it was insulting. I certainly mean no disrespect to the hard-working men doing it all over the world. It just – wasn’t my vision for myself.
And this gets to why I think Bauer’s article sucks. A marriage, it seems to me, is a project of shared vision. Two people stepping forward, looking at one another, and saying Yes. What interests me in reading the article – and also, much more importantly, as I prepare to go through life with a partner – is how these visions, these passions are negotiated. My fiancée, for example, is passionate about small-town law and public interest. I am passionate about writing. How can the two of us, both reasonably intelligent, hard-working individuals, manage our partnership in a way that doesn’t occlude one passion for the other?
Here’s the thing: I don’t recall any mention in the Salon article of whether Bauer’s husband enjoys this job which pays all the bills, pays for him to travel the 500+ miles for her readings. In fact, there’s hardly a chin-nod in the direction of the poor guy. I mean, did he dream of riding bulls in the rodeo? Restoring antique furniture? Who the hell knows? She certainly doesn’t seem to.
Don’t get me wrong. As a kept man of Stanford I recognize the sense of ahhhh, finally I've reached writing paradise. I’m supported and suddenly I’m overflowing with a writer’s central currency – time. But Stanford is a business. When you join this other person, standing across from you, who lives, breathes, and desires (it seems here we’ve lost track of whether this is a man or woman, and that’s just fine) isn’t there a built-in obligation to ask how can we both be the best sponsor for each another? At no point in her essay does Bauer articulate her husband’s own vision for himself. Perhaps he’s perfectly content in whatever high-paying job he has. But I gotta say I don’t trust the article (and frankly, her marriage) and here’s why: because she doesn’t take the moment to say, oh, by the way, he’s happy too. That, in my own way, I’m sponsoring him – perhaps not with money, but in some other manner we’ve figured out for ourselves.
Because it’s always going to be a shared vision. Man, woman – it don’t matter. It’s always going to be a joint project.