You are a writer. Imagine that in the next room is someone who has read a lot of your work, perhaps more than anyone else, and that although this person is not available 24 hours a day to read your new work, you never need wait more than a few hours for an opportunity to say, "Would you read this?" He or she, being a writer too, has come to you many times with this same request. Each of you knows that at worst a short wait will follow: the answer will always be "Yes."
My husband, Richard Levine, writes mostly prose; I write mostly poetry. I have absolutely no sense of competing with him. Our work is so different from each other's that the idea of competition seems as remote to me as the idea of competition with someone who practices a different art form, say music or painting. Yet, since we both work with words, we are able to respond critically to each other.
We are honest when we read each other's work: we don't automatically say the things ("Brilliant!" "Incredible!") that the other longs to hear. I am friends with many writers, and I often share unpublished work with them. There are only a few, however, who've ever ventured to say anything downright negative, such as "That image is a cliché" or "The ending of that poem is really unsatisfying." Every writer needs someone who will do this, and I am grateful whenever I hear it from my spouse instead of embarrassing myself by showing my pimply young poems to other friends.
Richard's feedback is the most detailed I get from anyone. He seems to consider each word in my poems as carefully as if he'd written them himself. He even comes up with alternative images for me. For example, in a poem I wrote about the war in Iraq, I had the lines "fear gathers like clouds/and saturates the earth—unwelcome rain." Richard, bless his directness, said, "That's a cliché." He didn't stop there, but went on to generate a list of alternative images, including "fear falls like feathers of birds/shot from the sky." This inspired me to work more on these lines, and eventually I came up with "fear rises and swirls like a dust storm/engulfing the streets." To get from the clouds to the dust storm, Richard and I considered 15 versions of these two lines—three of his and 12 of mine. Who but your spouse would put up with this? Afterward I asked him if it bothered him, when, after he'd put so much time into the poem, I didn't use one of his images. He said "No," that he understood my need to make it my own.
Both of us feel that giving feedback to the other is helpful to our own development as a writer, that the process gives us experience that enables us to look more critically at our own work. After all, both poets and prose writers use images, are concerned with voice, and need to get rid of unnecessary words. I have to admit, though, that responding to Richard's stories would be a lot less rewarding if he weren't such a good writer and I didn't enjoy his work so much.
If Richard is disgruntled for any reason when I give him a poem to read—e.g., if he's feeling frustrated with his own work or annoyed with me—he waits until later to read it. He says he's harsher when he's not in a good mood. I don't think his mood affects his ability to evaluate a poem, but it definitely has an impact on how he presents his criticism!
When we work on one of his stories or my poems, it's always clear whose piece of writing it is, and who will therefore have the last word. I'm not sure Richard and I could co-author something unless we were writing separate chapters of a book or separate sections of an article. We once spent an hour working on a single sentence for the guest book at a bed and breakfast inn: "It was lovely to stay in such a personal space, watched over by the mermaid—a magical eyrie." Richard preferred "the Motel 6 of our dreams" to "a magical eyrie." He finally threw up his hands and said, "I'm taking the suitcases to the car. Write whatever you want."
It would be dishonest to leave the impression that the bed-and-breakfast incident was the most serious disagreement Richard and I have ever had over writing. A worse one that stands out in my mind (and I am sure there are others in his) was the night I wanted to work on a poem when he felt that he needed my help because all he could get was snow on our new television set. I will leave the details of this one to your imagination. We survived it, we are still married, and he is still my best editor and my best friend.
In addition to discussing our own writing, we talk about poetry and fiction we've read, as well as theoretical issues such as deconstruction and reader-response criticism, and the aesthetics of schools of writing such as Language Poetry and New Formalism. We often revisit the question, "Is an interpretation of a story or poem valid if the author didn't have it in mind?" I would say "Yes"; Richard would say "No." There doesn't tend to be a winner or loser in these discussions; we just get clearer and clearer about what someone else thinks.
Our bookshelves hold many volumes by authors that one of us wouldn't have read if it weren't for the other. To name just a few, I wouldn't have read novels by Charles Baxter and Ann Patchett if Richard hadn't said "I think you'll like this," and he would probably have missed the poetry of Pattiann Rogers and Ruth Daigon if it weren't for my enthusiastic oral reviews. Every Friday evening before dinner, we light candles, say blessings over the bread and wine, and read a poem to celebrate the cycle of the week.
Lucille Lang Day's poetry collections are Infinities, Wild One, Fire in the Garden, and Self-Portrait with Hand Microscope, which was selected by Robert Pinsky for the Joseph Henry Jackson Award in Literature. She has also published three poetry chapbooks, most recently The Book of Answers (Finishing Line, 2006) and God of the Jellyfish (Cervena Barva, 2007). She is the founder and director of Scarlet Tanager Books (www.ScarletTanager.com), and the director of the Hall of Health, a museum in Berkeley.