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Off The Shelf: Marry a banker? Why?

PoetryBanking

My husband, Evan, and I decided to get married during the summer of 1998, between the first and second years of our MFA program. At the time, I was working at a literary agency and had a chummy relationship with many of the clients. One by one, I began telling them -- with the earnest enthusiasm of a 26-year-old -- that I was engaged.

"Congratulations," they cheered. "That's so wonderful!" Until I got to the salty novelist who, in our phone conversations, had alternated between purist statements about art ("It's better to earn a living waiting tables than to rely on an advance. It corrupts the work") and bitter tirades about the state of contemporary publishing ("Editors don't really edit anymore").

"I'm getting married," I told him.

"Great," he said. "To whom?"

I explained that Evan was a fellow poet, and that I adored him. "A poet?" the writer asked. "You're marrying a poet? That's a huge mistake."

"Really?" I said, not sure if he was kidding.

"Of course," he shouted. "Two poets? Who's going to make the money? Who's going to put the food on the table?"

"Well --" I began, about to tell him that we were both employed.

"You marry a banker," he barked. "Then you can write, without worrying about money. You marry a poet, you're never going to write again."

This conversation, packaged as a tight anecdote, got me a lot of laughs over drinks. My friends were all would-be actors or filmmakers or painters or, of course, writers. The idea of marrying a banker was beyond comprehension. It was like something out of a Jay McInerney novel.

Within a year, however, the world changed, so that it rather resembled a Jay McInerney novel. Suddenly, it was cool to have money and to flaunt it. Our friends were, even more suddenly, finding jobs at dot-coms and start-ups, making previously unthinkable salaries. And there Evan and I were, living hand to mouth, writing poetry, which was starting to seem a foolish and even potentially embarrassing venture. New York was expensive and we had to work harder and harder simply to live. If we didn't exactly give up on poetry -- at least at first -- we found it more difficult to find the time to write it, ground down by the practicalities of daily life.

Around this time, perhaps two years into our marriage, we began to have The Argument: an ongoing battle about money, and who had more time to write. At any given moment, one of us was doing the bulk of the earning -- and working harder -- while the other was getting more writing done. That's how it seemed, anyway. But no matter what was going on, each of us thought the other was getting the better deal.

Over the years, The Argument has waxed and waned. There are months (years, even) when it vanishes completely, when we're both happily productive, furiously typing in our tiny offices at either side of the apartment, or when one is writing so well that the other becomes productive almost by osmosis.

But then something shifts -- anxiety about money -- and we lapse, again, into the familiar rhythms of The Argument. We seem unable to stop bickering, locked in a tussle for time -- or not just time, but relief from the drudgery of daily responsibility, from putting the kids to bed, paying the bills, putting dinner on the table.

It's at such times that I recall that long ago conversation. Marry a banker.

To be clear: I love Evan. I don't, for a second, wish I'd hitched myself to anyone else. But I have sometimes wondered -- particularly now that we have two children -- if having more money, and earning it in a way that has nothing to do with writing, wouldn't actually allow us more freedom as writers. Just like that curmudgeonly novelist told me all those years ago. And yet, whenever we're on the brink of making some huge practical change, I'm the one who pulls back, who says no. Why? Because I believe that what we do for money ultimately defines us, no matter how much we may resist.

Earlier this year, when our second child, Pearl, was just a few weeks old, I met a woman at our local coffee shop who was, like me, on the verge of publishing her first novel. As we parted, she asked what my husband did.

"He's a writer, too," I explained.

"Oh my God," she said. "Two writers in one house? How do you do it? I could never be married to a writer."

Before I could think better of it, I laughed and told her, "I can't imagine being married to anyone but a writer."

Just then, Evan walked in the door to take Pearl on a walk, so that I might finish an essay. I waved at him, feeling a strange, childish urge to tell this woman, this stranger, everything: all those nights that Evan patiently talked me through problems of plot and character; the week he started his novel, back when our son was an infant, and he couldn't sleep from excitement; the warm camaraderie of being in this project together, of having shared goals and dreams.

"You don't," I told her, "know what you're missing."

Neither do I, of course, but let's just say I'm OK with that.

Rakoff is the author of the novel "A Fortunate Age."

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