Marrying Well For Writers and Improv Parenting Techniques

June 23, 2014

               The most common advice given to writers is “marry well.”  I don’t find that particularly helpful. I mean, I haven’t even managed to marry badly.  Anyway, I think that a writer setting out in cold blood to marry well is a little unfair and selfish, don’t you think? I hugely admire Leonard Woolf except when it comes to his choice of wife. Leonard got a terrible deal. Being married to Virginia Woolf must have been a total nightmare. He would have been much better off marrying someone a great deal less talented and a lot more laidback, hmm, maybe someone like me.  

               A few years ago I dated an artist from Arizona. He lived in a huge loft/studio in the East Village with what seemed like about a hundred other people. He was intense, gut-wrenchingly gorgeous and talented. I was wild about him . . . for about a month.  It wasn’t quite like I thought it was going to be.  It wasn’t that much fun. He mainly slept all day and talked about himself all night. He never displayed the slightest interest in painting me, nude or fully-dressed; although he drew about twenty, mediocre, charcoal sketches of my dog (he didn’t give me any of them). I mainly just functioned as his therapist slash ATM.  Obviously this was back in my lawyering days when I inserted my bank card and money came out.  He seemed incredibly surprised when I dumped him. Not upset, just surprised. I suppose I could have explained: “my name’s not Shana,” but if you have to clarify that, there’s never any point.

                Besides, it’s not necessary to marry well to be a writer -- not when you have relatives who can marry well for you. My sister married very well which is fantastic for me because I get to tag along for free on her luxurious holidays.  In theory I am supposed to be helping to mind her two little boys. That doesn’t always work out the way she planned. Take last year when we spent a glorious month in a villa in Tuscany.  Afterwards someone asked her how I did in looking after the kids. My sister hesitated: “Sheila was really good with the kids . . . on those extremely rare occasions when we could find her.”

               There are just so very many comfortable, shady, olive groves in Tuscany where you can find yourself lost with a book and a glass of rosé.

               This year, for some unknown reason, my sister did not choose to take me along with her husband and their fun, glamorous friends on their holiday.  Instead, I went with just her and the two boys on her pre-holiday to one of those resorts in Spain where you can only check in if you are accompanied by kids under the age of five. I’d heard of adult-only hotels but I never realized kids-only hotels existed.

               I got back last week feeling a little drained. But I spent a lot of time by the pool and on the beach observing modern families. It seems to be exactly the way it was when I was a kid except in reverse. I would LOVE to be a kid now. Basically, a lot of the parents seemed to function as servants and personal assistants. They spent all day, rushing back and forth, fetching fruit cups and drinks and ice-creams and toys and towels and sun-screen. Why do so many parents today think that their children will drop dead of starvation or dehydration if they are not snacking every five minutes? It is mystifying. When I was a kid, we had tuna sandwiches at the beach. I hated the way the mayo soaked through the white Wonder bread so I refused to eat them.  My parents didn’t remotely worry that I was going to die of starvation. They would, quite rightly, enjoy their time at the beach and then at the end of the day, pick me up at that big, yellow, triangular sign, the meeting point for all the thousands of lost kids.

               I am far too lazy to function as my nephews’ servant.  There I’d be lying on a sun lounger by the pool, reading yet another light history of the decline of the Roman Empire and just when I’d get to a very exciting part, I’d feel a small hand tugging at my bikini straps.

               ‘Angry Bird.”

               ‘Em, excuse me’ I’d say.

               ‘Angry Bird! I want my Angry Bird!’

               It took quite a while for me to figure this out.

               ‘Em, are you taking about that little rubber you got last night in your Angry Bird Kindle Egg thing?’


               ‘But what do you want that for?  You’re three. You can’t write. You have nothing you need to erase. A little rubber with an angry bird picture on it isn’t going to be much use down here by the pool.’


               Now other people by the pool are looking at us. It’s embarrassing. I think that’s a parental occupational hazard. But I have absolutely no intention of hiking all the way back up to the hotel room and crawling around on my hands and knees to try and retrieve some stupid little rubber worth five cents that cost a Euro. That’s where the improvisation comes in.

               ‘I would love to go to the room and get your Angry Bird but I can’t. You see, I am pinned down by a giant, hairy, invisible spider and if I move off this chair, he told me that he will bite my head off. And since I quite like my head where it is, I’m afraid I can’t assist you on this occasion.’

               My nephew looked confused.

               ‘I don’t see any giant spider.’

               ‘Right, of course you don’t. I told you. It’s invisible. I hope it doesn’t try to capture you too.’

               A look of apprehension.

               ‘I got it. This spider is TERRIFIED of water.  Look, don’t worry about me. Save yourself!  Why don’t you go back to playing in the kiddies’ pool and the spider won’t be able to get you.’

               My nephew didn’t look convinced but he wasn’t taking any chances. He toddled back to the pool and I picked up my book.

               Once I’d hit upon the improv technique, I found that it could be used ALL THE TIME.  Kids are amazing. You can feed them any line whatsoever and they will take it and run with it for hours. They are better than many professional comedians I’ve seen down at the UCB. However, there is a slight drawback.  My brother-in-law picked us up at the airport in Munich. He noticed one of his sons twisting crazily like a pretzel, putting his hand around his back.

               ‘What are you doing?’ he asked.

               ‘I’m seeing if my third arm has started to grow yet,’ my nephew explained, ‘so I can pick things up from behind.  Tante Sheila had a third arm when she was my age until a door slammed on it and it snapped off.’

               I concentrated on looking innocent.  There are a lot of shrinks out there messing with people’s heads and charging a lot of money for that privilege. My services are free and I feel that they are bound to help with developing imagination.

               I am hugely grateful to my sister and my brother-in-law for all that they do for me. They are both so incredibly generous that they remind me of more interesting and smarter versions of Jane Bennet and Mr Bingley. Becoming a professional writer can be a bit daunting. I gave up some quite useful things that I took for granted, like, having an address, and having a health insurance policy that consisted of something a little more substantial than looking both ways very carefully when I cross the street.  But thanks to my sister, I still get holidays and lots of her barely-worn beautiful clothes. I do not have to trawl the internet trying to locate a man who wants to marry someone whose chief talent is naming capitals of obscure countries.  Although btw, if that is you, get in touch. I’m also pretty good at ice-sculpting. 

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