The Family as Inattentive Audience

February 7, 2018 § 22 Comments

z KristenPaulson-NguyenAuthorPhotoBy Kristen Paulson-Nguyen

I’ve written a new essay, and I’m eager to share it. After we’ve eaten the dinner I rushed to prepare in between writing and participating in a Skype call with other writers — and thus screwed up, missing that the whole wheat orecchiette was supposed to be cooked in the chicken broth — I open up my laptop. “Want to hear the essay I wrote about me and my brother Rick today?”

My husband’s head is down; he’s looking at his phone. Our eight-year-old daughter dances next to her chair, eager for dessert. “It’s short,” I say. “Sure,” he says, not looking up. I begin to read, and for five seconds, my family pays attention. Then my daughter darts over to whisper something in her dad’s ear. He nods. I pause. “Are you guys listening?” My husband looks up from his phone.

A few years ago he bought me a copy of Poets & Writers magazine at Brookline Booksmith. As I flipped through it, ogling the far-flung retreats listed in the back matter, he shook his head. “I shouldn’t have done that,” he said, in both a resigned and fond way. “It’s all over now.” I saw then that he fears losing me. He’s afraid that a torrent of words will sweep me away from our marriage.

Maybe that’s why when I begin reading again he interrupts me with a question. I pause for the second time. I wonder: would a writer-husband be more attentive than my pharmacist-DJ husband, or less? I try an appeal to his creative side. “It’s not the same thing at all really, but think about this. What if you were DJing a song, and I shut off the music in the middle of it to ask you a question? How would you feel?” No response. “Can you please just listen for two more paragraphs? I’m getting to the point here.”

Maybe the essay should have gotten to the point sooner. This is the value of an audience, even an inattentive one — our daughter has disappeared into the living room to play. I finish reading. “What do you think?” I ask my husband. “Did you show it to your brother?” he asks. “No.” “Oh.” We sit. “Well,” I tell him. “Aren’t you glad that I didn’t write about you today?” We laugh uneasily.

I’ve been working on a book-length project about our marriage that requires me to enter and exit both the living partnership and the story about it. I do so clumsily. The transitions feel like stumbling through a revolving door. Despite my husband’s trepidation about losing me to exotic retreats, and about his presence in my memoir in progress, I recall a moment a few months ago when he indirectly showed his support of my work. He used a windfall to pay off our mortgage. His generosity is an extravagant gift. Perhaps he’s listening after all.

Kristen Paulson-Nguyen is the 2017 Writers’ Room of Boston Finalist for her memoir-in-progress, To Have and To Hoard. Kristen completed GrubStreet’s year-long Memoir Incubator in 2017. Headspace published her personal essay “A Day With: Hoarding Disorder;” her reporting has appeared in the Boston Globe. Kristen is grateful to Louise Fitzhugh for giving her a character she relates to—Harriet the Spy (with her ever-present notebook). Follow Kristen @kpnwriter.


§ 22 Responses to The Family as Inattentive Audience

  • I can really relate to thinking that my husband fears losing me. But I don’t think he does. Still, I don’t know, and that holds me back from plunging into this life, somehow.

  • Once when we were in the car, my writer husband interrupted my telling him about a major turning point in my work in progress to say something about tire pressure. This is why I have writing friends.

    • Writing friends are key. It’s vexing that a writer-husband isn’t necessarily more attentive!

      • I think living with writers is hard. My spouse has watch me re-grieve old deaths and generally be miserable because of some of the things I’m writing about. He supports my writing in principle, but the day-to-day is imperfect. PS Many years ago I worked at the Booksmith!

      • Kristen Paulson-Nguyen says:

        I think living with anyone is hard. Yes, the day to day is imperfect with a writer, but he also gets someone who can make the prose of his work reviews sing (and who is around to let the chimney sweep in).

  • I can so relate to this. I get so mad when someone doesn’t give me their full attention. So. Mad. He needs to put that phone away for five minutes! 🙂

  • philipparees says:

    Fear and jealousy usually create the very thing they are apprehensive about. I have a family now of five adults, only two of whom ever read what I write. Net result is I write to writing fiends ( typo obliging!) and spend all day in my study. Cooking is adequate but perfunctory. I have waited for 65 years and there are very few left. Not guilty no more!

  • Wait, people read their work to their husbands?

  • etod62 says:

    This was great. It actually made me uncomfortable; that terrible feeling when someone stops listening. I am divorced and kids out the house. My lab listens to every word without interruption. The best sort of companion for a writer!

  • Definitely can relate to having a spouse who fears losing me to writing. He supports me in theory, but I can sense the unease underneath. I think this is why it’s so hard for women with families to pursue their writing. The guilt factor that they’re not spending enough time with their family, feeling selfish for pursuing this dream. Do male writers with family ever feel this? I doubt it. Thanks for sharing your story.

  • Allison K Williams says:

    Urrrggghhhh…that’s why we have writer buddies! Though there’s something to be said for having to hold the audience’s attention…

  • God, I absolutely hear this! My other half says he’ll read my blog, he’ll absolutely read my blog, he loves reading my blog, he’s going to read it soon, promise, he’s definitely going to sit down and catch up with my blog, soon, soon, promise, absolutely definitely, he really, really, really does love my blog….hmmmmm!! (from Tiffany not Tony, in case you click on my blog and aren’t sure who’s talking 😀 )

  • Laura Pang says:

    A thoughtful, humorous, and poignant essay. I love the revolving door/making transitions reference. It really captures the frenetic pace and many, many facets of a person, a marriage, and a life. I also appreciate the author’s keen awareness that her husband’s interruptions and willful zoning out may be self protective and defensive in part, none the less sad and infuriating.

  • Thank you for this – absolutely thank you!

  • gailnastasia says:

    It’s so much easier to talk than listen. Love this!!

  • Mohammad shafi says:

    nice and bioinformatic article

  • Oxo Packaging says:

    Amazing, thank you for this absolutely perfect.

  • […] But remember that until you put those words down on the page and showed them to someone else, you had literally no idea of your capacity. You might have had a gut feeling that turned out to be right, but you had no way of knowing until you put yourself out there and showed it to someone else. If it’s worth anything to you, know that you’re not alone. […]

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