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Advice Column, Part Two: Susan Swan

Susan Swan is a Canadian novelist. She is the author of seven books, has received numerous awards, and has been published in over 20 countries. Her latest book is called The Western Light. I remember how, many years ago, her novel, The Biggest Modern Woman in the World, was confiscated by Customs for obscenity. She has a big public presence in Canada, always speaking out powerfully about feminism and politics. She even served as the chair of the Writers' Union of Canada for many years. She has a grown daughter, Samantha Haywood, who is a literary agent. I think we first interacted for real when we were doing a panel over email for the Globe and Mail on writing about sex. Recently, we have been exchanging long and personal emails. The first book I remember reading of hers, as a teenager, and absolutely loving, was The Last of the Golden Girls, which I recently ordered to reread.

Sheila: I have always found romantic relationships difficult. I think this is true for many people, but have you noticed that for some people they're not difficult? What are those people doing differently? Is it just who they choose to be with, and if so, what is behind their choice? Are people who don't experience difficulties just basically easygoing people who choose easygoing people? Are people who are in relatively simple relationships learning anything? Does learning matter? Does conflict actually help one grow, or is that a myth, do you think?

Susan: I was an easygoing young woman, so at boarding school I was placed with girls nobody liked. This happened to me twice, and at first, I hated it because it meant I couldn't room with my friends. But I ended up becoming very close with one of these girls, and I learned that difficult people tend to be interesting, and that all relationships need a certain amount of give and take to make them work. That's true of romantic relationships most of all. "Hold your love lightly but not loosely," I once told a friend's daughter who was getting married."Hold your love lightly but not loosely," I once told a friend's daughter who was getting married.

In other words, loving somebody is a Zen discipline. You have to cut them the same slack you would for your best friend or for yourself, and that's often not easy because we feel more vulnerable in romantic relationships. Let's face it — intimacy is terrifying. Nobody I know does it well all of the time. In fact, I'd say that people who are able to be intimate easily are like .0009 percent of the population. Pride, self-disrespect, fears left over from past bad relationships — all these bogeymen can creep in and sabotage the best of lovers' philosophies and mutual respect.

I've been living with one man, Patrick Crean, for 21 years, and he represents home to me. Our relationship started out stormy; when we had a fight or a conflict, I would threaten to leave him and move to New York because I didn't trust that something could work out. I had been pretty independent before we got together. I used to brag that I was my own institution; I'd created myself out of hard work and ambition, and I didn't need anybody to make me feel whole. (And I still don't need anybody to make me feel whole, but looking back, my words strike me as a bit pompous.) Anyway, we would argue and get mad at each other, but what was different with him is that we would come out the other side of a fight to a new place. He says I taught him to process conflicts, and maybe I did, but in my experience this was new. I'd been brought up in a WASP family where confrontations were considered extremely rude and inconsiderate, so I was amazed that having a conflict could clear the air and pave the way for a better understanding of the other person. Now we pride ourselves on getting through conflicts together; we have done it in the past so we know we can do it in the future. There's a great sense of security in knowing this about each other.

As a couple we have two big natural advantages. His needs for solitude and time together are pretty much the same as mine. Before Patrick, I used to be with men who were either emotionally unavailable or made me feel claustrophobic because they needed a lot of time together. A writer needs a lot of privacy; so does an editor. When we were starting to fall in love, I told him that he was the first man who offered me the right amounts of time together and time apart, and maybe this meant we would be happy together. I wrote him a letter about this, and when he received it, he ended an old relationship which had been starting to flag and we became serious.

The other big plus, which has nothing to do with maturity, is that Patrick fulfills my romance ethic. When I was in my 30s (around your age, Sheila), I exchanged diaries in the mail with two other women about our relationships. We did this for about two years, and we were asking each other the questions you are asking here. Eventually we wrote a screenplay based on these diaries called "It's Not All Porn: A Treatise on Ethics." Our letters to each other would start with the phrase "Dear Diary," and then we would confide our fears and hopes about our relationships. Our diaries revealed that our love lives were a self-styled kind of personal drama; we were each the star and the director of our own romance story, and each of these three stories had a different ethos. But the ethos was always the same and the stories of our romances showed this, no matter who the man or woman was. One of the women (who was a performance artist and stripper) was always saving men through her sexuality, and the second woman, a theatre producer, liked dangerous or sinister men. My ethos was that I needed a man who was always dying to marry me but would accept that I didn't want to get married.

Patrick is that man. He makes me feel cherished and wanted without me having to turn into a wife.

I suspect everybody has their romance ethic whether they know it or not. We didn't know it until we did the diaries together. So no matter how mature and generous two lovers or partners are with each other, they still need some extra pluses that come from the unique combination of the two of you together.

More from Sheila Heti at PowellsBooks.Blog:

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Sheila Heti is the author of several books of fiction, including The Middle Stories and Ticknor; and an essay collection written with Misha Glouberman, The Chairs Are Where the People Go. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Bookforum, McSweeney's, n+1, and the Guardian. How Should a Person Be? is her latest book.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. How Should a Person Be? Used Trade Paper $10.95

Sheila Heti is the author of How Should a Person Be?

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