I LOVE that I get to interview inspiring, creative couples like Jen & Dave Cooper and Elan & Aidan Morgan. Writers, photographers, videographers, editors, illustrators - they create AND they are in a relationship. Some collaborate together, some don't. Some have kids. Some don't. All are making it work.
That stereotype of the angsty, lone wolf creative working around the clock by his or herself? Not appealing. Nor realistic. We wanna create. We NEED to make our art. And we have a regular life too with friends and family.
So how to do both well when the role model IS that lone wolf? How to do both when you value your creative work AND your relationships? Read on for another take on being a creative couple.
Today's interview is with LA writers Kayla and Josh Cagan. You'd be hard pressed to find any two harder working, more creative and just fun people to be around. Well, I can't speak for Josh but I know Kayla and she's pretty great so Josh must be too. The banter! I love the banter.
I met Kayla through our mutual friend Melanie Biehle (love making new friends through other friends - it's like dating, they've already been vetted!). I was thrilled to find out that Kayla is a couple of the things that I've secretly dreamt of being - a dramaturg and a director. The theater banter on twitter began immediately - I'm the amateur theater geek and she's the professional theater geek.
And she drove Melanie and I to Camp Mighty and back so there's that too.
On to the interview.
Who are you and what do you do? How long have you been together?
I’m Kayla Cagan and I do and have done a lot of things. My background is in the theater - playwriting, dramaturging, and directing - and now I write in several genres. I’m married to Josh A. Cagan. We’ve been married since 2003, together since late 1998.
This June, my wife Kayla and I will have been together for 14 years, and married for 11. Recently I was working with a young person, I told him that, and he said, “People still do that, huh? Weird.” Maybe it is. But it’s a delightful kind of weird.
What are your strengths? What are your partner’s strengths? How do they help you work well together when you are collaborating?
My strengths include being somewhat organized and having a healthy sense of humor about chaos. They wouldn’t seem to go hand-in-hand but they do. I can also stay with a project for a very long time. It may take forever to complete, but I won’t quit before it’s finished. And I also make a mean queso.
Josh’s strengths include his ability to have laser-like focus when he’s working on projects, being psyched about new adventures, travel, and creative opportunities, and being able to write better, faster than any person I’ve ever met. He brings meaningful art and kick-ass music into our home. And though losing his sunglasses may freak him out, he is an absolutely fearless problem-solver in a crisis. He is a bold thinker and analyzer of the human condition. (I know he is going to laugh when he read that I wrote that, but it’s true.)
To be honest, we haven’t collaborated together that much. We respect that we like to create in our voices, our own styles, and unless we’re approached to work together, we don’t generate a lot of ideas together. That being said, I usually get to read the first drafts of what he’s working on (if he’s writing with a partner, then obviously that person knows what’s going on before I do.) I run ideas by him and ask him for advice when I’m ready to hear it. We toss out ideas that we want to work on individually, and see if the other person gravitates towards it or repels from it.
My strengths include the ability to stop time, see through walls, and the eerie ability to read people’s minds. I’m sorry. That was a list from my dream journal.
This is a weird question. Who feels comfortable rattling off things they’re great at, besides that bro in the corner of the bar wearing a Trilby and telling random women to “smile, baby?”
Regardless, here goes. I’m good at cranking out a cohesive, funny rough draft in a very short amount of time. I’m a pretty fast writer in general, which is the only positive side effect of being a chronic procrastinator. I work hard to not punch down when I’m writing comedy, and I try to infuse a little bit of heart into everything I do. I also try to infuse a little bit of rosemary into everything as well, because Ina Garten said to do that, and she’s generally right about most things.
Kayla’s strengths far outnumber mine. She is truly a writer’s writer. She does all of the right things. She has an organized writing desk space, free of distraction. She sets aside time to write every day, as opposed to, say, jamming everything out at 1:16pm on the day that something is due. She is extremely knowledgable about literature, especially poetry, which will always read like stereo instructions to me, a little.
But more so than all of that, she loves the actual act, the art of writing. She is obsessed with journals and stationary, which does not sound super-exciting. But the way that she talks about it, you know that there is no greater thrill to her than to take a fresh piece of paper and write words on it. A letter to a friend. Thoughts on her day. A poem about a bird she saw on the subway. An idea for a new novel. To her, paper represents possibility, new worlds to create and explore.
And dear god, is she ever funny. Her characters are bright, quick, and full of life, like the woman who willed them into existence.
Oddly enough, we rarely collaborate. We wrote a 5 page episode of a friend’s web series together, and that was a hoot, batting jokes around and such. But ultimately, we write very different kinds of things. Were we to work together more, I think she would keep us on schedule, and bring a lyrical quality to the work. I would bring fart jokes. Lots and lots of fart jokes.
What have you learned from your partner?
What I have learned from him is not to be a coward about pushing my stories farther, and not to be freaked out by how long it takes me to write sometimes. I’m still waiting for him to work with me on a show called “Taco Cops”, but I’m pretty sure that’s not going to happen anytime soon. In a very practical sense, I’ve learned the importance of structure, and how without it, the story is screwed. Structure comes very easily to me for some genres, in others - it seems impossible.
I think the thing I have learned from her, most of all, is patience. I am a fully automated casualty of the push-button gratification generation, and I want absolutely everything to happen right now. I SAID RIGHT NOW. (In retrospect, I probably should have said, “The thing I am still learning from her, most of all, is patience.”)
Kayla, she of her yoga, meditation and poetry, has a very different relationship with the world than I do.
If I’m taking a walk, it’s to get somewhere. If she’s taking a walk, she’s taking in the world around her. Architecture, nature, other people’s dogs, etc.
She has taught me that life is as much about the journey as it is the destination, if not more so.
I am also impossibly hard on myself, due to the fact that I am a stupid dummy.
She has an almost superhuman amount of faith in me, and over the years, it has taught me to have a little of that faith in myself.
What are you most impressed by/proud of your partner?
I am most impressed by Josh’s big heart. He cares so much about the people close to him and the world at large and is constantly trying to figure out how things can be improved for the disenfranchised, the hurt, and underserved communities. He will be the first to say he doesn’t know how to help people enough, to do the right thing, to care the right away.
But Josh’s goal is always to help others feel empowered and accepted.
I love his sense of humor, I treasure his creativity, and I deeply respect his intelligence, but it’s his big, beautiful heart that gets me every day. (I also really like his butt.)
Kayla did not have the easiest time growing up in Houston as an artsy, punky, outspoken girl. She had to deal with a lot of static from the people around her, to say the least. One would think this would cause her to write off people altogether. She has done no such goddamn thing. She is one of the most open, loving, caring people I know. There is always a seat at her table for a friend in need. She has a myriad of shoulders that can be cried upon, if need be.
She genuinely loves people, and genuinely believes that humanity, as a whole, is pretty darn okay. Not in a Pollyanna sort of way, of course. She gets that, like, murderers are jerks and stuff.
But in spite of everything that she has been through, if she were reviewing the world for Yelp, she would give it a solid four stars.
How best do you support your partner and his/her goals?
When it comes to social issues, I listen to him. I try to be a better listener every day. I challenge him and debate with him when I disagree or question him.
When it comes to creativity, we both understand the need for privacy and independence.
I know that if he’s working on a script all day and shuts the door, I’m not going to bother him unless it’s absolutely necessary. If he’s working with his writing partners or The Job Factory at our place, I’ll try to keep myself relatively scarce so that I’m not a distraction.
I try not to blast Steely Dan and sing “BABYLON SISTERRRRRRRRS, SHAKE IT,” when she’s in her office writing. It’s difficult, because given my druthers, that’s what I’d always be doing.
How do you split the day-to-day administrivia?
Well, I’m probably a bit more responsible for the day-to-day BS of living these days. We’ll both load the dishwasher, both walk the dog etc...but handling bills, taxes, stuff like that, it’s on my plate for now. Just depends who is busier with projects, who has more work etc...
Neither of us are particularly enamored of adminstrivia (Although I did play a fair amount of Administrival Pursuit back in the 80s), but we both understand that it’s a thing that needs to get done. Until we figure out how to train our dog to unload the dishwasher and pay bills, of course.
Ultimately, it just depends on who’s busier that particular week or month. Recently, we’ve both dabbled with having writing gigs that were vaguely day-job shaped. As a result, the household duties sort of fall upon whoever’s actually bumming around the house while the other one is out in the world.
Are you ever envious of each other and if so, how do you handle it?
I am envious of Josh’s efficiency and focus on his projects. I have real attention problems sometimes, and I wish I had half of his stamina. He can work 14 hours at a time if needed. I’m great if I work 4 in a row.
Sometimes I handle it by just getting my butt back in the chair and working - kind of in a competitive manner - and sometimes I just have to remind myself that’s his method and his talent, not mine.
Jesus, I wish I could stick to a schedule the way that she could. I wish I could utilize the economy of words that she does when she writes poetry. I’m throwing cans of paint at a brick wall, and she’s writing Ulysses on a single grain of rice.
I have to remind myself that we are two very different writers, with two very different perspectives on the world and our work.
And I remind myself that it’s always more productive to try to learn from her than to pout and think to myself, “That ‘toopid Kayla, all smart with her books and stuff.”
How do you decide whose career takes priority at different points in time? Money earning potential? Goal achievement? Time required?
Hhhmmm. Interesting questions. Both of our careers and passions are high priorities for us. Josh’s writing genre (screenwriting) currently brings in more than mine does, so that’s the career that is the financial priority. But he’s just as happy for me when I have a play or poem produced or published. That’s a creative priority. I’ve been working on some longer projects for a while, and they are still, always priorities to me, but I realize some times they have to live on the back burners for a bit longer. Some projects have flexible time priorities, but that doesn’t mean we’re not passionate about them. I am constantly thinking about the things I want to create that I haven’t started yet, and projects still not finished.
Honestly, the only time I feel like my career took priority over hers was when we decided to forgo NYC for LA. As someone who drew a lot of her inspiration from New York, specifically the theater community, that was a huge sacrifice for her. I am eternally grateful that she was on board with that, because I know it was a lot to ask.
Other than that, we’re very privileged and lucky that we are able to focus on our own work, while supporting the other’s.
Are you a goal setter? And if so, how do you figure out how to balance your goals with your partner’s goals?
I am not a goal setter. I don’t start a project unless I really want to, but when I do start a project, I will work until it’s finished, even if take much longer than expected. If Josh comes to me with a goal - creative or other - I will do everything I can to support it, whether that means staying out of the way, listening to him talk it out, or just giving him space to develop it. I will try not to impose my view on it if it’s in the very early stages. I’ll ask questions but I’ll never assume I know the answers.
I think by now it’s pretty clear that I am not a goal setter. I am more of a, “WHAT, THERE’S A GOAL, WHY DIDN’T ANYONE TELL ME ABOUT THAT, JESUS, NOW THE GOAL’S ON FIRE, HOW DID THAT HAPPEN.”
Mostly, I just want to keep writing, and getting paid to do it. I’m pretty sure those are Kayla’s goals as well.
So although we are on different paths, we’re ultimately on the same journey.
What advice do you have for other couples?
A producer Josh worked with gave him a piece of marital advice, which was, “Allow each other to change.” I think this wisdom has reminded us to be open to new adventures, like moving across the country together, taking new creative chances which include failure and success, and finding out who we are each and every day - not being stuck to some idea or image of who we are or were supposed to be. Change involves surprise, excitement, bravery, silliness, appreciation and compassion.
Allowing change opens our lives to growth, creativity, joy, and love. It’s been working for us, and it might work for others.
Laugh. Don’t take yourself so seriously. Let your partner take you seriously for you, and do the same for them. Go for a nice walk together every once in a while. Don’t always hog the remote, “Revenge” and “Pretty Little Liars” are just as enjoyable as “Top Gear” and “Chopped” if you give them a chance. Unload the dishwasher without being asked. Unless you can train your dog to do it. Train your dog to unload the dishwasher.
Allowing for change - isn't that one of the keys? If you're with someone for any amount of time, you are both going to change. Add in the creative side of things and it sometimes will be even more complex. And having faith in each other.
I'd love to hear your thoughts on being an artist AND valuing your relationships. What works for you? What are some of your challenges?