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by Writing Workshops Staff

A week ago

Love and the Creative Life: an Interview with Aaron Shulman and Elisa Ortega Montilla

by Writing Workshops Staff

A week ago

Love and the Creative Life: an Interview with Aaron Shulman and Elisa Ortega Montilla

by Writing Workshops Staff

A week ago

In the vibrant intersection of love and creativity, few couples exemplify harmony quite like Aaron Shulman and Elisa Ortega Montilla.

With 16 years of shared experience, this dynamic duo has navigated the turbulent waters of artistic endeavors, financial ups and downs, relocations, and the joys and challenges of parenthood. Their journey, marked by both personal and professional triumphs and setbacks, forms the backbone of their upcoming seminar, Love and the Creative Life: How to Smoothly Navigate Your Relationship and a Writing Career.

Aaron, an acclaimed author whose work has been published in the pages of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, and Elisa, an artist celebrated in venues from the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery to the Torrance Art Museum, bring a unique blend of personal anecdotes and social science research to their teaching. Their seminar promises not just insights but actionable strategies for couples striving to balance their artistic passions with the demands of a fulfilling relationship.

Their story is one of resilience and mutual support, illustrating how relationships can fuel creative success rather than hinder it. Participants in their seminar will gain practical tools to manage common challenges such as anxiety, financial insecurity, and time constraints, empowering them to thrive both personally and creatively.

Join us as we sit down with Aaron and Elisa to explore the secrets of their enduring partnership and the wisdom they've gleaned from years of balancing love and creativity.

Whether you're a creative individual in a relationship or part of a couple where one partner is an artist, their seminar offers invaluable guidance to help you harmonize your love life with your creative ambitions. Secure your spot now and embark on a journey towards a more integrated and fulfilling life.

Writing Workshops: You’ve been together for 16 years, navigating various phases of your creative careers and personal lives. Can you share a pivotal moment in your relationship that significantly impacted your creative journey together?

Aaron & Elisa: Probably the most dramatic inflection point was in 2017 when Elisa decided to leave a stable career of ten years in social work to go back to school to get an MFA in Visual Arts. Before that, Aaron had been the one with the uncertain career in a creative industry, since Elisa’s art practice had been something on the side. When it became both of us who were simultaneously pursuing creative careers, we had to learn how to navigate what it meant for both of us to have professional lives that were very fulfilling but also very difficult.

Writing Workshops: Balancing separate artistic ambitions can be challenging. How do you support each other's individual creative pursuits while maintaining a strong partnership?

Aaron & Elisa: As we all know, time is the essential ingredient of the creative process, so we both do everything we can to help create time for the other person to do their work. On any given day this might mean making dinner, cleaning up the house, or taking our daughter to one of her extracurricular activities when it’s not “our turn.” To be honest, we never think in terms of turns, because we trust fully that if the other person can help us by sacrificing a little time, they will, and if they are stressed out themselves about time, they’ll communicate that and we’ll just do the best we can. Instead of division of time and labor being a source of tension, it becomes a medium for gestures of support.

Writing Workshops: Can you describe a time when one of you faced a significant creative setback? How did you both work together to overcome it and continue moving forward?

Aaron & Elisa: In his 20s and early 30s, Aaron put all his energy into writing a novel, and it didn’t work out. It was pretty devastating, and though he wanted to return to writing fiction, he just couldn’t—for almost ten years. Now he’s working on a novel again, and a big part of it was Elisa’s gentle insistence over a long period. First, she reminded him periodically that he kept saying he wanted to write fiction again and asking about ideas he had. Then, she encouraged him to say no to paying work he didn’t need so he could free up time. And finally, after he wrote a first paragraph of a novel, she pressured him to commit to the very doable goal of working on it just one and half hours a week, which was hard to come up with excuses not to do. After nine months, he started working much more seriously on it.

Writing Workshops: Parenthood often adds another layer of complexity to creative lives. How has becoming parents influenced your artistic work and your approach to balancing personal and professional responsibilities?

Aaron & Elisa: The main thing, which is a bit sad but not problematically so, is we spend less time together just the two of us—so that we can both independently do the things we need to for our careers that aren’t super compatible with family life, whether it’s going to residencies, attending art openings for Elisa, or having dinners/drinks with people in publishing for Aaron. One of us stays with our daughter, and the other person does what they need to do. As long as we’re able to still find moments to reconnect, then we’re fine, and I think we both feel loved by the other person when they enable our freedom. We hope it’s a good model for a relationship that our daughter is absorbing, and it’s not like the three of us don’t spend a ton of time together. And lately, as a couple, we’ve been finding more opportunities to have occasional short trips just the two of us where we are reminded how much we still love just hanging out, even if that’s not as much of a priority as it used to be. We spend those days mostly enjoying nature while we also talk about our artistic ideas and creative projects. As our daughter gets older, hopefully the balance will get a bit easier.

Writing Workshops: In your seminar, you aim to teach strategies for managing anxiety, financial insecurity, and time constraints. Can you share one key strategy that has been particularly effective for you both in these areas?

Aaron & Elisa: Perhaps the one strategy that hits on all three of those areas (anxiety, money, and time, which of course are interconnected) is to not overleverage vulnerability. What we mean by that is, if one person is embarking on something important to them that is going to bring a new level of risk and uncertainty or financial fragility—say, going back to school to get an MFA, or taking two months off work to focus on writing a book proposal, both of which are likely to stir up a lot of emotions and create a sense of vulnerability—it’s usually wise for the other person not to pursue a similar uncertainty or risky project at the same time. Otherwise, it can lead to volatility. It can be done, of course, but it’ll be easier if one person takes on the steadying role while the other person goes big.

Writing Workshops: What do you hope students will take away from your seminar, especially those who are just starting to navigate the intersection of their creative ambitions and personal relationships?

Aaron & Elisa: Really just that they’ll walk away with a few nuggets to help them sustain both a joyful and connected relationship along with a satisfying and risk-taking creative practice–as well as the sense of the beauty of sharing your life with someone who understands the inside of being an artist, the process of creativity, the excitement of new ideas, and the vulnerability we constantly have to go through. So you can help each other from the inside out.

Writing Workshops: Thank you to Aaron and Elisa for this great interview. As for you, dear reader, you can avoid the waitlist and sign up for their new Zoom seminar now: Love and the Creative Life: How to Smoothly Navigate Your Relationship and a Writing Career.


Aaron Shulman is the author of the non-fiction historical narrative The Age of Disenchantments: The Epic Story of Spain’s Most Notorious Literary Family and the Long Shadow of the Spanish Civil War (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2019). After growing up in Michigan, Aaron attended Johns Hopkins University as an undergrad and then the University of Montana, where he received his MFA in creative writing. A former Fulbright scholar, his work has appeared in The New York TimesThe Believer, The New Republic, The American Scholar, The Wall Street Journal, El País (Spain), Hazlitt, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among many other places. He is the co-owner of the book-collaboration agency Splash Literary. He lives between Barcelona and Los Angeles with his wife, the artist Elisa Ortega Montilla, and their daughter.

Elisa Ortega Montilla is an artist currently based between California and Barcelona. Before shifting her focus to art, she spent over a decade as a social worker in Spain, Guatemala, and California. In 2019, she completed a Master of Fine Arts at the University of California, Santa Barbara, then was chosen as the university's 2019-2020 Artist-in-Residence. Her work has been featured in The Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, Hyperallergic, and KCRW, among other places, and she was chosen as the artist of the year by LUM Art Magazine in 2022. Her work has been exhibited in group and solo exhibitions in Spain, Guatemala, Mexico, and across the US, including in the Sur Biennial at the Torrance Art Museum, Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, AD&A Museum in Santa Barbara, and Centro de Arte Rafael Botí. In 2021, she was awarded an Emerging Artist Fellowship from the California Arts Council, and in 2022 the Grant Award from Sustainable Arts Foundation.

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