Interview Series: Creative Couples: Jill Sherer Murray and Dan Murray
It's February! A short month, but hopefully filled with love and laughter, and this installment is sure to give you a solid dose of both to get you through the next twenty-eight days. Jill and I met years ago when I was freelancing for a small publisher in New Jersey and got to assist her in creating a proposal for her eventual award-winning book Big Wild Love. I fell in love with both Jill and her snappy writing, which seriously rivals that of stand-up comics and rom-coms but with her own sincere, heartwarming undercurrent. Eventually I also met the quiet, musically gifted Dan, and knew this creative couple would be our life-long friends. Jill has a lot to say, because that is oh-so-perfectly-Jill, but as always, she's hilarious and filled with golden nuggets of wisdom on love and the creative life, so I'm going to let her (and Dan) take it away. ;-)
We all love a good love story. Tell us the moment you each knew you were in love. Make us swoon!
JILL I talk a lot about this story in my TEDx Talk and my book, about how Dan and I met on Match.com at a time when meeting people online might have no longer been new, but it was definitely new to us. (In fact, I was so freaked out by it, the first time someone winked at me online, I ran into the bathtub fully clothed, and pulled the curtain. I thought they could see me! Ha!)
Dan came the dating site after 10 years of marriage, and me after a 12-year boyfriend/girlfriend relationship going nowhere. We both had Cyrano’s – so my ex-sister in-law-winked at him, and his friend D winked back at her, and somehow, after all of that, the real live Dan and Jill found our way unassisted to our first date: Dinner at Karla’s in New Hope.
I wore my uniform of black jeans and a white tee shirt and an expensive straw hat that my friends told me I looked great in and that I “absolutely HAD to wear, OMG!” Dan arrived in the most wrinkled shirt I’d ever seen ever (which immediately told me that despite being handsome, he was NOT a player). He also arrived with an old, musty rain hat for me to wear in case it’s rained, like they were predicting, and I needed it for the walk from the restaurant to the car. It was sweet—albeit a tinge gross, like the hat had been plucked from the mud room of a house in mid-demo. And it did rain! Although only one of us could wear the hat (me). All of which told me he was not only cute and a little confused, but self-sacrificingly considerate. I kinda dug it.
What’s funny is that these first-date hats of ours are pivotal characters in the play of our relationship since we still talk about how he thought mine was super weird and I thought his was super gross, and how we both thought it was super cute how we both came to the table with hats—off-putting at first as they might have been. (Does that make sense?)
I don’t know, maybe that’s not so unusual or most people don’t think as hard about hats as we certainly did, but it still provides fodder for a good chuckle. Back then, it definitely presented the question: If two people could come to an experience both with a hat in hand (or on their head), respectively, each that be a sign that they were meant to be together? After all, those hats made us think twice about one another in a, uh, unique way. I mean, something despite, compelled both of us to stick with it. Perhaps the fact that he’d never dated a woman in a funky hat before. And I certainly never dated a self-sacrificingly considerate guy.
Overthinking on the page.
Still, perhaps that was the point.
The fact is I was different than most of the women he’d dated previously. And he was certainly different than the cast of characters in my dating history—a.k.a. guys who’d traded authenticity and vulnerability for ego, or were kind but never ever never ever never ever gonna commit.
That was the thing for me. At age 42, on the heels of a 144-month relationship with no promise of anything to show for it (like paying a mortgage every month for 12 years and then find out you still owe the full price of the house), I was looking for someone who wanted what I did: The experience of marriage. And a healthy one at that—since I didn’t wait half my life to marry someone who sucked. This involved a willingness to be real and vulnerable and Dan was it. Even if he said he wasn’t eager to rush back into marriage since he’d been well-charred by his ex, I guess I was pretty persuasive. And he was more open than he realized.
After all, the things that might have scared off a more insecure and less willing guy, he handled like a champ. For example, he sent me an email after our third date that had a picture of a beautiful couple walking on the beach. Under which he wrote: “This is what I think about when I think of you.” To which I sent him the best picture of a diamond ring I could find on the internet, and wrote, “And this is what I think of when I think of YOU.” After all, I was not about to date someone into almost-perpetuity again.
By date five, even though he said it terrified him just a tinge, he moved in. This is despite my email. (See, a champ.) Still, I made him spend one night a week at his old place. In looking back, it wasn’t because I needed the space away from him, but because I was scared too.
The thing is I’d spent most of my dating life feeling heartbroken, and had convinced myself sending him away every Thursday (I just picked Thursday, felt cute) would slow things down and prevent me from getting hurt. Again.
This “ruse” went on for a few months before I finally acquiesced to the notion that I was in it to win it. And MOST IMPORTANTLY, that I had chosen well this time—another Big Wild Loving human (definition: Big Wild Love – self-love with the intention to take the risks associated with letting go of sucky choices). Allowed myself to dive fully on in, with joy and glee. And never looked back.
Who would have ever thought I’d have found love again, at age 41? Certainly not me, back then (although now I know it is infinitely possible at ANY AGE). Dan was a surprising gift. And we’ve been happily ensconced in gloriously imperfect marriage for almost 17 years in August.
Very early in our dating, I remember watching her sleep and I realized this was it. Her natural talent for holding conversations and her obvious passion for life and her art gave me the feeling of being in the right place. It was exactly where I want to be in this phase of my life. She was the type of person I wanted to have in my life. It was a comfortable, peaceful, and yet very exciting feeling. I am grateful that this feeling never went away even through the ups and downs that are part of marriage and life in general.
Share a little bit about your work—books, music, movies, art—what do each of you do?
JILL I have spent most of my professional career in an assortment of writing jobs. I started as a journalist, writing for healthcare and business publications. And even writing a monthly diary for Shape Magazine, chronicling my weight-loss journey for readers which was, uh, interesting since I had to put my body weight in the magazine every month (I might still have some PTSD from that, but whatever …).
Then I moved into corporate, writing computer-based training scripts, marketing campaigns, developing and executing internal and external communications strategies, and leading creative teams. I still live there part-time.
It’s been a blast, honestly. I would have never dreamed that writing a 3,000-word article about a controversial endodontic technique, a series of posters designed to inspire teenage boys to hydrate, or an entire tome on a company’s employer-sponsored health benefits could be as rewarding as it’s been.
And yet, while it remains fun, it’s not enough. As a creative writer who’s been writing stories since elementary school, there’s a whole other side to my work. I have written three books—the first one was a novel my agent couldn’t sell (that’s why they make pie), but it sure was fun to write it. The second, was a curated collection of blog posts I used to write for an online e-zine called Diary of a Writer in Mid-Life Crisis. I packaged these posts into a chapbook narrative and distributed at a writing conference I was speaking at it, when someone posted it to Amazon and reviewed it, comparing it to Marley and Me and In Her Shoes. That was a good day.
Then there’s my most recent book called Big Wild Love: The Unstoppable Power of Letting Go. Part memoir, part how to, it’s won several awards and is an homage of sorts to those folks who’ve reached out to me for advice and inspiration on how to let go of what isn’t serving them after seeing my viral (almost four million views, gasp, shock, kaboom!) TEDx Talk called “The Unstoppable Power of Letting Go”.
I’m currently working on a new book – a novel – and am very heads down on telling the lie that tells the truth about stepparenting, and marrying later in life, and well, you’ll see. (And procrastinating by cleaning my closets and researching when the first word was developed, the various germs that could be lurking under my hardwood, and what’s really in hot dogs…don’t ask.)
Prepare to laugh and cry. And maybe binge eat.
To pay the bills, I have a corporate day job as a project manager for museums and trade shows. But my true passion is writing music and playing guitar. With that said, it used to be all-important to me that my music be the first priority in my life, but I’ve come to realize that having a partner in life who values you and your dreams, goals, and passions as much as their own is of far greater value. Not only has having a supportive partner inspired my music, it has also opened a door to “all” of my passions; hiking, working out, inventing, shamanism, meditation, and just generally exploring life in different ways. All of which feeds my music and creativity in general. And makes me happy.
What brought you to these outlets/jobs?
JILL I don’t know how not to write. I’ve been writing stories for as long as I can remember. My grandmother, who I adored, was a writer and professional pianist who never took a lesson around either in her life. Not only do I have her chubby arms, but she passed along her interests and okay, not to brag, but some of her talents to me as well.
She was a prodigy, writing magazine articles and screenplays and musicals at a time when women just didn’t do those things. And a talent scout actually wanted to take her away from small town PA when she was a kid to Hollywood, but her parents wouldn’t let her go.
I have a lot of her work, which she kept in old, beat-up, brown briefcases and folders, along with an accordion. All of which are now mine. My hope is to, at some point, write something “with” her. She was a creative genius, bold and Big Wild Loving well ahead of time. My memories of her are vivid and wonderful (except for that time I accidentally peed on her favorite purple velour chair, which was not so much, but relax, I was like five). I miss her a lot. And I think of her often, and keep a picture of her in front of my computer. In fact, I’m looking at it right now.
I almost went into music myself after winning a scholarship to the New School for classical piano when I was a teenager. But a) I couldn’t imagine practicing so many hours a day (I hated to practice, by the way, big sign not the right career for me!); and b) I just wanted to write. So, I made that my job any way I could.
The good news about being a writer is that there are so many options. I always say, if you can write, you’ll always work. And that’s what I’ve done.
But now, as I get older, the desire to write books has got its hooks in me big time. At this age, I know more than I ever have, and have a lot to say and less to prove, so writing is not only freeing but pretty joyful. I’m always so grateful to have it – and that it’s not only something I love to do, but also a huge part of who I am.
Fate, the universe, GOD, evolution. I truly believe that we can be, do, and have anything we want in life, but only if it aligns with what is called “the greater good”. I believe that, for me, constantly struggling to make my dream of being a singer/songwriter, going to every open mike in a 50-mile radius, sending demo tapes (yes, it was THAT long ago), CD’s, MP3’s to every person I could find, spending years promoting my music—essentially always trying to break through, and not getting where I wanted to go—taught me a valuable lesson. That it’s not always about striving, getting to the top, but rather, it’s about embracing the love of just doing it … playing music.
And I do love it. After many years of asking the universe why it was so hard to be a true working musician, I realized it was because it didn’t align with the greater good. It wasn’t ultimately where I was meant to be. What DID align was me exploring all of my passions, including some I never knew I had until later in life, while using music as way to create joy and healing. To not only feed my creative spirit, but as a positive outlet for surviving some hard things in life. That epiphany took the pressure off, freeing me to experience my music—and life—in a really enjoyable way.
Do you ever collaborate on projects? Tell us a little bit about that process.
JILL Not yet. I hope that someday we have the time and space to do that, but we’re both still so busy with our individual efforts. My husband has a fascinating story in his own right that I’d love for him—or us—to share someday. If and when the time is right. Until then, we’ll continue to be splendid sounding boards and cheerleaders for one another…and our dogs, of course. They’re great at everything.
I love that Jill runs ideas and her work by me, and appreciates my input. She is my muse and inspiration for my songwriting too, even if she may say otherwise since most of my songs were created originally for someone else. That’s the greatest thing about my songs; I can change them, rewrite them, do anything I want with them now for her. And I do, more often than she realizes.
For example, if I wrote a song years ago for someone from a previous relationship who, well, turned out to not be so great (let us just leave that there), I just revise. That’s the beauty of making original music … it’s yours to do what you want. The melody, the tune is still good, so why not use that good material and write completely new words? It can be a fun and meaningful exercise.
Creative work doesn’t normally lend itself to a regular routine like punching a time clock. Describe your method for completing projects while also living regular life, raising kids, if applicable, or working a day job. How do you manage your time together?
JILL Welp, this is the question, right? For me, it’s about structure. Everything is about structure. I learned that from one of my writing gurus Natalie Goldberg. She says everything starts with structure and I super-duper agree. In fact, I have expanded this concept to most things in my life!
I have to section off time in my week to be focused and intentional about my writing. I need a goal and a game plan and that’s the only way anything will happen. For example, I wrote on Zoom every morning in November with two writing pals to do NaNoWriMo. And it worked. At the end of the month, I had my 50,000 words. Would I have done it without them? Maybe not. (ABSOLUTELY NOT, NO WAY IN HELL, LOCUSTS WOULD FALL FROM THE SKY FIRST.) They gave me a lot of structure and held me to it. So structure and accountability matter for me.
Which brings me to the subject of deadlines. I need them like I need air and water and several black yoga pants, a subscription to Netflix, cold brew coffee, dogs, my computer, my phone, a husband who doesn’t mind rubbing my feet most nights or watching the news (well, he does on both counts), and pizza. Toss that puppy on top of structure and a good outline, and I’m in it to win it.
I attribute my devotion to a good timeline to spending the first 15 years of my career writing for magazines. Back then, I used to compare my life to perpetual finals’ week. I’m not only conditioned for it a deadline, but I must like it too. Even though I torture myself all the way through. I guess that makes me a plotter. Although, once I’m in a story, I’m way open to whatever happens, so maybe I’m a little bit country and a little bit rock and roll. Who knows?
What I do know for sure is that, on most days, I’ve just got to get to that damn desk and have at it. Even if I spend the first 15 minutes typing a bunch of expletives. Although I have learned to leave my work at a place that makes it easy to begin the next day … pro tip!
That’s my story. In terms of how it works for us as a couple, it’s not really an issue. We’re only raising dogs, which means that we don’t have a lot of natural distractions, other than their digestive issues. Otherwise, ours are all man-made (e.g., Netflix, chips, cleaning the closet, researching the history of platform heels, etc.). Although since the dogs tend to boop my knee and not Dan’s when they have to do their business, if Dan is home, I’ll send him an SOS text—especially if I’m writing. And he’ll take them out because, well, the rainhat. Not just organically considerate, he also knows when my work needs to take a priority over whatever he’s doing. Not that it’s not as important, but if I’m working on a client project or deep in the flow of a book, it’s easier for him to pull away than me.
That’s where him being a creative as well is so super helpful. He gets it and vice versa. I’m always happy to do the same for him. Usually that’s in form of my not bugging him, when he’s in the midst of playing the guitar or writing music, which he can do for hours without even realizing the time passing. It’s really such a great outlet for him (I’ll let him tell his story). I just leave him be in what he calls his “man cave”—our basement. He doesn’t really need much more than that. Just time alone.
It’s like, when I’m sick, I need a bell and all the attention he’ll give me and yes, it’s as brutal as it sounds; when he’s sick, he needs a monster movie, a bag of chips, and for me to go away. And I’m happy to do so.
With that said, I wish he’d write more songs about me (BIG HINT DANIEL). There’s one or two—happy and beautiful, in fact he played one at our wedding 16 years ago, but I guess I haven’t made him miserable enough to feel inspired. I’ll get to working on that!
(Kidding, am I?)
That’s a tough one. I am a creature of habit, so punching a time clock works well for me. So does the creative work. I have found that just showing up for writing or practicing my music is essential. Some days it goes really well and some days, well, not so much. The completion of projects comes in a couple of ways, even though it’s incidental because I’ll never stop playing – even if a song is done. I either write and record my own, or focus on someone else’s (I love to learn some of my favorites’ music, like Jackson Browne, Sawyer Brown, James Taylor, and Richard Shindell) pretty quickly … it just comes. Or it takes way longer and I just need to have at it over and over and over. Depending on the song, it can take years to get it where I want. What’s most critical is that I just keep showing up.
How do you support each other’s work?
JILL By seeing each other and knowing how important our work is to us. By making it a priority, equally. By encouraging each other to stick with it, even when it’s hard. By allowing us to have all our feelings about it.
For example, I had a book come out in the pandemic, which was not fun. And all I’ve been doing since is having feelings about it. Even I’m sick of me. But Dan has been so kind and loving in helping me to navigate all them. Without having to fix it (which he couldn’t anyway…).
I suspect if you don’t value having a creative life or need it to be happy in general, it might require more active and intentional support. But for us, it’s reflexive and organic because we get it. We know that, at the end of the day, it’s about how we help each other steal time, and give each other grace when the work is not going well or there’s disappointment involved.
I will say this: I read most of my work to Dan, especially if I’m unsure of it or stuck. And over the years, he’s not only become an even prettier face (well handsome)—or a man who knows how to fix the sump pump so our basement doesn’t annex the Delaware River—but also an ah-mazing editor. Cultivated an ear that provides me with a lot of smart and pivotal feedback that’s has made my writing better and me even MORE grateful for him. Whether I’m preparing a script for a video, a blog, editing a script for a client—since I do TEDx coaching as well—or working through a book chapter, his insights really do rock.
That’s easy. I want her to be successful as much and as importantly as I want myself to be. So, I try to make her dreams and her art my goal as much as hers. My part is the support system; taking over the mundane chores of life when she is working and I’m not. And she does the same for me. It’s pretty cool.
We all have challenges in our relationships and having the same job can present its own hurdles. What would you say you have to work on the most as a creative couple, in particular?
JILL Time. Time. Time. Time. Time. Time. Time. Time. Time. Hmmm, let me think about it. Oh yeah, TIME. It seems unfair that, as creatives, we never have enough of it. Since we are not independently wealthy and both have day jobs—although as an entrepreneur, I have more flexibility timewise… okay, let’s just go with that – it’s a challenge of balance.
How do we get it all in? How do we indulge our creative proclivities without shortchanging them, knowing that there are 1,000 other things on our lists that must take place in order for us to actually live?
It’s mindset too. Making our creative work as important as everything else, which is hard. Not gonna lie. Giving ourselves permission to make all things equal can be really challenging. I think that’s something we both grapple with.
For example, if I’ve got four clients banging on my door for work and Dan is driving 800 hours to and from a full-time day job, who’s pushing their stuff to the side for whatever else needs to happen? Am I pushing my novel work to cook dinner and go grocery shopping, for example? Or is he? If my aging parent needs me? Or the dog has to go out and there’s just one of us to do it? Or we need toilet paper or don’t feel good or have COVID or need to pull in some extra projects/dollars, etc. Who does what? How are we sharing the load? So we each get time for our creative muses?
The good news is we know how to talk. A lot. No subject is off limits. And we understand where each is coming from. So again, we manage to figure it out. Our personalities are also complementary enough for this to work – he’s being the oak tree, and me being the Jack Russell Terrier and jumps up and down it. But it’s a high-wire act that requires creativity and collaboration in its own right. I suspect this is a universal struggle.
Being able to adjust on the fly and adapt to every change that comes along. And when these changes come, never losing sight of the fact that we’re partners to the same goals and dreams. Even if the particular goals are different, the focus on supporting and helping the other achieve those goals and dreams remains the same.
And on the other side of things, how does both of you being artists feed or fuel your relationship?
JILL Understanding the compulsion to create connects us in an intimate way. I think it defines a lot of the love we have for one another because we’re so simpatico here. It definitely informs our choice of vacations and lifestyle. For example, we like to go to places where we can bring a computer and a guitar, and carve out time for our respective endeavors. Which is even more joyful, say, in 70 to 80 degrees at the beach, or mountains, or fun city (which is always my preference). For example, this summer, we drove to Lake George and spent a lot of time on the motel’s deck, me writing my novel and him working out a song on the guitar. Then we walk, hike, eat, do whatever. But the plan is to always start the day creatively (often at a coffee shop!).
Two ways: First, I see her art, how hard she works at it, how good it is. This inspires me to up my game. Second, it makes me appreciate how important it is for us both to have the time we need to engage in our respective art forms. This makes me way more empathetic to her struggles and challenges because, even though my medium is different than hers, I often feel them in the very same way.
Describe your dream working space as a couple.
Well, I think that might be different for each of us. Dan would love a log cabin on the lake, far away from everybody else. I would love a big loft space, in the heart of a thriving city, where community (and Starbucks and maybe Anthropologie) is close. Without this sounding too corny, I’d say my dream working space is wherever we are together. (Oh, and there are two bathrooms. And big windows. Overlooking something pretty. And there’s cake. But not a ton, so we don’t eat it all and get sick. And maybe a spa, because there’s nothing better for jogging your creativity than a good facial, is all … and maybe a nice walking trail, HBO Max and Hulu, hard wood, you know, the basics…)
A log cabin on a lake with a pontoon boat docked on our private sandy shore…………….in Soho. Ha! I have my recording studio downstairs and she has her writing room upstairs. And we need walkie-talkies, but don’t use them (actually, we use modern-day walkie-talkies called iphones and texting) except for very important things like who's available to let the dogs out and to relay dinner ETA’s.
And a little extra gold from Jill:
My advice to other creatives either in love or looking for love or support or life in general: Choose your partner and your communities well. Find folks who appreciate your creative proclivities and don’t feel threatened by them or in competition with them. But rather, feel compelled to champion them instead.
I’ll let you in on a little secret story here: Before I met Dan, I had a date with this guy who made a lot of money, but that was pretty much it. He had much less in the way of Big Wild Love and character. I know this because the day after our very tepid dinner (where he mostly talked about what he did and his money and his boat and asked me what I did and then talked about his boat some more), he emailed me a poem he wrote with the setup: “See, you’re not the only one who can write.” Uh, okay. Not a competition, but cool cool. While I thought it was weird that he would send that to me since our date didn’t go so well, I actually found his poem to be pretty good. So I shared it with a girlfriend, who said, “Yeah, those are the lyrics to a Depeche Mode song.”
Look, surround yourself with ambassadors, and lovers, and the I-got-your-back folks. People who are secure and Big Wild Loving enough in their own right to celebrate your successes, and be there to support you with your best interests at heart—even if it makes them feel a teensy bit icky because they’re not necessarily where you are. I say this with no judgies. But rather, with the idea that we are all on our own paths.
Well said, my friend. XO