Lesson One: Guilt is a Primary Feeling Shared by Many Women Writers
Joy Williams in her essay titled “Shifting Things” tells about being given three copies of Marguerite Young’s Miss MacIntosh, My Darling when she decided to write. She assumed the message behind the gift was to discourage her, because it took the author seventeen years to write. Joy Williams admits she write’s “out of a sense of guilt.” So I’m not the only one discouraged by others. It offers a pleasant relief that discouraging writers is a community event. Because of it we feel guilt that we go ahead and write anyway.
Women feel guilt about their writing because it is something they do alone, outside of family and outside a traditional job or in some cases while multitasking on other jobs. Like Elizabeth Jolley in her essay “Dipt Me in Ink”, I too think, “The best time for me to write is when other people are asleep. I am not needed in their dreams.” Why do women feel guilty?”
Natalia Ginzburg describes her transition back to writing while caring for children in her essay “My Vocation” thus: “I still made tomato sauce and semolina, but simultaneously I thought about what I could be writing.” It’s because their primary role is as organizer of the family and household.
I knew mothers always had to set aside their work, but why did I? Even though I had no children I still need to clean my house, order the household by paying bills and perform other organizing tasks such as planning exercise time. I handle any issues arising from the rest of my family before writing. So why do I do this?
Maxine Kumin in her essay “The Care Givers” says it exactly, “It never occurred to me that I was a willing victim of sexism.” And “The pressure to conform came from me.” It affected her choices about what she would write, and it affects other writer’s about when and how they would write including myself.
Admitting to the need to play all the roles we’ve accepted in life actually frees us women to write in our downtime, whenever we can allow it to happen.
Lesson Two: Commissioned Work is a Wonderful Concept as is Reinforcing the Notion of Vocation
So if women, maybe men too, feel guilty because they write, what helps motivate them to continue forward?
The lesson seems to be that writer’s all need to accept their writing as their vocation and that any payback helps make it worthwhile. Patricia Hampl starts the collection of essays with “The Need to Say It” and writes, “My first commissioned work was to write letters for her [grandmother]” and “My fee was cookies and milk”.
Maxine Kumin reports after the sale of several books, “I was an important wage earner.” She left off the finally part.
Many of the writers talk about persistence finally leading to pay and the feeling of a real job that comes with being paid. It’s not enough to do the job, want to do the job, need to do the job; true self respect for doing a job comes from being paid to do the job.
Lesson Three: Feminism isn’t About Being a Woman
I also tended to wish that the women’s rights movement wasn’t necessary, in much the same way that Jan Morris says, “In my heart I resist the title of this book,…, that it matters whether a writer is male or female. She also says, “Twenty years ago I would have said that the woman is hampered by the male inability to take her seriously.”
The good news seems to be that attitudes can and do change since as Maxine Kumin says, women are the “best-kept secret: Merely the private lives of one-half of the humanity.” A humanity as Baharati Mukherjee says, “who was condemned to a role of subservience”, before explaining how her move to the United States transformed her.
Feminism is giving voice to the silenced half of humanity. For Elena Poniatowski in her essay, “A Question Mark Engraved”, that meant that unlike other Mexican women peasants, she found a character that didn’t remain silent and didn’t have children but who did, “pick up stray children and dogs in the street, fed them and taught them how to work.” Feminism is about social justice.
Lesson Four: “It’s a Quirk of Memoir that it’s Narrator Can Never Be its Hero”
The title of this lesson comes from a quote from Patricia Hampl in her essay, “The Need to Say It”. This is a lesson to think about when writing memoir since the reader expects the writer to be a distant observer of other stories. Memoir is not about writing about the self, but writing about what we observe in the world around us. This is helpful for me to know since I am working on a memoir and it will help shape the final product.
Lesson Five: Hearing Voices Can Be Enabling
My brother hears voices and is schizophrenic. I also hear voices, sometimes of people I know, sometimes one of my characters telling me their story—this made many people frightened that I would be crazy even though I have seldom been violent and though I get angry it is the type of anger that takes me for a walk or to dig in the dirt.
I guess many people are frightened by other people, in fact, one of my classes in communication explained that humans have to have the courage to cross over to others and strike up a conversation. This is the power of communication and hearing voices is all about willingness to listen. Many people don’t take the time to listen, so because writer’s do listen they are often the first to share hidden truths about the world.
Linda Hogan in her essay “Hearing Voices” talks about how the wind carried the news of Chernobyl’s hidden disaster. She says what the value is very beautifully “We begin to learn we are many people including the stars we once were, and how we are in essence the earth and the universe, how what we do travels clear around the earth and returns.” To listen is the first step in being a writer because you hear life.
Lesson Six: Writers Gain Community When They Write
In the “Care Givers” an essay by Maxine Kumin about her writing, she offers up “I wish, too, that I had kept some sort of journal during the years of serious, warring, loving, almost violently productive workshops with Holmes and George Starbuck and Sexton and Samuel Albert.”
When asked to do community service, I always want to say, who is my community? The answer for me is my community is other writers but I have found other writers reject me because I was a systems analyst. I don’t think of it as one or the other.
To me, community is more than who aids me and me them; community is the entire world that I embrace when I tell the stories I envision. Unlike Maxine Kumin who gave up her apocalyptic writing and began to write of domestic life; I never wrote apocalyptic, only post-apocalyptic. The difference is the focus, in the former, the focus of the story is about disaster, while the latter is always about survival. Writer’s due to the huge amount of investment time needed to pull together enough product to sell well need to be survivors. I know more about survival then I do about domestic life that I avoid if I can handle the guilt of doing so.
Rita Dove on the other hand, in her essay “The House that Jill Built”, tells the tremendous tale of how working with a photographer pushed her into a project and in return pushed the photographer to find appropriate photographs and how empowering all of this can be.
What both of these women are explaining is how wonderful it is to have an audience who cares about your writing as much as you care about their work. So really, after thinking about it quite some time, community is the writers you work with primarily, all the others fade to the background just the same as other people’s colleagues at their jobs are community.
Lesson Seven: Writing is A Duty
This sections title is also a quote from someone in the book but I can’t find it. The woman who wrote it said, we writers are extremely lucky to be allowed to sit and write stories and therefore it is our duty to write. There is my guilt.
Natalie Ginzburg writes in her essay “My Vocation” that “This vocation is a master who is able to beat us till the blood flows, a master who reviles and condemns us.” Well, I have met this same guy and despise him as much as I like to fall into story.
Writing for me is always a battle. It begins with a word or picture that floats in my head for days at a time. I don’t every think I know enough or tell the truth enough so I am always seeking revision of it. Margaret Atwood offers up “Next day, there’s the blank page. You give yourself up to it like a sleepwalker.” To me that is less guilt. To fall into imagining I have to let the world around me dissolve. I do this by playing games and am always in trouble for it. Games are as addicting as chemicals but they offer up the ability to stop thinking. Only when I do that, can I climb outside of myself, wrap myself in someone else and follow a dream.
But I have learned that I can beat myself up by saying, “writing is a duty” because I’m so privileged and it makes me last longer. As Carolyn Forche reminded herself, “Whatever keeps you from doing your work has become your work,” in her essay “The Province of Radical Solitude”.
Many have complained that I spend too much time researching since it has become my other job. This is true. But immersing myself in what I writing requires me to know if very deeply, like in my home. I believe that a home in which I’ve touched every surface and made it mine as I cleaned it is very healthy and alive because I have brought about the magic of loving it.
Ursula Le Guin writes “Her work, I really think her work/isn’t fighting, isn’t winning, isn’t being the Earth, isn’t being the Moon. Her work, I really think her work/ is finding what her real work is/ and doing it.”
Lesson Eight: Women Write About Home
Harriet Doerr in an essay titled “A Sleeve of Rain” showed me the power of extended metaphor. She uses her homes that she lived in and how she related to them to convey how her writing is influenced by her life. As Gretel Erlich say in her essay “Life at Close Range”, “If you live in a place—any place city or country—long enough and deeply enough you can learn anything.” This is different than how men write because they spend less time at home until they retire. Since I was away from home for many years working in the business world, I have witnessed and experienced both worlds, but I still did so as a woman and I write from a woman’s point of view more often than not. Likewise, Linda Hogan, too uses extended metaphor to carry her piece to completion. This is a good technique for essay writing. Luisa Valenzuela also uses extended metaphor in her essay "Writing with the Body", taking the hands on approach, going where her body led, needing to touch the world.
Overall, I got a better sense of what writing memoir and writing essays were like. Many of the pieces went beyond a telling mode of I did this or I did that. The writers all sought for what was in their heart. Many admit how painful this can be, to take on the pains of society and wear them with your words. This sharing of experience brings people who write closer together into a community. Women writers are more my community than that of men. I found in my second novel that this became true. Women have a different experience than men because we play different roles. We may take on roles that men play, too, because many of us have played them or we have husband’s to check with, about experience.