The essential: writing while female

For the past several days, I have done nothing but care for sick children, teach, write, and get by. It has been a grueling week and a half, and yet there is a kind of purity to it, a laser focus, a stripping-away of the inessential.

There has been reading. I include that in the essential. Lately it is snatches of prose gulped down just before sleep. Most recently, I finished Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot. As a walker, I was drawn to its promise–a trek across ancient routes in England and elsewhere in the world, walking as meditation, as sacred journey, as a way of knowing oneself but also being known and created by the landscape over which our feet pass. The book is sometimes dense, often lyrical. But as I came to it day after day, weary from long hours of nurturing other bodies and minds, I often felt excluded, on the fringes gazing longingly in. Macfarlane’s walking world seems to have little room for women. His walking companions are invariably men, his literary heroes men (with the token exception of Virginia Woolf), his walking heroes men (with another token exception), the rare women he encounters along the way merely adjuncts to their more significant male counterparts. I nearly had a put-the-book-in-the-freezer moment when Macfarlane suggested that the wife of his ultimate walking idol had ruined her husband’s life by loving him unconditionally.

Reading while female is a tricky business, writing while female even trickier. Many of my own literary heroes are male, and I think of them as I snatch a few moments of writing time in between questions from the fourth grader who is home sick and working on a social studies project. A substantial chunk of my work in progress has been revised in such fits and starts–a paragraph here, a sentence there. I wonder if I am sacrificing too much continuity, but this is my reality. If John Keats had lived to marry Fanny and father children, I suspect he would not have composed epic poetry in installments of couplets, in between taking temperatures and administering ibuprofen and getting more saltines and ginger ale.

We write ourselves into being, and so it is little wonder that it seems to have taken nearly every interesting woman of my acquaintance at least forty years or so to figure out who exactly she is. We are at this business in fits and starts. I got to the end of The Old Ways and was surprised (not really?) to discover that Macfarlane has children, via a glancing reference in the text. This is not to say that he should write of them. But I am struck by his freedom to wander the world, and his apparent freedom from thinking about them in the process. He has apparently given up mountaineering as a result of becoming a father. Still, as a woman who has spent several days fetching saltines and ginger ale and supervising make-up work, I read of his peregrinations with wonder tinged by disbelief–who gets to do these things? Who is doling out the crackers and ginger ale??

Though my fiction is not about mother-child relationships, motherhood glosses all my texts. It is there in physical form, in smudges and scribbles, little fingerprints on rough drafts. But it is also in the writing itself, between the lines. It marks my words in ways both obvious and subtle. Whether we have children or not, being female marks our writing. Male is the default setting. “Women’s fiction” is for women, and J. K. Rowling uses her initials because she’s told that boys won’t read books written by Joanne. Women cram in writing time when they can, exhausted by the full-time job and more than 50% of the housework plus their unequal share of emotional labor.

I look back at what I have included in “the essential”–work, writing, tending children. I suspect that for most if not all of the male writers I’ve admired and sought to emulate over the years, that “essential” would be narrower, the focus purer. But I wonder, too, if in stripping away, they lose some of the rich messiness that might have left their writing less refined but more deeply human.