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.

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8 thoughts on “The essential: writing while female

  1. Very powerful writing. . .
    I think that I will reflect on this idea for years to come.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts Mrs. Layne!

  2. You have cut to the core something I have failed to notice in myself. That automatic acceptance that only praising male writers suggests I haven’t made an effort to check my anti-feminist inclinations at the door. Yes, I adore works by male writers. Does that mean I don’t think women can write? No. But I haven’t inhaled and regurgitated my love of women’s work the way I have defaulted to favorites who happen to be from male pens. (I’m sure that doesn’t look weird to anyone else; it just has to be me that sees a missing ‘i’ in that last word.) Perhaps it is because women write more complicated texts–or possibly more prurient ones and I am embarrassed to admit I like a taste of naughty writing to accompany the more acceptable, known works by men? I will take steps to redress this and speak as loudly in praise of my Sherwood Smiths as I do my Terry Pratchetts!

    1. I love how you put that. YES. And I think there’s a reality, too, that for hundreds of years very few women have had the option of writing and publishing in the ways men have taken for granted. What would Coleridge have sounded like if he’d had to hide his poems under his embroidery? How would Yeats’s mythology have changed if he felt the need to live up to some external standard of physical beauty as a primary source of self-worth? So much food for thought…..and I’m totally with you on the “pens” thing. 😉

  3. I love this continuation of our “conversation,” Brenna. It was such a treat to open your note yesterday and was exactly what I needed to read at the moment. I resonate so much with the writing scraps here and there, trying to remember where I last left off as I wipe a snotty nose, make dinner, and try and listen to my four loves who want/need so much of me, so much of the time. I have to think that the writing is absolutely more real, and while messy, way more relatable to way more people. Expect a note back from me soon.

    1. Looking forward to it! In the meantime, here is one of my favorite writer-quotes for you, from American dancer and choreographer Agnes de Mille: “The manuscript consisted of letter paper, wrapping paper, programs, envelopes, paper napkins–in short, whatever would take the imprint of a pencil. A great deal of it was written with a child crawling around my neck or being sick in my lap, and I dare say this may account for certain aspects of its style.”

  4. Brenna!!! I have so many questions for you. Like, the good kind of questions because this is so thought provoking. I love how you separate out male and female readers, and also make and female writers. I’m curious (and with not criticism) how much is woman, and how much is mother? I say this because, I don’t have children, but I still feel that same sense of fits and starts. Does it have to do with how women attend to ‘work’ (both inside and outside of the home) differently than men? All of my questions are swirling!! So many questions. Maybe a letter written on the airplane is in order. Thanks for being so thoughtful and honest!

    1. I want all the questions! How much is woman and how much is mother? That is a big and good one. I think that our female-ness amplifies the difficulty in different ways depending on kid-status. For moms, there’s one set of challenges. For all the kid-free ones, there’s the set of challenges posed by a culture that wants to get all up in your business and question your art because shouldn’t you be settling down and having kids by now?? I feel like we could write companion pieces on this and tease out some important stuff. Thanks so much for your response–I want to talk about this more!

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