by Kathleen George
Things are different for women writers these days, right? Ahem.
I’m sure male writers have their problems, too. Perhaps uncles and neighbors who build their lives around insurance policies and two-week vacations see them as lazy, dreamy, stay-at-homes. But women have been criticized for writing for all kinds of reasons. Erica Jong’s mentor said, “[Women] don’t know blood and guts and puking in the streets, and fucking whores . . .” as if that is the only story. But by the way, we can write tough, too. Mary Gordon’s mentor said, “A woman writer is like a female bear with a lot of stopped up shit which she gets all over the cave.” Is it so different from male shit?
Even generous and well-meaning mentors have done their damage. Mostly they worry about disinvolvement, detachment, solitude. “Come out of that room, that self-involvement, and just be normal” is the message. At least that’s the one I got from childhood up. Janet Sternberg has come up with a central image for that detachment: a woman behind a closed door. Closing that door is the defining act. It then takes work to move in and out of that private place at will.
The place to write, the place to be wholly oneself, is precious. I found it as a child. I can remember taking a fan to our attic, sitting at a rickety table intoxicated by the smell of dust, hot raw wood, mothballs, and my aloneness. My father seemed amused. My mother frowned with worry. This was as bad as reading. She worried so much that I buried myself in books that she began hiding my books. She wanted me to develop personality. That was a specific thing. It was effervescence, a “bubbling over” that she just loved and that she thought was the only way for a woman to be.
Over the years I found my way to other alcoves. And I wrote sentimental Christmas plays, puppet plays, stories of all sorts. I thought, yes, this is what I want to do. So when I was a senior in college, a writing major, I went to the office of one of my teachers, a good mentor who encouraged me. He wasn’t in. His office mate was. The office mate said, “What do you want to be a writer for? You’re too pretty to do that to yourself.”
Huh? (Now mind this was the time before glam dust jackets.)
He continued, “”Women writers are unhappy people and they’re always bad looking. They live miserable lives.”
Oh, how he scared me. I wanted to be a writer but I also wanted to have a life. I ran away from writing. I took money to go to school in theatre where, I thought, being around all those people might help me develop some personality. And maybe it did. But I learned soon enough that when I directed plays, I was actually writing, narrating, controlling every move.
One summer I didn’t have anything to direct and I sat down. I put pen to paper and I wrote. I’m not exaggerating to say my life began to flower when I was doing what I wanted to do. It was at that point that I met my husband (a writer). His mentoring was different from that guy in the English department office. Instead of scaring me that my life would fall apart, he made a private office for me in our house. He told me to go hole up and write.
And I did.
Home. After all those years away.