The demands of art, the demands of self

Thursday November 08, 2007 @ 03:02 PM (UTC)

My friend (and distinguished poet) Jeannine recently wrote a little blogget on the continuing gender imbalance in publishing. It’s a little slanted towards poetry, but I’d be a big liar if I said these problems didn’t exist outside the versifying set.

In my comment, I typed and then deleted something like “Great, now I not only feel guilty on my own behalf for only having two stories out, I feel guilty on behalf of my whole gender.” I deleted it for two reasons; one, I thought it was whingingly reproachful, and two, it just doesn’t seem healthy to support more guilt, in however jocular a fashion. It occurs to me now that guilt is part of the reason there are fewer fiction and poetry submissions from women than there are from men, even though there are more female readers, English majors, writing students, et cetera. The ‘Time’ section of the Mslexia essay I linked to above talks about how women are, even today, more often the primary caregivers to children, and do more housework than men. It doesn’t talk about how that cultural role may be propagated, especially how it wins out against the potential fulfillment of writing.

I think women are constantly told to be nice, giving, and unselfish in our society. Boys are rewarded for being determined, ambitious and driven, virtues that in girls might be rendered as domineering, climbing and cold. In a million little ways, from being handed a toy instead of encouraged to reach for it to being admonished to smile at strangers, we are trained to be less aggressive and more socially adept than our male peers are expected to be. Some of this may show itself in Mslexia’s second section on Confidence. However, I think it affects time a great deal as well.

Even if a woman doesn’t have children, there are demands on her time. I’ve been trying hard to learn to say ‘no’. It feels so good to help, and helping has been so thoroughly emphasized in women’s socialization. My boss needs me to stay a half-hour later. My coworker is coming down with a cold on my only day off. It’s not just me—my boss’s new manager asks her to help run a second store on top of her own. These demands are immediate, time-sensitive, with a person on the phone or in front of us in distress that we can alleviate. If I take this time for myself instead of giving it, I will feel guilty. I’m a nice person, I want to help, I want to give…oh crap, okay.

Writing is seldom time-sensitive. However fragile the threads of meaning forming in the writer’s mind, they can usually be saved for the next quiet moment, the next stolen hour. Right now, someone says they need us—a child, a coworker, a friend, a boss. And if we say no, especially so we can go write words we aren’t even sure anyone will ever read, we’re selfish.

I’ve been called ‘selfish’ fairly often. A young woman is ‘selfish’ for pursuing a career or a dream rather than having children – even if, or especially if – she would like to have both. It’s not just that demands are made on her, tasks are offered or questions asked. It’s that her function in the world is ‘helpmeet’, her value contingent partially on her generosity, her ‘niceness’. Other people must always come first, that’s what we’ve internalized. No matter how hard we may try to gouge it out of our psyche, remnants remain.

Writing, any kind of art, requires an amazing egotism. It requires the artist to look at the breadth and depth of the world – or just of humanity – and say, “Yes, I need to be heard.” It takes a healthy self-respect to say that in the face of our own tininess, and it is incredibly hard to feel both that defiant self-confidence and the self-effacement of ‘niceness’, selflessness.

So we have to learn a new value system. We don’t need to be heartless or deaf to others’ needs—we just need to rate our artistic pursuits higher on the list of priorities. Not “I wasn’t going to do anything tonight but write, I can stay late,” but “They only want me here late as backup, my writing time is more important.” Not “Oh, okay,” but “If you can’t find anyone else to cover you, call me back.” Compromises are possible. I believe you can be kind and be an artist. It’s a struggle, and it’s not something anyone else can do for you, but I think it can be done.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I was going to spend my day working on a fellowship application, but I agreed to cover a closing shift at work.


To my Women Poets Listserv…I thought it might be relevant…Thanks for sending me the link to the myslexia article – I’ve passed it on to 700 others now! Here’s the e-mail I sent, based on the e-mail you sent me, commented on the blog post by you that responds to my blog post…and all for the want of a horseshoe nail. LOL.

Dear Wompos,
A friend of mine pointed out this older article from a magazine in the UK, which I thought was apt to our discussion of politics, poetry, publishing, and women:
Here’s a quote from the article:
“The ennervatingly obvious point is that male writers usually have wives, lovers, mothers, to run their homes and patrol the quiet solitude creativity demands. As Katia Mann (wife of Thomas Mann) said: ‘My portion was to see to it that he had the best circumstances for his work’.13 ‘After we were married he wrote more,’ boasted a proud Mrs William Carlos Williams. ‘I saw to it that he had time.’14 What woman writer can say that of her husband?”
I have to say that I think my husband is a rarity in that he does think my writing is important, so he does a majority of the cooking and cleaning at home, and has always told me to value working on my poetry like it was one of my “paying” jobs. Will this kind of companion become more common in the future? I hope so…Right now I feel very lucky, but frustrated that this kind of “luck” for women writers isn’t more common.
Hope you read and enjoy!
Take care,
Jeannine Hall Gailey
Is the internet good for writers?

I felt compelled to comment on the thread about women writers and the difficulty of getting the time and solitude to write. I am a fiber artist, and a wife, and I find it is very difficult to find the time to work uninterrupted on my quilt projects! I want time ALONE in my own home to work, without being interrupted by requests for meals! I am quite willing to eat cottage cheese and celery sticks, so why does the other person in this house need meat and potatoes? Sorry to be whingy (or is it whingey?), but really! Any female artist has trouble finding the time to be creative! I would recommend the book, “The Creative Woman’s Getting It All Together at Home Handbook” by Jean Ray Laury, a fiber artist married to a sculptor. Some laughter and very some practical suggestions! Dated, but women still are fighting for equality, in my opinion! Oh, by the way, do remember that all guilt is OPTIONAL! Ta, Suzette

True! I’m lucky that my male companion fends for himself foodwise. If I feel like cooking, I put it on the calendar and it’s, if not a big deal, then appreciated as an event.

I tried to open up my verbiage a touch to other art, which definitely poses the same problems, but thanks for chiming in from the visual arts perspective.

Another thing I have found nice is sleeping in my study sometimes. If I’m on a roll, I can go say good night to Captain Normal Schedule and retire to my workspace to pursue my thought without worrying about the “It’s HOW late?” factor overmuch.

New comment

required, won't be displayed (but may be used for Gravatar)


Don't type anything here unless you're an evil robot:

And especially don't type anything here:

Basic HTML (including links) is allowed, just don't try anything fishy. Your comment will be auto-formatted unless you use your own <p> tags for formatting. You're also welcome to use Textile.

Copyright © 2017 Felicity Shoulders. All rights reserved.
Powered by Thoth.