Our writing has rarely been more important. And yet it’s increasingly difficult for women to get to the desk. Confined to our homes, many of us home-schooling our children and others of us (or the same ones of us) caring for a vulnerable elderly parent while also maintaining our paid employment, we reel from day to day. Occasionally demoralized. Aware that the country is at war both with a virus and with recalcitrant parts of itself, and increasingly aware—and this is almost incomprehensible, and certainly evil—that there is no useful national response. Ronald Reagan’s joking/not joking assertion, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help,’” have fulfilled their libertarian karma past all the bounds of reason. We are agog at the new reality (as is the rest of the world). Can it actually be true we are still in free fall? Yes. At the same time, now that we are all at home, the old realities of home predominate.
Male academics are publishing more and female academics less, with the attendant career results. Covid-related job loss has disproportionately affected women, and mothers especially. Women have lost a decade’s worth of financial gains in three months.
Given all this, how to make one’s way to the writing desk, or to whatever work
nourishes your soul and vision?
By recalling that the desk is a refuge.
By recalling that the desk provides a unique release.
By recalling that if you don’t tell us your truth and vision, no one will. You know a piece of the world that I don’t. You see things I can’t in a way I can’t. Only you can convey it. And nothing will reward you in quite the same way.
I’ve been thinking hard about these things. In part that’s because years ago I wrote a book about the emotional side of the writer’s life and I have continued to study what exactly gets in the way of being productive. Envy tormented me in those early days; I hollowed myself with it. Distraction, too, consumed hours. In addition, I was concerned about hurting the people I loved by writing about them, and yet the stories I most urgently needed to tell were from my own experiences, so much so that it felt as if I was holding the garment of my life inside out, staring at its lining, clasping the inner shoulders, and only writing would flip it so I could see its pattern. I wanted to write the secret thoughts I had no way to say out loud but that banged within me like the knocks and clamor of a radiator that needs to be bled.
And so I investigated. I wanted to find the meaning in the obstacles, to understand what my symptoms were saying. To my surprise, the little book I wrote became a bestseller. “I keep it on a special shelf beside my bible,” one woman told me. Another reported that she read it so many times that sections fell out and she patched the binding with duct tape. What had been essential for me to discover was essential for others to discover, as well. Some novelists credited it as enabling them not to abandon their book but see it through to publication. This summer, 25 years after its initial release, HarperCollins reissued it.
One message of Writing Past Dark that strikes me particularly today is that believing in one’s work is a spiritual practice. The more you do it, the stronger your practice gets, and the more you discover what you couldn’t have anticipated at the outset because you have changed. In the male life story, obstacles create strength and meaning, and ultimate heroism. Women, however, have been trained to interpret obstacles as evidence one isn’t meant to do something: the outer world is saying no and the outer world is wise. Similarly, men historically are admired for having a sense that their projects are important; they are valued for possessing the drive and even obsession necessary to complete their work. Whereas the woman who does not prioritize other people is still seen as not womanly and even inhuman. Especially today we must resist the message that our work is solipsistic or a luxury. We must remind ourselves that our artistic work is actually also—like men’s—for the general good.
I think of Claude Monet painting at Giverny as the Germans were shelling
across the Marne. Clemenceau visited, and urged him to keep on; it was crucial for France, for the very meaning of France. And so the tubes of violet and blue continued to be squeezed onto the palette, and the canvas waterlilies bloomed, and the man that Monet employed to wash the dust from the tree leaves, and to tape leaves back onto the autumn trees when they fell, continued in his work too, the cultivated and the artificial and the real all reflecting one another, surface and sky and depth. And during the next war, the German artist Charlotte Salomon, in flight from the Nazis, painted dozens and dozens of pillow-sized autobiographical tableaux before she was caught, documenting her Berlin childhood, her relationships with men, masterful expressionistic depictions that I recall two decades after seeing them in a museum, down to the very angle of the bed her grandmother lay in, as
Charlotte clasped her, and the cobalt blue wall behind her fiancé.
“A painting of a rice cake doesn’t satisfy hunger,” the 13th-century Zen master Dogen said. This is generally taken to mean that studying sutras and having a conceptual understanding don’t fulfill a person’s spiritual needs—one has to
experience certain things directly, with one’s own ears and eyes, and heart. (Ah, Zen!). But Master Dogen also said, “Only a painting of a rice cake satisfies hunger.” Which I take to mean that only the arts—and not the belly’s fuel—speak fully to one’s soul.
So—how does one actually get to the work?
Art is something transcendent created out of salvaged half hours, with noisy
neighbors and a problematically moldy bathtub, and a mother who probably has a U.T.I. again, and with only a mealy apple in one’s fridge. This is the constant challenge: to travel from the mundane, where we are planted, to the empyrean. Or at least to someplace else, where significance is a bit more concentrated.
Four or five mid-mornings a week, I ignore my imperious to-do list. And
I turn on a program Freedom, which disables access to the internet. I power
off my phone and set it in a drawer. At first my work seems boring and stupid.
I’ve been working on this novel for many years and to make contact with it I must ignore a certain sensation of tedium. Also an awareness of the book’s clumsiness. It recalls to me the taste during a dental hygienist’s teeth-cleaning. Necessary, if egregious. Doggedly, I continue on.
But then at a certain point while working a fresh idea springs up. And crazy hope. And I get all excited, and scenes in the book show me an angle I hadn’t seen before. And all is alive again, especially me. I’ve spent 10 years—no, longer—working on this book. And only when it was finished for the fourth time did its central theme leap out, and then I saw it was already encoded in all the cells of the novel’s body. A revelation. And the reason I could make this discovery now and not a day sooner is that its characters had sprung free of their ancient origins in my own life, and because I finally had read enough contemporary fiction to see the tropes, and because I’d been in an excellent psychotherapy in the unlikely town of Denton, Texas, and because being a professor allowed me to accrue enough authority to clarify my previously blurred, equivocating powers of perception.
My novel, called Chartreuse, is about a married woman who has an affair. After
the husband discovers it, the wife reports that she didn’t recognize the person she’d become. The therapist nods. “Yes,” she says, “But it is the marriage that created this unrecognizable person.”
Unrecognizable person!—what an ugly phrase! All those glottal stops! My
protagonist rejects this notion. It sounds textbook and pat. Although she has also long felt that the husband has hidden something dark and sticky behind her; she can’t see what.
One morning, as I was working on the last chapter, it occurred to me that there
had indeed been an unrecognizable person in the marriage. When the wife didn’t tell the husband how she felt but waited for those feelings to go away, she created unrecognizability. When she didn’t express her loneliness she created it as well. The husband and wife had in fact conspired in maintaining the structure of the marriage while each secretly emptied it of its contents. All before the entrance of the lover.
Here was the revelation for which I’d written the entire book, often despairing
that I’d ever find it, or thinking that it had already arrived but was no big deal. This experience instructed me again about the faith that we must maintain in our work.
Even now, during Covid days, even with all that’s going on.
My friend Alice has little problem allocating time to writing. “The problems in the world are the same problems the world has always had. There’s nothing new. I check the news in the late afternoon, once a day.”
I can scarcely agree (my psyche is in a state of perpetual alarm), but I marvel at her sangfroid—she has the perspective of an Aeschylus, a Kohelet.
Wake up very early, before the children open their eyes, as Toni Morrison and Louise Erdrich did. Stay up very late, as Yiyun Li used to do, as Antonya Nelson, as Liesl Schillinger did. As Cali Khouri did writing Thelma and Louise. If you need to write you need to find hours. Save some. Make some. They may not be ideal but they may grow more ideal
as your body adjusts, as your schedule invents possibilities.
Especially now that the world is so stultifying, it is more important than ever that you not leave yourself unrecognizable. Elena Ferrante’s work is not a luxury and wasn’t even before she was famous, and neither is yours. What would you write if you had the courage to write it? What do you want to discover? What do you need to know? What scents and visions must you record? What is the most beautiful and the ugliest thing you’ve ever done? What language do you love to read and write? How can you find the hours that don’t yet exist? How can you let us know you are here?
Bonnie Friedman is the author of the best-selling book Writing Past Dark: Envy,
Fear, Distraction, and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life. Her work has been
anthologized in The Best Writing on Writing and Writing Fiction: A Guide to
Narrative Craft. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.