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Thoughts on Women Writers
a speech originally delivered at the Association of Professional Women Writers in Western
New York State, Buffalo NY, October '03
Kim Wells


     In planning this speech I thought about Ursula K. LeGuin's* interpretation of narrative, based on an anthropological theory that the first tool used by humanity wasn't, as popular media would have us think, a stick to bash someone with, but a bag-- something to use to carry home the nuts and berries, or the fortunately caught rabbit for dinner, or even hold the baby who would wiggle and wander off to be lost without some kind of attention being paid, attention that needed to be on the gathering of daily foodstuff instead. LeGuin imagines that the true shape of narrative is more like that carrier bag-- not the pointed, linear hero-quest where halfway through you slay the beast and move on to a heroic victory parade, but a mixture of things thrown together next to each other, jostling, competing, and overlapping, somewhat like a quilt, enhancing each other, but sometimes contrasting. I suspect my speech-writing abilities extend to that less heroic type of speech because as I sit down to write, I am feeling like a bit of a fraud. I have been asked to speak to you, this collection of professional women writers, women who have somehow, amidst all the pitfalls and dangers of doing either activity, managed to be both professional writers and professional women. I have been asked to speak to you because, in part, I have set myself out there as some sort of expert on a website titled "Women Writers." (Which endeavor is worthy and wonderful, but leaves me far from knowing everything about women writers, as I am frequently reminded by bizarre requests for information from my audience).

At this historical moment, I am struggling (and failing, in part) to write my doctoral dissertation, and do not feel at all like much of a writer. I have, in my mind, the plots of several novels, but they are as yet not even scribbles on a piece of paper. I actually cannot think of the last time I sat down to write a piece of fiction (unless you count that dissertation-- which at this moment is quite fictional). I did write a few poems back in May. They were horrid little love poems that no one but me or my husband would ever want to read, and I actually am not even sure of those two potential readers. So I'm quite certain right now that all of you in the audience today are much more qualified to talk about what women writers do than I am and I am fairly nervous that you would be better served by ordering a cup of coffee and some dessert than by listening to anything I have to say. So I will not try, just yet, to give any advice about how to write, how to be a woman, how to be a woman writer. Instead, I will try to imagine something about what it takes to think about women and writing, the shape of narrative, and all the complicated layers of distraction and purpose and work that can help, hinder, inspire, and discourage us as writers. I may have many more questions than answers.

     While I despair of my professional writerly status, one thing I am very very good at, like I'm sure most of you, is being a reader. I can read, ignoring all other distractions, for hours, days (perhaps, given the opportunity, months or years). If only someone would pay me well for this skill. This reading is what makes me aspire to be a writer-- the incredible gift of hearing another person's thoughts, of seeing other worlds imagined by another person than myself, is one I have longed to share since I was a little girl spelling out the words of Curious George and marveling over the man in the yellow hat. So I am a competent reader, certainly, and comfortable in talking about that, at least, even if it doesn't pay the bills.
     The dissertation I've mentioned at least one too many times here is in its "research reading" stage, so my professional "scholarly" work right now is all about reading-- I could tell you all about Foucault's power theories, or psychological works on desire and fantasy in literature (but I won't, since that would be a horrible speech of the sort I once promised a close friend I would never write, while we were sitting at a commencement speech given by an old guard sexist lawyer/senator who all but patted the behind of the valedictorian woman who had just spoken and said "she's a purty little thing, maybe I'll hire her" before expounding for what seemed like hours on his theory of law practice). So back to reading, then.

     The professional work that earns me a small sum of money is also basically about reading-- the reading of student papers, editing, grading, lecturing about things like thesis statements, evidence and support, arguments, an author's ethos, white space and graphics and fonts to the technical writers-- to students suspicious that I don't know what I'm talking about and infinitely more interested in beer and members of the opposite sex than they are in theories of writing. I think of Robin Williams' character in the Dead Poet's Society saying that writers write "to woo women" and I realize, again, that most writers are quite firmly supposed to be men-- and wooing is what it's all about, so maybe my students are on the right track in being suspicious of me.

     So let's just not talk about that professional stuff. As a reader, in my desperation to establish my own ethos in today's speech, I turned to the words of others to imagine: what is it to be a professional woman writer, at least three decades into what we consider feminism's second wave? Can women today earn their living (let alone some sort of place in the memory of readers of the future, the people we are ostensibly writing for)? Are women writers today more respected as writers, or are they still considered oddities, labeled for their difference and status as an "other"-- like the "male nurse" or "lady doctor"? According to a poll on my website, which has been run since June 2001, at the time this speech was written, people thought that women writers are represented in the canon "barely or not at all" (20%), or "better than they used to be but still not good" (59%). That more than 15% of the respondents are less sure about what the canon is than those that think women are "equal to male writers" at 5% is telling, since the canon has been the measure of a writer's longevity and status in the eyes of history, (read: success) and generally, the women writers of the past have fallen resoundingly OUT of that canon despite great influence and/or success during their own writerly career. (Consider, for example, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Sarah Orne Jewett or even Dorothy Wordsworth). So evidence of the past and present both say that women as writers today are not quite at parity, and men are still the "norm" for writers. What does that say then to those of us gathered here? Should we just hang it up and take up some other profession since it's clearly hopeless? Should we aspire to grow those "balls" that some say one must have to be a writer? Does that mean only those WITH balls are really writers? What does our biology have to have to do with it?

     Virginia Woolf once said that in order for a woman to be a writer she needs a room of her own with a door, and a lock, and financial security (the famous 500 pounds). That sounds pretty good, but for many women, including myself one day, children are part of the mix, and a significant other, and a fat black cat who interrupts any writing to demand her ears be scratched. And it is not practical to lock the door too often, which Woolf's equation of what it takes to be a writer demands we do (lock ourselves away from everyone else). Even when you do lock that door, the phone rings to pull you out of that state of muse-inspired thought and you know you should be going to the gym to keep that writerly behind from spreading too far. So it seems inevitable that the personal must intrude into the writing-- and therefore into the professional. So is the personal and writing all about our difference as a woman?

     Are we still stuck in an essentialist argument that there is a definite difference to a woman's way of knowing the world? And is that a bad or a good thing? Do male writers even have to think about this, or is it like the famous Gloria Steinem quote says that "I've yet to hear a man ask how to combine a family and a career?" Many men have imagined that what it takes to be a writer is to have a pencil be an extension of his phallus-- the law of the father, the power of progeny, the ability to forge a linear pattern of heroic quest onto the virgin snow of white paper.

     I find that I'm thinking a lot about the conflict between being a woman, being a writer, and being a parent, partly because it's difficult to do all three at once, and while I'm having a difficult time being a writer, don't even get me started about the other roles I might eventually want to play in life. Unfortunately, women usually figure as support for writers, not writers themselves. Consider the myth of the male writer abandoning everything to search for inspiration, shipping off to a deserted island to woo native women and create divinely inspired art that we gasp upon reading-- only a few writers have been able to abandon themselves to writing with no thought for the world around them, and as LeGuin imagines in a wonderful essay titled "The Fisherwoman's Daughter," those male writers relied upon the benefit of some (usually anonymous) woman to feed them and clothe them and make sure they didn't drunkenly die in a gutter before writing some wonderful verse for us to teach to high schoolers. And if those male writers were parents, someone else took care of their kids while they wrote. Those male writers, and society at large, deem family distractions, to be avoided, just like any sort of thing that keeps us from writing. But maybe, instead, sometimes distractions inspire us to write? Perhaps out of distractions come art, sometimes even those things we do "to pay the bills" become our best work.

     Consider Jo March-- Louisa May Alcott's fictional persona, as an inspiration for our vision of a woman writing-- scribbling away in her garret with Scrabble the rat for company and a family that peeks in to offer tea and apples and encouragement and most of all, support. Louisa & in turn Jo's family, gave her as writer her best work, her ticket to immortality. The image of Jo seems wonderfully serendipitous to me because after this speech, tomorrow, I plan to fly to Boston and then Concord where I also plan to go on a quest for Alcott's grave, to place flowers on one of my greatest role models just as Woolf did on the grave of Aphra Behn in Westminster Abbey (which I have also seen). So I think about Alcott some more-- she wrote to support her family, because her father Bronson wanted to be free to think and not worry about money (just like his fictional counterpart says in Little Women "Aim at the highest and never mind the money"). But then, as Amy says "the money is the best part of it." So we should be writers, but writing "for the money" to support ourselves needs to be an important part of it to. Alcott's best "artful" work is a novel most of us have never heard of, and Little Women, written to pay the bills, has never been out of print. "Pure Art for Art's Sake," I believe, is a fiction made up by the mostly male Romantic Poets, who didn't have to think about where the rent came from because they were already wealthy. Learning to write is not just to "woo women" because once you woo the lover, what do you do when you have to support them? What about the family that comes of that "wooing"-- are they still distractions to be avoided at all costs?

     I will take a moment here to fall into distraction and autobiography again. As I write, I am sitting on my back porch-- a wonderful place to be in Texas in early October. I am ignoring the gigantic stack of student papers that I should be grading, and I know that I will have to face hopeful and then disappointed eyes of young writers waiting for my expertise as the one in charge of their progress. I am hoping that my husband will stop to buy dinner because I am busy writing and don't have time to think about going to the store or thawing something out. There are grackles buzzing and complaining in the oak trees next to me, causing a disturbance to the cat who demands consolation for not being able to control the yard of her own. She decides that I'm not at all satisfying as a consolation, and I am left alone again to think and write and also be distracted by the green of my jasmine vine and the thought that I'm getting hungry. Squirrels run along what we call "the rodent road" (a fence that lines my neighbor's property line) and my computer irritatingly jumps the cursor up into a preceding line of text, typing into another thought and needing to be repositioned and edited. The loudest distractions are complaints from my body-- unmistakably the part that makes me a woman writer-- it demands a shift of position for the falling-asleep foot, a trip to the coffee pot, a scratch on the head. I am also quite distracted by and irritated at a neighbor who is speaking loudly into a phone while walking in her back yard-- my quiet space interrupted by someone who has every right to speak but who is more intrusive, somehow, than all the buzzing grackles and barking dogs. I have a sinus headache, brought on by the glorious fall season-- and the demands of my body are difficult to ignore, but it is always here, and always both distraction and inspiration.

     Does this mean that all that theory about writing being a purely mental act, necessary to take place in a distraction-free environment, a place of pure thought and clarity and mental struggling with gods and angels has always been a load of hooey? I suspect so. I suspect that being a writer is sometimes less about our successes at writing than it is about our struggles. I've read that William Faulkner, when he wrote The Sound and the Fury, believed that the story was ultimately a failure. Small thanks for occasional missteps seems in order there, at least! So maybe I am less a fraud than I thought earlier, because I surely know what it means to seek and to fail at writing. But what about failing at being a professional? That means usually no food on the table, the rent not getting paid, and writing is awfully hard to do while scrounging for life's daily necessities. Distractions again. But I find that some of the distractions are actually inspirations, and are actually what make it possible for me to find the words to speak to you today. That black cat has joined me again to sleep on my lap, and purrs contentedly as I write and find that I might know something about being a writer after all. And the door with a lock would have kept me alone in my messy office which mostly inspires thoughts of cleaning the piles of papers and books that drive my clean-freak husband (who asserts "I am not a clean freak" on hearing this) crazy. So maybe being a writer is partly about those moments of watching two orange butterflies chase each other in the afternoon sunlight, and getting ready to stop and think about dinner. Being a writer is sometimes about those moments when you, the observer, (which some might call distracted) take note of something others ignore in their "arrow-straight" heroic quest to get things done. I cannot imagine really writing without my peaceful and distracting back yard, or without the busy, bustling, crazy college campus where I work, without students like the cute girl in my class who writes wonderfully, loves to tell outrageous dirty jokes to her shocked classmates, and who blushed furiously when I used her essay as an example of good writing the other day. I love the campus where I get to see the two young men in the rec room who spend literally hours on the electronic dance-game machine, studiously yet without anything one would call grace or even rhythm, going through intricate and elaborate dance steps, who we have christened "dancingnerds.com," and imagining a story written about them that might make more people stop and notice. What all writers do is steal those moments of unobserved distraction and place them into our narratives, we, as Steven King says "lie mercilessly" but in those lies, we also tell a deeper truth. I hope for a life full of those distractions, because the room with a door and a lock sounds awfully empty and lonely to me, and those days spent watching, I am sure, will eventually turn to writing. I don't know how those men who abandoned day to day life for "pure Art" did it-- and I think about those who fell into the gutter and I know that many didn't quite make it.

     I like to imagine Jo March writing to try to support her family, of Alcott who still inspires girls to be something in addition to (not just instead of) being a mother and housewife, because even though she didn't have her own children, she did her best to try to raise one of her sister's (which many people do not know). She, among others, shows that it doesn't have to be an either/or: Woman or writer, but both.

I am glad that I have come here today, even though I'm quite certain I've not given any answers but merely wondered aloud some of my own questions. I hope that something here today makes you feel like sitting down and thinking about why you are a writer, and how that fits with you being a woman, too. I hope that the responsibilities to yourself as an artist, as a professional, and as a member of some kind of family (in whatever form it comes, even if it's a family of yourself and your parents, or one other partner, and that's enough) add to rather than detract from your ability to write. Because we are all women writers. And the "woman" part is not just the "other" status, the label that makes us inferior or different. It's what makes us.

     In LeGuin's essay, she thinks about Woolf's image of a woman writer on a bank of a lake of inspiration, fishing with the imagination. LeGuin pictures a daughter down the bank of that lake, playing in the mud and trying not to disturb her mother's professional endeavors. At the end of the essay, the imagination, which Woolf's woman writer has lost hold of, goes to talk to the little girl. I want to quote the essay at a bit of length because I love it so, and I think it might get at, finally, what I think about writing and being a woman, and being successful, even with, and maybe because of, the distractions. The child asks:

"Tell me, Auntie. What is the one thing a writer has to have?"
"I'll tell you," says the imagination. "The one thing a writer has to have is not balls. Nor is it a child-free space. Nor is it even, speaking strictly on the evidence, a room of her own, though that is an amazing help, as is the goodwill and cooperation of the opposite sex, or at least the local, in-house representative of it. But she doesn't have to have that. The one thing a writer has to have is a pencil and some paper. That's enough, so long as she knows that she and she alone is in charge of that pencil, and responsible, she and she alone, for what it writes on the paper. In other words, that she's free. Not wholly free. Never wholly free. Maybe very partially. Maybe only in this one act, this sitting for a snatched moment being a woman writing, fishing the mind's lake. But in this, responsible; in this, autonomous; in this, free."

So it doesn't take successful publication, or money in the bank, necessarily (although we strive towards those two things.) Freedom means doing it: Thinking. Reading. Writing. And all of those things are easy-- we can do them any time any place, even in the midst of peeling potatoes or feeding cats or kids or driving our cars to work. That daughter on the edge of Woolf's lake doesn't even have to be our own child-- since we are all somehow children of those who come before us, and those readers we inspire to be writers are also, in a way, our children. I find that I am still a failure at making the kind of pronouncements that speechify-ers ought to make (I told you right away I was a fraud). But I think that what a writer does best is to explore, walk around in the ideas, and imagine questions, if not answers. The answers are probably up to you anyway-- so what do you think it means to be a woman writer today, and what shape does your narrative, the narrative of your life and work, take?

*and much of the later part of this speech owes its shape, and some of the general tone, to LeGuin's wonderful essay. I urge you to go read her work; it's well worth much study. While it is not quoted directly (as a speech, it didn't really work to do so and now, after all this time, I can't remember exactly what was mine and what was inspired by LeGuin), it is very well inspired by LeGuin.

Books mentioned in this speech include:

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