THE WRITER ON HER WORK(1)
Mary Hanford Bruce
When I first agreed to speak here, I then became terrified about what to say. When pressed for a title, I paced up and down wondering what to chose.
"Speak on my discipline, "he said. Should I talk about teaching composition, teaching grammar, or the intricacies of teaching literature? At that point someone came in my office and handed me a package, as I often forget to look to see if I have packaged mail.
In the package was a book titled "The Writer on Her Work." Wow! HER work. Now "The writer on HIS work," Nemerov on HIS work, Mailer on HIS work--Denigration of women's writing) that phrase is very respectable, high-sounding, almost pompous. But the writer on HER work? Wow!
Then it struck me. I am a writer. I could speak on MY work? Why had I not thought of that before? After all, I've published a lot and sneak time to write even when I should be doing something practical....THAT was IT!!!
Those apologetic thoughts--what was my WORK? Teaching, cooking, putting up jams and preserves, listening endlessly to people's problems. I wondered if other women writers devalued their own work and why. I know some famous women writers, Rita Dove, Maxine Kumin. Did they have any of the same hangups?
Could being a woman writer have accounted for my large gaps in writing, for starting at six, again at eighteen, then twenty-six, then a ten year hiatus before I picked up a pen and haven't shut up since? Could social conditions have anything to do with THAT? Could things have turned out differently? What about our students, our young female talents?
I decided to speak on women who write, those who are successful and those who are not, on women who want to write, but don't and what we can do to nourish their talents. There IS still a difference between the way male and female writers are received; my thoughts proved the point. What were those differences and why?
One hundred and fifty years ago Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about "That damned mob of scribbling women." His has been the general opinion of women writers for centuries. Because of the traditional woman's role as wife, mother, chief cook and bottlewasher, has been deified, women who have tried to write, even succeeded in writing, have been censured as somehow neglecting their duty. This neglect, society suggested, could led to frustration and eventually madness.
Why madness? Perhaps because of the sacralization of women's child-bearing function; any deviation from this role was thought destructive if taken seriously. In the late 19th century, Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote in "The Yellow Wallpaper" of a depressed protagonist whose doctor husband said she was "absolutely forbidden to work until I am well again." Like many creative women she wrote secretly, stating that it "does exhaust me a good deal--having to be so sly about it." Ironically, the prohibition led to the character's madness, not the writing itself.
Certainly, to be a writer, a creator of original art, is to differ from the norm. Even today, we expect writers to be "eccentric." We even treasure it in men, e. g., Woody Allen (before scandal). However, in a woman, "eccentricity" turns into "oddity," a step towards madness, and a trait to be hidden away, like Jane Eyre's Mrs. Rochester, in the attic.
A noted writer in our area, Moline born Diane Johnson, says,
"As women we are taught not to speak of ourselves, but the other person, ask him 'What do you do? Tell me about your work.' One's own work becomes almost a secret and antisocial pursuit."
From oddness to madness is not a giant step, particularly when despite the implicit devaluation of traditional woman's role, it is the only thing that really "counts."
Maxine Kumin, one of America's most respected poets and fiction writers, said that in the early 1950's, she "Paid fealty to my chosen role as wife and mother. The Muse had to stumble along subsisting on crumbs of time...[had] to carry on this business without in any wife neglecting housewifery and motherhood." 
When Maxine did put her foot down and demand some time to herself, her children were unsympathetic. On one occasion a envelope was pushed under her study door. "...written in a thinly disguised foreign hand" were the words "Dear Mrs. Kumin, I think your stories are awful and your poems are worse. I hope they never sell. Signed, A well-Wisher.'"
Rita Dove, Pulitzer Prize winner at thirty-three-years-old and friend, said about her patchwork process of writing poems between many other demands:
I'll work on that fragment until I get stuck, and then I'll go on to another poem in that folder. After weeks of fiddling, I often complete two or three poems on the same day.
I like to compare this process to the housewife who can prepare a four-course dinner on two burners while changing the baby's diaper, smearing a peanut butter sandwich for her five-year old and setting the table....the skill of juggling has been required of women for centuries; women were raised to please others, to put their demands on the back burner instead of wrestling their desires to the ground. [p. 162]
What's insidious in this...is the guilt that emerges whenever I need to take a block of prime time for myself: Sit the child in front of two hours of videotapes Sesame Streets so that a poem can be written? GUILT. Accept my husband's offer to stay home while he takes our daughter to Kiwanis Park? GUILT! [171-72]
One of my favorite writers, Canadian Margaret Atwood, snaps: "I can talk about the difficulties that women encounter as writers...if you're a woman writer, sometime, somewhere, you will be asked 'Do you think of ourself as a writer first, or as a woman first?' Look out. Whoever asks this hates and fears both writing and women." .
Atwood allows that "Some things have changed for the better, but not all. There's a lack of self-confidence that gets instilled very early in many young girls, before writing is even seen as a possibility." 
Is this the reason I wrote my first poem in the first grade, then a series of others as a high school senior, then let lapse twenty years before having nerve enough to try again? Are the demands of perfect motherhood and housewifery and lack of self-confidence the reasons? Yes, they are. Why didn't anyone tell me? Why wasn't I warned? Or helped?
Also, women's writing has not been taken as seriously as men's. As little as fifteen years ago, I noticed my emotions reacting to a male author's work, as if "he" would say something important, whereas a woman's work was--well-- woman's work. Italian writer and senator Natalia Ginzburg admits that as a beginning writer, "Irony and nastiness seemed to be very important weapons in my hands; I thought they would help me write like a man and I had a horror of anyone realizing from what I wrote that I was a woman." 
Prize-winning novelist Joy Williams wryly comments on both the lack of self confidence and social prejudice against women's writing, "Well, it took this woman seventeen years to write this book....We guess this is how it's done and it's by a woman too so...good luck....Writers are supposed to dream and keep diaries. Women writers are supposed to, that is. Men don't have to necessarily."
Maxine Kumin said that she deliberately wrote light verse at the beginning because she wasn't supposed to "get serious about deeply held feelings." 
Native daughter Diane Johnson reports that she was surprised when critics understood one of her novels as being about a woman close to madness when she described urban crime and vandalism: "...Many readers were not able to believe objective descriptions of events ("someone has put a dead cat on my doorstep") because (I suppose) the narrator was a woman." 
I, like Margaret Atwood, have heard the question "Why do you write?" with its underlying implication of "Why don't you do something useful instead," and the more trivializing comments such as "I had an aunt who wrote poetry once," as if writing poetry were like tatting doilies for the backs of chairs, nice but hardly important.
If writing is unusually difficult for women, where do they get Inspiration? From solitude and from odd bits of life--solitude being necessary to "listen to the corn" as Chickasaw poet Linda Hogan puts it.
When Barbara McClintock was awarded a Nobel Prize for her work on gene transportation in corn plants, the most striking thing about her was that she made her discoveries by listening to what the corn spoke to her, by respecting the life of the corn and "letting it come."
To "listen" to what life has to tell us usually requires solitude and silence. An East Indian writer tells of a summer where she played by herself and "because of this imposed isolation that I absorbed my surroundings, mulled over them and retained impressions at their most pure and vivid....some twenty years later....Like seeds that had buried deep in the soil and stirred to life on feeling a shower of rain...the memories became living experiences again."
or Rita Dove, when in solitude she contemplates her disorderly yard and broken lawnmower that a photographer has found interesting enough to snap, "The lawn mower DID look kinda good where it stood. In fact, if I considered the scene objectively, the disorder of the yard had a beauty of its own. A beautiful lawn mower? What an outrageous idea! But why not? In a notebook I scribble
From the beautiful lawn mower
float curls of evaporated gasoline;
the hinged ax of the butterfly pauses.
or Rita's retrieval of memory in silence which then becomes art: "An actress...in West Berlin once told me how her goldfish froze in his bowl when she had left the windows open in the middle of winter; then her boyfriend came over and slowly warmed the bowl over the electric burner until the fish swam again. I jotted down the episode in one of my notebooks and was surprised when it emerged two years later in a poem called "Dusting."
Years later, contemplating her daughters' goldfish, Rita says, "I find myself sitting by them at odd moments, lost to everything but their silent, open-mouthed appeals. What are they saying? I now I should be writing; but I keep on listening." 
My own solitude, and creativity, I believe, began in long winters in Northern Germany when there was no one home and I did not attend school. Instead I read books and peopled the silence with imaginary friends. Twenty years later, these seeds sprang into shoots of words, then verse, then essays, now stories.
Why? Why go through all this?
Because although as Latin Argentine writer Luisa Valenzuela says "Writing is a full time curse," she also says that "...in its best moments, writing a novel is a euphoric feeling, like being in love."  and Italian writer Ginzburg said that even as a child when writing she "felt immensely happy." .
Margaret Atwood believes in avoiding the question while Anita Desaid dismisses the question and yet also speaks for me when she says that the question is like asking a spider "to justify its web. It spins because spinning is what is demanded of it by the rhythm of its life...
If the need to write is so basic yet difficult, particularly for women, what can be done to promote these fragile hidden talents. Maxine Cummin states that every writer must have a "hired sympathy" in order to flourish. Otherwise, the solitary writer, often beleaguered woman will get too discouraged.
A "hired sympathy" can be a friend, a professor, another writer who will read and comment or a friend. upon your work. I believe that the best "hired sympathies" are found in the liberal arts schools and the communities that support them. No one can tell the extent of the fragile egos of would-be writers and a mere word can silence them forever. Maxine Kumin said she didn't write for eight years because of a careless remark from a young instructor in an advanced composition class. I stopped writing for twenty years when a boyfriend told me he had thrown away my poem because he thought Amy Lowell had written it. Instead of being flattered, I thought my work too derivative, so stopped writing.
A student of mine stopped writing period because her relatives one Thanksgiving told her she was wasting her life in these hard times by not doing something more "worthwhile." The town as well as the school must provide the hothouse for these seeds to sprout. I agree with Maxine Kumin who states that no "professor of any stature...can know where a student author is going." She goes on to see that "I have seen relatively inarticulate, groping young writers coalesce, converge, grow-up--whatever the yeast is--and rise to astonishing heights...these success and failures are beyond the control of the most dedicated teacher...Prosody and matters of style can be taught, but the well-springs of talents will bubble up on their own." --IF given the right "hired sympathy."
I experienced this support late in life. Novelist Bernard Kaplan teaching poetry at Arizona State University was my first earnest teacher. He admitted he knew nothing about poetry, yet coddled me, scolded me, then when the course was over, passed me on to a "true poet." who stuck with me and introduced me to a community of writers with whom I still correspond. "You are a naive poet," he told me. "I've lived long enough to know poetry springs from all sorts of places, like Grandma Moses, whom no one thought could paint."
I believed him just enough then to continue. Three years ago, when I was in West Africa, I wrote and asked him why he provided such "hired sympathy" when there were certainly more brilliant lights flashing. He wrote that he had seen bright lights flash, then quickly extinguish, but that I had had a commitment that he thought would last. Eccentric, hypochondrial, New York Jewish writer of urban short stories temporarily transplanted into the Arizona desert proved a wonderful mentor by his steadfast support and started me on my way.
And this steadfast support is what I think the community and schools must give our fledgling writers. Only a liberal arts school is specially constructed to nourish fine arts. Certainly, Monmouth College has supported my own work with its funds and with the time it gives me to pursue it. Only a community which supports the liberal arts can protect our newest talents.
This essential nurture is not found through communities and schools which stereotype women or make them feel guilty for being different. Nor it is present in schools or communities which privilege only the utilitarian or commercial aspects of life. Life is easier for the woman writer now...Maxime Cumin says "The gender gap is still there but no longer yawns as all but unleapable chasm"  but we are far from the future time when Jan Morris hopes that "people...will wonder at the primitive nature of our own times, when art could still be collated with gender." 
Our duty is not to impose our ideas on young talents but to be like the sculptor who sees the statue in the marble, then chips until the statue emerges. Our function is to provide the environment to let art gestate and be born.
Linda Hogan says that "Writing begins...with survival, with life and with freeing life, saving life, speaking life. It is work that speaks what can't be easily said,"  and she thinks of poetry as a corn plant she once discovered in a ceremonial room in the center of a canyon. She says "It was all alone and it had been there since the ancient ones...And there was one corn plant growing out of the holy place. It planted itself yearly. With no water, no person to care for it, no overturning of the soil, this cornplant rises up to tell its story, and that's what poetry is." 
True, I say. Poetry will survive somehow, like that lone corn plant. But I say, let us go further: let us water the corn.
1. Tenure Talk.