Before I elaborate I want to mention, without naming names, that there were three women and three men on the panel, and one of the women was moderator. We began in the usual way by introducing ourselves and mentioning what our non-writing responsibilities are: kids, partners, jobs, etc. One of the male writers had stayed home for many years while his wife worked, in order to be there for his kids, and I had the same experience, leaving academia for 9 years to raise and home-school my daughter. Another panelist described the experience of her partner’s serious illness and how it brought home to her how much more important her partner was than her writing, which she willingly gave up for a long time. One woman mentioned how she could not write much at all while her sons were small, and finally, after they were old enough, she had the time to do so. I talked about how my being home for my daughter simultaneously frustrated my attempts to write but also made the writing richer and different. We exchanged some strategies we had come up with to manage children and writing without doing a bad job with either. Some time in the first part of the discussion, one of the panelists, who I will refer to as Mr. X, who is male and a senior veteran of the field, interjected that his reading of the panel topic was different from ours; that he was emphatically not interested in “Hints from Heloise” about managing children, but instead was interested in the relationship between the writer and Life. He said he and his wife had raised two children and he had probably done a bad job as far as his part in that endeavor, but he wasn’t interested in talking about that. He wanted to talk about how (as he said) a good writer has to necessarily be a rather unpleasant person --- a cold-hearted note-taker of humanity’s sufferings and foibles, a solipsist who willingly gives up closeness in relationships or fraternizing with people so that he can pursue his Art in peace. [Now these are my impressions, not direct quotes (other than the phrase Hints from Heloise, which I recall as spoken with a great deal of condescension)]. All this resulted in what was probably a shocked silence on the part of the panelists, and I could see one or two people in the audience nodding in agreement, at which point I could not keep shut any longer. So I said that I respectfully disagree, and that the model of the writer suggested by Mr. X was perhaps accurate for people like Ernest Hemingway, but that I knew plenty of fine writers who were fully engaged in life, family, jobs and so on, who wrote from a position of compassion for and engagement with the world. At some point somebody (I don’t remember who) brought forth an example. If your child was crying, and it was your sacred time to write, would you shut your door on the child and write? The obvious answer seems to me that if your spouse can take care of the child, then you can go ahead and write, otherwise of course you must take care of the child first. Why it was even an issue was beyond me (a view shared by at least one male writer and presumably all the women), but for some reason this took more than a few minutes to discuss. The discussion swung back and forth between the original intent of the panel and Mr. X’s topic, but never took the logical turn toward the issue of gender embedded in both. I take responsibility for my part in not introducing it overtly, but I think part of the reason was that a) about halfway through the panel my cell-phone buzzed --- it was my daughter’s pediatrician calling back about a test result (ironic, eh?). Since my daughter was otherwise OK and my husband was home with her, I could afford to wait and call the doctor back at the end of the panel discussion, but the whole thing really distracted me for the rest of the panel because I kept wondering about the call. And b) I was shell-shocked that I could sit in a panel in this day and age in
(1) Since child-rearing and cooking and taking care of spouses are women’s work they are not worth having a panel discussion about, so let’s talk about something more interesting.
(2) If you are a good writer you put your art above such mundane things as relationships and crying children; you lock yourself in your room with your Art and your unpleasant, egocentric self; if you don’t do these things how can you really be devoted to your art? It’s all or nothing, isn’t it? And by the way your attempt to gauge what life is all about is nothing to do with raising children and housework responsibilities, because of course these are incidental things unrelated to the Big Questions.
(3) If you are an enlightened male who has done his share of cooking, cleaning and child-rearing, you can dismiss the concerns of women who don’t have husbands like you by asking why they can’t get their husbands to help, like it ought to be so easy.
Here are brief thoughts about each.
I know writers whose writing touches me deeply, who are open and vulnerable to the world, who live in a complex web of relationships, whose vision is rooted in compassion. I suspect there are all kinds of good writers who approach their art in a myriad different ways. To lump all good writing into one school is downright ridiculous.
It was a strange panel all round because the attempt (conscious or otherwise) to shut women up was being made by two opposite kinds of men: Mr. X the chauvinist and Mr. Enlightened Male.
Ladies and Gentlemen, we haven’t yet come a long way, baby.