Wednesday, August 15, 2007

On Writing, Life and Gender

Recently I was on a panel at a con. The panel discussion topic (as described in the program notes) was about the intersection of writing, family obligations and day job, and how the conflict interferes with and/or enriches and changes one’s writing, and how we as writers negotiate these various demands on our time and energy. This is a topic close to my heart and has an obvious gender aspect to it that I hoped would come up. Instead the discussion was a mixture of the panel’s intent and something rather different.

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 America and hear someone be so openly and unashamedly reactionary about a gender issue as well as the process of writing. But also something interesting happened that contributed to avoiding the issue.

A woman in the audience mentioned how difficult it was to get her husband to help her with household responsibilities, and that this was why she found it very difficult to get any writing done. In response, one of the male panelists spoke up. This was the guy who had stayed home for many years to be with his kids, who, by the way, is a person whose works I fervently admire. He said: “Well, why can’t your husband cook dinner?” At which point the poor woman had nothing to say.

The discussion wrapped up soon after that, and I was left fuming and profoundly dissatisfied. It took me some time to process my thoughts on the subject; here they are now, at least semi-processed.

A quick note: I don’t name names involved in this panel discussion partly because I don’t want to get into a pointless debate with Mr. X (although it is unlikely he’ll read this post), but mostly because I want to use my impressions of the panel as a jump-off point to cogitate on some thoughts about writing and gender. But also I have to say I feel sorry and embarrassed for Mr. X, being so old and so not-having-gotten-it in front of a vast room-full of people, and part of it is my Indian upbringing about disagreeing politely rather than lashing out --- much --- (especially at the elderly). So here goes.

(Break to fix lunch for hungry child and self).

First, if there is any doubt at all that feminism is a done deal in America, the attitudes revealed in the panel discussion tell me that it just ain’t so. Here are my impressions about attitudes that still prevail, that I’ve come across in other places as well (and therefore are not limited to or entirely drawn from the panel discussion). I’d be interested in impressions from other people as to how widespread these attitudes are, since I can’t really make generalizations from my limited experience. So these are in the nature of educated guesses about attitudes I’ve encountered personally that might prevail beyond the boundaries of my experience.

(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.

(1) On Domesticity being Women’s Work and therefore not important: Even thought things might have changed from 1950’s America, I suspect that domesticity is still largely the responsibility of women. Domestic work, when it has to be done as a pre-assigned role, where one has no choice and is given no respect, when the role is taken for granted by others around you and society at large --- such domestic work can be degrading and soul-destroying. When it is done as a partnership, when it is not a requirement for being female, when it is done with mutual respect and sharing, domesticity can be a joy for some and (if nothing else) at least a less taxing experience. Men who believe that domesticity is women’s work will not understand why discussing the intersection of writing and life’s other obligations is important. Simply put, without help on the home front, women can’t write, or can’t write as much as they would have. I wouldn’t have been able to attend the con if my husband couldn’t have stayed home with daughter and dog.

Privilege (and I’m talking gender privilege) makes it easy for men to ignore or dismiss domestic responsibilities, because, simply put, they can. It takes a rare man, plus a lot of training and negotiating, to go against the patriarchal grain and shoulder his part of the responsibility.

For god’s sake, does all this still have to be spelled out in the bloody twenty-first century?

(2) On how you’ve got to be an unpleasant egotist above mere mundane concerns in order to be a good writer: I am reminded of Ursula K. Le Guin’s essay “The Fisherwoman’s Daughter” in the collection The Language of the Night. I write this from memory since I can never find the book --- it is in a perpetual state of being lent out. But if I remember correctly the essay talks about the different ways some men and women approach writing. There’s the Hemingway/ Joseph Conrad school, where the guy shuts himself up and takes no interest in the doings of the household, and where his wife is a mere presence not even worth naming who takes care of his physical needs (this is from a quote from Conrad). The act of writing is described by Conrad as wrestling with the Lord, as though the Lord is clutching to His lordly chest all of Conrad’s brilliant work and the two must duel it out like the men they both are. Then Le Guin quotes a number of women writers, starting with Louisa May Alcott in the voice of Jo March, talking about writing as a vortex into which she willingly falls --- writing as a participatory process. I know some male writers will also identify with this. Le Guin notes that various women writers attribute their work to the supportive community of family and friends who help out with domestic work and thus enable the writer to write. I wish I remembered enough about the essay to do it justice. But if you can find it, read it.

My personal experience has been that having a child and a family (and, in the last four years, a job outside the home) has been limiting, exhausting, frustrating, exhilarating and enriching all at once. I’m not saying that you have to have children to be a good writer, or even that I’m a good writer; what I’m saying is that being intimately involved with life and people gives you a kind of perspective that can inform your writing. To dismiss domesticity in its joys and horrors is to miss a large chunk of experience.

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.

(3) On how women who have trouble balancing writing and household work should simply get their husbands to cook dinner: Ah, enlightened males! They are few and far between. There is an excellent book by sociologist Allan Johnson (I think) called The Gender Knot: Unraveling our Patriarchal Legacy, which talks about how men and women are both trapped by the unseen and invisible bonds of patriarchy. While clearly women are the ones who suffer the most, men also are caught in a bind --- after all, a power relationship entraps both victim and perpetrator. From what I’ve heard and experienced, the invisible nature of patriarchy to men (it is painfully obvious to many women) makes it incredibly difficult for men to acknowledge that there is a problem. I’ve heard more men than women declare that feminism is no longer necessary, as though they have any authority or credibility to make such a statement. (Ask the women, damn you!). It seems to me that because patriarchy is the air we breathe, whether in America or elsewhere, enlightened men are made, not born (in general). Women have to negotiate with and train their male partners, or consciously bring up their male children to go against the grain (both of which can take years); and men have to shed their blinders and their arrogance and acquire enough humility to actually listen and do, in order to become true partners. (And from what I’ve seen/heard/read, men are generally happier being enlightened than not. Is that so? Enlightened males please enlighten me on this).

So, kudos to enlightened males. But even such men must watch out for a condition I dub “enlightened male syndrome.” This is where you assume that because you’ve seen the light, it is trivial or easy for other women to get their husbands to cook the dinner. Relationships between men and women are so complex --- there’s that whole mix of emotions, love, guilt, fear, as well as people’s upbringing and societal expectations. The panelist who is the enlightened male in question is a writer I greatly respect and admire. But he, too, fell into the trap (unconsciously I suspect) of telling a woman what to do and thereby denying her experience and her pain.

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.


Anonymous said...

Just a couple of quick points:

1. As you mention it's difficult for you to criticize the elderly. That's ingrained. Unfortunately, male attitudes toward women can be ingrained as well. Consequently all one can do is try to prevent it from continuing to spread to younger generations and wait for the older ones to die.

2. Men have responsibility. But women have responsibility as well. How many women worked out the domestic details before marriage? Assuming that things are going to be a certain way is just wrongheaded.

Unknown said...

I’m not saying that you have to have children to be a good writer, or even that I’m a good writer; what I’m saying is that being intimately involved with life and people gives you a kind of perspective that can inform your writing. To dismiss domesticity in its joys and horrors is to miss a large chunk of experience.

Yes yes yes and again I say yes. This is something I have never understood about the "lock yourself away and CREATE" school of writing -- how can one write true to life without experiencing it?

Hi! I was linked here from the Feminist SF Carnival post, and it was a wonderful way to spend twenty minutes. Your post was truly insightful, probing, and gracefully phrased. Thank you!