Tuesday, November 22, 2005

What it took to be Virginia Woolf

Yesterday's NYTimes Book Review announced the publication of a new biography of the legendary writer, Virginia Woolf. While reading the review I was reminded of a discussion I had several years ago with friends.

I used to be a member of a book group, and though that assemblage of women still meets monthly, I quit for reasons I won't go into today. We were a group of women who had, for the most part, kept a foot inside the work force after becoming mothers. At our finest hour the group contained--among others-- four lawyers (one non-practicing), one PhD. college professor, two teachers, the owner of a medical transcription business and a free-lance writer. Still, there was a tension between specific camps inside the group. Suffice it to say that the women who spoke up for the most traditional aspects of "women's roles" also seemed to be the ones who felt their positions in the workplace made their opinions of literature more valid than...say...those of us who were part timers or had quit their jobs altogether.

The woman who started this group was so incredibly fearful that discussions would decline into nothing more than a gathering for us to talk about food or kids (A "hen party" as one threatened husband referred to us. Not my husband, though) that she instigated a rule prohibiting any talk about children and made sure dessert wasn't served until we were finished discussing the book in question. Of course, this same woman proceeded to do nothing BUT talk about her children whom she was sure were far superior to any of ours. Anyway--

One month we had to read "A Room of One's Own" by Virginia Woolf. It spoke of the need all people had--but especially women--to have a physical space in which to become whatever they wanted to become. Mostly it seemed to be a treatise for the luxury of thinking only of yourself... to contemplate the possibilities of your life and how you want it to turn out. It was pointed out quite early in the conversation that Virginia Woolf, though married, had no children.

Around that same time, Random House had just published a list of the Best 100 American Novels of All Time. (or was it The 20th Century?) Either way, the badge of honor required that only novels which had been published over 25 years prior could be considered. Do I even need to point out that only a fraction of the list named female writers? And at the risk of sounding as though we blamed our lack of recognized literary foremothers on the presence of children in their lives, let me hasten to remind you, dear readers, that Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway were all fathers many times over.

Of course, we know what the difference was between the life of Louisa May Alcott, a women who eschewed marriage so that she COULD write, and the freedom allowed any male writer of her generation. I imagine that the quality of Richard Yates' parenting skills was probably never called into question while he burned the midnight oil to perfect his novels or even when he drank himself into a stupor. And the women whose brilliance gave birth to books like "To Kill A Mockingbird", "Jany Eyre", "Wise Blood" or "Frankenstein"? All either single women or married but with no children.

So...our group set out on a mission. Given that women in the workplace still labor under the notion that their presence in the office, boardroom, courtroom or the senate would immediately be blamed if the children they produced turned out to anything less than Joe or Jane Model Citizen, we decided to find proof that a mother could also be a successful writer.
We kicked out the 25 year limitation because we wanted to include our contemporary sisters in the writing world....Barbara Kingsolver, Alice Walker, E. Annie Proulx, Alice Munro...

Our assignment? To find universally lauded female writers who also had raised children that did not turn out to be drug dealers, snipers, or Enron executives.

Here's how we started the list: Dr. Maya Angelou.
I don't think we got much further than that. I'm not sure why. Perhaps some of us were bored with the discussion or just didn't see what the big deal was.

I didn't really mean for this to be another post about READING, though that is one of the great pleasures of my life. To me, that discussion is like an episode of Unsolved Mysteries. And I am greatly curious about what my blogger friends think. Even the guys....your views are also very important. Give it a good think and get back to me.

My next post will be something light and stupid...to help you digest your turkey and dressing. Something gossipy like the fact that Julia Roberts just sold her house (or one of them) to the very pregnant Holly Hunter.


Blogger Plain Jane said...

Pearl S. Buck.

4:30 PM  
Anonymous kerri said...

Barbara Kingsolver is my HERO. How about Anne Tyler?

7:16 PM  
Blogger wordgirl said...

Anne Tyler should be up there.

7:21 PM  
Blogger Holy Schmidt said...

Since reading your comment on my site, I felt like I had to tell you...Cranberry juice is HORRIBLE for stones. My urologist, and my doctor told me to quit drinking it.

Citrus-filled juices are the best. The cranberry juice will also make you gain weight. : )

Just sharin'!

7:39 PM  
Blogger wordgirl said...

Holy crap, Schmidt! I've always heard just the opposite about the juice that is cranberry. Of course, trying to get two doctors to agree on anything often takes a miracle, but you've got to do whatever your doc says.

7:52 PM  
Anonymous sheryl said...

Interesting post that I will be thinking about as I contemplate how I feel overwhelmed and without enoug time to think and create and see and yet I don't have children.

I may have had to spit my tea on one or more of your book group members if they tried to pretend to be better than another reader in their own group. Ridiculous crap.

What about Louise Erdrich (are her kids doing ok)? Is Louise Gluck a mom? I guess I have Louise on the brain.

Joyce Carol Oates has no kids, right? Adrienne Rich? Maxine Hong Kingston? Toni Morrison?

There's a TON of sugar in orange (over 25 grams per 8 oz) AND cranberry juice (also over 25 grams per 8 oz). Juice won't make you gain weight, but extra calories could. The nutrients are better gotten from fresh fruits and veggies anyway so I usually don't bother with juice.

9:08 PM  
Anonymous Jon Deal said...

What about Toni Morrison? Or Alice Walker?

11:05 PM  
Blogger Nilbo said...

Anne Rice not only raised a child - she raised a another author, Christopher Rice.

Sylvia Plath's children turned out just fine (poet Frieda Hughes) - although she was hardly mother of the year (mind you, she did have the parenting skills to make them breakfast before sticking her head into the oven).

Harriet Beecher Stowe had seven children, and still managed to turn out the book that Abraham Lincoln joked "... started this war!"

I'm sure there are others ...

8:06 AM  
Blogger Mignon said...

Annie LeMott
Ursula Hegi
Beverly Cleary (is it fair to use kids' books writers?)

But there aren't very many... every time I google someone it comes up that they're gay or childless. Good call on Anne Tyler. I think she's way underrated.

8:17 AM  
Blogger wordgirl said...

Nilbo, I didn't know that Anne Rice's son was also a writer. And poor Sylvia Plath. She even had the presence of mind to stuff towels under the space between the floor and the door of the children's nursery before gassing herself.

8:19 AM  
Blogger wordgirl said...

Anne Lamott is fabulous. I've read all of her non-fiction and I prefer it over her fiction. I still remember when she described her adolescence in OPERATING INSTRUCTIONS by using the phrase, "This cheese stood alone".

I would count Beverly Cleary. I re-read RAMONA THE PEST every year. Have you read her autobiography, "A GIRL FROM YAMHILL"? It's wonderful.

8:24 AM  
Anonymous Shrinking Violet said...

I don't know if they had kids or not...Zora Neal Hurston....Zilpha Keatly Snider. Ms. Snider has the distinction of having her books banned in many school libraries. Her books are also for kids. I just love the fact that they were banned. I read all of them in elementary school

10:45 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

I suppose that instead of continuing the list, you moved to the next level, you write.

7:50 AM  
Blogger DebbieDoesLife said...

Have you read "A Million Little Pieces" yet? I haven't but am thinking about recommending it to my book club.

9:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i dunno if it's too late to post this or what, but Shirley Jackson had kids. in fact, some of her best stuff was about her kids. try Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons.

11:33 AM  
Blogger wordgirl said...

Yes...Shirley Jackson did raise four children. Those two books of which you speak were stories she created about her family life, most of which constituted a lot of fiction. She made good money writing for Good Housekeeping and the kind of life she and her husband, editor Stanley Edgar Hyman lived together was not something that magazine would have published. You pose a good question, though. I love Shirley Jackson. You need to (if you haven't already) read the biography of Jackson written by Judy Oppenheimer. Fascinating.

11:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

no kidding? she MADE THOSE STORIES UP?! i feel betrayed. BETRAYED! oh well. i will check out that biography though. i love a good biography! thank you!

6:42 AM  
Blogger wordgirl said...

JP- Well...she didn't totally make them up. There might be a seed of truth in every story. There's a story called "Charles" that was so popular, it was anthologized in middle school reading texts all over the country. In it, Jackson's child--Laurie--is in kindergarten. Laurie is the name of the kid in the story and also the real name (short for Lawrence) of her first son. Whether or not the incidents in the story every really happened is up for discussion. She just seemed to take the basic truths of a setting,use them to frame a story and then embellish where she saw fit.

But the era into which Jackson was born expected different things from women. She was, no doubt, a brilliant woman. Jackson's mother (and society in general) wanted beauty, poise, and the kind of sacrificial attitude that has no problem with a lifetime of cooking and cleaning.

Jackson loved her children. There is no question about that. But she would have been judged harshly for her inability to provide a stable, clean, functional home. Kids were often not bathed for days. Babies didn't get a dirty diaper changed immediately. Moldy food in the fridge and dishes in the sink. Too bad her husband would never be judged for those failings...but we do live in a Patriarchal society, don't we?

On the other hand, they had fabulous dinner parties where Ralph Ellison was a frequent guest. Jackson could get an idea during dinner, excuse herself to her office, type furiously and come back 30 minutes later with a story that would be ready to be mailed to the New Yorker that evening. Amazing.

Her children assembled all of her stories in a collection a few years back, and one or two of the kids provide a little background info in the forward.

7:34 AM  

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