It is possible that I have spoken ill of literary theory here before, and I should probably allow that line of thinking to lie buried and dormant in the unsearchable nether regions of this blog. But I am currently reading Carolyn Heilbrun’s Writing a Woman’s Life, and though overrun at times with the kind of jargony blergh that characterizes virtually all academic writing, it is interesting and accessible.
Perhaps too it goes down easier because Heilbrun was also a novelist, who published detective stories under a pseudonym. Quoth she, “It has often occurred to me that all teachers of literature ought to have written and published a work of fiction in order to understand something fundamental about what they teach, but that is another matter.”
To me, it is the central matter. Getting lost in the artistic process is as close as I get to the ineffable, and the kind of exhaustive linguistic/contextual/historical/metaphorical unpacking that occurs as part of any theory-based examination of work just reduces it, for me, to something mechanical and spiritless. Which I realize is pretty rich coming from someone who’s agnostic at best.
One tendency in women authors that Heilbrun points to is for a mid-life shift: George Eliot, Willa Cather, and Virginia Woolf were all in their 30s when their first fiction was published. Of her own late-30s foray into mystery writing, Heilbrun says, “I believe now that I must have wanted, with extraordinary fervor, to create a space for myself.” She points to a lack of physical space for herself, and so the space she sought was in part psychic, a place her own in the midst of chaotic family life.
I have wondered many times in reading this book what Heilbrun would make of the current landscape of women writers and thinkers. Things have shifted a lot, in a way that one might suggest amounts to progress, with regards to the stories women tell in the fiction and nonfiction that we write, but also through demographic shifts, career planning in an attempt to “have it all,” etc.
Last week I ended up on STFU, Parents (equal parts funny and sad), the prototypical parent of which demonstrates a disturbing myopia about everything save his or her own in-the-moment experiences, usually with a very young child. I’m grateful that I am entering parenthood with my own psychic (and physical) space for writing. I know that writing has made me a better person, and I hope that continuing to make time for it will make me a better parent too (though of course it will take a while to find a new rhythm). The types of people STFU, Parents mocks would be in hysterics about an assertion like that. But they can, you know, STFU.
I had an appointment with my fabulous dermatologist yesterday. She told me that although she knew what altruism was as a concept, she never truly understood it until she was a parent. She told me that when she was my age, she had expected that her contribution to the world would be as a physician, but that now, older, she sees that her contribution is her children. I am so accustomed to my day-to-day life being consumed by small chattery and babble that it was hard to formulate anything even close to a thoughtful and sincere response. But I was really moved by her perspective, and I hope she noticed.