Something in the chapter of Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott called "Giving" reawakened the reason I became a writer. Allow me to review, as briefly as possible, the legacy we join when we put pen to paper.
I returned to college full-time when I had a husband (Mr. Wonderful) and two school-aged children. I enrolled as an English Literature major and Education minor. The experience revealed a bull-dog tenacity I hadn't known I possessed that served me well. Tenacity is exactly what it took to dig into the literature of the Enlightenment, and Literary Criticism, and The History of the English Language.
During my final semester, I was required to take senior seminar, a tight group of twelve literary disciples who sat at the feet of the English Department's high priest, Dr. Crowell. Very intimidating. Fortunately, the topic was Women in Literature. Eureka! Something I could get my teeth into.
We started, of course, at the beginning of recorded female writings in the Middle Ages, the likes of Julian of Norwich and later Queen Elizabeth. Women's creativity was still quite suspect, unless you were the queen, and attributed to witchcraft and sorcery. You can see how discouraging that would be. Julian wrote of her visions--some I find very inspirational--and Elizabeth focused on the political and the rhetorical. In short, writing as an expression of the female experience was limited to topics of religion, and if you were the queen, you admitted to being a "weak and feeble woman" with the heart and stomach of a king. Even the queen had to hedge a bit.
The Enlightenment wasn't much better for women. Women were expected to focus on affectations and getting married but not getting old. A few--the Blue Stockings--broke away from the pack. I researched Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and her story of literary accomplishment is impressive and heartbreaking. She started translating classics as a child in her father's library. She became parlour amusement for her father and his friends. Later, she wrote dense political satire in iambic pentameter that was ridiculed for its female weakness by the likes of Alexander Pope. Eventually, she wrote her daughter, telling her that education for women was of little use. Ugh. You may better recognize these names from the Enlightenment (approx. 1800s): Harriet Beecher Stowe, the Brontes, Mary Shelly, George Eliot, Emily Dickinson, Jane Austen, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and all paid a high price for creativity.
The Turn-of-the-Century (the last) female writers were a confused lot, intransigent in their decisions to embrace society or to forsake it altogether--read that: marriage or spinsterhood. They saw no middle ground, because there wasn't one. A classic story in this genre is Kate Chopin's "The Awakening." Also writing at this time were Sarah Orne Jewett and Edith Wharton. Marriage or creativity? How many of us could make that choice?
The Modernists (1914-1939) female writers saw a turning of the tables. The men called the quarter century an "Age of Anxiety," but--with some notable qualifications--female writers expereinced an era of exuberance. Women finally gained the right to vote in the U.S. and they were entering into ever-increasing professional fields. Life was changing with the advent of new technologies--radio, nickelodeons, airplanes, and the automaobile. And WWI gave men the sense of being helpless rather than heroic. Enter the Modernist female writers we love and the experimentation they reveled in: Willa Cather, Gertrude Stein (love may not fit Ms. Stein, but you have to admire her verve), Virginia Woolf, Isak Dinesen, Katherine Mansfield, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dorothy Parker, and Zora Neale Hurston. Still, mental illness (i.e. Woolf's plunge with a pocketful of rocks) and controversy marked the period.
According to the the Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, contemporary writers (1940-1984) "wrote out of a double consciousness; on the one hand, a newly intense awareness of their role as female artist who had inherited an increasingly great tradition, and on the other hand, a newly protective sense of their vulnerability as women who inhabited a culture hostile to female ambition and haunted by eroticized images of women...contemporary writers were consistently struggling to define the cultural forces that had formed their personal and artisitic identities." In the midst of that milieu Eudora Welty, Mary Sarton, Shirley Jackson, Doris Lessing, Flannery O'Connor, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Sylvia Plath, and Joyce Carol Oates emerged as pacesetters for generations of women writers to come.
Soon after our class read about Sylvia Plath putting cookies and milk out for her napping children before sticking her head in an unlit gas oven, I asked my professor, "Are there any writers in the female literary canon who liked being married and didn't consider suicide?"
"We'll read her next," he promised.
And so we did, Annie Dillard's An American Childhood. I could have kissed Annie. If given the chance to stalk her, I will. Her book of essays assured me that a writer could grow up in a happy family, collect insects, eat snow off mittens, look for monsters during flashes of lightning, and still be a brilliant writer.
I'm old enough to remember the advertising slogan (for Virginia Slims cigarettes?) that announced, "We've come a long way, baby!" As female writers we have, but we stand on the shoulders of all the brave women who dared to expose themselves on paper, and, perhaps, to be burned at the stake for doing so.
We are wired as humans to be open to the world instead of enclosed in a fortified, defensive mentality. What your giving can do is help your readers be brave, be better than they are, be open to the world again.--Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
You must, must, must read Lamott's chapter "Giving" in its entirety. Her words refreshed my resolve to empty myself for others. Having reviewed the women of literature, are you ready to join their legacy, to not squander what took centuries to earn, the freedom of our words and stories? Do you see your writing as a gift to your readers? How does that influence what you write? How does the act of giving your art change what you are willing to surrender in order to write?