Monday, April 2, 2012

Standing on the Shoulders--Writing as Gift

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?


Susie Finkbeiner said...

Ah, Patti. What am I willing to surrender in order to write? What a question!

When I first started sharing my fiction (on my blog about a year ago) I was terrified. It felt like I'd opened up my trench coat, flashed a whole bunch of my friends and asked "so, what do you think?"

Vulnerability is a heck of a thing to surrender. But it has really worked for me in my writing.

The good thing? Usually, when my friends get flashed, they don't realize that it's me their seeing.

(is that a strange analogy? what would a psychologist think of that?)

Patti Hill said...

Vulnerability is key to authentic fiction a reader will relate to. Oddly, I use the flashing analogy frequently, because honest fiction is revealing. Who but a fiction writer is willing to "flash" how their imagination plays with the world and how it works?

Anonymous said...

Wow, Patti, what an excellent post. What a struggle that birthed our freedom to be flashers, because you're both so right. Writing is vulnerable work. After nearly 41 years of marriage, my husband still tells me he would never really know me if it weren't for my writing. It breaks my heart to know the price that so many women authors paid over the centuries, even into the uber-enlightened 20th century. To answer your question, I continually have to surrender my ambition. Things have not gone the way I'd hoped, but that doesn't lessen my need to be a story teller. I need to write the stories that resonate within me, even though they are seemingly unmarketable, and allow God to take my meager offering and use it as he will.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Ouch. Yes. Surrendering the ambition. That's a toughie.

Bonnie Grove said...

This is an important article, Patti. Thank you for writing it! I'm reminded again that our pop-culture ideas of instant everything is, at it's core, vilely wrong. We are only decades out of being "non-persons" (in Canada we're talking 1929), and while we enjoy the fruits of the labours of women who came before us, we can't squander this freedom, and we must also be mindful of the women who will come after us.

Brilliant reminder and challenge. Thank you!

Megan Sayer said...

I agree wholeheartedly with what everyone has said here. This was such a powerful post.
There have been a few times in my adult life where I've said something to a friend, blabbed a bit about some deep place inside me in a fit of frustration, and they've promptly burst into tears saying things like "I've never told that to anyone", and "I didn't know that anybody else thought that". Those times are the ones I feel like as a storyteller I have a responsibility, if you like, to be honest and to say the things that other people won't.
Sometimes that's okay. Sometimes it's much more difficult. Like Susie said - vulnerability. It's something else as well, being brave enough to sacrifice a form of privacy (not all of it...knowing the boundaries) to allow other women to feel less alone.

Marian said...

Giving and being willing to die in the giving. That would improve my writing immensely. Would be a strain on my life though.

Patti Hill said...

Thanks to all who responded to my post, not the lightest of topics for a Monday. And I hope none of you felt like I was accusing you of squandering our priceless creative freedom, but I was very challenged by Lamott's view of giving for writers.

Sharon, I have to agree that surrendering ambition should be on my list as well.

Marcia said...

Patti, I can certainly relate to your post. And to the things you all are saying, Susie, Sharon, Bonnie and Megan and Marian.

The verse "to whom much has been given, much shall be required" has kept me going these long years, and keeps me going still. I have been so blessed in my relationship with the Lord, I feel happily compelled to pass on my love for Him, using the tools He's heaped into my lap.

We all want success in being well-published and well-read, but in God's eyes is that the highest accomplishment?

Or is simple obedience what makes His great heart sing? Are His final comments about our work what will catapult us to the greatest high? And...are there some unpublished writers on earth who will be wildly successful in the world to come?

Who knows? But certainly in the end, His "well done" will be the sweetest success of all.

With that in mind, I keep trying to put one foot in front of the other, following the path He has marked out.

Blessings on you as you do the same, sisters.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Great post, Patti. (I wish I'd written it!!!) I will save my contribution for Friday's post. Thanks for the meaty topic. :-)

Patti Hill said...

Marcia: All I can say is "Amen!"

Debbie: We always look forward to what you have to say. Breathless!

Kathleen Popa said...

Patti, this post has humbled and inspired me. Wow. You make me want to be a brave woman.

May I stalk Annie Dillard with you?

And Anne. I want to help readers be brave, and better than they are, and open to the world again.


Cherry Odelberg said...

Wow! This reads like a keynote address. Is this what you are presenting to open the up-coming, but as yet unconfirmed NM writer's retreat?