Women We Read This Week

Helen Hayward’s “My children, my life,” in Aeon Magazine

In this thought-provoking personal essay, Hayward challenges the assumption that a woman can’t dedicate herself equally to both her career and raising children. Hayward chose both, and loves both, even if it means working until late into the night, “accepting a double shift.” I’m not a mother, so I can’t speak personally to the choice of motherhood, but what does strike a chord with me in this piece is the idea that this choice is loaded with other people’s opinions. Women are accused of being selfish for wanting careers, and are accused of “giving up” when we choose to be mothers. “…was I right to take my children into my arms, and let the careers of others overtake mine?” Hayward asks. “Some might say I lacked commitment — I didn’t lean in. Others that my mortgage wasn’t big enough. Still others that I’ve loved my children too much, that I’ve over-invested in my relationship to them.”

Hayward claims that her children give her profound love, but her work gives her a “sense of identity and worth” and “inner buoyancy.” And the following paragraph is possibly one of the more beautiful claims for motherhood I’ve read:

So why did I become a traditional mother, rather than the modern mother for which my feminist education — and nearly 20 years of working in publishing, higher education and psychotherapy in London — groomed me? Why did I risk being consumed by a role that might leave me high and dry, a cuttlefish at high tide? In part, I rather unexpectedly enjoyed being needed. Equally unexpectedly, I found being around my children very creative, far more than I’d been led to expect. Caring for them — loving them unreservedly and creating a way of life out of this love — has been a revelation to me. Least fashionably of all, I realised that my marriage might not survive if I didn’t bend, and that bending like a reed was far better than breaking something good. Family life has expressed a deep part of myself that was there, as a potential, well before I had children.


Virginia Heffernan’s “Glass Menagerie: Poetry” on Yahoo

Virginia Heffernan’s series on using Google Glass is an excellent exploration of, among other things, the way technology works in place/on a person. In this segment Heffernan seeks out the poetry in Google Glass (literally: she invokes John Ashbery, Thomas Wyatt, Walt Whitman, Gerard Manley Hopkins), elegantly toeing the line between reverence and irreverence; about the device itself she writes, “If we all had one, I would propose we wear it the way I might once have proposed we all do tequila shots or fly to Las Vegas or go skinny-dipping. It’s trippy and it’s fun and it makes you high.” But what makes something like Glass so fascinating (to me at least) is its potential power to transform the wearer’s world, to, as Heffernan puts it, add a “third dimension to the way things look”:

Having savored for years the smooth petals of the Canon/iPhone image, and then the grin-inducing nostalgia of the Instagram filters, I have now landed happily on the fleck of Glass. I adore it – it adds, seemingly, a third dimension to the way things look: more surfaces to be marked, to be legible, to be partly-opaque, to call attention to themselves.


Pam Houston’s “Corn Maze” in Hunger Mountain

This post-MFA phase sure involves a lot of digging around in my writerly soul, pulling up an essay here and a short story there, squinting at each and asking, “Is this me?” Is this me?” Fiction or nonfiction, literary journalism or personal narrative, memoir or essay…where do I belong? In what genre and category? What is my narrative, my shtick, and do I have to have one?

Which is why it was a relief to read Pam Houston’s “Corn Maze,” which reminded me that every writer has to negotiate her own relationship with fact, fiction, “truth,” genre, and narrative. This is not a euphemistic way of saying, “Yay, now we can make stuff up!” Rather, Houston argues in an implicit and maze-like way, through elegantly woven and funny vignettes, that we have to follow our own truths as writers instead of trying to adhere to clearly demarcated lines, be they linear or generic or stylistic. For her, what comes naturally is neither a strict adherence to “fact” (which in the case of memoir, as opposed to journalism, actually merits those scare quotes) nor total fiction, but rather a sort of instinctual moment-by-moment creation derived from truth and yet not bound to ordered, provable, objective ways of measuring it: what, in a review of Houston’s Contents May Have Shifted on Bookslut, Jill Talbot has called a “borderlands.” As Talbot points out, this is a borderlands that has been occupied by writers from Hemingway to Kerouac to Tim O’Brien, although recently in nonfiction it has become increasingly necessary to declare oneself a citizen of one country or another.

What I took from “Corn Maze” was permission. Not necessarily permission to “lie” or invent: I am not writing memoir and am not so concerned in my work with the freedom to weave fact and fiction. I know that in journalism Houston’s “eight-two percent true” rule simply does not apply, and as a literary journalist I believe in the objectivity of fact: I know how hard it is to do good reporting and I want to earn my true stories. But I am grateful to have permission to find my own way – to do what feels natural to me without feeling that I need to set up camp in one clearly established space, as Journalist or Essayist or Memoirist or Novelist or Defender of the Necessity of Objective Truth or Believer in Higher Truths. She gives me permission to search out my own percentages, to write my way to my own “version of free.” — Sarah

Redeemed: Amitava Kumar interviews Cheryl Strayed” on Guernica

Call me “sweet pea.” Advise me to “write like a motherfucker.” Cheryl Strayed’s radical empathy is contagious. I read Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things, and felt a sense of peace in the way she universalized humanity, they way she looked into her life and those of others, and saw the meaning beyond all the sadness, heartbreak, and confusion. I follow her on Facebook, and she recently posted about cleaning out a desk drawer and finding a pile of rejection letters from magazines like Harper’s, Ploughshares and Tin House. To writers like myself, who give up any shred of stability to pursue writing, these messages offer salvation from loneliness. In the interview, Strayed explains:

I’ve had successes and rejections all along the way, at every stage of my career, and I will continue to do so. Acceptances and rejections don’t define me. They’re both part of what it means to be a writer. My job is to simply keep doing the work. Like—well, you know—a motherfucker.

Do the work. Do the work. There are so many emotions and doubts that can get in the way of a writer actually doing the work. Strayed gives us a glimpse of the bigger picture, of writing as a daily practice, not attached to acceptance and rejection. There is beauty in the way she loves her imperfect self and extends this love to others. For she is always writing about imperfection, about the messiness of life, the way we deal with death and loss. She keeps writing through it all:

One of the things I did is I never made excuses for myself when it came to writing. I prioritized writing time. Even if that meant taking risks financially. I’d apply for residencies—places that give you a free place to live and they feed you and sometimes also provide a stipend—and go off and write for these intensive periods of time. That’s why I was a waitress, because the job never meant anything to me, so I could quit. I’d quit my job if I got a residency or a grant and I’d go off and write.

Write like a motherfucker. Do the work. Take risks. — Alice


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