But I am not an impartial judge of the way we women, we writers, stop breathing, having just stopped breathing, for days, because of the distractions life offers me (yes, offers; but I accept them, if grudgingly).
Grandchildren who have no functioning parents.
Adult children going through crisis after crisis—and it doesn’t help me to remember that at their ages, I went through crisis after crisis, too, during which they suffered and probably continue to suffer.
A beautiful house filled with too many people (this is summer in Santa Fe).
The usual frustrations of technology, which make me grateful if I EVER reach a real person on the line competent to help me with a real problem (or should make me grateful).
Being “on the rack,” as my agent calls it, with the editing process my next book is undergoing—or rather, I am undergoing.
I am doubting whether I have enough years left, and enough energy, to complete the four books—three non-fiction, one final collection of short stories—I have imagined. This is the familiar story.
Over and over, I hear the stories of women who have aborted, or fatally delayed, their writing: the novelist whose husband’s heart attack means she will now be his nurse for the rest of his life; the poet who must work for two years on the new house her husband has bought (yes, I know, she doesn’t HAVE to do that), the poet so enriched (if that is the word) with descendants that she has to repair to a coffee shop at six a.m. to write, and me, sidetracked not only by my own family but by my lover’s family—those adult children come first, of course they come first, they MUST come first.
But is there ever a time, for us twenty-first century women, when we come first? When the time and space and silence we need for our writing is protected, cherished, as the holiness it is?
The world as we know it would grind to a halt if all the talented women—millions of us—insisted on their primacy and the primacy of the conditions they need in order to create.
The only “successful”—in worldly terms—woman writer I know lives alone and has always lived alone.Is this the only possible choice?
Which brings me, by twists and turns, to the issue of book jacket photos. We all know that many women writers submit photos to their editors that are twenty or even thirty years younger than they are; I have done it, too… It may be that men writers submit their outdated photos at times, although the crevassed countenance of Donald Hall on his most recent book seems to give the lie to vanity.
I think these young-looking jacket photos of women writers exist not only to soothe our vanity but to make it appear that we are still participating in “life”—that is, the life outside of writing: falling in love, having and raising children and grandchildren, taking care of the sick and elderly, providing for those who can’t provide for themselves, and yes, decorating, then moving into and maintaining houses—which may not even have a corner for a desk in a room that does not have many other functions—a kitchen, for example.
Yes, I’m angry, on my behalf and on the behalf of other women.
OK, then, can we draw a lesson from the extraordinarily gifted writer, Joan Didion’s, decision (I assume it must have been a decision) to pose for fashion magazine photos advertising sunglasses? Doesn’t that picture mean that she is still, in spite of age and wrinkles, “in the running”?
The playwright Lillian Hellman made the same decision when she posed, in old age, in a fur coat.
Also in the running, Lillian, if only in the running to sell fur coats.
What would have been our reaction if we had seen, instead, Didion or Hellman in a ratty old bathrobe, bent over a page at five in the morning?
That’s not glamor. That’s also being, plainly, out of the running, no children or grandchildren or sick parents or lovers distracted and drawn away by children and grandchildren and sick parents.
Somewhere out there must be a woman who has another answer.