I write a lot of short stories that never come together. Never jell. Dozens, maybe hundreds over time. They don’t jell for a number of reasons: the point of view begins to bore me, possibly because it is too familiar, too close to my own; I don’t want to lay the time aside (I write short stories in one block of time, usually one day, without interruptions); or another idea comes swooping through my imagination, a brighter butterfly, and I’m off.
In-between I write plays, novels, poetry, non-fiction, and the biography of Doris Duke that will be published next spring.
No matter the form, I always work. I have always worked, from the time I was thirteen or fourteen and realized that long hot summer vacations were not for swimming, playing tennis and going to parties but for working, in a hot back room, with my sweaty forearms sticking to the paper.
Of course there was some of the other—the entertainments—but to this day, entertainments, including the two-week trip I just concluded, are distractions, at best, and I continue to write, first thing in the morning even in a hotel bed.
Almost nothing gets published.
I’m going on about work to relieve my annoyance at the concert of writing in newspapers, magazines and books that claim that women don’t really want to work. An article in The New York Times even blames the Women’s Movement for not dealing with this “fact.”
Our society makes it very hard for women to work—we all know that. No affordable, quality childcare, no maternal leave (lets leave so-called “family leave” out since as far as I know, men don’t bear children or take primary responsibility for raising them), a pay scale that hasn’t improved in decades in spite of the much praised Lilly Ledbetter Act because of employer intransigence—and this is only the start of the story.
Women all over the world are killed and maimed and forced into exile by our wars—and we are already at war, everywhere, and close to a nuclear confrontation driven by a president who thinks Andrew Jackson could have prevented the Civil War—and the destruction of our work and our ability to work is never listed as part of the terrifying costs.
But there’s another reason: many of us don’t want to work as hard as we have to in order to earn any measure of satisfaction, and this applies particularly to privileged women. We have too many options. We are not required to recognize how unfair our privilege is and how it distorts the rest of the economy. The widows of magnates who give whopping sums to not-for-profits are the only indication of a small consciousness dawning. But how much more could have been accomplished during their husbands’ lifetimes if he had been induced or seduced into recognizing his responsibilities?
Working hard is what women do who have three jobs and five children and face every day the possibility of being thrown into detention centers and driven out of this country. I doubt if any of these women would be interested by the idea that women don’t want to work.
A few writers—but very few—recognize how relentlessly we have to labor to earn even a small piece of success. One of the few who knows that is Pam Houston, whom I’ve admired since I read her first collection of short stories, Cowboys are My Weakness. She describes the way her big advance was whittled down—a few paragraphs every writer who imagines making it big ought to read.
Robin Romm’s anthology, in which Pam’s essay appears, is called, Double Bind: Women on Ambition. Robin ( an enormously talented short story writer) backs up her title with examples of the double bind: “success paired eternally with scrutiny and retreat.” I question the generalization, as I question Pam’s assertion that she has never met a happy rich woman. She doesn’t know me.
I do not question the hideous barriers we face, but I question why we are often so subservient to them, why we repeat what our critics say about us. Why we give up. Some of the “retreat” may be the result of our refusal to be deeply engaged in our own lives—to accept the sacrifices and the terrifying amount of work that any ambition requires.
I haven’t read the other essays in Robin’s challenging collection, but I suspect that many of them question her thesis.
Yet there is something so granite-hard, so allied with inevitability about ambition that I doubt my own doubt. We women who work may find ourselves, due to fate, circumstance, or weakness as subject to inevitability as the brood mares I saw last weekend at a stud farm in Kentucky. Inevitability: the twitch, the breeding cloak, the buffer (all of these devices were explained), and the breeding boots that make the stallions’ job easier and produce the crowd of foals we saw in those green fields.
Are we women subject to the same inevitability? I’m not just talking about reproduction. Hard work is a rigorous fate.