Such a message arrived this morning from a woman named Joann who, in a second-hand book store, happened to pick up my twenty-five year old memoir, Passion and Prejudice, falsely subtitled, at the insistence of my editor, A Family Memoir—which gave it a unearned aura of respectability.
Joann, who is digging into her own family’s buried history, writes that my memoir “touched a nerve,” which is what we writers want even if it is oddly reminiscent of bad moments in the dentist’s chair.
My correspondent is one of many women who are trying to find out what the people were like whom they know were their ancestors, without having any notion who they were, people—again, largely women—not only lost to history but lost even to the storytelling that is the only form of history that can be called art.
Isak Dinesen writes in “The Cardinal’s Last Talk” from her Last Tales that the story of the individual is “a noble art, a great, solemn and ambitious human product. But it is a human product” while “the divine art is the story,” dealing with archetypes—heroes and heroines—rather than with individuals limited to their time and place.
But there are few women writers who can imagine their creations as archetypes, least of all as heroines; we seem more comfortable with women characters molded to and formed by their time and place, as we are, and, inevitably, to one degree or another, victims. Perhaps this is why so few women read the writing of women; we are all resisting, as we must, the limitations placed on women characters which are similar to the limitations placed on us.Paul Therouox’s generous review of Let Me Tell You, a posthumous collection of Shirley Jackson’s writing, is sensitive to the constrictions she lived and wrote under as a wife and mother in the 1940’s and 1950’s, out of which she formed her vision of the inevitability, and the irrationality, of our choice of victims. It takes a writer secure in his own accomplishment and ready to admit, easily, that the “knowing wash-ashores” who never heard of Jackson and probably don’t want to do not control our history, to remember that “The Lottery” still provokes the chill Theroux first felt on reading the story in his high school class in the late 1950’s.
Writing programs have created another version of the writer, akin to the romantic notion of the “poete maudi”—the writer obsessed by his craft and sacrificing everything to it. (I chose the gender of this character wisely.)
This is the theme of Dani Shapiro’s absorbing Still Writing—the question we are all asked, although it is not likely that someone would ask a surgeon, “Still operating?”
Shapiro describes a rusticated life without children or demanding friends or accidents and unforeseen demands, a life where she goes to her desk first thing in the morning (maybe after coffee?) and stays there all day, usually avoiding electronics, lunches with friends, and all the other events and distractions that offer excitement, perhaps, but interrupt the work of the imagination. (She certainly does some of this some of the time, I guess.)This was my view of writing when I started, fresh from college, on my first novel. It was also the view that, in two years, led me to despair.
I was missing my life.
Such absorption in the written word is not I think, fruitful of a long career as a writer. We are all stripped, to one degree or another, when we sit down to write; but there must be a leaf, a petal, a bit of sunlight that now and then widens our focus…
There is a happier outcome to this surmise: whether in total isolation or in the compromised solitude most of us suffer, we create characters whom our readers recognize, care about, and remember; this is the strand that connects us all.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “This is a part of the beauty of literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”
When, though, do we pay too high a price for belonging? That question fired my writing of Passion and Prejudice.