Old Dominion University M.F.A. Creative Writing Program student Wendi White attended the 2012 Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) national conference in March. She queried a diverse group of women writers on how they have navigated the rocky waters of composing a writer’s life. She spoke with women authors of varying genres and ages about the empowerment strategies they have used to break through the barriers that women writers still experience. These conversations also explored what is needed for women to make continued progress in the profession.
In conversations with six well-known women authors over this past month, I queried each about the barriers women face in composing a writing life and though there were a range of responses as to how far women have, or have not come, there was one situation where all agreed that women still struggle mightily to put pen to paper: motherhood. When women become mothers, they take on a role laden with societal expectation. It is a role that becomes their “primary identity” in a way that becoming a father, I suspect, does not for men. Moreover, there is an inherent tension between the social construction of motherhood as the ultimate calling for women and writing, which is work that requires a writer to turn away from the world’s demands and focus solely on the page.
My interviews with poets Joanne Diaz and Kelli Russell Agodon were particularly insightful regarding the balance women writers must strike between their words and their children. Diaz related some of the strategies writers who are mothers have employed to compose, and Agodon, a mother herself, spoke about how hard it is to carve out time to write when there is laundry to do, children to carpool, and even at times an inner voice saying, “Your writing must wait.” Claiming permission to write is the first hurdle every mother must clear.
Russell Agodon, in addition to being a poet, is the editor of Seattle’s Crab Creek Review and and co-publisher of Two Sylvias Press and she has just published the first e-book anthology of women poets, Fire on Her Tongue. Her front row seat to many other women writer’s struggles prompted these reflections:
It is very challenging in already busy lives to create balance and find time to write. Sometimes when women take time off to go on a writing residency, they can be labeled as “selfish” or “that they don’t have their priorities right.” I’ve made a point of making sure not to call my writing residencies “writing retreats” because people think I’m off on a girl’s weekend with pedicures, wine & a little journaling. They have no idea I’m in a room by myself devoting 12 hours (or more) to my writing.
Sometimes the barrier for women is self-imposed, such as “I can’t take time to write until my children are older” or “My family needs to always come first.”
This doesn’t surprise me as so many of the most famous role models of successful women poets didn’t have children—Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore—and the ones who did (Sylvia Plath & Anne Sexton) committed suicide. Those are not great odds in the motherpoet department.
But both Russell Agodon and Diaz offer that the flipside of motherhood’s tight confines, like the confines of a sonnet, can provide the frame and focus for great creativity. When strategies for producing work in small parcels of time are employed, Russell Agodon relates, good writing and mothering can co-exist:
There are many women artists/writers who are also mothers doing incredible work and having a family. A favorite documentary of mine on women artists is Who Does She Think She Is? which explores women who are mothers and also artists. It’s fascinating and inspiring!
Also, for me, connecting with other women writers is a way to overcome social/cultural barriers and self-imposed barriers as many of us struggle with these things.
I try to find strong role models of women in the arts who work on balancing their lives and are taken seriously. Maya Lin, Denise Levertov, [and] Gwendolyn Brooks are three of my personal heroes, artists and writers who also raised children.
Making a similar point, Diaz relates the story of Lucille Clifton, who at one time in her writing life was also raising six small children, “Throughout the day, while care-taking, she would memorize the poem (she was composing), and write it down at night after the children had gone to sleep.” For Diaz, this is a perfect illustration of the way mothers “know how precious a single hour to write is. They are going to get the work done . . . you can see this in (Clifton’s) choice of form. She wrote very tight, compressed poems, and perhaps this had something to do with her constraints as a young mother and writer.”
And you don’t have to do it alone. Diaz uses her writing group as an example, “I have a group with many writing mothers who support and hold each other accountable for producing work. We meet every other week in a local coffee shop.”
But regardless of whatever strategy a mother devises or group she builds to support her writing, passion is essential if she is going to have the strength to ignore the dirty dishes and persevere. Diaz pinpoints the moment she became a poet when she studied with Marie Howe as an undergraduate, “she lit something in me that grew into a passion for poetry.” Algodon similarly encourages young woman writers to keep faith with their passion to write, offering these sisterly thoughts:
Know that success doesn’t always move in a straight line, but sometimes circles back and scribbles all over the page.
Realize there will be a lot of rejection, but it is part of the deal and we all get rejected (and will continue to). Always remember the Sylvia Plath quote: “I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.” And if you believe this is what you should be doing, keep going and know there’s a whole group of us wandering the same forest with you–when it’s dark, watch for our flashlights. We can all help guide each other.
So for the next generation of women writers out there wondering if they can be both the mother and writer they dream of becoming, the consensus of those just a little bit further down the road is clear: lean on each other. Don’t let other voices, internally or externally, tell you that you can’t write. If you are nursing a child, your hand is free to write, if you are waiting in the pick-up line to get the kids from school, you can read and compose. The best thing about being both a mother and a writer is that your office is your mind and its desk is always there waiting for you and your words.
Wendi White is an M.F.A. candidate in the Creative Writing Program at ODU, and the 2011 recipient of the ODU Graduate College Poetry Prize. She writes poetry about our only planet, imagining how we might live more mindfully upon it.