About Barely SouthSubmission GuidelinesCurrent IssuePast IssuesFeaturesBlog

Archive for the 'AWP' Category

To Write or Not to Write: a Mother’s Question?

Apr 10 2012 Published by Barely South Review under AWP

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.

2 responses so far

On Women Composing a Writing Life

Apr 10 2012 Published by Barely South Review under AWP

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.

Recently, I have pondered how fortunate I am to have that pen, paper, or iPad lying next to me on the table, ready to catch any fresh meaning I might squeeze from life. I realize that such easy license to write hasn’t always been available to women. In the not too distant past, a woman who wished to write was considered an oddity or a nuisance by her male peers. Nathaniel Hawthorne described the female authors of his day as those “damn scribbling women.” Samuel Johnson most famously shot down women speaking publicly with this critique, “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

Why was Johnson so surprised to hear a woman’s voice in church? Because 18th century English girls were rarely educated outside the home and thus were effectively silenced. If they learned to read (but not to write) in Puritan New England’s common schools, it was only so they might open the bible.

It used to be, not long ago, if you were a woman lucky enough to have a liberal arts education, raising your voice to engage the issues of the day through essays, novels or poetry was very dangerous business indeed. A lady risked her reputation; she might be deemed un-marriageable, divorced, or separated from her children and sent to an institution where she and the books that caused her “nervous anxiety”, her strange desire to stand on her principals and speak, would be locked away.

Despite this history, there have been exceptions across cultures and epochs where women’s literary contributions were encouraged. Naturally, such inclusive times produced some of the greatest literature, by both men and women. At this year’s Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference, which took place in Chicago during the first week of March, I interviewed the accomplished poet and professor of creative writing at Illinois Wesleyan University, Joanne Diaz. She kindly reminded me that it stands to reason that Sappho was not the only female Greek poet of the 6th century. If we have her fragments, she must have flown from the shoulders of other women writers. No doubt she shared a sisterhood with other artists that allowed her to imagine herself as an author, and certainly the ancient Greeks and we, their cultural descendants, have been enriched by the permission to write Sappho enjoyed.

Diaz also offered the English Renaissance as an example of “a period when women were writing all the time…they were also literary patrons…so that there was culture where women were very prolific. I don’t presume that social sanctions have been the story of every woman writer’s life.” And to back this statement up with examples, Diaz referred me to Queen Elizabeth, Mary Sidney, Mary Wroth and Aemilia Lanyer. These powerful literary fore-mothers are well remembered when I feel tempted to succumb to a victim’s mentality, “Oh, how can I ever have anything to say, no one ever listens to women!” And I don’t have to draw my courage to pick up a pen from the Classical era and Renaissance alone. I have more recent role models to thank who struggled and succeeded in being heard, making my life as a writer much more likely.

For example, in Mary Wollstonecraft’s, “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” written two hundred and twenty years ago, Wollstonecraft argued compellingly against the “nattering naybobs” of her day, who saw women as fit only for the domestic joys of diaper-changing and husband-helping. She radically opined, “. . . that women are capable of rationality; it only appears that they are not, because men have refused to educate them and encouraged them to be frivolous.”

Today, in liberal arts classrooms across our country, you can draw a direct line from Ms. Wollstonecraft’s courageous refutation of gender bias through the first and second waves of feminism to an undergraduate student body that is now more female than male. The line that separates those who may speak from who may not has clearly shifted.

Diaz affirmed women’s progress, especially for the middle class students she teaches, by sharing that not only are her creative writing classrooms’ gender demographics at a 50/50 split, but also that the achievements of the young women she mentors are second to none. “They are incredibly focused, confident, attentive and engaged . . . They are meeting their male peers or exceeding them.” Diaz’s concerns are not for white middle class women authors “In the United States, white middle-class women have been the direct beneficiaries of a wide range of educational and cultural opportunities. My bigger concern is whether women of color and working-class women have the same access to these opportunities.”

In another interview, this time with women’s rights activist, poet and founder of the lesbian press, Arktoi Books, Eloise Klein Healy, I was cautioned not to assume that complete parity for women writers has been achieved. Healy responded to my data on women making up the majority of undergraduate and writing student as a sign of gender equity in the writing profession with the following caution: “To have more women in creative writing classes is not the same thing as being equally published. In fact, I can’t think of any journal where women authors predominate . . . and if you do get published, they don’t review you as much.”

I agree with Diaz that I enjoy a great deal of privilege as a white, woman writer from the middle class. No doubt the fact that I can hop on the internet and shout my truth to the world without fear of reprisal is a sign of great progress, but after speaking to Healy, I wanted some hard numbers. I went directly to the VIDA website to browse The Count. VIDA is a literary association that, according to their website, was “founded to address the need for female writers of literature to engage in conversations regarding the critical reception of women’s creative writing in our current culture.” The Count is an annual spreadsheet compiled by VIDA tallying the number of women’s essays, books reviews of women’s work and women’s poems that are published in the leading American literary journals.

What I found there confirmed what Healy had intimated, though it did not break out women’s publication numbers by ethnicity or class. Nonetheless, out of 13 publications not one had an equal number of women writers as men. You should check it out yourself, but to give you a taste, The Count pegs the New York Review of Books at 143 women authors to 627 men in 2011. After reading the count I concluded that women may have “come a long way, baby,” but not far enough to get them even a 25% publication share.

Healy has taken women’s unequal access to the publishing field seriously. She says that such inequity persists because of barriers to “networking, familiarity, and knowing the right people…The suits are not seeing women as writers because women are not being invited in to their clubs.” Her sense of the struggle was formed in the seventies when she claimed permission to write from reading and working with women like Audrey Lord, Margaret Atwood (the keynote speaker at this year’s AWP conference), and Adrienne Rich. “They gave me a sense of community and literary history. We taught ourselves to press our own books.”

Now she urges second wave writers like herself to “seek friendships with younger women, to create some dialogue so there is a place for (young women) to start from,” so they remember the victories won in their name. “After the first wave of feminism, much ground was lost because women did not recount their struggles and pass the baton to the next generation”. To avoid repeating that mistake, Klein Healy, of the second wave, mentors and publishes women from the third wave (and beyond), nurturing their belief in themselves because “the bigger rewards still go to the brothers.” (VIDA has those numbers, too.)

In mentoring, publishing, and teaching, both Joanne Diaz and Eloise Klein Healy are actively developing the next round of women’s voices headed for the stacks. But beyond their work with young writers, both poets have through their craft exemplified the best of what I would dare to call a woman’s aesthetic. Diaz’s poems are sensual and grounded in the body’s way of knowing. When I asked why her poems imagine the taste, smell and feel of things more than their appearance, she responded, “The body is how we know our world.” Healy’s poems, on the other hand, map out territories and divisions between genders, spheres of work, and realms of power often using the Greek goddess Artemis as a figure of womanly struggle.

In my final analysis, both poets lay claim to important aspects of a woman’s way of knowing and writing and their perspectives on our progress as writers complements rather than contradicts each other. After all, when you are up against boneheaded views of the sort that Samuel Johnson once spouted, you need confidence rooted in past victories, but you also must know that the struggle won’t be won in your lifetime. In both cases, there’s a story that has to be told, a poem that must be written, and a space that must be preserved for women, their words and the future.

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.

Comments Off

//

about | submissions | present | past | features | blog