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Some Thoughts on Writing and The Writing Life

A Random Compilation of Old and New Musings


The Mother as Writer…and Character

Every time I create a fictional character who’s a mother, I run into the same problem: even when the kids have nothing to do with the story, editors and agents insist I create more story time for them. Thus, I’m forced to develop more characters and wrestle with a geometric increase in relationship dynamics.  If I don’t develop the children, I’ve been told, readers will “lose sympathy” for the main character.  On the surface, the solution seems simple: just don’t make the main character a mother. In some cases, however, I’ve felt it essential for a female character to have had the experience of birthing and raising a child, for motherhood to be an integral part of who she is, whether the kids are part of the story or not.

For instance, I wrote a novel about an older woman who falls in love with a man who has AIDS.   By making the protagonist a mother, I gave her specific caretaker experience. Otherwise there was no place in this tragic love story for children. They were fully grown and appeared only peripherally, via phone calls. An agent who wanted to represent the book told me it was jarring for the kids to be largely absent, that it made the character less likeable. I suppose this mother seemed like a dilettante for living a full adult life without her kids on top of her.

I should have known: the same issue arose more than thirty years ago, with one of my earliest attempts at a novel. The main character was a mother, but the plot revolved around her life as a political activist.  The fact of motherhood influenced her commitment to social justice, but otherwise the kids weren’t essential to the plot.  I purposely set the time frame as one entire summer, shipping the kids off to camp – nothing wrong with that; parents do it all the time. My agent, after getting feedback from several publishers, informed me that editors detested this woman for being absent from her kids and that I had to incorporate them into the book.

I’m not sure what this says about literature in our culture, but it says a helluva lot about how we regard motherhood. The central focus of a mother’s life is supposed to be her children, no matter how old they are and no matter what else a woman might be doing.  If she’s presented as an autonomous being with interests and activities other than her kids, she is immediately suspect.

Imagine an editor saying the same thing to a male writer.  I’m certain that no agent or editor has ever told Phillip Roth his main character is unlikable because his kids don’t make an appearance (though critics tend to dislike Roth’s characters for other assinine reasons). Do readers like Raymond Carver more than Roth because so many of his stories are child-centered? I don’t—though I do appreciate Carver’s perspective as a father. I suppose it’s unfair to blame critics; there’s no denying that, unlike fatherhood, motherhood exerts such a powerful influence on a woman’s psyche that by simply stating a character is one, I perform a hefty chunk of instant character development.

Aha! Maybe it’s my own fault for relying on what a woman is, rather than developing her character independent of maternal status. Maybe I’m simply being lazy (not to mention sexist!); maybe my critics have a point: they’re perceiving a legitimate weakness in my writing.

I think I’ll try removing the status of motherhood from one of these characters and see what happens. This is exactly why I love to write: putting down these words brought me to a new understanding of a conundrum I’ve been wrestling with for forty years.

Another reason I love to write:

Journal Entry circa October 1988

Today it happened. After days and days of writing drudgery, moving people around the page, setting them up, getting them from one place to another, from one meal to the next; after all that tedious “housekeeping,” I wrote a scene, one paragraph in particular, that’s a jewel. All the surrounding words merely hold the jewel in place—small, fake rhinestones that exist only to support the diamonds.

The scene is a blend of fiction and something that really happened.  It seethes with love and passion without being sentimental.

This is what I live for. This is why I write, even when it’s tedious. It’s the reason I live as I do—solitary, broke/poor, eccentric – all for moments like this. I wish I could hang onto this moment, but…now it’s written, tomorrow it probably won’t even seem so brilliant, and it’ll be another long lonely stretch before I produce another diamond.

But I will…and that’s what matters.

The Failed Novelist

Novel-writing is the one and only occupation I’ve ever heard described by the adjective “failed.” What makes a writer a failure? Lack of publication? Given that so many people write several novels before one gets published (Steven King is a living example), at what point has a novelist failed? I suppose the phrase is accurate if we’re talking about a novelist who hasn’t yet produced even part of a novel – but how can anyone have failed if her work is in process? Is an inventor whose inventions haven’t been produced a failed inventor? What about a musician who hasn’t recorded, or one that a very few people have heard? Is he a failed musician? No  failed painters exist – and behind many closed doors every wall is crowded with the resident’s paintings! The posthumous painter is legendary: Van Gogh, for starters. Yet we don’t call anyone a failed painter.

It must be part of the insane stigma against writing as a profession. I could probably speculate for hours on why this is so, but it would be a waste of time and energy. I only point it out because it’s something that’s bugged me for years. At this point, I cringe at the phrase failed writer as much as I do at homophobic, sexist, or racial slurs.

As they say in academia, Publish or Perish!

Speaking of Academia…

As a committed writer, I’ve worked the oddest of odd jobs to earn my keep. When I sold popcorn at a small independent movie theater, we put on a French Film
Festival which several artistic Parisian types attended. During intermission, one Frenchman got flirty with me, but when he found out I was the theater’s popcorn lady, he actually turned his back on me.

I had a nearly identical experience when I attended a Modern Language Association conference, where I’d been invited to read an essay I’d written for the Doris Lessing Newsletter. At the opening reception, a college professor – that’s who goes to MLA meetings — asked me where I taught. When I admitted I wasn’t a college professor but an independent writer, he walked away. Just up and walked away, cocktail in hand.

I remain unruffled by the snobbery of the intelligentsia; I find it amusing. It’s one of the few instances of human stupidity that I don’t get sucked into.. Au contraire: it makes me feel, in comparison to such people, enlightened, eclectic, and iconoclastic. I was a popcorn vender who wrote regularly for the town newspaper; a sex writer who published academic papers on a Nobel prize-winning author; a phone “fantasy-maker” who was also consultant to a major American chocolate company; a grandmother editing anthologies of women’s erotica.

Obviously I can’t be pigeonholed, and I can’t be bought. Oh, I’ll sell myself all right – but it won’t make me a Francophile, an academic snob, or a business consultant. I hope those smug morons who turned their backs on me feel better about themselves from our encounter; such hubris should not be a complete waste.

Another Plug for The Jewish News Pages

In case my readers haven’t yet checked out TNJP, now would be a good time to do so: my op-ed on Islam, sexism, and religion is generating a bit of controversial conversation. My favorite comment accuses me of “distaste for children” because I favor contraception. No lie. Here’s a fantastic subversive picture I posted with it:

Burqa Chorus Line


2 responses »

  1. Writing a novel seems like the hardest work there is. I can’t imagine doing it.

  2. Yes Robin, it is hard–but its my favorite kind of writing. Working on the same story every day sometimes puts me into a state of ecstasy. I’ve witten 5 novels. Because none have been published, and I have to write for money, I doubt I’ll write any more novels–but when I did, I’d go into an alternative universe. Better than drugs. Got me thru the worst secretarial jobs; with my mind in my self-created world the whole day. But you can’t do much of anything else while writing a book; and it can compromise your relationhips, so you probably wouldn’t want to do it. It’s definitely not part of your Path of Least Resistance.–MS

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