Dangerous to those who profit from the way things are

research * the future * culture

No, you need not die alone surrounded by manuscripts.

I’ve been turning over a few different articles in my mind. This happens more often than I’m comfortable admitting. I leave the tabs up and open, headlines glaring at me, and I think about the difference between what I feel and what I want to say, and how to fill that gap with meaningful communication. Specifically, I want to pick apart the idea that being a woman who writes means being a woman who’s lonely.

Look, writing is a lonely profession. It’s inherently solipsistic. It requires long stretches of intense focus that tends to shut out other people. I’m a writer in part because I was an only child — I grew accustomed very early in life to spending my days alone. And I don’t just mean afternoons before my parents got home from work, I mean whole summers by myself in the years before my parents could afford summer activities. I spent a lot of those days reading and making up stories. (I also spent a lot of them watching the Dial-A-Dollar movie, because my parents couldn’t afford cable any more than they could afford summer camp. I still have fond childhood memories of several truly awful films presented in pan-and-scan format.) So the fact that I spend my days alone in adulthood makes sense to me. It’s how I’ve always lived.

But lately there seems to be a lot more discussion of how people like me, women who happen to be writers, have allegedly chosen a lifetime of personal loneliness and not just professional loneliness. I first noticed this in a Laurie Penny column:

I wish I’d known, at 21, when I made up my mind to try to write seriously for a living if I could, that that decision would also mean a choice to be intimidating to the men I fancied, a choice to be less attractive, a choice to stop being That Girl and start becoming a grown woman, which is the worst possible thing a girl can do, which is why so many of those Manic Pixie Dream Girl characters, as written by male geeks and scriptwriters, either die tragically young or are somehow immortally fixed at the physical and mental age of nineteen-and-a-half…

If I’d known what women have to sacrifice in order to write, I would not have allowed myself to be so badly hurt when boys whose work and writing I found so fascinating found those same qualities threatening in me. I would have understood what Kate Zambreno means when she says, in her marvellous book Heroines, I do not want to be an ugly woman, and when I write, I am an ugly woman. I would have been less surprised when men encouraged me to be politer and grow my hair long even as I helped them out with their own media careers. My Facebook feed is full of young male writers who I have encouraged to believe in themselves, set up with contacts, taken on adventures and talked into the night about the meaning of journalism with who are now in long-term relationships with people who are content to be That Girl. I would have understood quite clearly what I was choosing when I chose, sometime around the time I packed two suitcases and walked out on Garden State Boy, to be a person who writes her own stories, rather than a story that happens to other people.

The whole piece is great, and I advise that you read it. It’s resonant for me in a lot of very personal, ugly ways. I felt like That Girl in a lot of my early relationships: the girl who got the boy on his back and then back on his feet, the one told by grateful parents that she was a “good influence.” But part of my good influence was the fact that I was a writer. Or at least that I was smart and well-read, which amounts to the same thing. But I understand now that my experience is likely unique. Just ask Susan Sontag, who wrote these words to herself in 1977 following the end of a long-term relationship:

Remember: this could be my one chance, and the last, to be a first-rate writer. One can never be alone enough to write.

And in 1911, Emma Goldman had the same thought about the thorny problem imposed by female independence in general:

The narrowness of the existing conception of woman’s independence and emancipation; the dread of love for a man who is not her social equal; the fear that love will rob her of her freedom and independence; the horror that love or the joy of motherhood will only hinder her in the full exercise of her profession — all these together make of the emancipated modern woman a compulsory vestal, before whom life, with its great clarifying sorrows and its deep, entrancing joys, rolls on without touching or gripping her soul.

In other words: being a woman writer means being alone.

…Bullshit.

I’m not discounting the relationship problems experienced by other women who are writers. Writing is hard on relationships. All writers have, I suspect, felt mingled revulsion and compassion for that moment in The Shining when Jack Torrance tells his wife not to enter the room when she hears the clack of his typewriter keys. It doesn’t matter that he’s got the DTs, or that the Overlook has got to him, or that he’s actually just writing the same sentence over and over. She broke the flow, and the flow doesn’t just come back. The imagination is not a spigot. You can’t just turn it on or off. And the people who love you need to know that. I don’t like identifying with Jack in that moment. It’s an ugly, awful moment. But it’s there, and it’s true, and that’s part of the story’s horror. It probably cost King more to write it, and Kubrick more to shoot it, than it costs me to recognize it as a warning.

But for my own lived experience, the men I’ve been most drawn to have been drawn to me in turn for my writing. I was thirteen when I read The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje, and it changed my life in ways I’ll probably describe in another post. In it, one of the characters is telling a story, says “My mother always told me I would summon my husband by playing the piano.” I wondered if my writing would be the same, and in what may be a self-fulfilling prophecy, it has been. My husband was drawn to me for my writing. So was my current partner. So have other men been. They weren’t scared. They weren’t intimidated. They also weren’t assholes.

Let’s be clear: the men Laurie Penny is describing, the “Garden State boys” and intellectual man-children, they exist. They’re a legitimate phenomenon in contemporary culture. You will meet them. You will get crushes on them that go nowhere. They will break your heart or you will break theirs. But the thing about them is that they’re fundamentally not worth your time or your tears, and neither is anyone who reacts to the presence of writerly talent and intelligence in a woman with fear or ridicule. They’re not bad people. They’re just the people you latch onto before you have standards.

But the thing about these guys (and girls!) is that they profit by the notion that they are the only ones who can possibly understand you. That their skinny jeans and cute glasses and gap years magically equip them with genuine insight into why you write. Nothing does that, except empathy. And empathy is what makes all relationships work. You may find it in a scrawny guy in a Ramones t-shirt playing chess by himself late night on a Thursday at your favourite coffee place. Or you may find it in a Dockers-clad sysadmin who never, ever misses a credit card payment. In other words: don’t panic. Loneliness is not your lot in life. In fact, what will probably happen is that you will wind up with another writer, like I did. But even that isn’t without its challenges.

Amanda Palmer described this experience quite poignantly in this post, discussing what it’s like to be one artist married to another artist: there is the man readers fawn over, and there is the “the writer who is not really a writer are you kidding me he’s just some snoring heap of flesh beside me, sweating and breathing and grinding his teeth,” and those two men are the same man.

one thing i have learned, being an artist married to another artist:
you cannot separate the self from the relationship and you cannot separate the relationship from the work.
call it poison, or call it the muse.

the twilight place where the man and the writer smash into each other and for a second there’s a wrinkle, a schism, where you can jam a stick into the works of the blender and see the whole, floating components of a soul so fragile, so human, and so vulnerable that you must love whatever’s in there, unconditionally, because you have no other option.

the ingredients are just too beautiful.

That. That’s what you’re looking for. That’s what someone else should be looking for, in you. It won’t be easy. It won’t be without problems. You may find that love and win it and then fuck it up. It’s a thing you have to maintain, and your maintenance skills might be sub-par. But it can work, and it can work for you.

One ResponseLeave one →

  1. Great article. As a noobie writer, who’s starting to devote time to writing, I’m beginning to see how you do need hours of quiet and sequestration. However, I try to balance the time alone writing with time spent socializing and getting out.

  • Madeline Ashby…

    ...is a science fiction writer, strategic foresight consultant, and immigrant living in Toronto. She writes a column for the Ottawa Citizen. She is represented by Anne McDermid & Associates, and IAM Sports & Entertainment. You can buy her novels here. Her short fiction has appeared in Nature, FLURB, Tesseracts, Imaginarium, and Escape Pod. Her other essays and criticism have appeared at BoingBoing, io9, WorldChanging, Creators Project, Arcfinity, and Tor.com.
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