I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life’s a bitch. You’ve got to go out and kick ass.
— Maya Angelou
In my last post – quite long ago now – I said that you can’t write world-class fiction and conform to societal norms for women. It’s been an even longer time since Virginia Woolf said, in A Room of One’s Own, that if you don’t have a private income and staff and your own room, it’s going to be nearly impossible.
Jeanette Winterson, in an interview with The Guardian in 2004, didn’t think things have changed. “I never wanted children, but if I’d been deeply in love with a man and he’d wanted children, it would have been difficult,” she said. “I never wanted to be a part-time writer; work had to come first, which is selfish and self-directed, and you couldn’t do that as a wife and mother – though it may be possible now, in partnership with the right man, because boys have grown up differently.”
My husband is brilliant – he and my cleaner do nearly all the housework and he does our ironing, but even with the ‘right man’, it’s not easy.
If you are working, even part time, and doing the normal things expected of women in our society: baking cakes for fetes, checking on elderly neighbours, helping with care – or, more likely, wholly in charge of care – for children and other relatives, planning, shopping and making meals, keeping the garden looking nice, knowing where the hockey stick is, showing the world a groomed and nicely-dressed persona every morning, spending time nurturing the huge web of relationships that make up women’s social lives, spending time with your partner… If you then try to put reading and writing into the crazy mix of most women’s parenting years (and we are talking about over 20 years average), you are setting yourself up for failure.
A male writer can be moody, abstracted, absent from his children, ignore his friendships, be dishevelled and barely speak to his wife, let alone remember to take out the bins and mow the lawn… and if he is working and writing, people will actually see this kind of behaviour as heroic. It is not the same for women writers.
Let me give you an example… My male colleagues often show up to work actually a bit smelly, certainly untidy and often with stains on their jumpers, torn jeans, badly needing a haircut or perhaps a good shave… imagine a woman showing up to work in a similar state…yesterday’s makeup, hair on end, dirty clothes, smelling a bit (of smoke and drink)…unshaven legs, unplucked chin hairs…how well do you think any work place would support that woman?
I know it’s funny, but it shows the difference in our minds about what is acceptable behaviour for male writers and what is acceptable behaviour for female writers. Women have just as much passion and concentration and absorption in our relationship to our work as our male counterparts. But most of us can’t go away for three months on a residency, or live in our rooms, letting the rest of the family fend for themselves for half a year, or even wear a stained jumper or miss a shower. Hilary Mantel, in a recent conversation with Fay Weldon, moaned about having to get her hair done every day when she did American tours. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want Hilary Mantel to have to mess about with her hair when she could be writing. How much time does Martin Amis spend on his hair before he does television?
This concern is all about time. It takes time to listen to your elderly neighbour’s story about her day trip to Pontypridd, to bake two dozen sodding cupcakes, to avoid feeding your family fish fingers and chips for the two years you are writing your novel. It takes time to shower and blow dry your hair and pluck your effing chin hairs. And all that time you are doing all that stuff, is time you are not writing and you are not reading and you are not going to events where you can meet important people. It’s time when you are not able to have your chance to do your best.
Back to kicking ass. Febreeze is a writing woman’s best friend and I highly advise you to keep a bottle on your dressing table for those days when yesterday’s jeans aren’t quite as fresh as you hoped. And when someone says something to you like ‘Don’t you line dry your sheets?’ or ‘Are you ready for Christmas?’ Say, ‘No. I write great books instead.’ ‘No. Did you get your Author’s Foundation Grant application into the post in time?’
I, my friends, have committed to a serious programme of kicking ass. And I suggest you do, too.