In general, if a person were to watch me work—which I am grateful no one ever has—I suspect it might look like a lot of cutting and pasting of notes, stopping, starting, staring, intermittent flurries (as the weatherpeople say), sudden visitations (by invisible forces), the contemplation of the spines of various dictionaries and reference books stacked behind the computer, and much reheating of cold coffee (a metaphor and not a metaphor). But what it feels like is running as far as I can with a voice, a tuneful patch of a long, nagging idea. It is a daily struggle that doesn’t even always occur daily. From the time I first started writing, the trick for me has always been to construct a life in which writing could occur. I have never been blocked, never lost faith (or never lost it for longer than necessary, shall we say) never not had ideas and scraps sitting around in notebooks or on Post-its adhered to the desk edge, but I have always been slow and have never had a protracted run of free time. I have always had to hold down a paying job of some sort and now I’m the mother of a small child as well, and the ability to make a literary life while teaching and parenting (to say nothing of housework) is sometimes beyond me. I don’t feel completely outwitted by it but it is increasingly a struggle. If I had a staff of even one person, or could tolerate a small amphetamine habit, or entertain the possibility of weekly blood transfusions, or had been married to Vera Nabokov, or had a housespouse of even minimal abilities, a literary life would be easier to bring about. (In my mind I see all your male readers rolling their eyes. But your female ones—what is that? Are they nodding in agreement? Are their fists in the air?) It’s hardly news that it is difficult to keep the intellectual and artistic hum of your brain going when one is mired in housewifery. This is, I realize, an old complaint from women, but for working women everywhere it continues to have great currency.
I do not like the idea of happyness — it is too momentary — I would say that I was always busy and interested in something — interest has more meaning to me than the idea of happyness.
Too many women, particularly groundbreaking women and industry leaders, are afraid to be labeled as feminists. They’re afraid to stand up and say, “Yes, I am a feminist,” for fear of what that label means, for fear of being unable to live up to unrealistic expectations.
Take, for example, Beyoncé, or as I call her, The Goddess. She has emerged, in recent years, as a visible feminist. At the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards, she performed in front of the word “feminist” 10 feet high. It was a glorious spectacle to see this pop star openly embracing feminism and letting young women and men know that being a feminist is something to celebrate. As the moment faded, cultural critics began endlessly debating whether or not Beyoncé was, indeed, a feminist. They graded her feminism, instead of simply taking a grown, accomplished woman at her word.
When we talk about the needs of women, we have to consider the other identities we inhabit. We are not just women. We are people with different bodies, gender expressions, faiths, sexualities, class backgrounds, abilities, and so much more. We need to take into account these differences and how they affect us, as much as we account for what we have in common. Without this kind of inclusion, our feminism is nothing.
A lot of our ideas about what we can do at different ages and what age means are so arbitrary — as arbitrary as sexual stereotypes. I think that the young-old polarization and the male-female polarization are perhaps the two leading stereotypes that imprison people. The values associated with youth and with masculinity are considered to be the human norms, and anything else is taken to be at least less worthwhile or inferior. Old people have a terrific sense of inferiority. They’re embarrassed to be old. What you can do when you’re young and what you can do when you’re old is as arbitrary and without much basis as what you can do if you’re a woman or what you can do if you’re a man.
If a guy shares his experience in writing, he’s brave. If a woman shares her experience in writing, she’s oversharing. Or she’s overemotional. Or she might be crazy. Or watch out, she’ll write a song about you. That joke is so old, and it’s coming from a place of such sexism.
[W]riter’s block is not necessarily because of a big blank moment in the brain, but instead some kind of emotional situation that is holding the writer back.
Everyone talks about “escaping” into a book, but even as a kid, the escape was never what I looked for. The characters might not resemble me in the slightest, the setting might be totally unfamiliar, but I’ve always hoped to find some new piece of myself–a string of words capturing my own feelings exactly. My favorite kind of reading is like looking through a window at a rainstorm: You’re staying dry, but once in a while, the light might allow you to see your own reflection out in it.
I think the names of colors are at the edge between where language fails and where it’s at its most powerful. … I used to go round the department when I was teaching at UCL, when I was writing Still Life, and try out not the big color words but the little color words. There’s a particular very subtle English language expert and I would say to her, If I put in malachite, what do you see? She’d say, I haven’t the slightest idea, and she didn’t know what ocher was, or gamboge, or viridian. Those people who do will have a completely different experience of what I’ve written from those who don’t.
This notion of investigation offers an alternative to confession. Its goal isn’t sympathy or forgiveness. Life is not personal. Life is evidence. It’s fodder for argument. To put the “I” to work this way invites a different intimacy—not voyeuristic communion but collaborative inquiry, author and reader facing the same questions from inside their inevitably messy lives.