[T]he few of us who do manage to break through are touted as examples of progress while we are still the exceptions and not the rule. And then, the writers who come up after us are told that there’s no room for them. … Those of us that break through are, to some, interchangeable tokens, trotted out as examples of progress when, in fact, that progress is mostly an illusion.
In his 1976 essay “Lumbar Thought,” Italian writer-philosopher Umberto Eco recalled wearing tight jeans for the first time and finding that the constant feeling of clothing pressing on his body made him aware at all times of his exterior form, limiting his capacity for internal thought and stunting his ability to manspread. “As a rule I am boisterous, I sprawl in a chair, I slump wherever I please, with no claim to elegance: My blue jeans checked these actions, made me more polite and mature,” he wrote. “I lived in the knowledge that I had jeans on, whereas normally we live forgetting that we’re wearing undershorts or trousers.” Eco concluded that tight or uncomfortable items of clothing-bras, girdles, hosiery, heels, Wedgie Fit jeans-are significant contributors to women’s oppression. Body-squishing womenswear does more than inhibit free movement, he surmised. It occupies brainspace and consciousness that could be better used scheming, creating, or just daydreaming.
There’s a reason I’m translating a woman next. I think about that; I think about the question of women writers in translation. I’ve translated on commission a lot, so I tend to just choose the best of what I’m offered, and that’s happened to be male writers. But I do think that it’s my responsibility to seek out women writers and to translate them.
Of course it wouldn’t matter if you did give up writing. It’s not the giving up of the writing that I fear. It’s the giving up of this excitement or whatever it is that you feel that makes you write. This is what I wonder: what do most people do once the necessity of working all the time is removed? Even the retired people who take courses and have hobbies are looking for something to fill this void, and I feel such horror of being like that and having that kind of life. The only thing that I’ve ever had to fill my life has been writing.
Delay is natural to a writer. He is like a surfer—he bides his time, waits for the perfect wave on which to ride in. Delay is instinctive with him. He waits for the surge (of emotion? of strength? of courage?) that will carry him along. I have no warm-up exercises, other than to take an occasional drink. I am apt to let something simmer for a while in my mind before trying to put it into words. I walk around, straightening pictures on the wall, rugs on the floor—as though not until everything in the world was lined up and perfectly true could anybody reasonably expect me to set a word down on paper.
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.
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.