When I was in my late twenties, there was one essay I read in the New York Times Book Review that moved me so deeply that I immediately signed up for a summer writing workshop where the writer of the essay was teaching. It was not like me to go to writing workshops anymore at that age. I was in complete burnout with the workshop culture from my college writing program and the many writing workshops I had gone to after.
I was what I would call a “beginning writer” at that point, trying to find my authentic voice, in the middle of writing my first book, a semi-autobiographical novel about growing up Italian American in a small New England town in the 70s—a novel that I never published.
But this essay, it rumbled my insides as I read it and made my cry out “Yes,” and “please.” I wanted to learn more from the woman who had written it. That woman was Ursula K. Le Guin. The essay was, The Fisherwoman’s Daughter. It begins like this:
“’So, of course,’ wrote Betty Flanders, pressing her heels, rather deeper in the sand, ‘there was nothing for it but to leave.’
That is the first sentence of Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room. It is a woman writing. Sitting on the sand by the sea, writing. It’s only Betty Flanders, and she’s only writing a letter. But first sentences are doors to worlds. This world of Jacob’s room, so strangely empty at the end of the book when the mother stands in it holding out a pair of her son’s old shoes and saying, ‘What am I to do with these?’—this is a world in which the first thing one sees is a woman, a mother of children, writing.
On the shore, by the sea, outdoors, is that where women write? Not at a desk, in a writing room? Where does a woman write, what does she look like writing, what is my image, your image, of a woman writing?”*
Written in 1988, Le Guin tackles the questions of women and writing, the lack of women represented as writers in fiction, how (literally) women have written through history with all the other responsibilities constantly tugging at them, women writers and motherhood, the books vs. babies myth, women allowing themselves the full breadth and depth of their imaginations and women’s realities as represented in art—all topics still relevant today.
Women have written at kitchen tables, between making dinner and lunch, with their children running about (Harriet Beecher Stowe), hidden their works on writing tables under other, more acceptable, “ladies papers” such as letters and invitations (Jane Austen), had their work trivialized by their family even though they have become famous for it (Louisa May Alcott), and written potboilers in the corner in the evening with other women who are chatting while doing their needlework (Oliphant).
Women have felt they needed to choose between writing books or having babies as (they have been told) one would surely kill the other. Women’s realities in literature have been portrayed through the lens of other: husband, lover, son, rather than the woman herself. In 1988 there were very few portrayals of motherhood from the perspective of the mother in literature, especially not writers who were mothers.
When I went to the writing workshop, I was so happy to be in the presence of an elder, a role model. I was so excited to hear more, to talk to her about all these subjects, but, frustratingly, Le Guin did not speak about this in the workshop sessions. We were a large group who had mostly—except for me, hungry to hear more from her about women writers, women and writing and get advice how to navigate being a woman and a writer—come to learn more about the craft of writing and have their writing read and reviewed in a group facilitated by her. Another dull writing workshop is what it, in fact, was.
In our private session, however, I did get to address the issues of the essay with her. She told me that she was so happy for me that I was already identified as a feminist and a writer at such a young age and that I was already, without question, putting those two identities together as a feminist writer. She said it had taken her a long time to get to that point as a woman and writer and she regretted it. She encouraged me to keep my feminist voice, and pleaded with me to not let anyone talk me out of it. “You will regret it,” she said. “Write the truth. Write your truth.”
This was great encouragement for me at the time. I had often been told the opposite. Why do you have to be so feminist? People don’t like that. Could you write about things that appeal more to people, not this angry feminist stuff?
I always remembered her advice, especially as I moved forward in my writing and took larger and larger risks. For, though I was never going to let go of my feminist voice—the whole reason I wanted to write was to address women’s issues and causes through this vehicle—I trusted her that if I didn’t, I would regret it. I have to say now, at this point in my life, though it has not been easy, she was right. I have no regrets. And regret, it seems to me now, is the stuff that corrodes away at happiness in later years.
Ursula K. Le Guin is one of the most prolific writers of our time. “She has published seven books of poetry, twenty-two novels, over a hundred short stories (collected in eleven volumes), four collections of essays, twelve books for children, and four volumes of translation. Few American writers have done work of such high quality in so many forms.”** She is also the mother of three children.
In her acceptance speech for the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution in American Letters at the National Book Awards in 2014, she spoke of the rising commodification of writing and how profit is often in opposition to true art. She urged writers to resist this and write for freedom not profit.
“Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art – the art of words.”***
The Fisherwoman’s Daughter is fascinating in its exploration of the issue of books vs. babies that women are often told they must make. That having a baby will kill one’s creative ability and that one must choose between the two. Le Guin argues this is not the case. Women do not have to make such a choice, nor do they between any career and being a Mom but they do need to understand that the child will interfere in this other passion for a bit and perhaps slow it down. But that is ok. And that perhaps this juggling produces better babies and better books or whatever craft/occupation the woman is choosing.
She opens the door wider on this subject and offers much wisdom to ponder and more depth to the conversation. Perhaps it is important for artists to stay embedded in the messy truth and reality of human life, rather than shut themselves up in a room separated from it?
I had no child at the time of the first reading but the conversation was important to me. I didn’t even know if I wanted a child but I wanted to know that all options were open to me, and be reassured by a woman who had walked that path before me and done both well. I wanted to be told by an elder peer in my profession to free my imagination and write things, even if “men won’t like them.” I wanted to be free, and to be freed, to write about women in a different way, in the truth of their realities, so many—not just one. I wanted to be encouraged to pursue the path I felt opening before me and this essay and Ursula K. Le Guin, provided that for me.
We have made great progress in this task in the intervening thirty years and yet still, we have a ways to go.
“…imagine what it would signify to all women,” Alicia Ostriker writes, “and men, to live in a culture where childbirth and mothering occupied the kind of position that sex and romantic love have occupied in literature and art for the last five hundred years or…that warfare has occupied since literature began”****.
Motherhood as told from the point of view of a mother? Women have avoided writing it to not be trivialized as writers and not have their work deemed “unimportant.” Therefore women don’t get to see this reality represented. They don’t get to see this part of themselves portrayed, that experience, depicted. It’s just disappeared, though it can take up so many years, so much of the energy and focus of a woman’s life.
I did eventually go on to become the mother of a beautiful daughter. Many viewed me as indulgent when I dropped her off at daycare five days a week and then went home to write. And yet I wrote three novels while actively mothering a young person. And I have just completed my seventh book this year. I am now called “prolific” and I am also called, “Mom.” And I would never tell anyone not to do that. I would encourage them to.
It helped to have to discipline myself to work only in the hours my daughter was at school or daycare. To have to stop writing everyday at a certain time and go into “Mom time.” I learned to go for a walk between to ease this transition. Sometimes it was hard to stop writing at the time I needed to, especially if I was really on a roll, but I simply could not call my daughter’s school or daycare and say “I’m working late tonight.” Instead, this forced schedule helped me be ready and anxious to begin again the next day after I dropped her off. As Hemmingway had advised: always stop in the middle so you know where to start the next day. Well, that is easy when you are raising a child. Yes, interruption. A mother’s life is full of interruption. It is true. But you learn. You get better at it. Just as Le Guin tells us we will in The Fisherwoman’s Daughter. It’s true. Being interrupted barely interrupts me any more.
It is strange to look back on my life and see what inspired and motivated me. Who would think that it would come to be meaningful to me that my journals from when my daughter was young are interspersed with pictures she drew in them. That she never had any thought that she should not be drawing in my writing journals, or that it was weird to have a mom who always had a journal full of writing with her. That my daughter knew my writing was important to me and respected it and me because of that. That she feels comfortable to tell me now not to interrupt her when she is writing and knows that her own work and thoughts are very important, just like her Mom’s.
That I was able to be mother and writer and know that I could observe myself doing that and perhaps someday come to write about it, or have a daughter who would write about a Mother who wrote. Reading The Fisherwoman’s Daughter before I became a mother was invaluable to me.
“The one thing a writer has to have,” Le Guin writes at the end of The Fisherwoman’s Daughter, “is a pencil and some paper. That’s enough, so long as she knows that she and she alone is in charge of that pencil, and responsible, she and she alone, for what it writes on the paper. In other words, that she’s free. Not wholly free. Never wholly free. Maybe very partially. Maybe only in this one act, this sitting for a snatched moment being a woman writing, fishing the mind’s lake. But in this, responsible, in this autonomous; in this free.”*****
At the end of the writing workshop that summer Le Guin told those of us in her class not to contact her. She stood there before us—we, all hopeful and starry eyed—and told us that she was not our friend and that she had no interest in reading our unpublished works for feedback or having any other form of contact with us after that day. “Don’t bother me. Don’t contact me,” she said.
It was a bit shocking. Here was a woman writer, and a Mom, a successful woman and writer, setting a boundary. She also modeled that for me. Thanks Ursula.
Ursula K. Le Guin is a #NastyWomanWriter.
© Theresa C. Dintino 2017
* Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Fisherwoman’s Daughter,” Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places, (Grove Press: N.Y., 1989) p.213
**** Le Guin, Dancing at the Edge of the World, p.229.
***** Ibid., p.238.