Recently in Gilbert, Elizabeth Category

Waiting for the break

| No Comments
Beth_Bauman.jpgReading a 2003 New York Times profile of author Beth Ann Bauman, I was struck by her perseverance.  At 38, Bauman had been living an impoverished life without publishing success for twelve years, despite an MFA in Creative Writing and a connection to Tina Bennett, a leading agent.  '''Everyone around her was getting published first,'' said Alice Elliott Dark . . . one of Ms. Bauman's teachers in a writing workshop. 'I've seen this happen to a number of really talented people. It's very flukey.'''

When her first story collection, Beautiful Girls, was finally published, Bauman's characters shared a common characteristic:

 ''All of the characters are waiting for something,'' Ms. Bauman said. ''They're all waiting for their lives to unfurl.''

Which is, of course, exactly what she has been doing all these years.

''I have,'' she agreed eagerly. ''I have been waiting, feeling trapped by my circumstances - the day job, never having enough time to write, wanting something larger and more comfortable, a better life. Maybe not a better life, but just wanting to arrive somewhere.''  
This account of Bauman's experience resonates with me.  I am familiar with that agony of feeling that my life is stalled until I can get a book published (although my fictional characters aren't "waiting for their lives to unfurl"; on the contrary, my fiction fairly bursts with people charging into adventure and the unknown).  And I feel acute indignation at the costs that Bauman has paid for her eventual success: they are unfairly high.  

At the other end of the spectrum - an author who met with success early and with super-success by the time she was Beth Ann Bauman's age - Elizabeth Gilbert on her website quotes Werner Herzog on the question of an artist's response to the costs involved with making art: 

Quit your complaining. It's not the world's fault that you wanted to be an artist. . . . [I]t's certainly not the world's obligation to pay for your dreams. Nobody wants to hear it. . . [S]top whining and get back to work.  
I am not persuaded.  Of course, in the literal sense of no one promising to pay us for our writing, Herzog is right.  But in the larger sense, he's wrong.  

Society does promise us baselines: our reasonable expectations for our lives.  The promise of these baselines is called the social compact, and it's not a new concept.  Indeed, anything recognizable as a society would be impossible without this compact.

In Masai communities, for example, females can reasonably expect to have multiple lovers, to be married and - unless they're barren - to have children.  They can also expect to have enough goats, sheep and cows to ensure that neither they nor their children will ever be hungry.  A woman whose life doesn't include these factors is unlucky or has been treated wrongly.

In American society, females can reasonably expect that if they work hard, their merit will be rewarded.  They can expect to be paid the same amount as their male peers for their work.  They can expect to be paid for their work - we don't condone unpaid labor in the U.S.  They can expect to enjoy a career and a family life.  A woman whose life includes hard work that goes unrewarded, lower-paid or unpaid labor, or labor that requires her to give up the enjoyments of family and children is seen - in many instances - to have been discriminated against.

Notwithstanding the social compact, Bauman, myself and (no doubt) countless other female writers are not seeing our entitlements honored.  Hard work doesn't have as much correlation with pay-off as does luck.  Women writers routinely work for free and are expected to do so; publishers think nothing of requesting rewrites without a contract in place to pay for them.  And many women writers find that a family (for many reasons) is out of the question if they want to write.

Complaining, as Herzog notes, is unattractive and often unhelpful, and I don't mean by this blog post to bellyache about the plight of women writers.  Rather, my aim is to enrich the storehouse of that most American of stories - that of triumph over unfair adversity - by saluting Beth Ann Bauman (and all the other similarly situated women writers) who are asked to run an unfair gauntlet, one that represents society's failure to uphold its end of the social compact.

(Photo of Beth Ann Bauman from MacAdam/Cage)  

About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries in the Gilbert, Elizabeth category.

Gibbons, Stella is the previous category.

Gordon, George, Lord Byron is the next category.



OpenID accepted here Learn more about OpenID
Powered by Movable Type 5.04