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The room of her own is padded

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Virginia_Woolf.jpgIf I'd been allowed to choose the title for Claudia Roth Pierpont's book, Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World, I might have selected, The Arduous Lives of Women Writers: Failure, Imbalance and For What?  In her selection of essays, originally written for The New Yorker, about twelve women writers, Pierpont depicts an ambition - being a writer - so remote from feasibility that none of the women under examination have been able to achieve it without gross and debilitating sacrifices.

Of course, everyone knows that being a women writer makes for a hateful life - between the constant rejection, poverty, needing the room of one's own, dying of Addison's disease and all that, it could hardly be otherwise.  But I forget.  The way my mind works, I'm liable to connect my languishing in the purgatory of yet-to-be-published with the general pattern of unfairness and injustice in my life - another of the never-ending side-effects of having been less preferred to my obviously inferior brother - instead of, like, the normal state of affairs.  Pierpont's book was that "knock knock" message we all need at various times in our lives: hello, dumbass, what you're attempting is so hard that geniuses can't do it without suffering.

Which is not to say that Pierpont's book is solely - or even primarily - about geniuses.  Indeed, one of the most fascinating aspects of her book is the number of hacks she profiles.  Pierpont can scarcely veil her disdain of Anaïs Nin's writing ("For the reader able to escape the solitary confinement of these endless pages [of Nin's Diary] through the mere act of closing a book - such a simple deliverance - relief is dulled only by a shuddering pity for the woman who lived all her days trapped inside." (p. 79)).  For Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, Pierpont reserves the terms "vulgar," "blatant, commercial," and "blundering colossus."  (p. 130-131.)  Pierpont makes no claims for Ayn Rand's work beyond Rand's admission of writing "propaganda."  (p. 200.)  Talentless (or talent-limited) dreamers, no less than the geniuses, suffer for the ambition of making their living from their writing. 

But the suffering is extreme for such a minor crime.  Zora Neale Hurston, the writer in this collection with whom I identify most closely - and whose fate I think most likely to be a foreshadowing of my own - worked as a maid in her old age and died in a welfare home, a lonely end that the critic Darwin Tuner wrote was "eccentric but perhaps appropriate" - so deeply was Hurston misunderstood.

This unhappiness that, without exception, characterizes the lives and careers of Pierpont's passionate subjects reminded me of an article Malcolm Gladwell wrote about late blooming geniuses.  Largely a book report on David W. Galenson's Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity, Gladwell's article contains this gem: "This is the final lesson of the late bloomer: his or her success is highly contingent on the efforts of others," whereupon Gladwell details the support provided by the patrons of Cezanne and (less established, but still warranting the label "late blooming genius" in Gladwell's inventory) Ben Folds.  In other words, artists who have a long development period need support if they're going to make it.

Guess what the women writers of Passionate Minds lacked?

Whether support would have made a self-destroyer like Mary McCarthy or a battle-ax like Mae West happy is an open question; my vote is "no."  (Astonishing levels of support did seemingly little to improve Cezanne's happiness quotient.)  Still, support might have enabled these women and others - Marina Tsvetaeva, Doris Lessing, Eudora Welty and, of course, Hurston - to succeed more readily and more sustainably; and both the support and the success - one could easily imagine - would have improved their lives.

This problem of support - or lack thereof - seems to be what, in the end, makes realization of the ambition of being a woman writer so difficult.  Whether a woman has to marry into the support (prostitution), rely on her family (manipulation, co-dependency), or work another job (exhaustion, distraction, no time for writing), finding the money to support her writing is so miserable a hustle that, among Pierpont's twelve subjects, not one survived it on any but the most abject and usurious terms.

As Pierpont sums up the situation, "These are lives in which success is hard won, retreat and even breakdown are common, love is difficult, and children are nearly impossible, lives in which all that is ever certain is that books and plays and poems are being written."  (p. xiii.)  The sacrifices are so great, and the rewards so meager and long-coming, that the effort doesn't look - even to one engaged in the attempt - to be worth it; and yet the compulsion to continue remains.

(Image of Virgina Woolf courtesy of The New York Times)

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