Almost no part time, part self persons have created enduring literature

Posted Aug 05, 2011

I got home from Costa Rica early in June, and have not written a chapter, a blog, a poem or even a good sentence since.

Why the silence? Today I reread Tillie Olsen's magnificent lecture on Silences, first spoken from notes at Radcliffe Colllege in 1962, and published as a book in 1983.   Olsen studies the "unnatural silences" that reduced the volume of work by treasured and now deemed great authors: Melville's poverty; Isaac Babel's imprisonment; Thomas Hardy's cessation of writing novels after the Victorian censorship of Jude the Obscure. There are the silences of self-destruction (Sylvia Plath, Rimbaud, Virginia Woolf) and the terrible silencing of Franz Kafka, driven to poor health and death, as he toiled for a living as an insurance official, barely finding time to write.

Olsen's particular focus was on the silences of women. She noted that she could think of only 5 women who married and had children in the 19th century: Kate Chopin, George Sand, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Helen Hunt Jackson, and Elizabeth Gaskell). Most of the other famous female authors of the 19th, never married. In the early 20th century, the situation was the same. Most women authors never married. Colette had one child, and Sigrid Undset, Kay Boyle, Pearl Buck, and Dorothy Canfield had several, but with extensive household help. She says, "Almost no mothers, as almost no part time, part self persons have created enduring literature." In the 20th Century, college literature courses deemed female authors worthy of note, one female for every 12 male authors!

Olsen writes that in order to write, it helps to have a "wholly surrendered and dedicated life; time as needed, and totality of self". But "women are trained to place other's needs first, to feel their needs as their own, and their satisfaction to be in making it possible for others to use their abilities." Joseph Conrad write that circumstances favorable for creation are that the flow of life is made easy and noiseless. Perhaps that is why I feel gagged up here. Life is neither easy nor noiseless.

The problem for me is neither children nor poverty. Rather, the problem has to do with housework, sociability, distractibility and materialism. My husband, the prolific author David Barash, can write an op-ed piece or book chapter while he takes care of the house, cooks balanced meals, manages 4 dogs and 7 cats, and chats with family. In fact, his latest magnum opus, an op-ed in the New York Times, was written between trips to California, hiking, housekeeping, and reuniting with me after a long hiatus. He said that the debt crisis was like playing a game of chicken with an elephant in muste, where there is no rational alternative but to swerve. But the only way to win such a game is not to play it! Here is a link:

How does he do it? He has the capacity to hyperfocus on his own thoughts, and then to ignore his environment. There may be bird poop on the floor, dogs with sore feet, moldy food in the refrigerator, bills to be paid, and laundry in a heap, but David sits serenely at the computer and writes...and thinks creatively. Why can't I be like David? He feels entitled!

I am distracted by all the details that he misses. I cannot walk through a room without a little cleaning; can't start the day until all the animals are fed, cleaned and healthy. I am silenced by the details of living with another person, and pets, and friends who want to talk and family who want to talk or ping or skype or email...and by the end of the day, the day is gone and my own voice is muffled and eventually gives up.

Then there is materialism. There is so much stuff here, stuff to look at, to buy, to maintain, to sell, to fix and stuff to give away. Too many objects in the house, the stores, the internet. In Costa Rica there is no Amazon Prime. No natural food grocery stores. No mail, no address, no FEDEX or UPS. Here I am overwhelmed by cravings, and just like the Buddha said, this is the primary cause of suffering. A scanpan, new raincoat, fancy food. Books, music...Tickets to the opera, to Shakespeare. Netflix. Where I live in Costa Rica, there are no movies, operas, plays, books stores, gourmet shops, or malls.

I can relate to Emily Dickenson, who lived in utter solitude in order to create her poems, but my choices have been so different! I crave animal companionship (cats, dogs, horses) and people and loved ones. The solitude I experience in Costa Rica leads me to write poems and blogs and books, but at the cost of isolation. There is nobody to blame but myself, and no way to solve it but to begin. My goal is to commit to writing and thinking my own thoughts, my own way, despite family pressure and householdership. And this blog is a place to begin.