The Permission to Write

I went to a workshop yesterday with two good friends, who are also poets. It was sort of a mini retreat at someone's house where we were given great food (gourmet--homemade veggie soup, salad, two kinds of quiche--brie & broccoli or salmon quiche, plus a dessert that consisted of a brownie base with chocolate chips, almond butter cream frosting and hard chocolate on the top) and we were also give the space to write. We had time in between writing to come together and discuss other poets' work, as well as time to discuss our own. The workshop raised money for a new writing retreat (Hypathia in the Woods) that will allow women the space and time to write.

The founder of the retreat said an interesting thing, she said that for women the time to write always seems to be later: "I'll make time for the writing once the kids are older, once the kids are in school, once the kids are in college, once I retire..." Many women nodded at this statement. I know one of the reasons I returned to an MFA program is because I knew that if I were part of program (and paying tuition), no one would question me taking time to write.

I've been thinking about this--it seems we give priority to the things and take or make money. Poetry tends not to be one of those things. You can do it on the sly, sending out submissions for little cost, book contests take a little more, but not enough to take a family from Whole Foods to Wal-Mart. And what does it bring in? Occasionally $20 from a journal that pays, sometimes a nice sized grant of a thousand dollars or more. Sometimes a thousand dollar prize for a book or contest, but mostly, it pays in what it gives the poet--satisfaction, fulfillment, balance, pleasure.

In Anne Sexton: A Biography by Diane Middlebrook, I was taken by how things are not as changed as much as we think. This comment comes after Sexton received a Radcliffe fellowship:

“It immediately made what I was doing more respectable to my husband. I wasn’t taking so much from my family; I gave more back. You see, you always have a guilty feeling that it’s selfish, because everyone says, ‘Why isn’t it enough to be a wife and mother? ‘ I still remember my mother-in-law saying, ‘Why aren’t your husband and children enough—why don’t you make it a hobby?’ You have this guilt. but if you get this amount of money, then everyone immediately thinks you’re respected, an beyond that, you’re contributing.”

What’s odd is think about the other things women do in their lives that they don’t worry is “a waste of time” or feel guilty about. Not to be stereotypical, but shopping falls here, even grocery shopping. A mother doesn't drive to the market and think “I feel guilty for having to leave my family to buy spinach and milk.” But both poetry and food are nourishing. Even the women who shop for new shoes or something else, usually aren’t feeling guilty for going to the mall or the outlet store. But for some reason, to stay in your own home, retreat to your own space, and maybe even--dare I say it?--close the door, is somehow a selfish act.

Leaving the house seems less selfish because you are physically away from the needs/wants/requests/buzz of your family. But maybe it’s being in the same house and saying “I’m taking time for myself” that brings on that feeling of guilt. Instead of feeling as you are taking time for yourself, maybe it brings on a feeling of neglect. But still, if women poets were making say $40,000 a year from writing, or even $25,000, I’m not sure this would be questioned. Again, it seems money gives importance to things.

Last night we drove home from the workshop talking about giving ourselves “permission to write.” We are all women born between 1960-1970, we consider ourselves feminists, and yet, why do we need “permission to write” and whom are we asking this permission from? --Answer: From ourselves. We are all mothers with children in school. I have the youngest child in school. I have one child, they have two. If I were not a mother, I would not be asking permission of anyone, or myself but because I have a daughter, my freedom to live my life a certain way feels altered. I write “feels” because it may or may not be. I could be (and mostly likely am) placing restrictions on myself that aren’t needed or that other mothers wouldn’t do. Maybe some mothers can write without guilt and in many ways, I can, but sometimes this fear of "am I being a good mother while being a poet" slips across my desk. Can I do two things well?

And yet through all this, I want my daughter to see me as a person as well—not just a mother—with talents and interests because I don’t want her to grow up and in the choice to have a child, have to make a choice to lose her own passions. And I don’t want her to feel this guilt that sometimes comes with trying to balance being a mother with the rest of my life. So, I work hard to be the best mother I can be and the best poet I can be. Of course, my job as a mother will always come before my job as a poet, at least in these earlier years. Later in life? I'm not sure how things will work out, but with a young child I'm not ready to be superpoet, but I'm also not ready to zeropoet either.

In the end, I think we all try our best and do what we think is best. And the ones who really want to write will find or create the time to do so. They will get rid of the timewasters in their own life whether it’s a long commute, the internet, not cleaning the house to perfection but good-enough, letting the garden have a few extra weeds this year, staying up a little later, waking up a little earlier. If a woman wants to write, she will find the time between colicky babies and college, the time is there, and if we want it, it’s ours.


  1. Dawn,

    You're welcome and thanks for the note. I appreciate it.


  2. I think this is a particular instance of a much wider problem, which is that women have to "give themselves permission" for virtually anything they do that is just for themselves. Even when it really is just a hobby, there's a tendency for other people to judge the time taken for it more harshly than they would, say, a husband's weekly golf game.

    And this in turn is just a symptom of a culture-wide illness: the idea that women must always put themselves and their own needs after everyone else. The worst non-sexual* insult that can be flung at any woman is that she's "selfish". Until we, collectively, start insisting that taking care of ourselves (both physically and mentally) is NOT selfish but healthy and normal, and making it stick, we will continue to have this problem.

    * "Ugly", "fat", and other appearance-based insults are still essentially sexual in nature, because they carry the implication of "sexually unattractive". The only other serious contender in the non-sexual category is "bitch", and that one frequently carries the secondary connotation of selfishness -- a woman who isn't agreeable and pliable enough to the demands of those around her is immediately labeled a bitch.

  3. Celine,

    Thanks for your thoughtful post. I agree.

    I've been thinking about my post and in talking to my friends who don't have kids, I've found this idea of guilt for writing, esp. if they are just starting out or not making X amount of dollars, isn't just limited to mothers. It seems that sometimes when artists (both men and women) "follow their bliss" /passion, it does have this self-indulgent feel to it.

    Yes, I agree is that this is from a larger issue of women putting or feeling as if they have to put others first and we live in a society where art (or artists) are not appreciated. (Again, I wonder about $$ here as the arts are the first to be cut in a school and sports--the $ makers--always manage to stay.)

    I'd like to look further into this and talk with all women to see what they feel guilty about and if they feel they need to ask "permission" from others or themselves to write.

    Anyway, this is a much greater topic to be explored.

    thanks for your note.


Post a Comment

Always love to hear from you...and the anonymous option is open for those feeling shy.