It’s easy to feel insignificant. That’s what I was thinking when I was asked by a local library to speak with authors Myfanwy Collins and J.R. Reardon this past Saturday about women writers in honor of Women’s History Month.
Actually, my very first thought when the librarian contacted me to ask if I’d be willing to talk about what it’s like to a woman writer was, “Uh, why? Who would want to hear that?”
My own life as a writer is, essentially, a pretty boring one. I spend hours a day on the computer. I rarely get out of my pjs, unless it’s time to walk the dog or pick up a kid, and then I might slip on some sweat pants. Sometimes I skulk in a cafe to avoid the dust buffaloes roaming my floors at home. It’s an indulgent sort of life, making up stories, as I do when I write fiction, or telling other people’s stories, as I do when I write magazine articles or work on other people’s memoirs as a ghost writer.
Writing doesn’t seem like a very important job when you’re doing it. You think, will anybody read this? Why do I bother? Or you think, “Gosh, I could be putting all of this energy into teaching kids to read or fighting fires or staunching blood in a ER instead of writing these crap stories.”
Plus, what’s so special about being a woman writer? I define myself as a writer, yes. I even write fiction and essays that appeal mostly to women. But I haven’t ever once thought to myself, “I’m a WOMAN writer.”
But, once I started to think about the topic, I realized something kind of startling: maybe I’m less insignificant than I thought. Writers are, by definition, cultural historians, in the sense that we are recording history by observing the people and events around us and writing about what we see, feel, hear, taste, touch, and do. As writers, we play a significant role in human history, however long or short our tenure on this delicate planet might be.
Writers write because we can’t help ourselves. It is what we love to do more than anything in the world. I came to writing relatively late in life, after giving up the idea of going to medical school, after majoring in biology in college and taking one creative writing class to fill an elective. (You can imagine how happy my parents were when I told them THAT career plan.) I swore that I’d get sensible and go to medical school if I didn’t get published or famous in one year. Neither happened, but something else did: I found my voice.
And that’s what writing is, whether you’re writing your own stories or somebody else’s, magazine articles or essays or memoirs: writing is the act of giving voice to ideas and emotions on the page.
And, getting back to the whole “woman as writer” topic in the context of Women’s History Month, that’s where women really matter, because we are cultural historians in a way men simply can’t be. Through the ages, female writers have struggled to be taken seriously, but the fact remains that their work has illuminated corners of the world that men can’t, or won’t, go in the same way.
Writers like Mary Woostonecraft, who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792, brought feminist discourse into the public arena. She was also the mother of Mary Shelley, who showed us that women can write horror as well as men do, when she created Frankenstein in 1818.
In the early 1800s, Jane Austen showed us the good, the bad, and the ugly of what it was like to try and marry a man of means, while also showing us that it’s possible to have your own voice even when society would rather you were seen and not heard. By the 1900’s, Simone de Beauvoir was analyzing the status of women in The Second Sex. During World War II, Anne Frank wrote what is still probably one of the most riveting anti-war documents of all in her diary.
Contemporary women writers continue to inspire us. They cover the spectrum from the heavy hitters like Toni Morrison, who has won both the Nobel and Pulitzer prizes for her uncompromising stories about what it’s like to be black in America, to our so-called “beach reads” like Jodi Picoult, who takes topical news stories about things like teen suicides and school shootings, then turns them into gut wrenching stories that move us in ways news headlines sometimes can’t. Nonfiction writers like Joan Didion and Susan Orlean inform and inspire us with essays and books about everything from what it’s like to lose someone you love to why people around the world covet orchids enough to die for them.
Whatever subjects we choose, as women writers we are cataloging historical and cultural events in ways that go far deeper than the two-dimensional stories told by photographs. We get into the heads of our audience in ways that movies still can’t. And, yes, as women, we offer unique firsthand perspectives on what it’s like to be mothers and sisters, war brides and widows, lovers and victims, nuns and queens.
I count myself lucky to be a woman writer, living a life of the mind that I wouldn’t trade for any other.