#DiverseDecember: When Writers Are Silenced…

This is the first of two posts I want to write about how writers get silenced – not through writer’s block, but through external circumstances. Either life, work, motherhood or poverty getting in the way of their work (part 1, inspired by Tillie Olsen), or else through censorship, imprisonment and fearing for their lives (part 2, inspired by recent news).

SilencesFirst published in 1978, Tillie Olsen’s Silences revolutionized literary studies. By exploring the social and economic conditions that make creativity possible, Olsen also looked at circumstances which made creativity IMpossible. She revealed that even though working-class people, people from ethnic minorities and women have in fact always written, their work has been largely ignored. They have had to combat many disadvantages, which meant long periods of ‘silence’, a late start or an early retirement from the literary scene.

‘Constant toil is the law of art’ said Balzac and many writers have spoken of the Muse as a cruel, jealous and demanding mistress. However, few privileged white male writers have admitted why they were able to appease this mistress. Conrad mentions it almost by the by:

Mind and will and conscience engaged to the full, hour after hour, day after day… a lonely struggle in a great isolation from the world. I suppose I slept and ate the food put before me… but I was never aware of the even flow of daily life made easy and noiseless for me by a silent, watchful, tireless affection.

Needless to say, most women writers in history, most poor writers of either gender, who work three or more jobs at once to support their families, do not have this luxury. We have page after page of Kafka’s diaries attesting to the frustration of incomplete work, inability to concentrate, and wonder at how much work may have been lost to us, his readers.

When I begin to write after such a long interval, I draw the words as if out of empty air. If I capture one, then I have just this one alone, and all the toil must begin anew… Days passed in futility, powers wasted away in waiting… I finish nothing, because I have no time, and it presses so within me.

Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murray in 1920, from hamhigh.co.uk
Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murray in 1920, from hamhigh.co.uk

As for women writers, in many cases it took family deaths to free them. Virginia Woolf claimed her father’s life ‘would have entirely ended mine… no writing, no books – inconceivable.’ Emily Dickinson only managed to write by avoiding all social niceties. Katherine Mansfield voices something which will sound so familiar to anyone in a couple:

The house seems to take up so much time… I when I have to clean up twice over or wash up extra unnecessary things, I get frightfully impatient and I want to be working. So often this week you [her husband] and Gordon have been talking while I washed dishes. Well someone’s got to wash dishes and get food. Otherwise ‘there’s nothing in the house but eggs to eat’. And after you have gone I walk about with a mind full of ghosts of saucepans and primus stoves and ‘will there be enough to go around?’ And you calling, whatever I am doing, writing, ‘Tig, isn’t there going to be tea? It’s five o’clock.’

 Angharad Pearce Jones installation of 'The Pram in the Hall', from Oriel Myrddin Gallery website.
Angharad Pearce Jones installation of ‘The Pram in the Hall’, from Oriel Myrddin Gallery website.

Tillie Olsen goes on to ask, what happens to the creative need for ‘infinite capacity’, that sense that vision should know no limitations, that safe space in which to create, when children also come into the picture? She provides a far more nuanced and sympathetic analysis of motherhood and creativity, of course, than the simplistic ‘pram in the hallway is the enemy of good art’. She says it is love, not duty, which makes us attend to the children’s needs, and they need one now. She talks about her own juggling act and periods of silence, while raising children and working full-time, what she calls ‘the triple life’.

… a time of festering and congestion… My work died. What demanded to be written, did not. It seethed, bubbled, clamored, peopled me. At last moved into the hours meant for sleeping… always roused by the writing, always denied… Any interruption dazed and silenced me.

From the personal, Olsen then moves into a feminist analysis of the cultural context in which we bring up our boys and girls, what role models they see, what beliefs are seeded early in life, always related to writing. Yet what she says applies equally to all minorities.

How much it takes to become a writer. Bent (far more common than we assume), circumstances, time, development of craft – but beyond that: how much conviction as to the importance of what one has to say, one’s right to say it. And the will, the measureless store of belief in oneself to be able to come to, cleave to, find the form for one’s own life comprehensions. Difficult for any male not born into a class that breeds such confidence. Almost impossible for a girl, a woman.

Eton schoolboys, from The Sunday Times.
Eton schoolboys, from The Sunday Times.

Now we understand the British public school system, which breeds such confidence. I have seen those who pass through the system arrive in the workplace with their breathtaking arrogance, firm points of view on everything, all ego and fireworks rather than substance. They can afford to be polite, mildly surprised and annoyed at the ‘over-reactions’ of others. They often impress and take over.

Smiling Busy Woman, from The Spouse House, a concierge service with a smile.
Smiling Busy Woman, from The Spouse House, a concierge service with a smile.

And what of the ‘Angel in the House’, the one who not only does the household drudgery and admin so necessary to the smooth running of everyday life, but also the unpaid emotional labour (as recently ‘rediscovered’ in the media – because women are just better at this kind of stuff)? The angel who charms, sympathises, flatters, smiles, conciliates, is sensitive to the needs and moods and wishes of others before her own, who has bought and packed all the Christmas and birthday presents for her family, her husband’s family, the children, all common friends… and then fumes that no one has remembered her birthday or anniversary – or has bought her absolutely useless and thoughtless presents. Virginia Woolf advocates killing off this angel:

It was she who used to come between me and my paper… who bothered me and wasted my time and so tormented me that at last I killed her… or she would have plucked out my heart as a writer.

Of course, in extreme cases, the only way to escape this ‘essential angel’ is through suicide, like Sylvia Plath. In other cases, the women sacrificed not only their talent, but also their language and their identity, simply to keep themselves and their family alive, as the book on German women writers during the Nazi period demonstrates.

How much has life changed for non-white, non-male writers since the publication of this book? There are many milestones to celebrate – Marlon James as the latest Booker Prize winner, for example, or the many women writers who say how supportive heir partners are of their career and how comfortable the whole family is with less exalted housekeeping standards. And yet there are recent articles bemoaning the lack of diversity in publishing, hence the #DiverseDecember initiative. There is the fact that so many of the women in the Geneva Writers’ Group (and how many writing groups worldwide?) started writing once they retired or once the children grew up and left home. Personally, I have not cracked this dilemma yet, but would love to hear from any who have.


17 thoughts on “#DiverseDecember: When Writers Are Silenced…”

  1. This is really powerful, Marina Sofia. And this is one of the many sets of reasons for which writers need to be strong and to persevere. Life has a way of getting in the path of the writer, and it can be extremely challenging to get beyond those barriers.

    1. Ultimately, the book ends on a hopeful note – that in spite of those challenges, those writers did create, did persevere. We may mourn the ‘silences’, but thank goodness for the song!

  2. Excellent post – very thought provoking. We are still hidebound by the roles expected of women. Why *should* it be us who do the nurturing, feeding etc? Yet it’s still expected. I think you would like the story “The Woman Writer” by Diana Gardner, which takes on the problem. Plus ça change, as they say…

    1. Thanks for the recommendation, I’ll look for that one. I think us women are conditioned as well to do the nurturing – a combination of nature and expectations, perhaps. I was never a maternal person until I had children – and suddenly I couldn’t bear the thought of having a stranger mother them, mould their thoughts, share their discoveries. I was really discomfited to discover that within myself…

  3. I am not a writer but I do know that one of the reasons I have never married is because I have always known that I couldn’t continue with my life as an academic and have a family around me. I do not have the energy to divide my life in that way. This is a dilemma for others as well as for authors.

    1. I gave up my academic career for the sake of family (my husband being an academic as well, it would have been nearly impossible to find jobs for us in the same country, let alone the same town, as post doc after post doc application were coming up). So I completely understand…

  4. Isn’t this a good book? I read it a very long time ago so the details are hazy at this point. I enjoyed your thoughts on it very much and you are making me want to find my copy and reread it!

    1. I have to admit that from a purely selfish perspective, this book made me feel better. Because I’ve always struggled to write in the ‘ten minutes here, ten minutes there’ pattern that so many writing tips advocate. I can write book reviews or blog posts or perhaps a haiku in short bursts, but I need long, uninterrupted bouts of writing to produce anything truly meaningful. So this book is a recognition of that style of working, which (I feel) is perhaps going out of fashion… Or is talked about as if it’s unrealistic and old-fashioned.

  5. That’s a fascinating post on an extremely interesting topic, MarinaSofia. It was and still is very difficult for women, people from minorities or from very modest backgrounds to overcome the many difficulties life, family, the necessity to make a living, and also social discrimination they face when they want to pursue a scientific or intellectual career (for example as a writer). On the other hand the writing of authors from this group is reflecting experiences that those who had it more easy can never write about with so much authenticity. The dilemma you mention still exists particular for women, who are expected to be “by nature” more willing to make this kind of sacrifices that you described. But in general I would say that today there is much more awareness about this dilemma and there are also good role models for young writers from such a background that show that it is well possible to overcome these problems, at least to a certain degree. – I haven’t read Silences yet but it sounds very interesting and I hope to find the time to read it.

    1. As they say, awareness is the first step towards change. Mind you, when I read some of the comments on articles about diversity issues, I despair that the world has made no progress really… but I know (hope?) that’s just a minority.

  6. Fabulous post Marina … so much resonates I feel like you, Woolf, Mansfield et al have written it specifically to me!

    ALAS much as I’d love to stay and peruse these issues with you and others, ironically there are already far to many demands on my time today… 99% of them of that obligatory domestic/nurturing nature.

    Reading this – delayed from yesterday- is me snatching the quick 1% purely for me!

    Will definitely get a copy of Silences and look up the The Woman Writer too… at a time when I always take stock, I’m thinking this New Year my resolutions are to encourage my nearest & dearest to make resolutions to accept & support my writerly goals – not think of them as a whimsical pastime or detractor from their own needs.

  7. Such an interesting and well-reasoned post, thank you. I’m currently reading ‘Citizen’ by Rankine who deals with so many of the issues raised above, but through the lens of race not gender, exploring how hard it is for a writer to find their voice if they have to deal with the silencing anger and self-hatred that is the result of social inequality and prejudice.

  8. Great post about a fascinating issue. Is it difficult to read? (I’m asking because I’m not good with non-fiction, so if it enters into complicated reasoning and lots of philosophical concepts and references, I won’t make it)

    While I’m sure Woolf’s or Plath’s lives were no picnic and that their times weren’t good for women, I think there are more possibilities now. Our societies have changed and women are also partly responsible for their fate. Women need to STOP being the Angel of the House and something will have to give. Either things will be less perfect but Wife will notice that the world doesn’t collapse anyway or Spouse will up his game and do more.

    Women need to stop self-censoring themselves and think they have to put their career on hold or that their work is not worth it.
    It’s not easy to do because it’s ingrained but yes, killing the angel of the house is necessary. And letting go of the image of the ideal mom, wife and family life that American TV tries to impose on us. (cf the beginning of your Merry Christmas post. You seem to feel guilty not to be up to that image.)

    I’m more worried about the silenced working class and minorities. I don’t see this improving any time soon. And one has little influence on the situation.

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