Quotes about Not Writing

Here are some quotes from recent conversations with family and friends, which serve to remind me each day about why I want to write but also make me wonder why I am not doing it (or getting better results with it).  Do any of these sound familiar? And see if you can associate the right person from this cast of characters with the right quote:  mother, father, former boss, husband, children, new neighbour, old friend.

If finishing your novel is your top priority, how come it never gets done?

So, what do you do all day?  How come you are always too busy to meet up?

So, when are we actually going to be able to read something of yours in print? No, not online, that doesn’t really count, does it?  And besides, I can’t handle that mouse contraption too well.

Not at your laptop again?! What are you doing there all day?  When do I get to see you or talk to you?

When are you going to find your way back to those incisive, succinct reports you used to write? I mean, creative writing is a lot of waffle, ultimately, isn’t it?

All that education, all that encyclopaedic knowledge, all those years of hard work… and what have you got to show for it?

Do you really think writing will make you happy, or is it just another passing fad? There have been others before, haven’t there?

Lost Among the Carrots

Lust is not red, it is orange.

It lurks among the carrots.

It shows its immaculate, shaven head,

teeth boasting intimate knowledge of orthodontics,

in a broad grin to say

it’s found its prey.

 

He advances and asks if I shop here often.

I stop with cabbages clutched to my belly,

lettuce leaves trailing, wondering if I dare

make a grasp

for the cornflakes on special offer that day

without collapsing the display.

 

As I let it all tumble down in my trolley

he asks if I’m buying things for my family.

A mere basket for him, tucked in with chocolate, cheese, champagne,

the three shushing sounds which have been my undoing before.

 

‘Yes, my family.’

But still he persists.

All sibilant juices, he emotes and he twists.

Not crass enough to ask for my number, he gives me his card instead,

all debonair and gallant, he waves goodbye,

swaggering on to his next attempt.

 

No string touched,

I lose the card among the courgettes.

 

Rereading ‘The Women’s Room’ by Marilyn French

I was a feminist without a cause when I read ‘The Women’s Room’, that classic angry novel by Marilyn French, published in 1977, at the tail end of the feminist movement.  I was about 18-19, had been brought up to believe that I could achieve anything regardless of my gender, and had not really encountered any prejudice or sexism to change my sunny view of life. Some wolf whistles here and there on the street, some anxiety about letting me make my own way home at night, but the world was still one of limitless possibilities.  Of course I believed women were as good as men, and that they should have equal chances in life, but this was an attitude born of rational thought rather than any personal pain.

So my first reading of ‘The Women’s Room’ was one of bemused detachment.  How much anger and frustration these women had!  How awful it must have been for women of my mother’s generation!  Thank goodness things had moved on since the publication of the book and this was all a description of quaint historical practices! My life, of course, would never be like that: not only had the world moved on, but I had all the information, warning signs and negative role models featured in this book (and Germaine Greer, Betty Friedan, Simone de Beauvoir – oh, yes, I read the entire feminist canon and absorbed it all with my brain). I would not claim that my heart was unaffected, but what I felt for these women was pity.  Such a patronising attitude, but typical of my 18 year old self, who thought she knew so much about everything.

Last week, while on holiday, I found myself at a bit of a loose end regarding reading matter, so I picked up this book off someone else’s bookshelf and reread it. And this time I read it with my heart.  And what surprised me most of all is how accurate the portrayal of marriage, motherhood, the thin line between self-sacrifice and martyrdom still is. This is not an outdated description of the half-imagined, half-real plight of bored white suburban housewives (although it can be argued that French does not look beyond this race and class for her stories).  Many of the stories will strike a chord with women of my age today: the women of the post-feminist generation, who thought they could have it all, but have now realised that family and motherhood have enslaved them in ways they would not have thought possible in their youth. Nowadays, the luxury of daytime boredom and party planning is not even available, as most women are working outside the home.  But are they working at jobs (to make ends meet), or do they still have careers? And if they have careers, at what cost to their families, health and sanity?  I conducted an informal poll among the women I know: the only ones who do not feel pulled in all directions are the ones who are unmarried and childless.  And even they manage to find plenty of things to feel guilty or anxious about!

So that was my first surprised observation, that it feels less outdated now than it did twenty years ago. Yes, marginalisation of women is now less overt, men pay more lip service to the notion of equality, advances have been made in certain areas.  We are all far more aware of our options now,  but awareness does not blunt the ruthless blade of reality.  The schizophrenia of impossible choices is still largely left to women to handle. French seems unsure whether to blame  the patriarchal society or men directly for this, although to me it seems clear that she also partially blames women themselves for it.

The second observation is that many of the quotes attributed to the author, which have sparked angry reactions and criticisms, are in fact uttered by one or the other of the many female characters appearing in this book.  For instance, that incendiary opinion that ‘All men are rapists and that’s all they are’ is actually a statement made by aggressive, uncompromising Val just after her daughter has been raped and her case is dismissed by the police and the judiciary system.  It is a statement that the central character, Mira, actually finds uncomfortable, and it is certainly not Marilyn French’s opinion.

What I liked about this book (and had forgotten until I reread it) is the plurality of stories and views on offer.  Other reviewers have pointed out how relentlessly grim the stories are: rape, death, illness, insanity, divorce, breakdown – true, the author is trying to cram it all in. What is more concerning and striking is the lack of male voices – the men are shadowy figures, almost caricatures.  I am almost sure this was deliberate, partly because French is giving voice to those who were habitually voiceless, but also because she felt that men were choosing not to engage in the debate.  There is a poignant scene in which Mira’s husband comes home and tells her they need to talk. Looking at his wistful gaze, his deep sigh, she dares to hope that they will have a meaningful conversation about their thoughts, their values, their feelings.  She hopes that they will finally connect, be true and equal partners. She leans yearningly towards him, ready to forgive, to restart, to believe … and he tells her that he wants a divorce.

So what did I feel this time, upon rereading ‘The Women’s Room’?  No longer anger and pity.  No easy target to blame.  Instead, sadness and recognition that we have not quite come such a long way, baby!

Clone Trooper Wins Again

We reach the park. It doesn’t take long for Mum to get bored: ‘Enough of swings!  I’m tired.  Run about, do something!’

It’s cold, windy.  The monkey-bars are icy, and there are too many children on the climbing wall and see-saws.  My baby brother sticks out his lower lip. ‘Don’t wanna!’

Mum rolls her eyes. ‘First of all, it’s “I don’t want”, not “don’t wanna”.  Secondly, tell me clearly what don’t you want?  Talk to me!  Can’t help you if you don’t tell me!  When will you learn to express your thoughts instead of just crying and whingeing all the time?  Waa, waa!  Is that all you guys ever do?’

She’s off again.  No one can say Mum is stuck for words.  Press a button, and she goes on forever.  I have my pocket remote and switch her off like the sound on telly.  Only let a few words slip through, just to make sure she isn’t suddenly saying something important, like lunch or time to go home.  But no, it’s the usual stuff…  How could she have given birth to such lazy children?…  Sports are so good for you – unhealthy, stuck indoors all the time – only interested in Wii… Nobody will be our friend if we behave like this…

She folds her arms and sits, muttering, on the bench.  Jake stands stiffly beside her. Face all screwed up and snotty.  Refusing to have fun.  I shrug and start playing Star Wars.  I always play this on my own – no one else, not even Jake, may join in. I’m a clone trooper, fighting enemies with my light sabre.  I run around with sound effects. Mum hates this game.  She says only Jedi knights have light sabres and clone troopers are stupid. But I want to be stupid, I want to look like everyone else.  All Mum’s brains, all those college scarves in her sock drawer that we’re not allowed to touch… and she has to go to hospital every month. Feels sick like a slug afterwards.

Besides, Jedi knights are boring, like grown-ups: they talk too much, they’re always right, always winning.  Light sabres should belong to everybody.

Empathy

She sits in laundry like a queen.

She heaves big sighs like someone slighted.

Each look reproaches

When she approaches.

She makes time fly in bustling beeps.

 

She yells at children far too often.

She issues orders, nags and rants.

It’s all her way

Or else no way.

She’s sly with arrows, hitting true.

 

Yet for all her sovereignty, the house is not clean

And administrative tasks fall largely through cracks.

For all her big postures, her actions near miss.

She’s long given up on gainful employment,

Or bringing in money, or useful discourse.

 

All this I can take, all this I can stomach.

But one thing I cannot and will not forgive:

When she forgets about us and shrugs off her kin,

When she goes off into her world of mad scribbles,

Leaving us poorer, defensive and flawed.