Get thee to a nunnery

Joseph O’Neill’s review [caution: the last paragraph contains a spoiler for The Driver’s Seat], in the September Atlantic Monthly, of a new biography of novelist Muriel Spark has this interesting discussion about female writers and their children:

Spark provided for her son financially and would drop by in Edinburgh from time
to time, but she never even tried to combine a mother’s usual responsibilities
with those of a writer. She remained on red alert against that enemy of promise,
a son’s need for a full measure of love. The pram in the hall could squash
someone else.

Of course, rarely is anyone much detained by the parental flaws of
male writers—of Spark’s contemporary Saul Bellow, say. But the case of Spark
chimes interestingly with that of Doris Lessing. Lessing was born in 1919,
married at the age of 19, languished in Southern Rhodesia, abandoned (two)
offspring in search of freedom, and ended up in postwar London trying to care
for a third child while making a living and a professional name for herself. (If
Virginia Woolf had trouble finding a room of her own, imagine being broke and
un-Bloomsbury.) In one of her memoirs, Lessing suggests: “Writers, and
particularly female writers, have to fight for the conditions they need to
work.” This sounds like an understatement, particularly in relation to the last
pre-feminist generation, to which she belonged. Dipping into it, we see that
Penelope Fitzgerald, a mother of three, did not publish until the age of 58,
that Iris Murdoch and Flannery O’Connor and Patricia Highsmith were childless.
Spark may not have been alone in associating motherhood with artistic and
personal annihilation.

I had this idea that giving birth might unleash my artistic fertility. I don’t think it had any basis in reason or experience. I guess it was more like wishful thinking. Certainly it has not happened. The difficulty of balancing motherhood and artistic endeavor is weighing on me particularly heavily right now. I want to have a second child, for various reasons, but I recognize that those plans are incompatible with my desire to carve out space in my life for writing.

On the other hand, I still cling to the idea that if I could just find the time, some part of the obstacles that dam my creativity have been washed away by motherhood. This, again, does not seem to be based in reason or experience, and may be wishful thinking. It’s just a powerful analogy in my mind. The fusing of body and spirit inherent in giving birth, the physical act of building another human being within myself and pushing him out into the world—surely the ripples of that impact have expanded out and washed over my soul, leaving it renewed and energized and ready, finally, to fulfill the ache to create?

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1 comment:

Trent said...

Did the author mention that O'Connor was diagnosed with lupus when she was 26 and essentially spent the rest of her life convalescing (or trying to convalesce)? But I suppose that wouldn't have furthered his point.

Doris Lessing sounds like a very bad parent, but at least she recognized it: "Then she fled to London to pursue her writing career and communist ideals, she left two toddlers with their father in South Africa (another, from her second marriage, went with her). She later said that at the time she thought she had no choice: "For a long time I felt I had done a very brave thing. There is nothing more boring for an intelligent woman than to spend endless amounts of time with small children. I felt I wasn't the best person to bring them up. I would have ended up an alcoholic or a frustrated intellectual like my mother."