A Writerly Life: George Eliot

“It is never too late to be what you might have been.”
― George Eliot

Eliot was an English novelist, poet, journalist, translator, and one of the leading writers of the Victorian era.

With regard to finding her writing dreams, if she could it in the Victorian era, we can do it today!

Labels are Self-Prophetic

I’ve been thinking about this sentence by Elif Shafak, perhaps the most famous Turkish woman writer: “Male writers are thought of as ‘writers’ first and then ‘men’. As for female writers, they are first ‘female’ and only then ‘writers’.”

When you think of your writer self, what do you call yourself? Are you a woman-writer? Are you a writer-woman?

I’ve come to believe there’s a significant difference in how we act out that nomenclature. You see, it’s part of the story we tell ourselves. Perhaps it’s time to start calling ourselves writer-women rather than women-writers.

The truth is what we call ourselves is the label we live by.

If we change the label we live by, quite possibly we change our lives.

Starting today, I’m going to think of myself as a writer-woman. Starting today, let’s, all of us, start thinking and referring to ourselves as a writer-woman.

Why Can’t I Find Time to Write? Part 2

This is the second in a several-part post.

I will begin by simply stating that a man seems to be able to give full energy to his writer-self, in a way a woman cannot.

Like most women, I am denied a full writing life. My life is one of responsibilities. I am a writer, a woman, a wife, a mother, and a professor and, on any given day, the simplest circumstances for creation do not exist. Yet the hope of writing is always there. Most days it seems to be stolen moments, snatches of time. Early morning hours before the world wakes up, after the household chores are done (some days they are ignored), an hour wedged between class and a committee meeting, evening hours for as long as I can stay awake.

The power and need to create is in both women and men. Tillie Olsen says, “Where the gifted among women (and men) have remained mute, or have never attained full capacity, it is because of circumstances, inner and outer, which oppose the needs of creation” (p. 17).

Most women would prefer to live a clean and tidy writing life-other life. But a writer-woman is torn between these two. I think the conflict is between being overly adaptive and being oneself. Whether we want to believe it or not, women are still trained to place other’s needs first, to feel these needs are their own, and sometimes we simple must take care of other responsibilities before we can write. We’ve cobbled together an identity based on narratives. We tell our self stories constantly and the ones we repeat most often become part of our identity. We are the stories we tell ourselves.

People cannot change their habits without first assessing their assumptions about writing. Women try out various approaches to finding the time to write only to find that things soon return to “normal.” I am absolutely convinced, however, that any woman can keep her mental space in order, and create some measure of time for herself beyond the inescapable work/family pulls and responsibilities.

What are the stories you tell yourself about finding, making, snitching time to write? Can you become an architect of change of your own writing life?

More soon . . .

Why Can’t I Find Time to Write? Part 1

When I first tell people that my research is about women who had difficulty finding time to write, I am usually met with reactions that range from making me feel that I don’t measure up (the unspoken “What’s the matter with you?” side-eye one of my professors gave me when I broached this as a dissertation topic) to condescending (“I wouldn’t generalize from your experience. I’ve never had to compromise, and my kids turned out great”).

The general assumption is that it’s a time management problem. And that if I wanted it badly enough, I’d find the time to do it. Unlike food, shelter and clothing, writing is not a basic human need, although to a frustrated woman writer it may feel like it is. So, in most societies, a woman’s desire to write is superseded by her life circumstances.

The standard advice touted by writing magazines, and the internet is, “Make writing a priority.” And the two most common recommendations seem to be: You have to make time to write and you have to give up something to write. One oft-touted quote is: “Don’t say you don’t have enough time. You have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Pasteur, Michelangelo, Mother Teresa, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Einstein.” (H. Jackson Brown Jr.)

The implication is that if you take your writing seriously, you’ll give it the time and consideration it deserves. I had read so many articles on finding time to write that I assumed it was true.

But there was one problem that seemed unsolvable. No matter how much I created calendars, not matter how often I said I was going to write early in the morning or late at night, it wasn’t long before I wasn’t writing again.
Some days I write nothing, because I have no time, and I feel that pressure. I have had a special need to learn all I could to help myself and other women like me who have had let writing be stopped, interrupted, put aside, or left to die over and over again, and are tormented by the unwritten.

The idea that women can “just make writing a priority” is simply airbrushing reality. It is time to talk.

More tomorrow . . .

Know your big WHY

Our culture and our socialization tell us women how to act and think. We are supposed to be women/wives/mothers first and writers second.

Because of this, you need to be clear about WHY you want to write so that you can give yourself permission to write. And just to be clear, some of us have a harder time giving ourselves permission than others do. So,

1. Know what your goal is: it might be to start writing, to write more, to write more creatively, to write a novel, to finish writing projects, to sell your work. Be clear with yourself what your writing goal is.

2. To accomplish your goal, go deep: those who study brain science suggest that you need to answer this question, “what is the intrinsic social, moral or personal reason I have for wanting to achieve my goal?”

Knowing what your goal is and why you want to accomplish that goal keeps the motivation part of your brain activated. The clearer you are about your big WHY (the personal reason you want to write), the more important the goal will feel to you, and the more your brain will be motivated to turn that goal into reality.

When you know your big WHY you will have the motivation to take the necessary steps to find/make/clear time and space for your writing.

Overwhelmed? Blocked? Try Reverse Empathy

There is still much to learn about women’s creative processes and how to create the conditions that foster our creativity without negating the importance of relationships in our lives. Our culture and socialization still hijack a woman’s creative process, creating barriers for the woman writer. By barrier, I mean any persistent event, condition, or circumstance which inhibits a woman’s ability to both begin writing at all, and also to continue after she has begun.

Bell Hooks said, “Most women I encounter (with the exception of a privileged few) feel that we are still struggling against enormous odds to transform both this culture and our everyday lives so that our creativity can be nurtured in a sustained manner” (Art, p. 128).

A woman’s desire to do creative work is, in the experience of many women, treated as an indulgence, and hooks warned women that they cannot wait for ideal circumstances to be in place. She said, “Each of us must invent alternative strategies that enable us to move against and beyond the barriers that stand in our way” (p. 130).

In addition, I think women are culturalized to be overly empathic. An article published by the Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley said, “Overly empathic people may even lose the ability to know what they want or need. They may have a diminished ability to make decisions in their own best interest, experience physical and psychological exhaustion from deflecting their own feelings, and may lack internal resources to give their best to key people in their life.”

This sounds like many women writers I know.

So what should we do? Here’s one alternative strategy you can use to move against and beyond your barriers: when faced with cultural and social messages that affect your ability to write, while waiting for ideal circumstances to be in place, when struggling for that bit of writing time, treat yourself with empathy. Yes, empathy. Empathy is acknowledging the humanity of someone (you) who was raised to think differently. So what I’m really talking about is reverse empathy, instead of feeling empathy for those round us, feel empathy for yourself. This a practice that allows you to pay attention to another’s needs without sacrificing your own, because it requires you to pay attention to your own needs.

Often when we are given writing advice, we try to follow tips and ideas that don’t really work for women, because of our conditioning and our circumstances. Instead of feeling like a failed writer, we should try and view ourselves through a reverse-empathetic lens. When we do, we learn to identify our own frame of reference, then we can take compassionate action toward ourselves. Then we can find, make, create, win back our writing time.

Woman, Writer, Warrior

I’m personally and academically interested in the choices and compromises talented female writers make, more specifically why some women have difficulty giving themselves time and permission to do their writing.

I struggle with my roles as a woman: wife, mother, PhD student, professor, nurturer, and I run out of time and energy to do my creative work. But it has never truly been a problem of time management or writer’s block. Rather the issues run deeper, and for my PhD dissertation, I chose to write a novel and to document my own fluency and resistance as part of my contextualization.

I work up this morning and thought, Holy cow, where did the week go?

This has been a tough writing week for me. I’m 69 thousand-ish words into a draft of my 70 to 80 thousand word romantic mystery novel. And I’m totally overwhelmed about the fact that I’m not writing fast enough, worried that summer, which officially started yesterday, will be over before I can finish my novel, and freaking out because my life is boring (read: wake up, drink coffee and write, and worry about writing).

To put it bluntly, I am, like so many other women writers do, having difficulty giving myself time and permission to do my writing. Even though I need to!

The novel is part of my PhD dissertation – so I have “permission” to write it. If you’re a woman and a writer, you get what I just said – all those hours and hours given to a writing project that were not given to family or work.

I’m trying to cut through and write. But I keep thinking about all the stuff I need to do: clean the house, do the laundry, check work email, call the kids, feed Feral Cat. Feral Cat is a beautiful, but matted tuxedo cat who now lets me pet him, so I’m trying to figure out how to cut his matted fur off without him freaking out. I could do that instead of writing *wink*

So today my plan is to become a writing warrior. To create a writing culture for myself and other women writers that bears witness to the woman writer’s experience.

Have any writing advice for me? Let me know in the comments below.