A Writerly Life: bell hooks

“Like many writers, I am protective of the time I spend writing. Even though women write more today than ever before, most women writers still grapple with the issue of time. Often writing is the task saved for the end of the day. Not just because it is hard to value writing time, to place it above other demands, but because writing is hard . . . Now I accept that facing the difficult is part of the heroic journey of writing, a preparation, a ritual of sanctification—that it is through this arduous process of grappling with words that writing becomes my true home, a place of solace and comfort.” (p.22)
― bell hooks, remembered rapture: the writer at work

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.

Gender Socialization Affects the Woman Writer

I’m just going to lay this out there: The rigors of life itself still chip and distance women from their inner lives.

Expecting that women can just take/make the time needed to write ignores the gender socialization that continues to affect the choices that creative women make. In my own experience, I have found that talented and creative women, myself included, still struggle against both societal and personal pressures.

Two decades ago, researcher Livia Pohlman pointed out, that for women, “The conflict between the demands of family life and the tensions inherent in producing creative work may affect adult creativity in numerous and as yet unexplored ways” (p. 3). The women she interviewed found that “their identities were often divided three ways – as a wife, a mother, and a writer – with their sense of self as a writer being in conflict with the gender expectations of being a good wife and mother” (p. 10).

Even though one would anticipate that much would have changed in twenty years, more currently, this same position is supported by Sarah White Bender (and co-writers) who in a research article published in 2013, said, “In place of single-minded devotion to creative work, women’s attention is commonly diverted from creative pursuits to competing interpersonal priorities” (p. 40).

No matter what we’re told, many women who would like to write (or to write more) succumb to a potent brew of upbringing and social expectations, which makes splitting time between the people we love and the creative work we wish to do a wrenching choice.

In her book Art, bell hooks noted, “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” (p. 128).

Our desire to do creative work, in the experience of many women, is treated as an indulgence, and hooks warned us that we 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).

Before you go, ask yourself what alternative strategies can you invent that allow to you nudge things aside to open a space for writing?