“Every day includes much more non-being than being. This is always so. One walks, eats, sees things, deals with what has to be done; the broken vacuum cleaner; ordering dinner; washing; cooking dinner. When it is a bad day the proportion of non-being is much larger.”
– Virginia Woolf
For the past two weeks I’ve been carrying around a galley of Leslie Bennetts’ spectacularly good book, The Feminine Mistake, which is due out in April. I’ve read it in fits and starts–while waiting in my car to pick Jacob up at school, just one mom in a long line of ex-urban mommys in their SUV’s. All of us, cocooned in the moveable environment of our cars and trucks, listening to NPR or right-wing talk shows (the bumper stickers in our school’s parking lot range from anti-Bush to pro-life) and getting ready our small plastic bags of snacks and juice boxes. (When did cars of mothers of young children also become refrigerators on wheels? A subject for another day.) As I’ve been devouring Leslie’s book I keep thinking of women I know and the choices we’ve all made — those of us, that is, in a position to make choices. The “mistake” referred to in the book has to do with economic dependency on husbands — the giving up of work. This is something I don’t relate to — I’ve never stopped working — and yet somehow I connect to this subject matter on every single page. The Feminine Mistake is emphatically not another tiresome contribution to the Mommy Wars. Yes, it comes down on the side of work, but for reasons that have to do with the long term mental, physical and emotional well-being of women and their children. It punctures (at least to this working mom’s mind) the tiresome idea that children of working women suffer. One of the book’s more trenchant observations has to do with something Bennetts calls the “fifteen year paradigm” — the idea that over the course of a woman’s life, the raising of children actually adds up to a relatively small amount of time. I’ve heard (and felt) the argument many times that they’re only young once and it all goes by so fast and you don’t want to blink and miss your kids’ childhood — truisms that no mom would disagree with — but at the same time, a woman who “opts out” during those years can’t just simply opt back in when her children are teenagers and don’t need her so much anymore.
I do feel very lucky that my job doesn’t involve a set number of hours each day or an unsympathetic boss. I make my own schedule and that allows me to be one of the SUV moms waiting in line at school pick-up — at least some of the time. It allows me to stop what I’m doing at 3 in the afternoon to go to a school play. But I’m so aware that the culture of these schools assumes that mothers can do exactly that — drop work, stop work — in order to be there at everything from bake sales to book drives. It’s endlessly confusing and honestly I think all of us feel pretty crappy about it. The stay-at-home moms, the working moms — all of us just trying to be the best parents we can while at the same time not completely losing our way in the forest.
This week I’ve been teaching memoir writing at The Mayflower Spa, which is an unbelievably beautiful place ten minutes from my front door. My best friend Lisa and her family created this spa–built it from the ground up–and when it opened she asked if I’d consider teaching memoir there. I agreed with trepidation. I’ve taught undergraduates, graduate students, private students — but teaching at a spa? It seemed…I don’t know…not serious. Worrisome, even.
But then I spent this week teaching there, and I have to say it has been one of the most intense experiences of my teaching life. These women had stories to tell. Some were bitterly funny, some were impossibly sad. All were genuine seekers of how to shape their stories on the page. And I — who otherwise would have spent the week fretting by the phone, waiting to hear from editors and publicists, checking my email fifty-five times an hour — spent my days sipping mint tea and focusing intensely on my sweat-suited charges. By the end of my time at the spa, I wanted to take them all home with me and keep going. But I can’t offer them Thai massage after memoir writing. Much less something called the deep blue lavender embrace.
I’ve been writing about some of the deepest aspects of my personal life for as long as I’ve been writing–and at this point, it doesn’t seem strange to me (at least most of the time) to have some of the intimate details of my life be available to people I don’t know. One of the reasons why it doesn’t seem strange is that the act of crafting a story turns it into something other than “my life”. I am not interested in the confessional. Confession is almost always boring and certainly its details don’t feel universal. Nor am I interested in catharsis. Writing memoir is quite the opposite of cathartic. If anything, it creates an even deeper river of feeling. Sometimes I’ll meet someone at a dinner party who has read my memoir, Slow Motion, and he/she will say: I feel like I know you. And I always feel like responding: no, you don’t. You read my book. My book isn’t me. Not exactly.
I have an essay in this month’s Elle magazine that is highly personal, about my journey through the strange, strange land of reproductive technology in a quest to have a second child. I write about choosing an egg donor and then–ultimately–changing my mind. My husband Michael and I spent the better part of a wacky year involved in this world, and once we decided not to move forward, all I wanted to do was to write about it. The going through it, the writing about it, and ultimately the publishing of a piece about it–all are completely different experiences. I’m glad the piece is out there–even though of course it makes me feel exposed. As soon as the piece was published, I got angry calls and emails from the heads of certain egg donor agencies. Just the other day, a friend called from L.A. to tell me that the reproductive endocrinologist we had been seeing there, Vicken Sahakian, M.D., was on the front page of the L.A. Times because he had inadvertently gotten a 65 year old woman pregnant with twins. Inadvertent!
In trying to come up with a name for this blog I found myself thinking about my favorite writer, Virginia Woolf, and her memoir, Moments of Being. In it, Woolf writes about the difference between the “cotton wool of daily existence” and true moments of being, by which I think she means aliveness–an absolute awareness of the importance of the present moment.
Woolf might have blogged if she were writing in 2007. As it happens she kept detailed, incredibly vivid journals. One of my prized possessions is a first American edition of her diaries, which I keep within reach on my desk. Almost every time I dip into it, I find myself writing something down. Here’s one:
“Reflection: It is presumably a bad thing to look through articles, reviews, etc. to find one’s own name. Yet I often do.”
So Woolf would probably have googled herself! What a relief. With my new novel, Black & White, coming out in just a few months, my mind is an anxious animal, darting all over the place. Possibly the craziest part of being a writer is this divide between doing the work itself and then putting that work out there in the world. The near-hermetic quiet required to create the universe of a novel–and then the frenzy (and you want a frenzy!) of that novel becoming a public thing.
“My husband and I have a running joke. Every once in a while, usually late at night, I ask him a question that begins timidly, like this: “Can I ask you a question?”…
from 110 Stories: New York Writes After
The birds are nestling closer. She noticed them two winters ago—the winter after she moved into the Brooklyn house with her husband and infant son. First only a few fat ones were perched atop the brownstone across the street. The next time . .
In 1953, nine years before I was born, my father fell in love with a young woman named Dorothy Gribetz. She was a beautiful Orthodox Jewish girl who was, at twenty-seven, startlingly old to still be single in the moneyed religious urban world of my father . . .