Notes on Writing and Mothering in a Material World
Once again, I find myself at a turning point in life, when absolutely everything is at stake and every decision will have not only immediate, but long-term consequences. My husband and I are facing a divorce in full pandemic. As I was explaining my lack of financial resources to my lawyer, I began to reflect on the choices I made during the past 15 years in terms of professional career, mothering, and writing. On the precipice of poverty, I am asking myself how did I get here? And why?
I jumped off the academic track soon after a postdoctoral fellowship at Oxford, to follow my husband to Geneva with our baby son. A daughter followed several years later, and I embraced the larger family, writing and publishing books and giving the occasional lecture or workshop around Europe, making documentaries, talking at international book fairs, and, well… writing more books and keeping the house spotless. Since we moved to the States and I succeeded at integrating the children into their new culture and language (they speak three languages), I have been searching, very unsuccessfully, for academic posts. Who’d want to hire a housewife who writes books that bring no royalties and who doesn’t show up at all the publishers’ parties, because she is busy doing homework with the children, taking long walks with them, or teaching them to cook and bake?
How come I am in principle “a high value individual” but at the same time there is no money in my bank to demonstrate my value? This brings up the larger question about why writers do the work they do, with the full knowledge that this is not a financially rewarding job any more than mothering is. I see very clearly that a large part of the marriage failure is a direct consequence of my choice to take up two jobs that have all the spiritual and emotional fulfillment one would dream for but offer no practical stability to sustain existence in a dollar-driven world. As I write this, I wonder how my mothering will be valued by the court, as much as I wonder how much my writing career will provide any financial confidence to the judge who will handle my divorce. Here I am at the intersection of language-citizenship, and divorce. But even in these dire circumstances, if I had a chance to do it all again, I wouldn’t change anything at all about the way I lived my life, or the way I made my choices.
Well, like all other professions, writing involves devotion and the trust that one contributes something to the rest of the world. Furthermore, writing falls into the category of the “service” jobs: the work serves people. A writer is a citizen of language. The way one partakes in this citizenship is to contribute work that keeps language vital, rich, and true to our experiences. Writing work that matters brings to the public an awareness about uncomfortable things about society and inspires hope for a better future; it articulates the individual’s place in the world. Lately, writing courses are flourishing, and more people are turning to the craft as a form of easing anxiety. Those of us who teach creative writing see the relationship between narrative medicine and the craft of writing for the benefits it brings to health professionals and patients alike. But if the teaching falls outside the traditional academic environment, the pay is shocking, no one can live on it. The benefits of language-citizenship are not commensurate with the responsibilities.
Ask anyone who does charity work or ask any nurse why she logs long hours for little pay, and you have a similar answer to the question of why a writer spends years researching, writing, rewriting, accepting rejections from publishers, and living with little crumbs from teaching outside the great academe. And yet, many choose this profession and are creating the language that everyone else can enjoy for solace, comfort, the sense that we are never alone in the world and our needs to belong to the world are not unique.
It takes stubbornness to work for nothing. Unlike the financially steadier service professions, writing is more similar to full time mothering, when the daycare, the homework, the laughter and the tears of the children, their private joys and sorrows, their discoveries of the world, and their emotional well-being, as well as their schedule-planning (with all the attendant anxieties and unforeseen interruptions) are the job responsibilities. If the stay-at-home moms are the citizens of the soul, writers are citizens of language. There are civic duties to both that should be valued a bit more by our materialistic and increasingly divided society, where worth and wealth go hand in hand. Those of us searching for the right word in the right place at the right time should make a living at it too that shouldn’t depend on striking the bestseller lists. But I suspect this depends on the value we place on the power of language and literature in society and on whether we view word-working as intrinsic to our lives.