No Love Without Poetry: The Memoirs of Marina Tsvetaeva's Daughter

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The Mommy Problem

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“When I was discussing my new book with two married writers, they kept asking how I could work without an advance. I didn’t see how they could work with one. They said they needed a certain amount of money and that they had children. They made their children sound like a tremendous burden, and I felt they were using the word need when they should have said want… One day, when [the husband] was telling me how easy I have it and about the kind of advance he needed, I snapped. I said his book wasn’t worth more than my book just because he has kids.” -Stephen Elliott

There is much naked self-revelation in Stephen Elliott’s sharp and yet consoling short memoir, “Why I Write,” recently published in Canteen Magazine and at The Rumpus (of which he is the founder).  He writes about suicide attempts, working as a stripper, his dark relationship with his father, his drug habits, involvement in the S&M scene.   And yet weirdly, the most shocking and provocative moment in the essay for me is the above passage, when Elliott tells off a writer who has hinted that having children somehow ennobles and/or entitles him as an artist.

Reading through the comments at The Rumpus, I was surprised to see that there was no reaction or response to this.  It made me think that readers of The Rumpus must by and large be childless.

I’ve lived that scene, more or less, countless times.  In Elliot’s position, that is.  The implication slips out in different ways, but it’s unmistakable.  I’ve never “snapped.”  Part of it is that I’m chicken.  Part of it is that my conversations are usually woman to woman, and (yes, I am essentially reinforcing a horrific stereotype here) women my age tend to be a bit, um, irrational, when it comes to outside perspectives on anything related to their children.

But part of it is that “need” vs “want” is not quite the right dichotomy.  Or not the whole of it anyway.  There are times when I, too, am tempted to snap; to say, “You wanted to have children, so stop complaining.” But it’s easy to forget how seismic a shift we’ve undergone over the last generation when it comes to family-making; we are really the first generation to be quite so conscious of it – whether, when, how many, alone or partnered, naturally or “artificially,” can I afford it, etc.  If you ask a woman of a previous generation—your mother, for example, if you are in your 30s or older—how she decided to have children, she might smile a half-smile and cock her head and blink her eyes at you as if you’d just spoken to her in the extinct language of Arwi (and she’s no ditz, she may in fact have a doctorate in Arwi).  In a single generation, instinct and nature have morphed into analysis and decision.  This is bizarre in so many ways.  And confusing.  And stressful.  For everyone, I think – parents and unparents alike.

A blogger in Austin who linked to “Why I Write” posted this on his blog: “Makes me even more eager to explore the question, ‘Can you have a wife, children, and a house, and still be an artist?’”  I wonder, have wondered, the same thing, though I’d flip the question and alter it slightly: “Can I be an artist and a woman, and still have a family?” (I have a house; but currently it’s a debt more than an asset.)

In my own “Why I Write” memoir essay, which I entitled, “How to Become a Writer,” I wrote:

…to be a writer, there are many other things you cannot be, or do, or have.  To read a book, for instance, means, decidedly, to not do something else.  Those are many many something else’s you won’t be doing, including spending time with other human beings…

Of all the people I’ve known who tried to become writers, many have not become writers…most people don’t fail to become writers because they can’t become writers; rather, at some point, it becomes clear all the things you cannot be (or have or do) if you become a writer. And so a choice is made, or a series of choices, whether or not the person thinks it was a matter of choice (it was).

A commentor on the essay wrote this:

I am a mum of a toddler, and my biggest niggle is the thought that the hours I spend writing are hours of his life I will have missed forever…is missing out on even an hour of it worth some story that may or may not be any good?…  I started my story when my child was 18 months and became more manageable; but it’s taken me 8 months to write 5 chapters. My second child is due in 5 months. When will my story ever be finished?

I read many opinions by people who would see my approach as not being dedicated to my writing. That I’m not taking it seriously, that I’m not writing fast enough. In their opinion, I might as well not bother at all.

…I defy anyone who hasn’t seen my 14 versions of Chapter 1 to say I don’t take my writing as seriously as someone who is writing to be published. It is an insult to the time I steal away from my precious child to do it.

The painter Agnes Martin said to Susan York, a sculptor who’d sought out Martin as a mentor: “Never have children. Do not live the middle-class life. Never do anything that will take away from your work.” York wrote about it in 2005 (the conversation happened in 1983).  I was 32 in 2005, I still “had time.”  And yet the words burned on my brain even then.

So I pay attention to these things.  I mine for family status in the biographies of women artists and writers. If a prolific, successful woman has children, I (uncharitably, self-pityingly) think to myself, “She must have a husband who makes money.”

Joyce Carol Oates, arguably the most prolific female novelist of her generation, does not have children.

The visionary Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva had three children and an unstable husband who was eventually arrested and shot for espionage.  She was primary parent, primary breadwinner, and always poor (this was Russia after the Revolution, after all) despite her rising prominence as a literary figure.  One of her daughters starved to death in an orphanage.  Her relationship with the two other children, Ariadna and Georgy, was fraught and intense, as Ariadna, whose memoirs have been published, describes in detail.  Tsvetaeva committed suicide at the age of 49.

Flannery O’Connor did not have children.

Anne Lamott was a single mother and poor; her son Sam became the subject of one of her most well-known and best-selling books, Operating Instructions.  He appears often in her nonfiction.

Notable in the first volume of Susan Sontag’s published journals, Reborn, are scant mentions of her son David (Rieff).  When she does write about him, she admits that when he is out of sight, he is out of mind, or wonders if she should give him up.  She left her marriage for intellectual ambition, for self-realization, for freedom.  She did not seem to want to be a mother, even as she was clear that “Of all the people I have loved, [David] is least of all a mental object of love, most intensely real.”

Meg Wolitzer, like Anne Lamott, channeled motherhood into art.  The Ten-Year Nap is a novel both satirical and empathetic, about affluent women who stay at home with their children and never go back to work.  The book is not “a somber meditation on motherhood versus work,” Wolitzer said.  “I really want the novel to be about motherhood and work, and also about female ambition and what happens to it over time.”

Marilynne Robinson has two sons.  But she keeps her distance from media and interviews and doesn’t typically talk about her personal life.  In an interview with The Times Online (UK), she rejects the notion of being a writer as a full-time job: “I think ‘writer’ is a toxic word. I’m a writer when I’m writing something. The rest of the time I like to put that word aside.”  Most acclaimed for her novels, she’s written three of them in 28 years, with 23 years between the first and the second. Was she focused on her children?  Her teaching? Slow-simmering Gilead for all those years? All of the above? She is someone I wish would speak or write publicly about motherhood and art.

Jane Kenyon did not have children.  If she were alive, I would want to ask her about this.

Sylvia Plath… well, no need to dredge up Sylvia Plath.  But let’s just say that, between Plath and Tsvetaeva, the argument that children anchor the artist, ground her in some way, does not always hold.

The truth is that empathy is difficult when it comes to the modern parent/non-parent divide, and perhaps the chasm deepens when it comes to artists and writers. In a recent article in The Atlantic Monthly about Helen Gurley Brown and Elizabeth Edwards, Caitlin Flanagan wrote, “…until you’ve [had a child of your own], you’re just guessing about love, gesturing toward it, assuming that it’s the right name for a feeling you’ve had.” At first I was bludgeoned; I thought, Oh shit.  But then, realizing what she was saying, I thought, Fuck you.  To imply that a person without children has not loved, does not know the meaning of love… that goes too far.  Way too far.

It’s true that making art is selfish; I make art, I write, ultimately, for myself.  In a recent interview, Lorrie Moore said something that resonated with me:

The detachment of the artist is kind of creepy. It’s kind of rude, and yet really it’s where art comes from. It’s not the same as courage. It’s closer to bad manners than to courage. […] There’s a certain indefensibility about it. It’s not about loving your community and taking care of it; you’re not attached to the chamber of commerce.

But 1) “selfish” gets a bad rap; what we mean, what I mean, is that writing is my nourishment, my food for life; and 2) parenting strikes me as selfish, sometimes narcissistic, in its own particular way.  Both endeavors require great sacrifices.

I have no grand conclusions here.  I hope writers will talk and write about this more.  I enjoyed Emily St. John Mandel’s recent essay about day jobs, and the children question seems to me a kind of inextricable addendum to that conversation: are you having to pay your bills alone or with a partner? Is your time committed to family, in addition to day-work and writing-work? Are you responsible for anyone other than yourself?  By choice?  By not-choice? Whatever the case, it’s bizarre, and confusing, and stressful.  I wish you the best.

[Image credit: Chris “Mojo” Denbow]

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