A Room of Her Own

Recently, a transwoman wrote to me casually that all she ever wanted to do was be a ________. As a child, as a teenager, as an adult, she (then he) was intent on that goal. My first impulse was to think that I’ve never had that kind of calling, that kind of goal, but then – a few days later – I realized that’s not entirely true, either.

The problem with wanting to be a writer is somewhat like discovering you’re trans. You’d prefer anything else. You’d prefer a magic wand of a “cure.” You know it’s going to cost – socially, financially, familially – so it takes a while to admit to yourself who you are and own it, as the kids say. It’s as if something in you knows not to say it out loud, not to commit to that secret yearning in the corner of your heart.

I’m still waiting and hoping for my calling to be an accountant much as Betty is still waiting to feel comfortable living as a man. We may as well buy lottery tickets if we’re already playing odds like that.

I know exactly why I never knew, much less articulated, my urge to be a writer. I grew up working class, and writing was not on the list of career choices. It wasn’t a job. It was a luxury of rich people, the earned perk of a family that already had a generation of college educations and healthy business professions. My older sister was the first in our family to graduate from college, though a few of her siblings, like me, followed after. She is a banker. One brother is an accountant. Another runs the regional area for a supermarket chain. Another is a psychologist. In a nutshell, they all chose practical careers.

They make me feel like the dreamy, impractical baby of the family, which is, in a sense, what I am. During a recent family discussion (read: argument) my brother asked my sister why I didn’t have a full-time job. To her credit, she answered, “I don’t know, but why haven’t you written a book?”

His critical questions aside, I’ve been learning a lot about the publishing industry. While holding my breath (and pulling my hair and stamping my feet) through the negotiations around my next book, I’ve wondered why I’m in this profession at all.

I write because it’s what I do. I’ve kept a written journal since I was nine, which is about the same time I wrote my first short story (Called “Rainy Day,” it was a two-page ripoff of Madelaine L’Engle, of course; I’d just read A Wrinkle in Time.) I had to get married in order to be able to write full-time. The feminist implications of having marriage deliver this wish don’t please me.

Writing is about time.

“What no wife of a writer can ever understand is that a writer is working when he’s staring out the window.”
Rudolph Erich Rascoe

I’m lucky to have a husband who understands that even without a job, I’m working. Betty is a voracious reader, who actually enjoys having a writer for a wife. Still in all, what are the real problems of being a woman writer – even a married one?

    Here are some things to think about:

  • Only 9 out of 52 winners of the National Book Award for Fiction are women.
  • Only 11 out of 48 winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction have been women.
  • Women writers won 63 percent of the awards but less than 30 percent of the money in awards and grants reported by Poets & Writers. (January/February 2003 issue)
  • In 2002 all but one of the Pulitzer Prize finalists for Fiction and Poetry were male.
  • 94 percent of all the writing awards at the Oscars have gone to men.
  • Only 25 percent of the advisory members of the National Endowment for the Arts are women.
  • 68 percent of total art income in the U.S. goes to men and 73 percent of all grants and fellowships in the arts go to men.
  • (Source: A Room of Her Own Foundation)

The Humanities are supposed to be woman-friendly, too! I can’t even imagine what the stats are for women in the Sciences; I almost don’t want to know.

It’s a bit easier to understand why “I want to be a writer” never crossed my lips as a child, isn’t it? It is for me. Some days I’d still like that calling to be an accountant, maybe just for a little while, so that when I’m 40 or 50 I can quit accounting and write full-time without caring who the writing awards and grants go to and maybe even fund a few of them myself.

4 Replies to “A Room of Her Own”

  1. I’ve recently felt odd that much of my job involved thinking and reading. I realized that in my youth I never had anyone who did similar work. My family and those around me were working class and so when I’m not actively making something I don’t feel that I’m actually doing anything, but I actually am and can’t do anything else without thinking and reading.

  2. Ah, yes. The classic queer understanding: You aren’t normative and people don’t understand what you are. I mean, people understand if you want to be an author, to have published works and be on Oprah and make big bucks, but to be a writer, leaving the world and living in your own universe where all there are are blank sheets to be filled up, that’s baffling. Who wants to be an inkstained wretch?

    I was at a table with Kate & Riki, and Riki was talking about her discomfort when her boss wanted to show support by buying “Read My Lips.” “I wasn’t sure I wanted him to know that I go to sex clubs every saturday and like to get fucked in the ass while looking at hot women.”

    “Well, then why did you write it?” Kate asked.

    “Because it’s true,” Riki answered.

    “So why did you publish it? ” Kate asked

    “Because it’s damn good,” said Riki.

    You know how to write, don’t you? Just sit at a keyboard and open a vein. Good writing is full of blood.

    I never wanted to be a writer because everybody thinks they can write. Everyone knows they can’t code, so they have no comments on programming, but on writing, they think they are an expert. That’s why it’s so important to me to value real writers, the ones who move beyond reaction, sensation and posturing to real thought and clear exposition. They need to be valued, because they have immersed and found a voice, not just a parrot.

    But me? What calling did I want to run from? Well, there’s a list, starting with what I recognized at age 5 to be “Jonathan Winters Energy,” to trans, to being more observer than participant. But the calling I deny to the point of self destruction is being a theologian, perceiving process and seeing in symbol.

    Failure or success seem to have been allotted to men by their stars.
    But they retain the power of wriggling,
    of fighting with their star or against it,
    and in the whole universe
    the only really interesting movement is this wriggle.
    E. M. Forster, _Abinger Harvest_ [1936]

    Keep wriggling, Helen. Trust the voice and write, not for them but for you, paying for it any way you can. And your truth will be so bright all will come to it.

    Once we try to sell the package, the package shapes us, and at what a cost. Being a writer and being an author are two different things today. Trust your voice, beyond.

  3. I’m surprised that you appear not be abreast the controversy at Harvard and which may tell you how well or otherwise women do in science. A recent news report out of the New York Times reads,

    NATIONAL DESK | January 19, 2005, Wednesday

    No Break in the Storm Over Harvard President’s Words

    Late Edition – Final , Section A , Page 14 , Column 3

    ABSTRACT – Members of Harvard faculty committee that has examined recruiting of professors who are women send protest letter to Lawrence H Summers, university’s president, saying his recent statements about innate differences between sexes would only make it harder to attract top candidates; controversy follows Summers’s remarks suggesting that biological differences may be one explanation for why fewer women succeed in mathmematics and science careers; photo (M)

    Am I better informed in Australia about what is happening in your backyard? I subscribe to the email edition of the NYT because I am hearing a dialogue in your interesting city and thought I should keep informed about what is happening in the Big Apple.

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