I read Barbara Kingsolver, a book she has written with her family about living off the land, moving to a farm where she and her family plan to eat only what they can carry away from the field for a year. I am shocked by her beautiful language. I hold my breath, reading about drought starved saguaro cactuses, prickly and thin as runway models, amazed at how adroitly she turns her phrases, how easily she sweeps the page with poetry, as if it were nothing, like watching a portrait artist sketch her model, making, with two quick indifferent strokes, a whole person, and then getting on to her real work, her hard work, which is finding the person’s soul. Meanwhile, I am agape. Did you just do that? Did you just flick your wrist and a whole person was suddenly there on the canvas?
For Barbara Kingsolver, the poetry is not the point, the point is the point, and poetry is something she uses to get there. Kingsolver must enjoy the poetry, but she’s busy trying to get her message across, trying to find her meaning, trying to wrestle with her big question: what does it mean to live close to the land, how do we change when we don’t do it?
I read A Room of One’s Own, and it was incredibly comforting. Woolf talked about how the psychology of women and the history of women and the social and political place of women in our culture works against becoming a writer. Even though she wrote it 85 years ago and the circumstances of women have improved, I was comforted. Because I saw, in her descriptions, my own vacillations, and hesitations, and built-in sense of failure. Who am I to write something? What in the world do I have to say? Why should anybody listen to me?
Her friendly, brilliant, funny mind, cutting to the quick of the horror without becoming dramatic, or lugubrious, or enraged, just deftly laying it out, reminding us of Shakespeare’s sister, and the Beadle who keeps you off the grass and locks the library doors, with an anthropologist’s detached fascination, a humorist’s eye for irony, so you can bear to read it, you feel almost uplifted by it: of course men can write, because they are in a warm study, eating pudding and drinking port, while we chew tough prunes and drink cheap wine.
Woolf said no wonder women haven’t written. Maybe in a hundred years we will have women writers, because women will have gotten permission to do lots of things– vote, have money, run their own business, get divorced. As she predicted, the subjugation of women has been coming to an end, and more women are writing. But still. There are no men in mother’s groups. Men don’t volunteer at school. And the women who work successfully sometimes seem like mutations, unexpectedly full of themselves, unexpectedly driven, or self-absorbed, or focused. They are different from most women, who still, in spite of everything, do the shopping and make dinner and keep track of doctor’s appointments and socks, choose no work at all but instead volunteer, or wait to work, half-time, when the kids are in school.
Success breeds enthusiasm, and practice breeds success. That is the feedback loop, the mysterious spinning top that, once you hop on, just keeps turning: you work, you have success, success makes you feel energetic and enthusiastic, so you work, which brings success, which makes you feel energetic and enthusiastic. The secret question: how do you get that top spinning? When you are a boy, men run along beside you, helping you build momentum, giving you a push, encouragement. Institutions do it if your father or your uncle won’t, schools and banks and professional sports teams; history will inspire you, or the newspaper, filled with men building things, making and changing rules. For a girl, even today, after so much time, those influences are not robust. Maybe your mother stayed home, and her life was spent organizing the kitchen cabinets. She can say, you are such a hard worker, I saw your movie, I’m so impressed, but she can’t tell you how to do it, and she’s a little baffled, even bored, by your struggle. She has other engagements. She has dinner to cook, laundry, she wants to play bridge. And the institutions– well, so much history still belongs to men and so many books, so when you write what that you think about they say, “that’s a kitchen play,” or a “kitchen poem,” which is to say, not serious. Muddled. Parochial. Private. You can fuck the professor, and grade his papers, but you don’t get invited to his poker parties, and nobody sits you down and says look, if you want to be a writer, here’s how to do it. You yourself are paralyzed by politeness, wanting to be nice. You linger at the door, waiting for an opportunity to sit down and talk, waiting for somebody to invite you in. All that time they spent playing the piano, or playing soccer, you spent getting tan, painting yourself with baby oil and lying on the hot grass out back, buying the dress (blue with rhinestone straps, and silver shoes to match) that you would write the poem about, the poem about the boy who broke up with you, the poem that won a prize, one year before the Harvard professor told you that you wrote kitchen poems and kept you out of his class.
Woolf says the whole world of women is different, the things we value, the way we talk to each other, the way we think and what we think about. So it’s not as simple as having the Beadle unlock the library and stepping inside, sitting down at the table and joining the conversation. What we find there will seem alien, both because we have been raised in the kitchen, and because our thinking about the world is different. Either because of our genes, or because of the things we learned in the kitchen, taking care of children and men.