I have this new chair. Actually, it’s an old chair I just had reupholstered for the third time in twenty five years, hoping I will finally like it. At the moment, people in my family are treating its new incarnation with restraint— it’s fine. I might not have chosen it. Not for me. The pattern seemed ordained when I saw it—a bold choice, a choice for life. Wearing it, my chair would declare itself: I have imagination, I have a sense of humor, I will not hide from the world, I refuse to be polite. Now that it’s in my house, I consider it, cringing—is it too loud? Will people think it’s weird?
When Kathe was five, she fell in love with a lavishly patterned gold coat. My mother, who had taken Kathe on the shopping trip, fought with her in the dressing room. That is a horrible coat. I won’t buy it for you. It makes you look like trash. Kathe dug in. She loved the coat. But the fight undid them both. Kathe, eyes watering, my mother resolute. Kathe had never heard such words before– you look like trash. We gave her the coat for her birthday, but it hung in her closet until she outgrew it, never worn.
I worry about my chair—do you look like trash? Will people disapprove of your exuberance, be offended by your noisy swirls? I creep around it, afraid I have made a terrible mistake, one I will have to live with for the next ten years. And then I remember Austin Kleon, who says, in a hundred different ways, don’t be ashamed of who you are. Put the book down if you don’t like it. Borrow from artists you admire, walk away from work that drains you. Two quotes in his latest newsletter, from Borges and another writer, both saying that you should only read what you love, and set aside the rest. Because we don’t have much time.
Two nights ago, the night before this exuberant, unapologetic chair arrived, I flopped into bed, script finished, and told Danny I love telling stories. I don’t really care about making art, or leaving a legacy. I just want to entertain people. I deeply admire writers who make art. And I often get confused by that admiration, think I should have loftier ambitions.
Maybe I need to climb into my joyful, ugly chair, and write.
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.
I grew up in the South, but so close to New York, one and a half hours by train, that I didn’t even know it. In spite of my ignorance, my early memories feel peculiarly Southern— the high-ceilinged, wide-porched house that belonged to my grandmother, fans spinning lazily overhead, rugs rolled and stored and couches slipcovered with light cotton every summer. In the drowsy, sleep inducing heat, we watching my grandmother drink thimbles of bourbon starting at exactly five, tucked ourselves behind wing-chairs to listen to arguments about family politics, played invented games of chess with the tiny silver boxes on the multi-shelved mahogany display table. My grandmother wore her silver hair in a perfect bubble, had a closet lined with Lilly Pulitzer dresses, shoes in matching colors underneath. We hid between the dresses, trying to find the signature, “Lily,” hidden in the stems, petals, paisley swirls. Everything smelled faintly of gardenias.
Martha’s room was on the far side of the kitchen, along with a small sitting area with a portable t.v. that sometimes played, sound off, during parties. She died in her sleep, childless, far from the family she left behind. Mary died not long after, an event marked principally by my grandmother as an inconvenience— no cook ever understood the rules of the kitchen as well, they put their hands too chummily on my grandmother’s shoulders when they greeted her in the morning, suggested crude side dishes like Jello salad, failed to master the art of butter balls. I stood with my hands on either side of the empty glass jar and wondered why Mary died. Her hair, a pale shade of pink, made it hard to guess her age. Only years later did I remember Brit, bent with grief in the sitting area, shoulders shaking, eyes boiled by sorrow.