I was picking up my children from school last week, waiting in the cafeteria in a clutch of other mothers, when one of the women said through nearly clenched teeth, “I had fun at your party, it was really good.”
She had attended the Liar’s Party I’d hosted for Patry Francis. All who were there agreed it was something different from the usual Silpada or Tupperware. Intriguing, thought-provoking, they said. More, though. Many of the women there were astonished by Patry’s ordinariness – they spoke easily with her, dressed like her, she was someone who could have been their neighbor or another mother from the school. Not someone who’d written a book, one they saw on bookstore tables. A real, live author.
“Aren’t you writing?” I said to the woman. We'd talked before about how she someday wanted to write.
“What do I have to say?” Her face twisted in frustration, her jaw still taut.
She assumed since she was living a quiet life, a mother’s life, within the smothering confines of suburbia, her thoughts, opinions, her musings on life were irrelevant.
Shirley Jackson didn’t think so. You know Shirley Jackson, the author of the most chilling short story of all time, The Lottery. Yes, Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find is stupendous, but it hasn’t haunted me since sixth grade the way The Lottery has. Well, Miss Jackson was first and foremost a mother. To four children who no doubt would be diagnosed with ADHD by today’s standards. That quiet life she led as a housewife in North Bennington, Vermont -- tending to cooking and cleaning, mending and PTA -- was fodder for her best writing. Her memoirs on raising children were much beloved and The Lottery is said to be based on her observations of the cruelties of small town life.
Hilma Wolitzer didn’t think so, either. She’s so predictably brilliant, yet so completely unaware. For years, she regarded herself as a housewife, content with cleaning out closets and baking over-the-top birthday cakes. She swallowed the yearning to write until she stepped outside of her mental box and tried a class. The first time she read aloud an essay, a classmate shredded it. Boring, he sneered, essentially saying her topic of hearth and home was meaningless. The instructor disagreed, passionately. He wanted her to write more.
Oh my goodness, and Carol Shields! This literary darling, Pulitzer Prize winning writer, regarded herself as a mother first, careful to check her children's homework and comb their hair before they left for school. Only then, after the breakfast dishes were washed, would she sit at her typewriter and create. At noon, when the little cherubs returned home for lunch, she’d push aside her writing again until their break was over.
So what did they have to say? They all wrote about small lives...the smallness of life. Yet each brought something fresh, an entirely tilted perspective. Their words had – no - have meaning because these women have taken the universal and made it intensely personal. It’s what a writer does.
So what does that mother, my friend, have to say? Nothing, I suppose. Or anything.
Tuesday, March 20, 2007