The universe tells us things occasionally. I’ve been thinking a lot about life as a mother and writer lately. Then Facebook, the universe’s scrap bin, where the ridiculous piles on top of the sublime at warp speed, got in on the act.
A good friend and writer posted a link to Letters of Note (an amazing site), featuring this letter by George Bernard Shaw. And then my latest blog crush, Janelle Hanchett of Renegade Mothering, posted this fantastic article immediately after the G. B. Show post.
Why does that matter?
Because I’ve been wrestling with the following quote from Shaw’s Man and Superman since I was about eighteen and it’s been on my mind a lot lately. (Hang in there, it’s super-long, but it’s got vampires in it!)
The true artist will let his wife starve, his children go barefoot, his mother drudge for his living at seventy, sooner than work at anything but his art. To women he is half vivisector, half vampire. He gets into intimate relations with them to study them, to strip the mask of convention from them, to surprise their inmost secrets, knowing that they have the power to rouse his deepest creative energies, to rescue him from his cold reason, to make him see visions and dream dreams, to inspire him, as he calls it. He persuades women that they may do this for their own purpose whilst he really means them to do it for his. He steals the mother’s milk and blackens it to make printer’s ink to scoff at her and glorify ideal women with. He pretends to spare her the pangs of child-bearing so that he may have for himself the tenderness and fostering that belong of right to her children. Since marriage began, the great artist has been known as a bad husband. But he is worse: he is a child-robber, a blood-sucker, a hypocrite, and a cheat. Perish the race and wither a thousand women if only the sacrifice of them enable him to act Hamlet better, to paint a finer picture, to write a deeper poem, a greater play, a profounder philosophy! For mark you, Tavy, the artist’s work is to shew us ourselves as we really are. Our minds are nothing but this knowledge of ourselves; and he who adds a jot to such knowledge creates new mind as surely as any woman creates new men. In the rage of that creation he is as ruthless as the woman, as dangerous to her as she to him, and as horribly fascinating. Of all human struggles there is none so treacherous and remorseless as the struggle between the artist man and the mother woman. Which shall use up the other? that is the issue between them. And it is all the deadlier because, in your romanticist cant, they love one another.
Artist man vs. mother woman* death match—two enter, only one leaves, place your bets now! And, in the world presented in this speech, one thing absolutely cannot exist: the artist mother.
Now, Shaw didn’t necessarily say this; one of his characters did. And based on his letter mentioned above, Shaw might have been a bit more hip and cool about women than this character’s speech suggests. I probably should read more about his life before I speculate on that. Certainly, he wrote Eliza Doolittle with great respect and insight. But.
Something in this speech rings true with me. Artists whose work speaks down through the generations tend to be/have been…single-minded, shall we say. Some of them have even had personal lives that could be considered…seriously lacking.
Where do I fit into that? I would die for my children—Fact. I’m not sure how much I’d give for my art—Ambiguous and waffling quasi-statement.
And that may simply be the answer--that there is no answer, as writing can be (weak verb!) quite (qualifying adjective!) ambiguous. I have always, and will always, put my thoughts, feelings, observations, and experiences into words on paper. Does that make me a writer and a failed mother? Despite the occasional struggle to do so, I’ve yet to find an audience for most of those words. Does that make me a mother and failed writer? (And that, dear blog readers, is why I love each and every one of you! Somehow we find each other in cyberspace.)
I often imagine myself a modern Emily Dickinson, partly because I find myself writing in a similar style and partly because I doubt if she ever expected her work to be as widely read as it is today. (See—I have hubris! Maybe I am a writer.) She most certainly was not a mother, though, so she hardly resolves the alleged conflict.
I believe what Janelle Hanchett says--the world within the family provides an endless stream of inspiration for a writer; my lack of travel hardly impedes my art. The lack of time--or lack of the will to drop other things--to focus on writing may, on the other hand, hurt my work. Is that a conflict a mother can resolve or not?
More importantly, am I writer without a reader? If not, how many readers does it take to make one a writer?
That’s the eternal dilemma. And where does a modern poet find readers? Here’s my latest idea. Tell me what you think. Consider it a marketing test—you can be my focus group. What if I grouped my poems into “albums” and sold them for 99 cents on amazon? Would you buy ten to twelve poems on a certain topic for 99 cents?
If not, what would you prefer? What stops you from reading poetry? What would make it more accessible to you? The marketing department anxiously awaits your responses.
*For the purposes of aligning with the words Shaw used, I will refer to "mothers" versus artists in the bulk of this post. Please understand that to mean "parent responsible for primary caregiving" in modern terms. Although I acknowledge, as I believe Shaw does, the unique physical connection between mother and child.