Updated: Apr 16, 2022
“It’s not a woman’s job to get smaller and smaller until she disappears so the world can be more comfortable.” ~ Glennon Doyle Melton
In my previous Story Intensive classes, most participants have been women. Part of what we would do during these guided creative sessions has to do with craft, but a lot was about creating and maintaining a regular writing practice.
Over time, I’ve noticed a certain pattern, across various writing classes and writing groups: writing classes and groups are dominated by women; however, the publishing industry is dominated by men. Where does this discrepancy come from?
Below are some possible answers. Women do not:
claim their space in the publishing industry as often as men do
do not trust themselves enough to submit their work to magazines as often as men do
prioritize their writing over their families’ constant needs as men do
in short: a deeply internalized patriarchical thinking.
The bad news:
as women, we suck at claiming our space (most of our lives, we’ve been trained not to)
we have been raised to put others first and to feel valued for our dedication to our families
we seek external validation in the form of praise for our work before we dare submit it; we do not take our own writing seriously before we have some form of external confirmation.
we doubt ourselves more than men do, as we are discouraged from taking initiative and appearing “bossy” or “dominant”, so we often beautify ourselves by looking cute, dumbing ourselves down, or being “nice” and giving (by not saying no and not setting boundaries).
The good news:
as women, we take a lot of writing classes and invest in improving our craft, so it’s due to keep getting better
we have the innate power to change how we position ourselves in the world
we have the right to develop a different social reference system, one that serves us better
it’s absolutely in our power to submit more, which means we might get rejected (more) often (but if we don’t submit, we lose completely, because we have never tried)
there’s no reason why things shouldn’t get better for women writers as long as we push the flow towards more balance (in writing and life) constantly and collectively.
For the helpers and the strong ones, as well as for the mothers living in heterosexual marriages who feel like they need to:
keep giving up their dreams to accommodate those of their partners and children
work part-time or stop working
always be there for others
never claim any alone time to pursue individual goals.
I say: perhaps it’s time to stop annihilating ourselves for others while calling our “voluntary” self-destruction love.
As long as we keep doing it, not only do we not serve ourselves and our inner purpose, but we’re also setting the wrong example of a martyrdom-like love without any boundaries to our children, and raising yet another generation of women and men who follow traditional gender roles, in which women carry the emotional burden of an entire family at the expense of their own creative potential and physical and emotional well being.
I keep hearing: maybe this cultural shift will not happen in our generation, but in the next one. But who is going to shift things around if not us? I am still failing to see men doing their share around the house and kids not seeing their mothers as the absolute pillar of their family. I understand that a mother needs to be more present in the child’s live in the very early days (as men cannot breastfeed), but what happens later is driven by society, not biology.
This is why patriarchy keeps winning, despite what we claim to preach in theory (women’s rights, equal pay etc.), but then fail to do fin practice in our day to day lives.
Other people’s needs often feel more pressing and urgent than our own. And there are times when they are. If a loved one is injured or sick, we will try to reduce their suffering. But what if they are chronically ill? Is taking care of them long-term at the expense of not taking care of ourselves sustainable? If we have a chronic illness as well, does ignoring it to serve them help? If someone (a friend or relative) is always seeking our emotional support but not giving back any, is this a balanced relationship between two adults?
Does any of the above sound familiar?
Recently, I've read the following: “Unconditional love is the concept of I know you are doing the best you can with what you have, it is being present to someone in need and holding the space. Love with no boundaries means I allow you to take advantage of me, to hurt me, to belittle me in the name of love.” (you can read the whole post here.)
I know it’s not easy. While I do not currently have a husband and children, I do have a complicated family situation that comes with obligations. Throughout most of my life, things in my family have been complicated. Someone else’s health was always more precarious than mine and very often, I had to ignore my feelings of sadness and discomfort and be a caretaker (of people who should have been my caretakers), even as a child.
At times, during my childhood and in recent years, I felt like I couldn’t breathe, drowning in misery and family obligations. I had to learn to put myself first, at least in non-crisis situations. And there are still times when I struggle with doing it, although I know that annihilating myself isn’t love, ignoring my own health isn’t love, doing things out of “duty” isn’t love, ignoring my calling (writing and bringing uncomfortable truths into the light) isn’t love. We are taught it is during our upbringing, but sorry, that’s not love, that’s self-destruction.
If you grew up like me, in a collectivist culture where people both mistrusted each other and had to rely on each other in order to survive, focusing on yourself before doing things for others may seem even more counter-intuitive than it is for other women, for other people.
There’s a collective social narrative out there (which we have unfortunately deeply internalised) about women being (valuable as) givers.
We identify with the giver role.
We willingly take on load that was never entirely ours to carry.
We do not expect this kind of behavioural identity from men.
I am not saying “don’t be a giver”. I am saying, balance it out. Learn to ask, and learn to take.
What if we could “just strive” like men are taught to do?
What if we could teach those around to see our writing as more than a “nice hobby to have”?
And, if we are entirely honest with ourselves, beyond all the perceived family obligations, what exactly is preventing us from doing it, from truly committing not just to our writing, but also to showcasing our work in the world, as imperfect as it may be at a given time? How much of that is external and how much comes from deep within ourselves? How did it get there?
What if the most precious thing you have to give the world is the power of your own words?
Whose permission to be “a real writer” (one who writes regularly, one who submits work, once who at times faces rejection, yet keeps going) are you waiting for?
Claim that space for yourself and your writing (practice). There are many ways to do it:
a walk alone in the woods
a week of vacation alone
a room of your own in the house that nobody is allowed to enter while you are in-there
your husband picking up the kids from ballet or basketball practice instead of you
a weekend each month when everyone else in the house does laundry and dishes except you
that writing class or retreat you’ve been meaning to take or go on for years but it was never the right time because someone else needed you (more than you needed yourself?).
There will always be “buts” in the equation. You might be reading and thinking “Yes, but…my situation is so difficult. There are just too many people depending on me. Writing is just a caprice.” And if this is how you feel, perhaps writing is not that important to you.
But if you wake up every day thinking of and dreaming about writing, wishing you could write more, hoping that one day, when your kids will be older, you will be able to be “a real writer”, then you are meant to write, and you are meant to take your writing seriously. Writing with commitment is like being committed to another person. You commit to writing because the joy and benefits of doing it are bigger than everything associated with not doing it. Because the price of not doing it on your physical, emotional, and mental well-being is just too high.
In order to get to that “one day”, you need to start with a step. So choose one of the options above and see how it goes. And when your boundaries are challenged, reinforce them.
I know that we are in the middle of a pandemic, and that life as we knew it has changed. That kids are at home more often than before, that spouses are at home more often than before, that both the urge to write and our inner critic are more intense than before. Yet I will say this: this is the perfect time to renegotiate and reinforce your boundaries with your family. You were never supposed to carry the load of running the entire family alone.
Claim Your Space.
It does not matter which step you choose, but you must take that first step in the right direction. In addition:
Submit “like a man”, without doubting your writing abilities or focusing too much on your fear of rejection (my next blog post will be on how to submit your work to literary magazines)
The next time you read your text in front of your writing group, do not explain it or yourself, do not apologise for it or who you are. You are the author, so whatever that text says, trust its power, allow it to stand on its own, and own it.
If you want to write more, pick one “small” thing you can do to set to make more room for your writing and set better boundaries with your family and Claim Your Space.
It’s actually always been there and all yours to begin with.
And once you do, stop apologising for it.
It’s yours, so own it.
As always, I’d love to know how it goes.
P.S. Please, do yourself a favor and read Glennon Doyle’s recently published memoir “Untamed“. For German speakers, I also recommend reading the book “Das innere Korsett: Wie Frauen dazu erzogen werden, sich ausbremsen zu lassen” (my own English translation of the title: “The Inner Corset: How Women Are Raised to Act as Their Own Breaks” –– think “car break”; an English version of the book is not yet available, as far as I am aware, one of us might need to write it).