Writing at the Margin
It was a cold evening in December. The four of us, Opa, Oma, Daughter, and Granddaughter were playing hide-and-seek with the animation of a conspiracy that allowed each of the adults to be found readily enough. “I’m going to hide in April weather,” my little granddaughter announced. She hid her eyes and considered herself hidden. Her name is Nadine — Dini, as she is affectionately called, and on that day she was four years old. Once again, by her presence, I was taken into the imaginative territory of childhood. I felt fortunate to be invited into her world, to be told that the house would turn into a train and do somersaults, to take part in conversations between two cats, Caruso and Annette — and to listen as cakes, and crackers and vitamins declare that they wanted to be eaten — that was why they were here. On that particular day, she wanted to know how “the three” felt since she had gone on to be four.
I was reminded again of things I was glad to remember, things that the years, far from obscuring, have revealed with heightened clarity and increasing value. Children know everything; it was a fullness of being that animated Dini’s imagination, the expression of the dreaming and fantastic side of what is true in her nature; her rages and frustrations spoke for her as well. Now that I am a grandmother and stand more than seventy years deep, looking beyond my daughter’s generation to the next, the connections between generations, as they have become more personal, become more apparent, more encompassing, and the special value of childhood emerges more vividly than ever.
I did not expect to be a mother. Coming from parents who, for whatever reasons, could exercise their roles mainly in the form of tyrannical control, puritanical self-righteousness, constant criticism, and mutual destructiveness, of which the consequences for a child were continual guilt for having been born, I had no desire to contribute to the chain of generation. Though I had yet to discover in a conscious way what a powerful instrument of psychological violence, denial, and repression the family can be, much to the convenience of economic and political systems, religious institutions, and society in general, I did emerge from my family with little sense of it as a positive arrangement.
I began writing in junior high, and even sent off a collection of stories to a publisher when I was thirteen. In highschool I continued, along with efforts to paint and to act in plays. In a family where one’s very sentences were finished by someone else, and where the best recourse was silence, I was no doubt drawn toward some form of creative expression. With two adults and my younger sister and I sharing a three-room duplex — I could sleep on the back porch during the summer — there was little privacy. I wrote stories in the bathroom, the only place, other than the living room — there, the radio was always going — where there was enough light to see by. I moved the ottoman from my father’s chair for something to sit on and setting my father’s ancient Remington on the top of the toilet seat, I worked in between the periods of use. A trip to the bathroom meant that my arrangements had to be temporarily scuttled. So marked the beginnings of that questionable activity that now engenders those famous and troublesome debates over workspace and privacy and those often guilt-ridden demands on those one happens to live with. I can appreciate my father’s irritation.
The stories I wrote were dreadful. I had not known at the time how much had to be cleared away of false sentiment and distorted values, let alone the discovery of some real and significant vision. I was under the impression one wrote for money and fame. One of my early stories, I remember, was called, “A Place for Beatrice,” about a girl whose arm was crippled by polio, and who therefore was unable to play basketball, but who finds a place as a referee. Under the cover of its patent sentimentality was very likely an effort to discover some place of my own — an Easterner transplanted to a small isolated mining town in New Mexico, the only Jewish kid in my school.
I did have the encouragement of a high school English teacher, Ella Snodgrass, who was herself taking a course from Writers’ Digest and whose aim was to sell a story to the Ladies’ Home Journal. I begged my mother to let me take the course as well, but Ella very kindly gave me the lessons after she was done with them. I thought she wrote wonderfully, and was quite surprised that the magazines turned down the story she let me read. There were three kinds of stories identified by WD — pulp, slick, and off-trail. Perhaps because of some instinct for freedom, I knew even at fourteen I wanted to write something that could be called “off-trail,” whatever that meant. I continued to write in college and took the only class I would ever have in creative writing, a six-week course taught by a visiting professor who’d published a composition text and who was picking up a little extra change teaching summer school at the little state teachers’ college in our town. But he knew something about literature, and his encouragement was important to me.
As I look back now, I believe that I wrote in order to find some way to a self that exerted a powerful impulse in the form of longing, but one so fragmented, it was difficult to discover. There was nothing in the immediate climate to foster it. When I got married at the age of twenty, in l955, it was my husband’s career that took precedence. Though I wanted to work on a Ph.D. in English along with him, there was a nepotism rule at the University of Illinois that prevented my applying for an assistantship. His would not support us, and I couldn’t look to my family for help. I would work while he went to graduate school. I continued to write, but I told no one. I had, after all, nothing to show for my efforts, and it would be seventeen years from that point before my first work was published. I had no real faith in my efforts — the rejection slips I received were quite simply the evidence that what I wrote was bad. When my husband, then my only reader, read one of my stories, my first question was, “Does it sound like a woman wrote it?” For it seemed that if it did, it was doomed to being inferior. The great writers were nearly all men, or Jane Austen, and to be a woman seemed to confer a kind of doom, of being excluded at birth from the sacred precincts of literary excellence. Only by disguise, perhaps, could one hope for anything else.
When my older daughter was born in 1956, I was as ill-equipped to be a parent as I was a writer. Being responsible for another life before I’d had any real experiences myself threw me into a kind of despair. My husband, ten years older than I, had traveled to the South Pacific and lived in the Virgin Islands, had been in the Navy, had worked in a pottery and a veterans’ hospital. He had stories to tell, interesting anecdotes about himself and other people. But for me, nothing had happened. I’d been a daughter, then a wife, now a mother. In the interim, I’d been away at school for nine months earning a Master’s degree.
In terms of the sorts of adventures I’d imagined for myself, my life seemed to be over before it began. I feared the kind of isolation I’d always been subject to, living in a small town, away from any contact with a cultural or intellectual life of any dimension. Until my first book was published, I didn’t know any writers, except for a brief and transient contact when I received the Collins Fellowship to the Indiana Writers’ Conference one summer before I’d published anything. There was no one with any literary connections to read my work. Fortunately, a part time teaching job at the small liberal arts school in Indiana, where my husband was offered a position, allowed me to learn that I liked teaching. It also gave me an education: I was able to teach the classics, from Homer to Dostoyevski, and finally to teach any course in the English department I was willing to go to the effort to prepare for. This was in the early sixties. Women still spoke of themselves as “just a housewife.” There were those around me who looked at me askance for ducking out of my responsibilities at home and leaving my five-year-old with a babysitter; yet at the same time I could tell they’d have liked to trade places with me. I did not like the company of women in those days — those endless conversations about husband and kids and the price of groceries. For me, there was no lure of the koffee-klatch. At parties I wanted to talk to the men.
I continued to write in the way I always had, by thinking about stories when I was doing other things — ironing, preparing supper, taking care of the kids. I still have the oval torn out of a Kleenex box when no paper was handy, with lines scribbled for the story in my head before they got away. Those moments of preoccupation had strange outward results, such as my putting the box of plastic wrap into the refrigerator and forgetting things on the stove. Though my younger daughter, for one, met these lapses of attention with a kind of amused tolerance that created the summons, “Earth to Mother, Earth to Mother,” still there was always the sense of somehow neglecting the thing at hand that needed tending to. I cherish the note she once wrote me on my typewriter, the specific occasion long forgotten:
It looks like you have changed professions, from writer to chef since you are making that steak over there. Remember you can’t give up writing, because I want to be in on your bestseller!!!!! Well, I’m running out of things to say, see you later!!!!!!!!!!!
P.S. When will supper be ready???????????????????????????
Fortunately, as opposed to the experience of many creative people, I had the support of a husband who insisted I ought to concentrate my efforts on fiction instead of trying to earn money by my writing, who considered my efforts valuable, and who read my stories and gave his response. (Later on he would tell me how hard it was, knowing the way criticism tore me apart, to be honest if something didn’t work.) I would not have had the courage to continue otherwise, and even then, there was always a sense that my time could be better spent doing something useful. How do we justify our existence otherwise? It is hard to work at what brings no tangible results beyond a drawer full of typescript.
On the practical level, there has been the continual effort to work in the midst of constant interruption: preparing for classes, getting children to dentists and lessons, putting meals on the table, paying bills, and doing taxes — even though my husband and I have always shared the care of the children and the housework. I wote down the fragments that came to me, usually in a small notebook I kept handy, and when there were enough of them, I’d start writing the first page in longhand, then go to the typewriter, get as far as I could, then take things up again in longhand. I worked at night. Since I always had to work from a clean copy, it meant typing the story over and over again until it was finished. In those days I finished two stories a year, working on each about six months. No doubt these pieces, apprentice work, were mired down in that dreary perfectionism that kept insisting that something be worked and reworked until it was “finished.”
But with the birth of my older daughter came a set of experiences I hadn’t reckoned on. I was given the chance to enter childhood in a way that allowed me to recover something of my own. It put me back in touch in with my imagination in ways I’d all but forgotten. Her delight in rhymes and fairy tales and songs put my head back into those rhythms and images, and again later as she made up songs and stories and little dramas of her own. How eagerly she responded to D’Aulaire’s retelling of the Greek myths. Once, she told me, there was a mortal who married one of the winds. Their child was human down to the waist, but for the rest, “he just blew.” I was looking through some old notes the other day, when I happened upon a bit of verse I’d written down one day when she was perhaps six or seven, chanting to herself:
Some toes are big,
And some are small
And some toes
Aren’t toes at all.
I remembered what a great discovery it had been when I was ten, out riding my bicycle, when I came upon a set of Lang’s fairy tales out by the trash behind the public library: The Yellow Book, The Blue Book, The Red Book — a whole rainbow of excitements. I carted all the books home and read them eagerly. These were other than the familiar tales that had been read to me, often compelling and even frightening. And there had been the Arabian nights, the Old Testament stories. It would be years before I discovered why I was so drawn to these, what they held of the wisdom of the race. To remember the way childhood discovered the world was to be led back to a source of freshness and delight before it was buried under the kind of heightened self-consciousness that does in spontaneity, risk and wonder.
But children brought other riches as well. They gave me an opportunity to be engaged in what is common to us as human beings and therefore to know something of what is basic in shaping our humanity. To watch innocence take on experience, to learn new aspects of love and responsibility, to learn patience — all these awaken new potentialities. I am grateful to have had those experiences, even in the light of the difficulties of trying to combine writing and motherhood. For I think there is a kind of creative exchange between life and art, each shaping and informing the other.
Now as I look back over more than fifty years of work, I feel a certain astonishment to have had a career at all, however modest and marginal. It was not simply being confined to a household for the most part and having to write in spare moments; it was the added difficulty of working in isolation. As I wrote, I had no idea of who my audience would be; perhaps that explains why it has taken me so long to find one, and only a very small one. During the seventeen years before anything was published, I sent my work to over a hundred magazines. Then my first work was taken by the Virginia Quarterly Review and the now defunct Colorado Quarterly. It would be five more years before another acceptance. When my first book was published in the Illinois Short Fiction Series, I had published five stories, three of which had circulated eight or ten years. The others I wasn’t able to publish, though one of them has since been twice chosen for anthologies. When I sat down to write, one of the greatest tasks was pushing aside the weight of discouragement in order to begin. In a climate where there was little to foster any belief in the legitimacy of the creative act, especially the work of women artists, rejection seemed to confirm the worst.
Through the years I continually reminded myself that no one had forced me into this dubious activity — I was there by choice, unable to conceive not doing it. At some point I began to feel that something more than the work was at stake. I caught hold of a line I thought I’d read in a little quatrain of Yeats’ (actually I’d remembered it wrong): It is myself that I create. In looking back, I can see how I have been shaped and defined by my work; how, through the writing, I came to see what I was writing about, what was my particular take on the world. Indeed as my work has become more distinctive, it has become in some ways an even more lonely enterprise: now I can take the kinds of risks that make large demands on a reader and that may have, in the process, intensified the difficulties of getting published. Though I have managed to publish eight books at this point, mainly through university presses, at the moment, I have no idea whether or where my major work will be published.
Perhaps at this point it matters less. I have completed six more novels and another collection of stories, not to mention a children’s book, and a volume of poetry. I have notes for two other books I’d like to write. I mention this only by way of saying that finally it is the work itself that matters. I pursue it with a deeper love and firm faith.
In the late eighties, I went to Yugoslavia as a writer-in-residence on a Fulbright Fellowship. It was my first experience in a socialist country, and while I was in that part of the world, I went on to Prague and Budapest. Prague, in particular, was a dreary place. The people seemed beaten down and cheerless; the streets were virtually empty. I heard terrible stories. The people I spoke to, who described the conditions in the various countries, caused me to think a great deal about the effects of a repressive society on the creative potentials of the individual, how they are damaged or destroyed or else carried on subversively. It seems to me that with the worst repression the personality is fragmented and there is a great struggle to hold onto any kind of creative capacity. I wanted to write about this, to explore what happens to the personality when its natural modes of expression are cut off, to try to discover what the experience of so many people in this century in various parts of the world has to reveal to any of us about the nature of repression and creativity.
While I was engaged in this inquiry, I read Nadezda Mandelstam’s two volumes, Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned, the titles a play on her name. Her experiences are almost beyond imagination: the conditions of exile and grinding poverty she experienced while her husband, Osip, was alive; and her travails after his arrest and subsequent death as she moved throughout Russia, trying to disguise any trace of personal feeling, trying to teach the party line in the schools where she kept her precarious employment; at the same time reciting every day the poems of Osip Mandelstam so that they would not be lost, in the hope that they would one day be written down. It was impossible in her circumstances, she said at one point, even to think of bringing a child into the world. The closest approximation to giving birth was to carry Mandelstam’s poems in her head toward that day when the political climate would allow them to see the light.
And though her second volume suggests an effort on her part to create an identity as she wandered and struggled alone, finally it was really in the task she set herself that she existed. What was left to her otherwise in a world where to survive meant the suppression of all personal feeling, opinion and effort, except what was sanctioned by the state? Only an extraordinary will, extraordinary strength of character and spirit allowed her to survive.
In the climate of fear and reprisal, tyranny does violence to the personality, not only creating the distortions that stand in the way of creating an identity, but turning the process of creation and birth inside out. The creative mind is the first to be attacked in a despotic society — silenced, suppressed, driven into exile. For creative act is the great threat to the system, in its underlying impulse to question or destroy lifeless forms and instigate change. We don’t have to wait for a Stalinist dictatorship to see the attitudes in our own family life and culture, in the school system, in the government and in the media that damage the creative potential of both men and women. It remains with us as individuals to look within the microcosm, to apprehend those forces that fragment the personality and destroy creativity, and in so doing, come to an understanding of the larger forces that bring about destructive conformity, brutal dictatorships.
Now that I have spent most of my life writing fiction, I have reached the point where I like to consider the role of grandmother as storyteller, one who helps keep alive what story can impart from one generation to the next. In that spirit I wrote a girl’s adventure story entitled Volcano Island — as yet unpublished. I wanted to do this not just for my granddaughter, but for all granddaughters — for girls have adventures too. I wanted it to be filled with magic, for childhood is the time for magic, perhaps even more necessary now when the news from the world is so bleak, so filled with violence. It is a difficult time for a good many mothers, whether or not they are artists; a difficult time for many artists whether or not they are female, or mothers. It has probably always been so.
In other words, being an artist will be a struggle in any kind of world, though more difficult in some. “The world doesn’t want artists,” says Gully Jimpson. “It gets them anyway.” In all times and conditions, openly or secretly. Art is a self-validating activity. Its task will always be to make the world fresh again, to open up possibilities and help us to imagine better. If allowed and fostered, the creative life is the reflection of being. In its way in each of us, however mysterious, it helps carry forward the creative processes of the universe. And I can say truly that in the course of my efforts I have found joy, friendship with others who are so engaged, and a rich and interesting life. To quote the artist in To the Lighthouse, “I have had my vision.”
My granddaughter’s appearance in mid-December, some years ago now, came at a dark time in my daughter’s life — she is also a writer, a maker of puppets, a creative person. When she was in the hospital after having given birth, she realized she’d left the name book with the various choices she’d marked at home. She hadn’t yet made a final decision. The only name she could remember as being among her favorites was Nadine. At the time she didn’t know that it means hope.
Originally published in The Sewanee Review.
About Gladys Swan (1 post)
Gladys Swan is both a writer and a visual artist. She has published two novels, Carnival for the Gods in the Vintage Contemporaries Series, and Ghost Dance: A Play of Voices, nominated by LSU Press for the PEN Faulkner and PEN West awards. News from the Volcano, a novella and stories set mostly in New Mexico, was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award and the National Book Critics’ Circle Award. The Tiger’s Eye: New & Selected Stories is the most recent of her seven collections of short fiction. Her stories have been selected for various anthologies, including Best of the West. Her fiction has appeared in The Sewanee Review, The Kenyon Review, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Chelsea, Shenandoah, The Ohio Review, New Letters, The Southwest Review, Prairie Schooner, Hunger Mountain, Hotel Amerika and others. Her paintings have been used for the covers of three of her books and for those of other writers, as well as for several literary magazines. She has been awarded residencies at Yaddo, the Fundacion Valpariso in Spain, the Chateau de Lavigny in Switzerland, the Wurlitzer Foundation and the Vermont Studio Center, where she has also been a Guest Writer.
"The Tonic of the Wilderness" orginally appeared in The Sewanee Review.
She has received a Lilly Endowment Open Fellowship and a Fulbright Fellowship to Yugoslavia, as well as a Lawrence Foundation Award for fiction and a Tate Prize for poetry.