In 1980, I was a college freshman. I entered school with an inchoate feminism, a sense of rage that I was treated differently because I was a woman, that there had been things that had already happened to me in my 17 years that made it clear to me that being a woman came with baggage that seemed unique to my sex. But I didn't really have a name for it.
I had done a lot of reading. I began reading at three, taught by a father who sensed my hunger for knowledge, and it's true that I spent much of my childhood not outside communing with the nature who has become my teacher at this point in my life, but, rather, nose buried in a book. Still. The voices that spoke to me prior to college were rare.
One of the first courses I took was "Introduction to Women's Studies." And one of the first texts I ever read was "I Stand Here Ironing." When I read just a few minutes ago that Tillie Olsen had died, it was as if I was standing on a beach and the tide was running out beneath my feet. I could feel the sand moving me back almost 30 years, and I was standing there, ironing. Reading. Remembering that the text had had an impact on me, but not remembering exactly what that was. Just that it moved me.
And, as I read through the story of Tillie Olsen's experience, an experience that I now feel obligated to read about more fully, I cringed in recognition.
Politically active and class conscious, joined to the world as if every soul were a soul mate, Olsen countered the literary myths of her male peers. She did not immortalize the cowboy or the outlaw, but the woman who stayed home. For her characters, the open road did not lead to freedom, but only to the next job.
And then I read the following passages and my heart stopped. Tears came to my eyes. Oh God. I know this is not about me, it's about her but here it is:
But Olsen's theme - and her fear - was silence, the dream only dreamed. Olsen knew this firsthand. After beginning a novel in the 1930s about a migrant family, her writing career was delayed 20 years for sheer lack of time. She never stopped regretting all the stories never told.
"Well, I'm going to be one of those unhappy people who dies with the sense of what never got written, or never got finished," she said.
How many women writers out there can tell the same story? How many more generations of women's stories will go untold?
I just read the acknowledgements to the latest novel I'm reading. It's a fantastic book, but there was something in the acknowledgement that got to me. The women writer thanked her husband for putting up with the fact that she spent 10-12 hours a day in her office, working on her novel. She is a young woman, no children, and I found myself wondering if we are still not stuck in the days of the choice--children or writing. And money? I assume that the best way for most women writers to get their work done is to a partner who can support the two of them while the writer toils away on the project that brings in no income.
And now, as I'm writing this, I remember the poem by Marge Piercy.
For the young who want to
by Marge Piercy
Talent is what they say
you have after the novel
is published and favorably
reviewed. Beforehand what
you have is a tedious
delusion, a hobby like knitting.
Work is what you have done
after the play is produced
and the audience claps.
Before that friends keep asking
when you are planning to go
out and get a job.
Genius is what they know you
had after the third volume
of remarkable poems. Earlier
they accuse you of withdrawing,
ask why you don’t have a baby,
call you a bum.
The reason people want M.F.A.’s,
take workshops with fancy names
when all you can really
learn is a few techniques,
typing instructions and some-
body else’s mannerisms
is that every artist lacks
a license to hang on the wall
like your optician, your vet
proving you may be a clumsy sadist
whose fillings fall into the stew
but you’re certified a dentist.
The real writer is one
who really writes. Talent
is an invention like phlogiston
after the fact of fire.
Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.
Obviously, I need to work. Tillie Olsen, I thank you for the gift of your life, your writing, the journey you started me on when I was a 17-year old girl. The 43-year old woman has a lot to think about. I wish you peace on the continuation of your journey.
If there is a heaven, may you find a room of your own there.
A memorial service is planned, although no date has been set. Olsen's family requested that instead of flowers, donations be made to the Tillie Olsen Memorial Fund for Human Rights, Public Libraries and Working Class Literature, c/o the San Francisco Foundation, 225 Bush Street #500, San Francisco, CA 94104.
cross-posted at Culture Kitchen and My Left Wing