You don’t need to hear all this to get my point, but I want to savor this particular memory and the details, so humor me. Many years ago, in the final months of my partner’s ownership of her wonderful feminist bookstore–her shop (that means she) hosted, and I attended, a talk by the great feminist crime/mystery writer, Sara Paretsky. It was an event that my partner knew would be a big draw. She rented a meeting room in a hotel about a block from her bookstore for the event because her little shop could stretch to accommodate people for an event, but not that much. The house was packed that night– with almost all women.
I adored Paretsky’s work and I only say it in the past tense because it’s been a long time since I’ve read something of hers. Long enough that I should pick up a book of hers again. All of her mysteries are set in my hometown, Chicago, and the descriptions of the city and places known and unknown to me are great gifts to me– like having someone else take all your jumbled photos of your earliest years and making a great album out of them and then presenting it to you. I also loved and felt an interesting kinship with her main character, V.I. Warshawski and with V.I.’s beloved older woman friend and mentor–Lotty Herschel– a Holocaust survivor.
The talk she gave that night was about her journey as a woman writer. It was a painful talk about the long, cruel, sexist invalidation of her by father. And it was about the steps she took and what finally allowed her to go ahead despite the deep, ongoing meanness and invalidation she had faced–to go ahead and become a writer. She is a woman who is not light and bubbly– the mark of the sexism and the antisemitism she faced growing up– all show on her (we all bear the hoofmarks of oppression, a teacher and mentor of mine used to say). But she triumphed and has these amazing books to show for it.
At the end of her talk she took questions. This was a very long time ago and I wish I better remembered the exact question and her exact answer, but I remember it fairly well– I’ve been quoting it for years.
She was asked, by a younger woman, something along the lines of what did she think was the most important gift, or skill or attribute, that a woman– in particular– needed to have, in order to succeed as a writer. I will never forget her answer though I wish I remembered it verbatim. She said that for a woman she thought it wasn’t talent, and it wasn’t something else or something else (I don’t remember what the other somethings were)– it was the ability to start and to persevere and then to finish a project.
Although she didn’t say exactly these things, she did frame this in the context of sexism. And if having the ability to finish something that matters to you is isn’t a description of one important swath of damage that sexism does to us– I don’t know what is. Whether it is because our confidence has been undermined, or our ability to really know what we want to do has been taken from us, or because we do so much caretaking (and not just of family, but of organizations, schools, community gardens, childcare coops, pets, sick friends and relatives, you name it) or because we are treated as though our projects aren’t important and we get interrupted a lot– we have trouble finishing things. I do. I have so much trouble.
Although I wasn’t writing five days a week– I was rarely writing even three days a week– while I was a stay-at-home mother, I wrote more. And I finished what I wrote and posted it right here. Now, working full-time for a man– in my personal, at-home life, and my writing life– unfinished is the name of the game. So when I went to begin to write again tonight, I pulled up the authors section of my blog with all my unfinished as well as posted/ published drafts– and there were a record-breaking (for me) five posts started but unfinished. And there are so many other things unfinished too; the insurance forms that need to be completed, the literal messes that need to be cleaned up and closets and drawers gone through and culled. There are the long talks I am waiting to have with different people, and the walks I want to take and the exercise I want. The community organizing I would like to do someday, the good night’s sleep I want every night. There is still a longing to get an MFA in creative writing and a longing for the second child I wanted to bring into our family and raise. Unfinished are whole articles I’d like to write and also unfinished is the reading and playing and active and special time things I want to do with my daughter. And more.
Despite all that is unfinished, I toast. Here is to my female sisters and to myself– here’s to finishing things, to blogging and to writing and to publishing and to raising children and making our schools run and all the zillion other things women do. And here’s to ending sexism so that we can get on with it–whatever of many, many, many things we really want to get on with.