Yerevan market, Armenia, 2008
I am a feminist. Not a humanist. A down-to-the-core feminista.
I’m a feminist because I believe as a writer a woman’s search for voice is epic, is political, is a gender issue. I am a feminist because as a coach I’m determined to help women find and express their voice. Many of the healers I work with, many of the more aware, world-traveling women I know, believe that there is an imbalance in the world, that we’re leaning woefully toward the masculine, that we need a swing back toward a balance with the divine feminine. I’m a feminist because I believe that too. I’m a feminist because I believe to make that shift happen I need to focus on women, on men’s understanding of real women, and not water down my purpose by trying to be everything for everybody.
I came back from Armenia with a driving feminist force in my belly. I don’t know what triggered it; I’m sure I was picking up on how women are treated as less-than in Armenia. But nothing happened overtly, just this passionate crazy drive when I got back home to read more women writers from the past, to find my companionship with the courageous women of ages past.
I walked into the library a couple of days after my return, went straight to the books on writing, pulled out a tome on memoir and checked it out. I’d never heard of the book.
It was Jill Ker Conway’s When Memory Speaks. The book (which I highly recommend if you’re writing memoir) chronicles the history of memoir, mostly via women authors. It looks at memoir from the 17th century to the present, and gives in-depth description of the lives of the women authors and well-chosen snapshots of their prose. Conway shows the progression of how women viewed their lives and how they related this view to the reader. Again and again Conway discusses how women were taught to see their lives through men (their husbands or fathers). To have their prose taken seriously, many women had to act as if life was acted upon them. They could not be the agents of their own lives. They could only be receptive lovers, good mothers, exceptional caregivers. Conway explains that women were relegated to romantic figures, even in their own memoirs.
If you think we’ve come a long way, I’d beg to differ. In writing classes, women participants have to be urged to write about their own lives. Again and again I tell them, no this isn’t about your father. No, we’re not writing about your brother. No, I don’t want you to see it through your lover’s eyes. What did YOU see? What was YOUR experience? Who are you?
Who are you? Do you know?
To quote Conway in When Memory Speaks: “In a long life as a feminist the question I have been asked most frequently is ‘How do you make yourself heard?’ as if being listened to was a matter of volume or tone of voice. We’re heard when we speak confidently out of our understanding of our own experience. One can talk quite softly and still be listened to. It is the derivative or the unexamined experience others screen out. Of course Western society has socialized women to report only derivative expereince, say what will make people feel good rather than what they really think…
Even famous feminist women authors say they didn’t find their voice until they were in their 60s. They spent so much of their lives first understanding they were living a role, then pulling their power back from the male paradigm (or fighting against it) that they didn’t have enough time to sit quietly to hear their own still small voice. They couldn’t hear it over the din of the children screaming, over the power society gives to the male voice.
Even as a coach, I have to be extremely careful. I’m lauded for being such a good creative caretaker. Aren’t you so great for sacrificing your time, your heart, you hard-won knowledge for all these other women? Am I?
I can become quite a raging bitch when I’m helping too many other people, when I’m acquiesing to their unnacceptable demands that I be more for them than I am for myself. This happened recently. So I just took three solid days of uninterrupted novel writing. I didn’t go out. I didn’t answer the phone. I wrote. I wrote and dreamed and read and pondered. I stared at the river out my window and watched the ducks float by on ice flows. I’m still feeling bitchy, but not murderous. It’s the murderous stage where I even become scared of myself.
I have to pull myself back and say, “No!” No! No! I’m a writer. I’m a visual artist. Get the frick off me. I cannot save you. I need my space and my energy to unearth MY voice.