Women Writers and Interiority: Our Eternal Legacy?

This month VIDA features two thought-provoking essays on Women and Literary Interiority. Patti Horvath’s piece builds on an episode from Joyce Johnson’s memoir Minor Characters. In a creative-writing class in 1953, Joyce was admonished by her professor to go get some ‘experience’ before considering becoming a writer. Real writers would not be enrolled in classes; they would be hopping freight trains and running wild through America. The tale’s meaning is unambiguous and little has changed since the fifties, says Horvath:

They would, in other words, be boys.

The message here is clear: experience counts. And experience, by definition, is physically rigorous and risky. If you want to be a writer, forget the classroom—go enroll in Outward Bound.

From here, Horvath attempts to assess the “situations and inclinations that lead many women writers to embrace depictions of interior life.” Explanations haven’t moved on either, it seems. Even today, it is a rare woman who is able to escape the real world in search of far flung adventures. “And what happens when they do?” asks Horvath, all the frightening and disastrous implications tumbling in to fill the space of the mostly unanswered question.

It dates back further than the fifties, of course, and much further from 2011. This extract from the 1920s manuscript version of A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf bears an uncanny similarity to Horvath’s analysis:

Even in the nineteenth century, a woman lived almost solely in her home and her emotions. And those nineteenth-century novels, remarkable as they were, were profoundly influenced by the fact that the women who wrote them were excluded by their sex from certain kinds of experience. That experience has a great influence upon fiction is indisputable. The best part of Conrad’s novels, for instance, would be destroyed if it had been impossible for him to be a sailor. Take away all that Tolstoi knew of war as a soldier, of life and society as a rich young man whose education admitted him to all sorts of experience, and ‘War and Peace’ would be incredibly impoverished.

Yet ‘Pride and Prejudice’, ‘Wuthering Heights’, ‘Vilette’, and ‘Middlemarch’ were written by women from whom was forcibly withheld all experience save that which could be met with in a middle-class drawing room. No first-hand experience of war or seafaring or politics or business was possible for them.

It’s interesting to note that confinement to the domestic sphere and lack of  first-hand experience, though not the Ideal, could be molded to a woman writer’s advantage:

…living as she did in the common sitting-room, surrounded by people, a woman was trained to use her mind in observation and upon the analysis of character. She was trained to be a novelist…

Such a paradox. That four walls and a ceiling should be a woman’s way into something. Forcibly excluded from certain kinds of experience, the female writer flourished in the form of the novel. It was a remarkable breakthrough, born – like so many women’s achievements – out of necessity and a paucity of alternatives.

Jane Austen and Emily Brontë didn’t live to see Suffrage as Woolf did. Of course, in spite of the gains of the First Wave, Woolf did not live to see a world she would consider Ideal either. And so on and so on for women – writers or not – through the early twentieth century: two steps forward, three back and one day Joyce Johnson is sitting in a classroom in 1953 being told she needs more real-life experience before she can be a writer.

Something huge happened in the sixties though, right? Yeah, there was a backlash and we had to have a third wave of feminism in the nineties and – if we’re honest – that was followed by a backlash and there’ll be another and another. I’m not saying things are Ideal. I’m not. I’ve been afraid, like Horvath, walking home on an unlit street after sunset. I could go forever on women’s literacy, the developing world, sweat-shops, sex-trafficking, hell even wolf-whistling or being told to smile by a perfect (male) stranger. I’m not saying things are even approaching good for Women but let’s narrow the demographic for this particular piece. Let’s talk about Women Writers. And let’s – because what comprises the term ‘Women Writers’ is so vast and varied and I can’t address it all here – situate ourselves in the democratic, middle-class, western world.

Have things really changed so little? Truly? I think we’ve moved so much further from the sitting-room than Woolf and Brontë could have ever conceived. And I think it’s inadequate to settle for the same old explanation for women writer’s tendency towards Interiority as Horvath suggests. Yes, many women writers have not been backpacking in Bolivia but I wonder how many male writers have hopped a freight-train recently?

So many of today’s successful authors – both sexes – have sat inside the four walls of an MFA creative-writing classroom. Writers – all writers – typically sit alone in a room and write what they have to write. The difference between men and women writers – if there is one – is less, perhaps, a question of life experience and more to do with their respective legacies. Are we writing within the traditions of  of our forefathers and mothers? Are we spending our inheritance on dresses Mama told us we look pretty in, suit our figures, while the men don cowboy hats and spacesuits?  And was she doing the same thing as her mother before her?

I have been backpacking in Bolivia. I spent six months, mostly alone, in South America. I’ve walked in Tierra del Fuego at the end of world. I was a year in the jungle and desert and beaches of Australia. I spent a summer in Latvia and Estonia then hopped a ferry to Finland and a cottage with no running water or electricity. Another year I walked across Northern Spain on the old pilgrim’s route of the Camino de Santiago. I’ve hiked, I’ve climbed, I’ve made a table from a fallen walnut tree with simple hand-tools and when I pass the dealers on my street corner I look them straight in the eye and say Hey, how’s it goin?

I’m not saying this in a boastful manner. Women do these things and far greater things every day. Sometimes, we feel the fear and do them anyway. I say this because I’ve been startled and provoked by Horvath’s essay into examining my own tendency toward interiority and where that might originate from. I have not written about the deserts and the volcanos I have seen. I have not written a story about the Water Wars in Cochabamba or a novel set in post-Soviet Latvia. My first-hand experience of those places have not consequently translated into writing about them in any broad-scoped external way. When I sit at my table and write what I have to write, I am compelled to write interiorly. I have never explored this tendency before. As Horvath says,

For many of us it’s a natural perspective, and the great outdoors never really felt like home.

I love the great outdoors but I guess I don’t feel at home there when I confront the blank page. And if I can’t say that I’m afraid or that I’ve lacked experience, then what can I offer by way of explanation. My answer – my own personal answer, as Horvath offered her own personal answer – is that it’s not natural at all. It has nothing to do with my sex – my vagina, my X chromosome. It has everything to do with a culturally constructed inheritance, a legacy that started more than two hundred years ago.

Brontë and George Eliot were – by necessity – trained to be novelists in their sitting-rooms. And who were my teachers in turn? From where did I receive my training? What kind of writing did I learn to love when I was young and impressionable and looking for a reflection of myself in the pages of a book? Theirs. And others like them. I was a shy girl, lonely and afraid and seeking answers about how to be brave, about how to live in this strange and scary world. I was trained to look in where perhaps boys are pressed to look out, or not look at all.

Though that claim about boys doesn’t seem sound somehow. It’s difficult to not be reductive. I recently read Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey – a male author, writing from the interior perspective of mostly male characters. Is Literary Interiority really a tendency of mostly women writers? Or has Interiority itself been classified as a feminine style of writing? Horvath is right about one thing: Interiority is a complex issue but I don’t think it’s natural and I think we might have to go back many many years to find an adequate answer about today.


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