Friday, March 04, 2011

The soft or shrill voice within us

As a result of The Count at VIDA, in which literary feminist superstars have demonstrated that women review fewer books than men, women's books are reviewed far fewer than the books of men, and women are published far less than men in many magazines and journals, I've been doing a lot of thinking for the last month or more.

Responses to this more than obvious phenomena have varied: women don't submit enough, women are published in proportion to their representation in the slush pile, it's the publishers' fault, women tend to write on subjects men don't want to read, male editors don't solicit women's work, and so on. (You can start link surfing here.)

The charge that seems to stick, though, is that women don't send out their work enough. Or it sticks for me because I don't send out my work enough. I send out stuff haphazardly--maybe 15 or so submissions per year or less. This has garnered me 17 poems in print or forthcoming, and 3 nonfiction pieces in print or forthcoming. Seems respectable to me, but I agonize over making progress with publication constantly. My output is not enough to even try to get to the next stage of the process with this (to even be in that group of writers jousting for that stuff), where I might be able to 'win' some freedom in the form of fellowships, grants, residencies, and so on. The monetary side of all of this. I can't seem to pull together the time to make some kind of book of all this poetry and what not. At least one I'm happy with.

There are material reasons and there are psychological reasons for my gross failure to paper (or cyber-paper) the lit planet's huge slush pile with my work. As my disability parent readers will surely recognize, all of us have life sh*t to do, but it's f*cking hard (profanity seems a good choice here) to do all the regular sh*t like groceries, bills, repairs, maintaining friendships, reading the book for book club, taking care of the typical kid, and holding some kind of part-time job, while simultaneously caring for a child with disabilities, even if you have a spouse to share the action with. (See previous blog posts on the time spent making appointments, dealing with doctors and therapists, managing prescriptions, reviewing and paying medical bills, purchasing durable medical equipment, managing personal care for said child, and driving around the f*cking county and state endlessly, let alone deciding to change medical facilities.)

So, you can call this whining and excuse-making all you want, but my life is just busier than yours. That's the material reason. Basically I have two part-time "jobs" and have to choose daily, weekly, monthly between writing and sending stuff out.

But there's more. My husband has gotten engaged with all this discourse about women and writing, and in our spare time as we watch all the biased news on TV and snipe at the anchors and politicians and the commercials in between (ads for Gain really use the word "gooder"? really?), we talk about me and my problems. Well--it's self-indulgent, but it's something to do when you're tired late at night and can't do much else. A lot of this dialogue consists of my husband marveling at how self-critical and disparaging and insecure I am about what I do in what I consider to be my 'real life.'

This morning, via links friends have posted on Facebook, I read this blog post. And something just clicked, although pieces of this have been floating through my consciousness for some time. Not just all the stuff about school-age girls, but that bit about the fictional Carrie Bradshaw being told in a review to just shut up--accompanied by a photo of her with her mouth taped shut. Yes, I know, mentioning Sex and the City is a good way for people to tell you to just shut up.

But, damn, this is the image. What do I fear most? Being told to just shut up. Because I don't know enough, because I talk too much, because what I say is simply stupid. This feeling comes from a lot of different places: from the general zeitgeist and from specific experience (let's just say I've faced a lot of put downs in social, educational, medical, and familial situations because I am or I have at points in the past been intelligent and expressed my opinion--and when the people who are closest to you do it, that's what sticks). For example, I loved my grandmother very much, but she had a boy fetish--everything ground to a halt when one of my male siblings or cousins came into the room (and she had 6 male grandchildren and 13 female grandchildren). What they said mattered. What I said didn't matter so much. What they accomplished mattered. What I accomplished didn't matter--what mattered was getting married.

Ridiculing women for trying to express their opinions is a time-honored way of 'restoring' social roles. Telling women to just shut up has a long, long history in western culture--the Renaissance versions of this are public diatribes about women who spoke publicly, and cultural conceits or images of the obnoxious chatty woman--the most accessible example of this for most people is Chaucer's iconic Wife of Bath. Everyone on that pilgrimage just wants her to shut up. That's what makes it 'funny.'

Several things stick in my mind. One, that repeated experience of trying to have a conversation/discussion when there are men involved. Ever so much more than a psychological intimidation (some men will just cite stuff endlessly rather than formulate their own opinions, and somehow that just counts), this becomes a type of physical oppression: the mature male voice is generally lower and deeper than the mature female voice and, therefore, louder and more resonant. I can remember in college trying to get into a discussion and having to leap over both the interruption hurdle (I was loathe to interrupt, but even if I did, the guy would just interrupt me and keep going), but trying to make myself HEARD. I couldn't do it. My voice is softer and higher than a man's. I couldn't get into a conversation without raising the pitch of my voice, which means that I, yes, shrieked and was 'shrill.' And we all know what 'shrill' means. To be shrill is to be instantly dismissed.

But it's more than college (this moment on the gender timeline, 1982-86, brought to you, in part, by the good people of Emma Willard House and Old Chapel)--it's dealing with Robert's medical care and his school. Running into situations in which I tell my husband, you have to call, because they're not going to listen to the mommy, but they'll listen to daddy. Sometimes, this is strategic on my part: an offensive strike to get what Robert needs or to blow by an obstacle. Sometimes it's because I've done it and called and argued and nobody is listening to me, but I know if daddy indicates that he's pissed off, that's suddenly going to matter. Because it doesn't so much f*cking matter if mommy is pissed off. What am I going to do? Try to kick them in the shins?

I have to get to work this morning, but for those of you still with this, those of you who deal with disabled kids, let me just leave you here. It's September 1998 and I'm discussing the history of Robert's of physical, dramatic breakdown that has now left him profoundly incapacitated with one of the early neurologists, a man. Let me point out to you that this man knows I have a doctorate (in the humanities, but a doctorate none the less), he knows I am intelligent, and he knows that I am the primary witness to all of the puzzling motor symptoms that have presented in my son since the end of July. I am not hysterical and I discuss all of this without crying or breaking down, although I certainly emit concern and worry. In his write-up of our consultation, which he sends to the other doctors who care for Robert, this is what he says under 'impression' after describing what he observes about Robert, he who sees Robert for 30 minutes at a time and only occasionally: "It seems that the description of his [Robert's] course of weakness [and, STET] changes over time, people are constantly asking the mother about this, trying to get clues for the diagnosis, this naturally, may distort her perception, as she is desperate to find such a clue herself." I may as well have shrieked.


Bora said...

May you never shut up. We need your voice.

Dale said...

I certainly need your voice. And I'm being precise in my choice of verbs.

But I'll also say this: is there really a payoff in doing all that submission stuff? Is that really the way the game is going to be played from now on? I never send anything out, haven't the faintest interest in it, can't be bothered. Of course, you could have a much wider audience than I could, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that you're a better writer, but -- how much of this "silencing yourself" might be simply wondering whether that particular game is worth the candle? When you can't get yourself to do something it's often because a good chunk of yourself is convinced it's not really worth doing.