The Writing Life: Diane Johnson

A successful novelist recalls days when juggling family and work was Le Problème.

(Isabelle Boccon-gibod/associated Press)
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By Diane Johnson
Sunday, November 30, 2008; Page BW11

When I was a little girl, I didn't imagine I would grow up to be a writer, because I didn't know a writer was something you could be; I had no sense that books were still being written. Except for the Literary Guild volumes delivered each month to my mother, the books on our shelves at home had all been written in ages past. The same was true of the books at school, where our English teacher, Miss Garst, prepared us to expect objections from the school board when she boldly assigned Tom Jones, an 18th-century picaresque novel that hardly seems roguish now. Even the Moline Public Carnegie Library, to which I will always be grateful for its open shelves and wondrous means of visiting a world far from Moline, Ill., had mostly 19th-century books, some of them, like the story of the sultry adulteress Madame Bovary, forbidden by watchful librarians to schoolchildren like me.

I liked swashbuckling adventure stories. I didn't like girls' books. (Aunts, teachers and the parents of friends were constantly pressing Little Women on me.) I suspected some social conspiracy, some agenda that would impede my dreams of becoming a pirate. In my house, we had classics like Moby-Dick or peculiar books like The Forty Days of Musa Dagh or Mademoiselle de Maupin, a mildly shocking 19th-century French novel probably left over from one of Mother's college courses. I also remember a Decameron with the naughty parts in Latin. But for all that, I wouldn't say my parents were intellectuals. They were great readers, but the adult conversation in our house was entirely about golf.

Miss Barbara Garst was one of the teachers whose encouragement was important to me. A plump, dynamic spinster , she went on to be a "teacher of the year," which involved a sabbatical to England, where she made friends with a few important literary figures. One of them was the editor of the New Statesman who, when I met him years later, told me he had made a point to stop in Moline, Ill., to visit her -- the only reported contact between our town and the distant literary world, except for the grave of one of Charles Dickens's children, which lay in our local cemetery.

By the time of that editor's visit, I was off in college, where another teacher, Charles Madden, became my lodestar. He praised my stories, read them aloud and encouraged me to enter a Mademoiselle magazine contest. That was in 1953. As a result, I spent a month in New York working at Mademoiselle and living at the Barbizon Hotel. Little did I know that years later the contest would be immortalized by Sylvia Plath in The Bell Jar, with its vivid images of 20 girl "guest editors" throwing up en masse in the women's bathroom of the Barbizon, poisoned by something they had been fed in the test kitchen of an advertising agency. This was my first trip east of the Mississippi and first encounter with a world where people lived by writing and were serious, even fierce about it. But I was an unusually provincial and slightly disapproving 19 year old -- those gravelly voices! those women smoking in the street! -- who couldn't then imagine that I would ever wish to have a place in it.

Instead I married my boyfriend and moved to California. I think Mary McCarthy says in one of her memoirs that it is common for women writers to marry young: They want to get on with things. If that is so, I was surprised to find myself, within six years, the mother of four little children. I guess I am living proof that the impulse to write is inextinguishable, because -- despite all the difficulties -- I began to look for writing jobs. The remarkable thing is: sometimes I got them. A friend, the Hollywood journalist and historian Aljean Harmetz, and I wrote an episode for "My Three Sons," a television series. Another friend, the novelist Alison Lurie, then a young faculty wife, and I got research jobs with UCLA professors. During the children's naps, I worked on a novel, my "real" writing. But I was far from being the dedicated artist I so admired in Sylvia Plath, and when the world didn't take my efforts very seriously, I lacked the confidence to do so myself. How could I fill in the "occupation" blank on an application form with anything so pretentious as "writer"?

This was the '50s, after all, a period when women were encouraged to be educated, bright and informed, but only in order to become better wives and mothers. Years later, reading Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, I discovered that I had been to the very school and taken the very class ("Marriage and the Family") that Friedan had chosen to exemplify the condition she was denouncing. To be fair, I should add that my first father-in-law, Lamar Johnson, who was a pioneer of this philosophy of women's education, was one of my main champions and urged me to have faith in my writing. But it was Alison, a newly published novelist and East Coast person, closer to the world of publishing, who encouraged me to actually send it in.

Which is to say: It took me a long time to define myself as a novelist. By now, after 14 books, I can confidently state it, but I still leave that "occupation" line blank on landing cards and forms, and no one has ever demanded that I fill it in.

The truth is that, for mothers of large families (counting stepchildren, I have seven), art is caught on the fly, in stolen moments of seclusion. How I dreamt of a reverent family tiptoeing to the closed door of my workroom with lunch and dinner -- giving me the kind of pampering one gets from Bellagio or Yaddo! Even worse, I always tried to avoid any mention of my writing, not out of diffidence but because I had heard from so many spouses and children of authors that it wasn't good for children to have writers as parents. I've been fortunate in that my husband, John Murray, is so supportive because we writers do need encouragement; we droop without it.

Yet being a writer is such an intrinsic part of my nature that I can't imagine what I would do otherwise, and by now writerly habits have burrowed into my unconscious as well as conscious mind. Other writers say this, too. I've found, for instance, that if before going to sleep I put a question to myself -- "what should Lulu do about Amid?"the answer will often be there in the morning, not dreamy, surreal passages but concrete artistic decisions that elude my conscious mind. A writer needs to rely on the subconscious, as do chessplayers, woodcarvers and scientists. And if you're a woman writer with too little time, you need every strategy you can muster to keep your work going forward.

How to fit it all in with your family, your home and the rest of daily existence is part of the challenge. It is also, of course, the joy. ·

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