AS NOVELIST ANNE TYLER waited for a child in a schoolyard, another mother approached. "Have you found work yet?" she asked. "Or are you still just writing?"
Tyler is one of 16 well-known women writers "still just writing" in this exciting collection of essays exploring the nature and process of an art and vocation which is at once glamorous and frivolous in the public eye. Editor Janet Sternburg chose writers who reflect the diversity and strength of women writing tody. Contributors include Joan Didion, Nancy Milford, Alice Walker, Erica Jong and Maxine Hong Kingston; authors of nonfiction, as well as novelists, poets and playwrights. Their pieces are personal, distinct in style, yet all share the vitality of people who love their work and do it well. These are talented writers, above tell, articulate, thoughtful and moving. They are also women, and for each this has a special meaning and influence on her work.
Sternburg notes that intense self-examination by artists of either sex is relatively recent. Not until the 19th century did many writers see themselves and the creative process as topics of interest. She quotes Sartre, who later called for "a more conscious artist . . . who, by reflecting on his art, would try to endow it with his condition as a man." Such reflection fits perfectly with feminist efforts to articulate and understand women's individual and communal history. In The Writer on Her Work the blend of writers' observations and women's observations is satisfying. It reveals portraits of artists, women -- and daughters, mothers, wives, friends -- people able to illuminate something of work and life for an audience of both women and men.
These essays consider why and how their authors write; the problems of balancing work and family; the obstacles of self-doubt, lack of support, and the pressure to make a steady living. They show that writing is no genteel pastime, the ideal complement to family life, but difficult, frustrating, if rewarding work. For these writers, however, the need to write is so compelling, so much a part of who they are, there is no choice but to do it. Joan Didion writes to discover "what is going on in these pictures in my mind . . . images that shimmer around the edges." Michele Murray wanted "to create myself from scratch through language only, to see my face without a mirror." For most, the problem remains finding Margaret Walker's "a piece of time; a peace of mind; a quiet place; and a private life" to work in.
Many of these writers have families and other jobs, drawing time and energy from their work, yet children and supportive husbands are celebrated. Alice Walker points out that "so much of Women's Folly . . . makes us feel constricted by experience rather than enlarged by it," and finds her daughter, instead, enriching -- "the very least of her obstacles in her chosen work," nothing to compare with racism, sexism or the ignorance and selfishness of adults. The late Muriel Rukeyser "was told . . . that I would have to choose between the child and poetry, and I said no . . . I would choose both . . . It's very much a question of reinforcing choices as one makes them."
Rukeyser, born in 1913, showed the courage and will women needed to make both choices. Women today have more support for their work, certainly from each other. Thus Honor Moore pays homage to her grandmother, who persisted in painting and raising children until the conflict became too much for her and bouts of madness began. "It got too intense," she explained to Moore. "I turned to horticulture." Gail Godwin's essay includes another striking portrait of an older women, her divorced mother who wrote romances for women's magazines to support the family.
Women working at home, caring for families, appear frequently in these essays. They suggest that a difference between women and men who write lies not in temperament or education, but in day-to-day experience. "How different a woman's perceptions would have to be, just based on her experience!" Michele Murray wrote. "How can I give adherence to an idea when I see how ideas retreat before the very small bits of reality that make up a day?" Anne Tyler describes driving her children to the dentist, the dog to the vet, all the time carrying characters in her head, ready to write. Yet this very mixture of "reality" and creative imagination, living with families, remembering relatives and friends, is much of what people, in fact, write about. Mary Gordon talks of conquering her fear that such things were trivial, insignificant, not the topics of "great" men. Her "subject" as a writer has far more to do with family happiness than with the music of the spheres. I don't know what the nature of the universe is, but I have a good ear. What it hears best are daily rhythms, for that is what I value."
The difference in men and women's experience is professional as well as personal. Erica Jong notes "the systematic discouragement of a male-oriented literary establishment." Alice Walker and Margaret Walker describe the added burden of being black as well as women writers, when even feminist historians and critics exclude black women from cosiderations of women's work.
But for both Walkers, as for many of the women in this book, oppression, hardship, discouragement act almost as a stimulant to writing, a way to release the tension created from living in a world less perfect, even radically opposed to the vision in the writer's mind. Susan Griffin writes about "how the conflict between . . . despair toward language, the muse and the universe; and that of love of language, of faith in the universe to render meaning . . . is played to daily in my work." And Toni Cade Bambara affirms that "writing in one of the ways I participate in struggle . . . keep vibrant and resilient that vision that has kept the family going on . . . join the chorus . . . that argues that exploitation and misery are neither inevitable nor necessary." Reading The Writer on Her Work one hears that chorus of voices -- tough, humorous, grafeful, caring, joyful -- all the things writers, and women, can be, when they know the art and do it well.