Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Writing vs. Creating

When we moved into this house, the shelves in the library were filled with books that the children of the previous owner hadn't wanted to divvy up amongst themselves. There were a few gems tucked away, but most of them were, as Darwin put it, "novels that were Very Important the year they were published", or biographies of minor cultural figures and second-tier authors. We kept a great deal of them on the principle of hating to get rid of books, but now the tedium of contemplating the sheer bloat of mediocre prose evokes a deep lethargy upon me.

I spent the other evening skimming a biography of a woman who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1929. I'd never heard of her or her novel; you haven't either. At the time it was considered a shocking and sensual novel about a black woman and her sensual, shocking life, written by a white plantation mistress. Perhaps it was a step forward for civil rights in 1929, but the snippets of her writing in the biography made my teeth ache. One more book to be culled from the shelves.

People tend to think that writing is a vastly creative act that confers a certain immortality on the author's thought, but the truth is that most books published are read by a few people and then quickly forgotten. (Or, in the case of Dan Brown's novels, read by many people and then quickly forgotten.) This is attested to by the myriad forgotten tomes here, their few insights had been gleaned in one quick deflowering years ago. And what of all those authors who poured so much ink and effort into getting their baby into print? What did they neglect in order to write these dusty books?

Betty Duffy, who has more literary power in her pencil eraser than Ms. Pulitzer 1929 had in her collected works, writes:

And I thought, heck--why wait to get pregnant for this reward? I'm going to enroll in the Master's Program now!

I downloaded the application materials. I talked to friends who are enrolled in the program. I had my husband's approval. All systems were go.

Then I got pregnant. It's funny how this works on me. Maybe other women don't feel this way about having babies--but I called Pedge on my way home from my last community class in which I'd been a lackluster participant, and asked why it is that I've lost interest, once again, in these projects I've built up in my mind. Is it that I'm chicken? I'm afraid of failure, and having babies is away of excusing myself from trying? Am I just morning sick? Do I harbor some deep-seated anti-feminist notion that I don't deserve further education? Why do these things that were so important and exciting to me just a month ago, suddenly feel so trivial?

Pedge put into words for me what I had begun to sense, but felt sort of stupid saying, since at the time I was only a few weeks along: "You really are a different person than you were two weeks ago. You're now a mother of six. It's completely unknown territory to you and it makes perfect sense that you would want to move other things out of the way so that you have room to become the person you are going to be."

And it doesn't mean I'll never go get that MFA, or nurture anything other than children--but for now there really is nothing else I want to do but allow myself to mother this child.

My congratulations to Betty, who in raising her six children is engaged in one of the most essential and enduring occupations in this world.


Unknown said...

I had to find out the novel!

mrsdarwin said...

But honestly, had you ever heard of it before?

Unknown said...


Kate Wicker said...

Amen. Betty is literary genius, but she's wise enough to know what her most important works in progress are.

So glad someone linked to the book for lazy, preggo me. I haven't heard of it either.

BettyDuffy said...

Thanks Mrs. D!

And you are so right about the fate of most books. Since your comment, I've been trying to think of a book that has really changed my life--and I couldn't come up with one. Some books have improved the quality of a few weeks here and there. Some have given me fond lines to to return to here and there. But the life changing book (Bible aside)--I must not have read it yet.

My guess is the most daunting part of writing a book is getting people to read it.

mrsdarwin said...


Off the top of my head, one book that clearly shaped my thinking was The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis, which I read when I was 17. It was the first philosophy I'd ever read - and I think it's fair to call it philosophy. It helped clarify my jumbled thoughts about love and friendship, and especially paved the way for my friendship with Darwin.

mrsdarwin said...

I do want to add one detail about Ms. Pulitzer 1929, Julia Peterkin: When she was in labor with her first child, her father (a doctor) attended her. The labor was long and difficult, and the baby was breech and was stuck. Finally, after Julia was put under with an anesthetic, the baby was delivered with forceps.

Her father told her husband that she might die if she went through another delivery like that, but they could spare her that future pain with a simple operation... The husband dithered, then acquiesced, and so Julia, still unconscious, was sterilized by her father with the complicity of her husband. The operation, referred to as female castration, brought on early menopause -- she was only 23. The psychological effects of this were extremely damaging to her relationships with both men and even extended to her relationship with her son.

Now THAT novel would have been interesting to read.

Jenny said...

Wow! Can you imagine having a difficult delivery and going under anesthetic and then waking up sterilized and in menopause? Because of your father! I'm trying to figure out why a second breech birth would kill her.

You are right. There is definitely a book in there.

Enbrethiliel said...


Sometimes, while browsing in chain stores, I feel a similar sense of book bloat. There are thousands and thousands of titles in the YA and MG sections alone. How many of those books will become favourites? How many of them will prove memorable into adulthood? How many of them will become part of the language of a literate generation?

It feels wrong to say that some books are simply a waste of time (there's something in such a statement that revolts a mind conditioned to rebel against "book banning" in all its forms), but that's the truth of it, isn't it?

Unknown said...

Two words....Jane Eyre. Don't know why but I find myself reading it at least once a year. Can't wait to see the new movie. The only other book I read more often on a regular basis is the Bible.