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

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Women Writing Right

Back when I was 18 and first brought Darwin home to visit my family, my younger sister asked me, "Does he like you because you're pretty or because you're smart?"

"Because I'm smart," I said.

She thought about it for a minute and said, "No, that's not it."

Aside from being a cute anecdote, this story points to... well, nothing, actually. Perhaps I'm particularly insensitive, or particularly privileged, or particularly well-adjusted, or (probably) a combo of the three, but it strikes me that there has to be at least one woman, somewhere, who doesn't feel perpetual angst about her body and her place in the world, and I'm content to be that dull person.

Doubtless a good portion of this is due to the crucial lifetime influence of my excellent, excellent father, which is where the privilege comes in. But really, all the men in my life, from father to brothers to husband to father-in-law to friends have been models of civility and respect. Any flak, or prescriptivism, or pressure I've ever had about The One Right Way to Woman has come from other women.

(Nota bene: I realize that this is not everyone's experience, and that many women have had atrocious experiences with men. But if everyone's story ought to be heard, I don't think that mine is of less value than anyone else's.)


One of the talks at the Trying to Say God Conference was called "Not Always Sweet: Beyond Liturgical Cupcakes in Catholic Women's Writing".  Now, perhaps I came in on the defensive because a homeschooling mother of seven sounds like precisely the kind of woman targeted by a provocative title such as "Liturgical Cupcake" (even though I don't craft a custom image to go at the top of each blog post). And indeed, the term "conventional fertility" was used rather disparagingly, sigh, as if we have these children merely to show up everybody else. If so, it's a damned inconvenient way to make a point -- but more on that later.

Darwin has already written up the Jane Austen exchange, a small but revealing moment that encapsulated a lot of the talk for me. (For a less dismissive assessment of Austen, try The Paris Review.) There were many honest and moving moments, with some women struggling with aspects of the Church, such as patriarchy, that other women found comforting and revelatory. Everyone's story was unique. And yet I felt that there was an essential sameness to most (not all) of the panelists. There are a lot of interesting Catholic women out there, who could not be described as liturgical cupcakes, who don't need to take antagonism with the Church as an essential starting place. Names that come immediately to mind are Leah Libresco Sargeant, Elizabeth Duffy, Susan Windley-Daoust, Amy Welborn, Jennifer Fitz, Erin Arlinghaus... Or, to pull from the ranks of the almost canonized, Bl. Elisabeth Leseur, a French woman who died just before the outbreak of WWI, writes eloquently of the spiritual life in the midst of physical and social suffering.

I've chosen women whose writing I enjoy in part because their minds work much like mine -- and because they (and I) seem to fall in space in between aggressive feminism and more traditional feminine devotional writing. Women who can be interesting without being angry do exist. Women who can write as individuals, not as models. Women whose bodies are neither baggage nor occasions of sin nor wonderlands. Women who can hold to the Golden Mean even while writing about modesty. Women who can be intellectual without being reactionary.


I took notes, though as I tend to write notes as a response and reflection to content rather than a straight transcription, they might be incomprehensible.

*Why Ann Voskamp? Because her gooey scribings have a very large following, which means that the "liturgical cupcake" approach has a great deal of appeal to a great deal of women. Voskamp is a New York Times bestseller, with her devotionals and her journals and her "no cheap cynicism" and graced moments of wonder (TM). People crave what she's selling -- a kind of beauty and order and loveliness. It's not men sneaking out and buying this stuff by the cartful, and following her Instagram account, and liking her Facebook page. She's offering something women (or most women, anyway) want. And so are many others writing in the same vein.

How, then, do we bridge the gap between the aesthetic packaging of this saccharine style of devotional writing and the more edgy, earthy approach of the unsweetened non-cupcakes? If all women have a secret woundedness that this more toothy style of women's writing is addressing, how do these authors reach out to and draw in the women drawn to this more saccharine approach? It's a big audience out there.

I asked the question (you can hear me at 51:27), and received the answer: we don't. We don't appeal to these women, because they have their own stuff, and they can come to us when they want something more authentic. This blunt answer was eerily similar to a recent First Things post about a conference on intersectionality (also lauded in the panel):
At the end there was a question and answer period. I asked whether and how Collins would suggest that intersectionality engage with its adversaries, the ­hated conservatives. Given the polarization of ­America right now, did she see some way for the two camps to communicate or find common ground? The vehemence of her answer was startling. “No,” she said. “You cannot bring these two worlds together. You must be oppositional. You must fight. For me, it’s a line in the sand.” This was at once jarring and clarifying.
I don't feel this is an adequate answer. Jesus loves these women too. Their souls matter as much as the souls of the enlightened, progressive, openly wounded women. If liturgical cupcakery is deficient as a way of writing about the spiritual life, then does the new standard of writing for Catholic women need to be more evangelistic in approach, and perhaps a nip less self-congratulatory?

(Leticia Adams's response about why Voskamp's style of prettiness and order may appeal to people was quite good, though -- because many people feel that if they do things just right, if everything looks good, then maybe they can keep bad things from happening to them.)

*Gina Dalfonzo recently wrote a book called One by One, about how churches can reach out to single people who want to live faithful lives. Although her book isn't about Catholic churches, I felt that the viewpoint it represents wasn't particularly well-represented in the panel. I turned to Eve Tushnet, sitting next to me, and said that I'd have loved to have heard her on the panel. What were her thoughts as a celibate Catholic woman? "Nuns," she said -- a viewpoint that was not represented as a model of how Catholic womanhood and writing can transcend cherchez les hommes.


Throughout the talk, I wondered if the new standard to which Catholic Women's Writing was being held was any less restrictive than the old one, whatever that is. Edginess and Pain has replaced Mommy Blogging, but if you don't prefer to be either edgy and painful or to write about the The Three Graces I Obtained In The Grocery Aisle, what is there? Can women, even boring women who have a lot of kids, write about ideas, or just life? Is it necessary to prove our woman bona fides by talking about our clitoris and our orgasms and our vaginas, as some panelists seemed to think was a biological imperative?

Oddly enough, the combination of these very things, and my conventional fertility (and also a man, but no one seemed to think there needed to be more Catholic men talking about penises) meant that I was 38 weeks pregnant during the conference, hobbling around with my grossly swollen stomach and grossly swollen ankles.

...And I thought, when I first started writing this post, that I would go on to write up Paul's birth here, but actually, he deserves his own post, separate from liturgical cupcakes and Ann Voskamp and female sexuality. But I will tell one story here. As I was pushing the baby out (of my frickin' vagina, natch), I was meditating on what this panel had taught me about Catholic womanhood and the way our bodies shape our spirituality and.... Bull. What I actually did during the (mercifully brief) time I spent pushing was to wail repeatedly, "I don't want to have a baby!"

And I meant it. And then a moment later I held a squirming, bawling baby, and I didn't mean it. Because pain makes us say odd things, things we kinda but don't really mean. Or things we really mean in the moment, but would repent later. (For the record, I love babies. I just hate the having of them.) It causes us to do weird things in an attempt to find a moment of relief. We do things we don't even remember. (Darwin tells me I threw up on him while I was pushing, of which I have absolutely no recollection.)

Writing the truth about pain, or fear, or brokenness is valid because the human experience encompasses these states. Writing about our bodies is valid because every human life is shaped by the body and its glories and its limitations. But these aren't the only ways to write, even for Catholic women, and they're not even always the most interesting ways to write. It's okay to just write about a topic unrelated to sex (or not-sex) or relationship (or not-relationship). It's okay to be a woman and write without referencing being a woman. The category of womanhood is bigger than any one box, even once all the liturgical cupcakes have been consumed.


Finicky Cat said...

AMEN, sister. You took that conference much more patiently than I would have done. "Conventional fertility" - bah.

I don't enjoy the having of babies, either. My line is always "I DON'T LIKE THIS!" as if somehow someone was actually expecting me to, you know, like it. (Maybe the people who think we do this just to make a statement?) I begin in a wistful, pleading kind of tone and escalate eventually into screaming fury.

After the pregnancy and birth, the rest of motherhood - potty-training excepted - is almost easy by comparison.

Rebekka said...

Amen from me, too. The Angry Vagina Brigade is just as boring for me as the Liturgical Cupcake Bakeoff. I feel completely non-represented by both ends of the spectrum.

I find it interesting (and annoying) that there seems to be a tendency that our lives need to fulfil some epic Role and Purpose, even the mundane bits, of which we must be mindful always, lest the blessedness wear off. Personally I find this approach narcissistic and smug. Maybe it works for other people. What works for me is to accept my smallness in the scheme of things. Creation is so big, yet God knows I am here anyway. I can have a family without Mothering (TM), I can be a good nurse without being Florence Nightingale, I can do other things that interest me, like making things, and gardening, and fixing up our old house (none of which require or is enhanced by the possession of sexed genitals, except, briefly, the production of children) - thank God for that. If I needed to keep myself focused on the Gloriousness of Mothering the Fruit of my God-Blessed Ladyparts, I would never get anything done!

Gail Finke said...

I don't have time to write a long comment right now but I just wanted to say BRAVO, great post. I feel much the same. And if I read one more piece about how Jane Austen was really a brave intersectional feminist, I'll punch someone. I'm so tired of being told to put everyone in boxes, dismiss everyone in the wrong box, and ignore boxes that haven't been Approved by Authorities... it makes me sick.

I was at the USCCB Convocation of Catholic leaders, and what I saw there was the possibility of real renewal and real spiritual and cultural variety without antagonism. Some of the people there actually wanted the antagonism, and that seemed even more grotesque when contrasted with the possiblity of actually being different from each other but united in Christ.

Jenny said...

I also do not enjoy the process of gestation. Oddly enough, the newborn phase is one of my favorite parenting phases. Perhaps these are related?

I am not angry I am pregnant. I chose to do the things that cause pregnancy knowing pregnancy would be a likely outcome. And here I am. But I do not enjoy being pregnant. There have been days when I felt so poorly I wondered how I would make it another however many more weeks there are. I feel like these two feelings are not allowed to be held in tension: seeking pregnancy while not particularly liking pregnancy.

A few weeks ago, when I told a lady at church I did not enjoy pregnancy, I received a lecture and an assignment. The lecture consisted of telling me how joyous and special pregnancy is and how it is wrong to not enjoy it, even the sickness. The assignment was to pray every day to the BVM to ask her to make me love pregnancy. I smiled and nodded in her general direction.

Listen, lady, I am on more meds than an 80yo woman and still feel bad a majority of the time. I might accept reality, but I don't have to love it.

And yet if I turn to the theoretical other side of the room, with my "conventional fertility," I am met with blinking incomprehension. "Why are you doing this to yourself?" To answer the question simply: I like my children and think the hassle is worth it, even if it really sucks in the meantime.

Kate said...

"Women who can be interesting without being angry do exist. Women who can write as individuals, not as models."

This is what I aspire to. I wonder if anyone touched on the marketability factor. There's a lot of pressure, for bloggers on paid platforms, to be Pinnable, Perennial, or Controversial. That pressure doesn't mean there's no audience for other kinds of writing, but other kinds of writing don't multiply clicks the same way.

Julia said...

I started to read this and was all semi-envious that you got to go to such a conference, and halfway through your post realized I would have gone insane sitting there. Write what is in your heart, and do it for God. He knows who needs to read it. Who cares if there are three people or 300,000 who buy it? I think back to a priest I knew who never got flustered if there were only a handful of people at mass, because "We're there for God, and if the mass draws one person to Him, it's just as important as if there were half a million people in the room."

My book group read Ann Voskamp's first book. The consensus was that it had some good material, but we wanted the NYC version, thank you.

I write what I write, because that's what's on my heart. It would be nice to make more money by doing it, because I do have a family to feed. But no one here is starving, and sometimes, occasionally, perhaps something I write feeds a soul in a way that no one else can.