For those of you who missed my presentation, here’s the introduction of my discussion about women writing for change presented during the opening day of Litquake, as part of the Off the Richter Scale series:
A woman who writes for change is unafraid of taking on the challenges of the real world and exploring solutions through her writing. As a writer of women’s fiction, my stories tend to focus on how the larger world affects the character’s smaller world. For example, my latest novel, Out of Balance, grew out of my interest in how the Great Recession impacted women, particularly women forced into the workplace like my narrator, Beverly Mael, who was content being a stay-at-home wife and mother until her husband became unemployed.
Men lost 3 times as many jobs as women in 2009, according to Falling behind: the Impact of the Great Recession and the Budget Crisis on California’s Women and Their Families, published by the California Budget Project. This research coincides with a study conducted by Pew Research Center in 2010, in which 22 percent of women were found to out earn their husbands. This phenomenon is not limited to any socio-economic class. It is culturally pervasive. In the June 2012 issue of Allure magazine, actress Elizabeth Banks discusses what it feels like to be a woman who out earns her husband. “It’s not easy,” Banks says. “We’re the first generation to do it. And it’s very ingrained even in our DNA that men are hunter-gatherers who are meant to go off and provide. And that we are really meant to stay at home and have kids…We’re all figuring the same thing out.”
My interviews with women confirmed what Banks expressed: it is true that more women are employed and earning more than their male counterparts, but a lot of them feel ambivalent about their role as breadwinners. They no longer have the luxury to take a lower-paying job that’s more fulfilling or stay home and raise their children. They have to work. The men I spoke with are just as confused and disheartened by being thrown into the role of primary caretakers. They are learning how to be room parents and tutors and chauffeurs, chefs and housekeepers and bookkeepers. Both men and women have had their worlds thrown out of balance.
To discover how one couple adapted to their new roles, read Out of Balance, available in hardback, paperback, and e-book (Nook, Kindle, and other formats).
I left the house early in the morning for the pilgrimage to San Francisco, knowing I would be battling against traffic for Fleet Week, America’s Cup, the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, a Giant’s game and a 49er’s game in addition to the 13th annual Litquake.
Thinking I would ignore my knowledge of the city and trust my benevolent GPS, I drove through Chinatown and the red light district, nearly burning out my engine from the stop and go on the hilly streets. My temperature dangerously rose as I wondered why I didn’t just go around the marina. The drive would have been longer, more scenic, and more importantly flat. But, alas, I thought the almighty GPS knew best, even when I was stuck in traffic beside a jazz bar where handsome young men stood outside holding naked Kewpie dolls.
I found parking in a flat rate garage two blocks from the venue and ate an overpriced spicy turkey sandwich on focaccia bread at Andersen Bakery. I could have done without the secret mayonnaise-based sauce, but I was too lazy to drag my suitcase full of books down to The Grove for a to-die-for grilled cheese sandwich and homemade kettle chips for the same price. Even though the ambiance would have been inspiring, with tree trunks woven with lights growing inside the building and the pigeon who lived on top of a moose head above the wood paneled doors. Alas, my mother was right— laziness was my downfall.
I arrived at the Preview Room at the historic Hobart building an hour before meeting with my fellow Bay Area Hedgebrook alumnae panelists to discuss our one hour presentation. The lounge was a warm reception area full of colorful art by local artists, cozy couches, and an assortment of books from the previous presenters. The woman who registered me for the event commented on how impressed she was with my organizational skills. It was something she found otherwise lacking in “creatives”. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I was married to a former Boy Scout whose advice I took to heart when preparing for a presentation. It was better she imagined I was one of those extraordinary writers who outline their plot twists and execute their literary devices with surgical precision.
Since my publicist was unavailable, I didn’t have someone taking photos on my behalf, which meant I was relying on the publicist hired by or volunteering for the event to provide any promotional footage. Needless to say, I have nothing but the photographs I took of the building. I don’t even have a photo of my fellow panelists in the lobby before the presentation.
The theater where we read and spoke was privately owned by Variety, a nonprofit group benefiting disabled, critically-ill, and disadvantaged children without proper access or coverage by insurance, hospitals, or government agencies. We sat at a table onstage. The strategic lighting allowed us to see the audience, which was both welcomed and disconcerting. Sometimes I couldn’t tell whether the people closing their eyes were mediating on the spoken word or taking a nap, much like parishioners at a church. However, I did notice everyone had their eyes open when they laughed at my comment about the male reader who contacted me through my Facebook Fan Page to question how I knew about the NSA and national security when I was a woman writer who supposedly only wrote about her life.
Natalie Baszile, a fellow Hedgebrook alum and Grotto author, introduced us before we discussed what it meant to be a woman writer writing for change, how marginalizing it was to be a woman writer when women cannot afford to be marginalized, and the tension we experienced between advocating for change and creativity, between the logical mind and the creative mind.
Anne Finger read a riveting essay, “Potato,” that explored how a tiny vegetable symbolized more than just sustenance for a community of people enduring food rations.
Toni Mirosevich read a circuitous essay with a mastery of language I found compelling and discussed the tension between teaching graduate creative writing students and drafting her own work.
Judith Tannebaum explored the tension between her writing and her teaching inmates in San Quentin. Tannebaum’s speech was laced with a dramatic presentation of her poetry and her humbling personal experiences.
I discussed how the repercussions of the Great Recession inspired my novel, Out of Balance, about a stay-at-home wife and mother’s ambivalence about being forced into the workforce.
Together we answered questions from the audience about how our writing about the larger world was reflected in the intimate details of our writing; our experience as residents of Hedgebrook, a retreat for women writers in Puget Sound; and the conflict between how much we give to others through our writing and how much we give ourselves.
After the presentation, we autographed and sold our books in the lobby of the Preview Room before the next event began.
I was honored to be part of this annual event and am looking forward to finding archived footage of the live broadcast to share with those of you who could not, for one reason or another, be present.
Aoibheann Sweeney’s debut novel, Among Other Things, I’ve Taken Up Smoking, is the best coming-of-age novel I’ve read since Melanie Rae Thon’s Iona Moon.
Miranda Donnal lives with her father, a reclusive classicist translating Ovid’s Metamorphosis, on Crab Island off the coast of Maine. Miranda’s mother died when she was three, and Miranda has been raised mostly by her father and Mr. Blackwell, a Native American Indian who cooks, cleans, and nurtures the family when he is not fishing for a living. The relationship between the three is loosely-defined and delicately complicated as Miranda grows up.
The novel, like the passage from Crab Island’s channel to the dock at Yvesport, is driven by the undercurrents of what is felt but not said. When Miranda is sent to New York City to work at the classical institute her father co-founded, Miranda moves through poignant observations (families like to humiliate each other) to attraction (that full, pull excitement—that secret feeling, throbbing inside of us while the rest of the world stayed quietly oblivious) to intimacy (nothing had seemed interesting until there was someone listening).
Full of the rich symbolism of Greek mythology and peppered with keen statements about love and identity, Among Other Things, I’ve Taken Up Smoking explores the tension between societal expectations and individual need, the stories we tell ourselves and the stories we share with others, and the courage needed to take an alternate route.