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Becoming an Art Monster in a Pandemic
The price of creativity in a care crisis
In her 2014 novel Dept. of Speculation, Jenny Offill wrote, igniting pages of criticism on the “art monster” and women who write:
My plan was never to get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.
I’ve written about the art monster here before in bits and pieces, but it seems to me that now—amidst an ongoing care crisis that continues to make a room of one’s own elusive for so many woman and caregivers—that the art monster is overdue for a makeover or, at the very least, some elaboration.
Since the pandemic began, the question of whether women can be monsters who live by their Art, given that the feminine is associated with the everyday— with things like mothering and housework—has turned to the question of loss. How many voices, how much art, will never be made, because women were quite literally isolated, alone with their children, for months at a time?
When she did find the time and space, the pandemic art monster was the woman running Zoom school while hammering out an essay on women running Zoom school. She was hardly writing, and when she did, she was writing about how she longed to write with regularity and with sustained attention. She was both a regularity and an impossibility.
I, however, tried to become her anyway. In March of 2020, I was teaching several classes at a local university as a lecturer. I had returned to public life post-motherhood. I was writing too, working on a book, as I would tell people then, “about motherhood.” And then I was tasked with emailing all of my students to let them know they should not return to school. Later, again, to say that they would not be returning at all that spring.
The running of the Zoom school didn’t come until fall, when my daughter started kindergarten. My lectureship was not renewed—state university students decided to take time off, enrollments fell, away went my contract. I turned my attention to teaching my children. But when the public life I had worked so hard to regain in the Before Times seemed in danger of slipping away for good, I committed myself to finishing the book I had started in those better days— the only way, as I saw it, of saving myself from the “mundane things” that threatened to consume me.
The logistics of this method of self-rescue were complicated. Even when schools resumed, they did so part-time. Through it all, I wrote with a frenetic, frantic energy, like Rich, who said that writing in motherhood was for her an effort to locate some “tapestry” that pulled the world together, help her make sense of all the disparate threads of her life. I committed to my own selfishness—to putting the work of writing above all else. Even when the kids were home, I locked the door to the small room in which I wrote or shooed them away, go outside, griped that they must find a way to entertain themselves. They cried.
The male genius is supposed to be selfish, or to “put himself first” in modern wellness terms. He cares for no one but the muse, who is supposed to be, I guess, part of himself. But we tend to see motherhood, done right, as unselfish, because the work is taking care of other people. The institution of American motherhood further ensures that mothering is understood as inherently self-sacrificial, self-effacing, a holy martyrdom.
This is dishonest. Motherhood can be narcissistic, a cultivation of one’s mirror in a child. It’s a choose your own adventure, with many different paths. My own mother, for instance, was not an artist, but she often chose herself over me. As a child, I understood this as a kind of monstrosity, rather than as a condition of her own suffering and basic human desire—as well as a condition of addiction, of wanting more, of being a single mother. As an adult, I view it all as more complicated.
In one of many essays published by women writers in 2017 debating the concept of the art monster, Rebecca Solnit argued that artmaking, despite the gossip, is—similar to advocacy work—not a selfish act. Writers, she says, “want to plunge into our own depths, and we want to make something beautiful that will change the world, and we hope that it will not only do that but change it for the better, and if we’re lucky we make a living at it.” Being selfish, Solnit says, is not particular to writing or artmaking—nor is it even particular to men. Although: “Maybe there’s a special kind of Bohemian-dude selfishness,” she acquiesces, “which the idea of the genius—the person who is more special and important than others—encourages.”
Perhaps she’s right, but it seems to me that some qualifiers are necessary here. Maybe selfishness is not particular men—it’s not some inborn trait anymore that gender is—and yet it is quite particular to masculinity, as a concept, a way of being, a series of cultural scripts. In the same way, selflessness is particular to motherhood, to what the institution asks of us, even if many mothers know that this is a bum deal. And so the woman who writes remains strung up between these two sets of cultural demands.
It is not only making art or writing, however, that demands that we buck the scripts of motherhood. Solnit writes about her labor lawyer friend whose kids resent her for traveling, for being away, for having a cause and a passion— one that takes the labor lawyer away from her home, from those “mundane things” women are supposed to occupy themselves with. These sorts of mothers, Solnit seems to imply, don’t get the flack writers do for devoting themselves to their cause; they don’t get called selfish, because their work—fighting for better labor laws—is supposed to be more important and more necessary than artmaking.
Solnit’s essay also responds to some of the premises of Claire Dederer’s influential essay on the same subject— another 2017 text that still circulates among writers who are mothers. Solnit takes issue with what she sees as Dederer’s assumption that women writers are necessarily “a mother and daughter and wife, and each of those things means being endlessly obliged to others”—as well as the idea that being a creative person requires failing at some or all of those roles.
I’m not sure Dederer quite makes that assumption, but lots of what Solnit says in this essay intrigues me and still feels relevant years later, even after several years forcing myself to write in corners, in bathrooms, and on the patio while my children yelled watch this, mommy—through lockdowns, school closures, a pandemic, endless strings of sick days, empty bank accounts, political and personal crises, and the continual failure of our national government.
I love Solnit’s comparison between social justice work and writing. After all, “Good creative work is nurture,” Solnit writes. Good creative work is care work.
But Solnit loses me when she writes of the absence of struggle in her own writing life: “I’ve produced 20 books without abandoning anything or anyone to the best of my knowledge,” she says. Anyone or anything!? Solnit does not have children. I am certain this choice has made her writing life more full. (It hurts to say so, because I made a different choice.) I acknowledge that for a woman to choose a creative life over the imperative to mother is a radical act. What drops away here, however, is the incredible amount of class and racial and professional privilege that is also required to feel as though one can write a book, much less many, without abandoning ANYTHING OR ANYONE.
Solnit’s desire to venerate the work of creativity seems to get in the way of examining the conditions in which we create, such that she almost implies that writing can never be a selfish act, or maybe that we don’t owe anything to anyone, but also that creativity is not a form of labor with a distinct set of sociohistorical conditions. “Lots of people, women and men and nonbinary people,” Solnit writes, “are involved in the needs of people they love and still passionately devoted to their art, or the revolution, or their profession.” She’s right. But that does not mean they have not struggled in a wide variety of ways.
Solnit’s perspective is perhaps aspirational. She is a model of a woman committed to her work, her writing, not to marriage, kids, home, and family life. But just as we cannot mistake what is for what must be, we also cannot mistake what could be for what already is. Like Solnit, I reject the idea that women have to be “either/or”— that they have to be mothers or wives or daughters OR creative people. But in my daily life, while I worked on my next book, TOUCHED OUT—a book fundamentally about making space for the body and the mind, despite living in a culture that tells women their bodies and minds are not their own—I often had to choose.
Daughter I gave up trying; Wife was a role I abandoned. Who had time for any of that? Most hours of the day, I was suspended in the question: Mother or Writer? Every minute it seemed I had to choose whether to answer the tug on the arm, the knock of the door, the request for help assembling a block tower. Whether to push off the little body climbing on my lap to hit the keys and threaten to erase my work—to watch the dance or refill the water, to praise the drawing or allow the loud toy to press on.
Or to reject the request for love and engagement and refuse the “mundane things” so that I could follow an idea alone.
Solnit’s claim that writing “is genuinely work” is one that still needs saying, especially in the US, where cultural production of all kinds is not valued. It is also a claim mothers have been trying to make for a long time— that mothering is work, not biological destiny, and that there are a set of parameters, conditions to our work, that include and exclude certain bodies and ways of being.
In her new book How Not to Exclude Artist Mothers (and other parents), Hettie Judah looks at institutional obstacles and “structures of exclusion” in the art world—from the culture to schools to studios, residencies, and galleries. She also considers more inclusive possibilities. As Judah writes in her introduction, “many of the problems artist mothers face result from conventions within the art world itself,” and these “structural hindrances” affect other parents and artists as well.Manley wrote recently about Judah’s book and making space for mother-artists. Manley says of the broader problem in the US, “We need to keep creating, but something fundamental needs to shift. The US feels uniquely fucked when it comes to motherhood—here there is less family leave, a deep culture of workism, a short attention span and an inability to celebrate motherhood unless as some kind of capitalistic exercise.”
And how does this systematic exclusion deepen for, as a reader reminded me last week, a mother caring for children with disabilities, children who are neurodivergent, or children who have complex medical needs? How about a single mother? A Black mother? An immigrant mother? A mother caring for both their child and an elderly parent? A trans parent? A parent with very little income who works very long hours? How is what we feel we owe others influenced by who we are and to whom we are accountable?
Like many mother-writers before me, when I first became a mother, I struggled with the fear I might never write anything ever again, along with a nagging worry that, even if I did, writing just wasn’t valuable enough to make my time away from my children worth it. I wondered why I could not commit myself more fully to motherhood, and why, at times, I wanted to be alone, to just sit and think, so much more than I wanted to mother. Was I selfish, or human? I also wondered why I wanted, at times, just to mother— just to hold my children. Why I could not write.
Writing this next book through a pandemic, I have worried often about the personal costs of creativity. In the preface to her talk “When We Dead Awaken,” Adrienne Rich writes of the “feminist writers, editors, and publishers” who have challenged the image of the male genius. The title of Rich’s talk comes from Henrik Ibsen’s play of the same name—a drama about “the use that the male artist and thinker […] has made of women, in his life and his work; and about a woman’s slow struggling awakening to the use to which her life has been put.”
Writing TOUCHED OUT was a process of awakening to the uses to which my life had been put, and that awakening has also led me to consider anew how my beliefs about writing were once part of this tradition. One myth of creativity, for example, is that it isn’t work, isn’t a form of labor, and that it doesn’t require the work of others—sometimes even the violation of others, usually women—to support it. Women’s bodies have always been used by men in the creation of art and literature. In her 1970 book Sexual Politics, Kate Millet argues that in addition to erasing women’s labor from the scene of creative production, the male genius has frequently utilized the female body as literary material written for a male reader. Put differently, as Marguerite Duras wrote in her essay “Writer’s Bodies”: “Talent and genius evoke rape.”
As Offill’s famous reference to Vera highlights, reproductive labor haunts the scene of literary creation. But in early motherhood, I did not see the gendered nature of literary production so clearly. Neither did Rich, who presumed her dissatisfaction and anger—all that melancholy and rage she felt about being trapped at home without time or space to think or write—indicated a “failure of love.” She blamed herself for not enjoying this life she had once wanted. She thought she “was choosing a full life” in the decision to become a wife and a mother. “I had a marriage and a child,” she wrote (eventually she had three children). “If there were doubt, if there were a period of null depression or active despairing, these could only mean that I was ungrateful, insatiable, perhaps a monster.”
When Dederer’s essay was published decades later, women were already fed up. “Arlie Russell Hochschild first published The Second Shift in 1989,” she says, “and in 2017 the women were discovering that shit was truer than ever. In a couple of months would come the Harvey Weinstein accusations, and then the free-fall pig-pile of the #MeToo campaign.”
Now here we are. Madder than ever? I’m not sure if all women are more angry now, or even if I am. Many women I know who write do still yearn, however, to throw it all out and commit to their work. “The female writers I know yearn to be more monstrous,” Dederer writes. To abandon the kids, but also to have “a wife.”
Now, on the other side of so much talk about care and labor in the home, I have more clarity around what it has meant for me to want to be more monstrous. Dederer writes, of what wanting a wife means: “It means you wish to abandon the tasks of nurturing in order to perform the selfish sacraments of being an artist.” But I don’t want to hurt others or write narratives that validate the pain I inflict on others, as monstrous men often do. I don’t really even want to abandon the children, though I long for solitude.
What I want is to be nurtured in order to perform the selfish sacraments of being an artist. To be brought a sandwich and a copyedit, the way men got to do for so long. And I want to do this for many years, a whole lifetime, a couple generations. To have a John Dunne who takes my daughter to school every day while I sleep in, as Joan Didion had after staying up late at night to write because that’s just when creativity set her ablaze. Shouldn’t we get to take our turn for awhile? Must we jump so quickly into “equality”?
A friend sent news of her divorce this week on the group text, and another friend replied with this passage from Julie Phillips The Baby on the Fire Escape: Creativity, Motherhood, and the Mind-Baby Problem:
Sometimes when children leave and a partner leaves or dies, like water welling up from a spring, all the energy, ingenuity, insight, patience, and time that went into family-making returns to the self, giving new life to a ghosted creativity. This seems to have happened to Le Guin’s mother, Theodora Kroeber, whose writing career began at sixty-two. It also happened to the novelist Penelope Fitzgerald, who began publishing fiction at sixty and became one of the great British novelists of her age. She too was a femme maison, and when she recovered her sense of vocation, it was partly because, with a symbolism straight out of [Louise] Bourgeois’s art, her actual home fell to pieces.
Phillips references here Louise Bourgeois’s series Femme maison, images of half-women half-houses. In my dissertation, the thing I wrote reluctantly in very early motherhood (somehow—I cannot even remember how or when I did it), I wrote about home-bodies like this in art and literature, because that was how I experienced my own body then, as an extension of my apartment, and all the “mundane things” around the house an extension of me.
As my children got older and more vocal, the things and tiny labors mattered less to me than what the people in the house always seemed to need of me. I could let the laundry and the messes pile up. I could refuse to do the dishes, make my husband do them. But how could I stop everyone from wanting me all the time?
My home became a chorus of requests.
I talk a lot in my writing classes about embracing interruption—about recognizing that our assumptions about a writing practice have been shaped by beliefs that we can and should make the kids and the home and all the “mundane things” disappear because they are not the stuff of Great Art. Trying to make art the way men have under the conditions men have created, which fundamentally oppose women making art, will always lead to frustration. It’s trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, or a woman into a man’s world. Perhaps we try a different tack.
I talk a lot about embracing interruption though because I am so hopelessly bad at it. I am wedded to narrative even though I have a background in poetry. I like things to cohere. I hate chaos in my home. It makes me irritable and nasty. One at a time please! I’m working! What now? My point, though, is that were caregiving shaped differently, or were writing, women writers wouldn’t be so irritable and nasty.
Phillips discusses embracing interruption as a kind of alternative aesthetics, but also another way in which women writers have countered the image of the selfish, isolated male art monster. “I realized that if I wanted to put up a counter image to the solitary writer, it would have to allow not only interruption but change,” she writes. For women writers, that “change” has often come in the form of a refusal of the expectations of motherhood and the marriage plot. “Working and mothering against the grain, they learned, fought, suffered, and grew,” she writes. But later in the book, Phillips implicates herself, noting that some of the ways the women she studied threw off that plot unsettled her and made her long for the comfort of something less radical.
Books are in many ways like homes—extensions of the body into which we pour our labor. And renovating a home that feels rundown—mending all that’s broken and dated, much less trying to turn it into some new kind of place to land—can quickly take over one’s life. Writing TOUCHED OUT hurt, left sore spots, made my hands and heart raw and vulnerable, splintered. This didn’t help with making me any more available to my children or husband once I put the work down for the day. I longed for an easier way, but I couldn’t see one then. At the same time, I was coming to understand that I couldn’t not write. I couldn’t live in the house the way it was. Writing this book felt like something I had to do, an intellectual, emotional, and psychological remapping I couldn’t go on without. It feels cliche to say I wrote it to save my life, but I did.
I’m very hesitant, however, to glamorize this process. All art should feel urgent. It should feel life and death even when it isn’t. Because it is. Like many other kinds of work are. But you won’t find me saying to other writers that if you really love writing, or value the book you are writing, then you will write it no matter what, you will find a way. I have seen this kind of sentiment circulated among writers, and I know from speaking with many other writers how frustrating this can be to hear— but how? they ask, feeling as though they are not trying hard enough, in a world set up to keep us all from creative activity.
This book was something I had to exorcise, a part of me I had to cut out, shape, hold, hand over. Writing memoir especially can feel like gutting one’s self because it asks us to unearth new truths about ourselves and the world we live in. But after writing this book, a process that was far more challenging than childbirth—the pain lasted so much longer, the healing was harder and deeper, and the result is so far more anticlimactic—I would never guilt other writers into the process.
The healing that has to happen for certain books to come into being can itself be monstrous— trauma purges itself in a sea of verbal red, relationships buck and threaten to capsize. As Phillips notes, it is not always our children that take us from ourselves. Sometimes it is partners who have taken the shape of strangers, parents with whom we’ve tried to remedy complex relationships. Or maybe it is grief, financial struggle, loss, racism, violence, abuse, the crushing toll of the day job.
Suffering is not a precondition for creativity, but it often is for healing. We do it because we must, I suppose, and to save ourselves, but also because we can— because we have childcare, a partner we can exploit, a roof, provisions, the ability to rise early before the waged labor or caregiving responsibilities, and simply because we have, over time, gathered the emotional and intellectual strength to commit to making a thing, against the obstacles intentionally placed before us.
Just because it is painful, though, does not make it monstrous. Dederer closes her essay with a set of questions, including: “Are all ambitious artists monsters? Tiny voice: [Am I a monster?]” Half a decade and a pandemic and a massive shift in how we view Work™ later, I think we can conclude that the answer to the second question for most parents trying to make stuff is no, even though the tiny voice remains. The first question, however, on ambition, is more complicated. What does it mean to be an “ambitious” maker of art? How does this differ from practicing art as a kind of care work, one wrapped up in the process of healing?
Rufi Thorpe asks whether the price of being an artist is being an asshole. For her too, art seems to exist in opposition to not just her children and motherhood, but men and marriage. Her question also cuts to the heart of Dederer’s questions, and to Solnit’s fierce defense of her own writing life: Is it necessary that we hurt others to create?
“I will say this: it is probably easier to be an artist and an asshole,” Thorpe writes. “It is probably easier to get the time you need to work if you don’t care how it affects the people around you. It is easier to focus on achieving one thing than achieving two things.” This is undoubtedly true. When I convinced myself that in the small office was the important thing, and outside the small office everything could wait, it was easier to write. But then I opened the door at the end of the day and found the house had exploded.
One of the great questions I am always grappling with is how not to venerate masculine ambition while also venerating my own creativity—my commitment to living a creative life—without using throwaway terms like “balance” because the world we live in has material conditions that make “balance” an illusion. Because of the material conditions of the world in which I wrote—i.e. the pandemic’s care crisis—I had to become an asshole to write this next book, just as I had to become an asshole when I became a mother because the material conditions of mothering in America made my fulfilling my role and being human impossible and maddening. But now that I have saved myself, I am interested in how not be one.
In that talk about care and creativity, Rich acknowledged the many women who were not in the room to which she spoke—the women who were cooking, cleaning houses, caring for children. Even for Rich, motherhood repeatedly got in the way: “to be maternally with small children all day in the old way, to be with a man in marriage, requires a holding-back, a putting-aside of that imaginative activity.” It took years for Rich to return to writing, to find that tapestry for which she had been searching.
But it wasn’t because art required a monstrosity she had lost. Though Rich saw caring for children and men as a block to creative activity, she clarified this “old way” was not the only way. She felt “the energy of creation and the energy of relation can be united,” even if the roles of the creative and the caregiver have so far been antagonistic.
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