Nicole Willey

Summer 2003

Why Do Women Write? An Autobiography of A Dissertation


Nicole—Another interesting chapter. I have, however, been wondering about whether or not it does women writers a disservice to attribute their motive to economic need (rather than aesthetic desire or some form of artistic motive)? Does this simply imply further support of Hawthorne’s “scribbling women” characteristic? It’s also true, as Michael Gilmore points out, that Hawthorne had his own economic motive (and attendant jealousy, I believe) but he is rarely represented in this way. --from Dr. E—‘s comments on the second chapter of my dissertation


     So this has made me wonder, why am I so intent on showing economic motive when I am discussing my women writers? I say mine, because I’m starting to feel like we own each other, like lovers, or sisters. The moment I feel I own any part of these women, that I can count on knowledge about them, they show me that they are changeable, even from the past, from the nineteenth-century American landscape that alternately fills me with curiosity, indignity, boredom. It is much more accurate to say that they own me—my waking life is full of them, or more accurately, my waking life is full of the thought that I should be thinking of them constantly. But I’m not. I’m teaching too many classes to be good at any of them. I’m tutoring and helping out with educational testing at a local S—learning center. (Note how even here I take on the habits of the nineteenth century, giving you only the first initial. Their ways are becoming my ways. )I’m trying to listen as my husband discusses his dissertation, but I’m not focusing. I’m also not focusing on my friends’ lives, their important details. I’m absent as a teacher, as a sister, even as a wife. Chris cooks all the meals lately; I bark out orders. And all because these women own me, the idea of them, the idea that they should own me, that they should be my passion.

     Why did they write? Maybe I should back up, tell you the topic, the topic I’m now unsure of but am sticking to anyway because to go back would be to give up, and probably never to finish. And that is what this is about, finishing. Susan Warner, Fanny Fern, Harriet E. Wilson, and Harriet Jacobs. They all wrote books, at least one. I’m writing about the first novel of each, about their first forays into full-length works, about their autobiographies or novels, about their tales of themselves or the wish fulfillment of a self they would like to be. I’m writing about the men they created, who they liked, who they didn’t. Sure, I throw around some important names and some big concepts: Judith Butler, masculinities, bell hooks, performativity, gender flexibility, sentimentalism, Jane Tompkins, woman’s fiction, genre. But this essay will not be about those names, those concepts. I find myself wondering how my big ideas fit together, if I’m using their ideas fairly, if I’m just using them. I’m forgetting. I often forget why I chose this topic, what made me consider it. Lately, I wonder if my director is right—this will be a book. This will add to the scholarship on these women. Will it? Am I representing them as I should?

     I guess I own them. Do they feel my pull? Are they aghast, as Dr. E— is, that I’m dragging the details of their lives out for everyone (or anyone who might read this book) to see? Do they wish I would focus on the text, forget their poverty, their illegitimate children, their barren wombs, their fights with their fathers? If I am writing about men as they created them, as they wanted men to be, then why am I focusing instead on dying sons and petty brothers and raping masters? I own this representation of them. I want to tell the whole story; at least that’s what I say. I want to be fair. I want to be ethical. I want to look at these books from all sides, the race/class/gender triad but much more. I want to see them as people, as women who made the decision to write. The reasons aren’t always pretty. It’s not always about artistry, but that’s part of it. It’s not always about creating a self, though that’s there. It’s often about money, or prestige, or sheer stubbornness. I know it’s the same for men, for Hawthorne, but why don’t we talk about that? Is it wrong then for me to talk about women this way? To talk about the truth of their writing?

     I find myself writing, three or four days a week, almost against my own will. I hate writing; I’m not a writer. I can’t wait until this is done. These are all things I tell myself, things I tell others. I don’t know what is true anymore. It is true that I don’t see myself as a writer, but neither did any of my women, at least not initially. Should I ignore the economic motive for my own writing on their writing? The degree I’m seeking? The pending job search? The academic marketplace? Does this truth undercut the sincerity and relevance of my passion for these women? Amy Post told Harriet Jacobs to tell her story. She said no, get Harriet Beecher Stowe to do it. Stowe said, sure, I’ll add your story on as an illustration to the key of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. That’s my big work, you know. Your story will never be that big. Will never be as big as my story about a man, about a made-up man, about the original Uncle Tom, about a black man in my image, my imagination, about black people as I want them to be. So Jacobs got pissed. She wrote her own damn story. Her story is about prestige and stubbornness. It’s about art too, it’s about self, but I guess for the story of her story, I’ve let those things get crowded out.

I present you with my first continuous story. I do not dignify it by the name of “A novel. ”--from Fanny Fern’s Preface to Ruth Hall

     You see, I’m not sure anymore about aesthetics. I’ve lost my ability to judge, really, or even care about a scale of aesthetics. But is it any good? But can she write? But isn’t this too exaggerated, no one could live through this—so says a student of mine, a black male student of mine, who finds himself enraged that Jacobs wrote this story to white northern women, that she wrote this story asking for (so it seems) sympathy, or maybe just that she wrote the story. I don’t know.

     Fanny Fern told us her first novel is not a novel. It deviates too much; she deviates; she’s deviant. Many would agree. Certainly her father would, her father who educated her but refused financial help because of the scandal of her divorce, who watched his bank accounts grow while his granddaughter was taken away from his daughter, who later wanted to discuss all the ways his parenting had formed the young Sarah, Sarah who dropped the ‘h’ and became Sara, who became Fanny. This is not a novel. Ruth Hall is part autobiography, part wish-fulfillment, part lie of omission, part public shaming. Ruth is part Fanny, but she is the angel side. She is the grieving widow, the loving mother, the left behind friend, the worthy. But Ruth is told to us through the narrator, who is part Sara, but mostly Fanny. Fanny who is angry, who wants to make herself look better, who wants to make others look bad, who writes for money. Interestingly, Fanny is the only scribbling woman, as I’m sure you know if you are an academic, that Hawthorne liked. And she is the most naked in her desire for money.

     Where is the place for aesthetics in this world of women’s stories? They are readable, they follow and disrupt the genres they are trying on, they follow and disrupt their social codes. They make me laugh, and occasionally, they make me cry. How can I, and even more importantly, how can you, if you are an academic, judge these women? They used what they had. They wrote their stories. They created themselves. We still read them. Isn’t that enough?

I wish I were more competent to the task I have undertaken. But I trust my readers will excuse deficiencies in consideration of circumstances. --from Harriet Jacobs’ Preface to Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

     And what am I doing here? Among these women, these women who write. Maybe I am a writer. Maybe I have a story to tell. (But I doubt it; I doubt it constantly. )I was not born into slavery, I do not have a literary brother or father who will leave me to starve, I am not even a mother. And that’s what all of these women are, except Susan, spinster Susan, waiting for her own John Humphreys to come riding over from West Point—he never came, so as she got older she became a teacher to those boys (I like to think maybe a dirty old teacher, but that’s not consistent with her biography, with her own story of herself). The others are mothers; they created. Men write; women have babies. (Except we know that isn’t true any more. )But women, many women, the ones who become writers, write about that one creative process that men cannot copy.

     Have I mentioned that I should be writing my dissertation even now? That every available time slot should be spent on writing my book, my book which is not my story, but my women’s stories? Or is it my story? In insisting upon writing their lives, am I writing my own? Am I showing my underlying impatience with the postcolonial-poststructural-postmodern, with theories and professors and the academy? I want to go back to the women and their stories. Not very sexy, I know. I should be more interested in those big words, but it’s hard for me to pretend over 300 pages, over two years. Over two years of my life spent with these women. I’m not up to this task.

In offering to the public the following pages, the writer confesses her inability to minister to the refined and cultivated, the pleasure supplied by abler pens. . . . My humble position and frank confession of errors will, I hope, shield me from severe criticism. Indeed, defects are so apparent it requires no skilful hand to expose them --from Harriet E. Wilson’s Preface to Our Nig

     I tell anyone who will listen that I am not up to this. I’m not a writer. I don’t have a story; I only have these women. And I don’t want to write for you anyway, you academics. You who would criticize me and my women. I’m not offering anything to the public that I can’t tear down myself, that I can’t criticize before you. I don’t want to be an academic. I’m tired of the games, of the pretentiousness, of the self-consciousness, of the self-loathing. We are critics; we don’t have our own stories. We are frauds; it must have been a bad year—that’s why I got in. I tell this to myself. I know there are others who tell themselves the same thing. Not men (maybe, but they don’t say it), but women. Other women who write. Sam in our office, letting me try on her graduation gown, the one with the black velvet stripes. Try it on, she said, see what it might feel like. I wasn’t ready to commit to the academic life then. Four years later, I still haven’t committed. She said that men don’t feel like posers, they feel like it is reasonable to come out of college and say, I’m going to be an English professor. Women, we’re doing this on our way to something else. It’s okay if we find other work, quit the program, or, finish and fall into a job. Because most of us would not feel we earned the job, but we got lucky. Maybe not. Maybe all over the country there are women, maybe women under twenty-five, who feel that same entitlement. I hope so. I hope they’re not self-conscious and self-congratulatory to make up for something else, that question inside, am I a writer?

“. . . I would a great deal rather read next door to you; you will help me out when I am in a puzzle. ”
“Do you get into puzzles, still? ” said he smiling.
“Not exactly a puzzle, perhaps—or if I do I commonly work it out, but I often launch out upon a sea where I dare not trust my own navigation, and am fain to lower sail and come humbly back to the shore; but now I will take the pilot along,” said she joyously, “and sail every whither. ” --from a conversation between Ellen and John in Susan Warner’s The Wide, Wide World

     Ellen reads on her own, but she would rather read with guidance. John is her tutor, her mentor, and then he is her husband. He trained the perfect wife. But Susan Warner, did she train John? Did she create man in the image she wished for? Did she want the forceful, virile minister, the fiery intellectual, to come and save her from her father and sister, her big house with no furniture after daddy’s last failed lawsuit?

     It must be great, everyone says, for you and your husband to be doing this together. For you both to be students, for you both to be writing. Yeah, the comparisons, the competitiveness, that’s great. It’s great to get the award he wanted, to admit to him and myself that he should get the job—I don’t want it anyway, remember? I don’t like academics. As long as I can teach, it doesn’t matter. It’s all great. My doubts take us both over, but somehow he is able to remain completely sure that he’s meant to be a professor. I waffle. I write without thinking. I write to get it done. He takes longer. He thinks. He plays. I get the feeling he is doing it the right way, but then he is not a woman writer. He is writing about women, but I get the feeling they don’t own him.

     I have four and a half chapters written. I don’t have a dying son counting on this book. Does that make it less important? Or more? Will my women stay with me when I’m finished? I have found myself almost scared to continue, knowing the end is drawing near. Have I grown used to this writing life? Maybe I am a woman who has chosen to write. Maybe I will still find my own story.

Works Cited

Fern, Fanny (Sara Payson [Willis] Parson). Ruth Hall and Other Writings. 1855. Ed. Joyce W. Warren. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1986. 2-211.

Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. 1861. The Classic Slave Narratives. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Mentor, 1987. 333-515.

Warner, Susan. The Wide, Wide World. 1850. New York: Feminist, 1987.

Wilson, Harriet. Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black. 1859. New York: Vintage, 1983.

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