Of Women and Writing
April 08, 2020
Red iguana on green leaves Of women and writing Ranjani Rao ikigai
Between work and home, as I try to find moments of solitude to write, I despair. But I am not the only one struggling with the reality of life, I am just one link in the chain of women writers who triumphed over gender-specific barriers to bring their art to life.

In the popular book Ikigai: The Japanese Secret To A Long And Happy Life, by Héctor Garcia and Francesc Miralles, the authors demonstrate the concept of flow by using the example of a highly prized worker located in Kumano, a small town near Hiroshima that specialises in manufacturing make-up brushes. The woman works in silent seclusion to reach peak performance to create her masterpiece, which, in this case, is a brush. 

During the week I was reading Ikigai, I came across a quote by the prolific writer Isabel Allende who was featured in the New York Times for the release of her latest novel, A Long Petal Of The Sea. When asked about her writing process, she replied,

‘Silence, solitude, and time. That’s all I need.’ 

Was it mere coincidence that two very different women from diverse backgrounds, located at opposite ends of the world and engaged in vastly different creative endeavours, had the same needs when it came to creating something of value? 

Despite their disparity, they were the exception, not the norm; the fortunate few who were able to devote themselves to their chosen task by having access to adequate space, solitude, and time. For most women, the reality of their lives are quite often at odds with their artistic pursuits, a fact that has not changed greatly over the centuries. 

It has always been thus

In Greta Gerwig’s movie version of Louis May Alcott’s Little Women, Amy, the pragmatic March sister declares – “As a woman, there’s no way for me to make my own money.” Marriage was the only option for her to ensure security.

Virginia Woolf’s immortal words – A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” from her 1929 essay titled “A Room of One’s Own” were written half a century after Louisa May Alcott’s novel. Woolf’s words rose to prominence in the feminist wave of the 1970s in America, drawing attention to the basic needs that continued to elude women with an artistic bent of mind. 

In the last fifty years, it is not uncommon for women to earn a living. Even if money is not a constraint to creative women today, time (or lack thereof) certainly is. 

In a recent essay in the Guardian, published almost 90 years after Woolf’s seminal work, Brigit Schulte, Pulitzer-prize winning Washington Post journalist, writes about the deficiency of time, an affliction that unfairly targets women. 

“Women’s time has been interrupted and fragmented throughout history, the rhythms of their days circumscribed by the sisyphean tasks of housework, childcare and kin work – keeping family and community ties strong.” 

Schulte’s words echo my feelings verbatim. How did she know the rhythms of my life so accurately, I wondered? She should know because she has authored a well- researched book on this important topic – “Overwhelmed – Work, Love and Play When No One Has Time.” 

The first chapter of her book which takes us through a typical day in her life as a harried working mother of two, reminded me of Allison Pearson’s novel, “I don’t know how she does it,” a book that I had enjoyed years ago when I identified with the protagonist Kate Reddy, who struggled to balance a full time job while parenting small children.

Joys of motherhood

Long stretches of uninterrupted time, a precondition to the state of flow, is a luxury beyond reach for most women, especially mothers.

Sarah Menkedick, author of “Homing instincts: Early Motherhood on a Midwestern Farm”, a collection of essays about motherhood and modern femininity wrote an article in the New York Times titled “A mother’s fragmented identity”, where she states

“My partial selves — writer, runner, mother — have become like islands I travel between and my life is the ocean around them, unknowable.” 

I have personally experienced the feeling of dislocation that accompanies motherhood, a sense that the self you were familiar with no longer exists, because it has been blown up into many pieces. Pursuing writing as a hobby therefore requires additional effort to first sew these parts together and create something of value. Time, therefore, becomes of essence. But how can a woman claim back her time?

In “Women’s work – A personal reckoning with labour, motherhood, and privilege, ” Megan Stack, a writer and former journalist, tackles the subject of employing domestic help to deal with the ‘immediacy of domestic life and the desperation of small humans’ when motherhood impacts her plans to write her book. 

“The obvious, hidden-in-plain-sight reason women had not written novels or commanded armies or banked or doctored or explored or painted at the same rate as men is because women had been doing all of the work, around the clock, for centuries.” 

I completely agree with Stack. I am therefore surprised and humbled to find women artists and writers who have persevered across the ages to pursue their drive to create.

Finding my Ikigai

Ikigai, is the existential fuel, the essence that drives our motivation, the reason we wake up each day, the reason that imbues our life with a sense of purpose. In the common visual representation of this concept in the form of a Venn diagram, ikigai is the elusive space at the center of distinct but overlapping aspects of all the things we do.

My ikigai is writing, or more accurately, the hope that I will write that propels me through each day while I continue to hold down a full-time and manage a family of four. My fragmented attention span and chaotic life are far removed from the serene ones led by Allende and the Japanese artisan. Naturally I wonder if my writing will lead to the creation of anything of lasting value.

I write because I am first and foremost a reader.

I write because the act of writing gives me pleasure while I am doing it. 

Unable to see the future impact of my writing, I often feel discouraged. But I know that by watching me carve out time for my ikigai, I am demonstrating to my daughters that it is possible for them to engage in meaningful pursuits. By writing, I become a link in the chain that connects  writers of yore who triumphed over gender-specific barriers and contemporary women writers who continue to do so.

While I write in small pockets of time crunched between work, household responsibilities, and other demands, I do so because, like Gloria Steinem, I strongly feel that –

“Writing is the only thing that when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.”

Photo credit @y_mokashi on Instagram 

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