One of the things I perpetually struggle with as a professor is what to do with myself while my students are writing in class. Like an intellectual life guard, I feel I should be ever watchful of my students as they work: what if someone reaches an intellectual impasse and needs help? Although I regularly open my laptop to check email while my students are working, I struggle to contrate on anything more sustained, knowing someone at any moment might have a question.

Part of me wishes I could make better use of these random moments while I’m teaching to work on my own writing: part of me wishes someone were lifeguarding me, offering encouragement and a watchful eye as needed. It is the shepherd’s job to watch the sheep, but who guards the shepherd? At the same time, another part of me resents this perpetual urge to Make Good Use of every spare moment. Why must I cram my own writing into an occasional stolen moment while doing something else?

I’m reminded of two disparate stories: first, Virginia Woolf’s description in A Room of One’s Own of Jane Austen writing novels in her family’s common sitting-room and hiding her drafts under blotting paper whenever she was interrupted; second, a colleague’s account of how he finished his dissertation in record time because he wrote non-stop for six months while his wife left trays of food outside the door to his study.

Why is it, I wonder, that generations after Woolf wrote her essay, women still have to squeeze creative pursuits between other obligations, and why is it that nobody has ever left a tray of food at my door?

Mightier than the sword

This morning I awoke to the news that Doris Lessing has died. I’ve read only one of Lessing’s novels, The Golden Notebook, and I read it years ago: long enough ago that I don’t remember much about the plot or characters. What I remember about the book, though, is that it was challenging to read, but it somehow felt significant. Even when I didn’t “get” what Lessing was trying to do with her character of Anna Wulf, I somehow found myself resonating with what I might call the “story behind the story.”

Lucy Stone, sitting on stone

I read The Golden Notebook years ago, when I was (unsuccessfully) trying to juggle grad school, teaching, and an ultimately failed first marriage. I read The Golden Notebook because through all of this, I was a sporadic scribbler, starting then abandoning a seemingly endless series of never-filled notebooks, trying to make sense of my life between the lines. Not one but several people suggested I “must” read The Golden Notebook, given its female protagonist’s similar struggle to use writing to make sense of her life and the multiple selves that women create as we try to juggle the various roles society expects us to flawlessly fill. Wulf juggles these disparate demands by dividing her life into several neatly compartmentalized notebooks, and she ultimately finds wholeness when she integrates these separate selves into a single narrative: the all-encompassing Golden Notebook of the novel’s title.

Phillis Wheatley

When I finally read The Golden Notebook after so many ardent recommendations, I initially didn’t find myself relating much to Anna Wulf: the superficial details of her life were too far removed from mine. Ultimately, though, I realized that The Golden Notebook wasn’t really about Wulf or the particulars of her life and work: instead, the book is about the centrality of self-expression in women’s lives. The Golden Notebook communicated this theme through the example of Anna Wulf just as Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own used the example of Mary Beton, Mary Seton, or Mary Carmichael: the name you assign to Woolf’s narrator doesn’t ultimately matter because the experience Woolf describes transcends the particular details of this Mary or that. What Mary faced is what Virginia faced; what Anna faced is what Doris faced; and what all the Marys, Virginias, Annas, and Dorises of the world face is what Lorianne does, too. The details of an individual woman’s story don’t matter as much as the determination to TELL that story.

Abigail Adams stands up for herself

Self-expression is central in women’s lives because women who are not heard become either self-destructive or passive, bowing under the weight of society’s conflicting expectations. Women who are not heard become either Woolf’s Judith Shakespeare or Euripides’ Medea, venting their anger either inward or out. Freud may not have understood what women want, but he spoke truth when he said that depression is anger turned inward. In a society where female rage is demonized, it should come as no surprise that many women are depressed, their experience having no outlet other than self-destructive behaviors.

Lucy Stone contemplates Phillis Wheatley

Men, of course, need to express themselves…but our society is used to listening to men. When a man raises his voice, we assume he has something to say, but when a woman raises her voice, we condemn her as a witch, a bitch, or both. In The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing was unflinching in her attempt to chronicle one woman’s life as an exemplum of all women’s lives. Anna Wulf creates her own identity out of disparate influences and among conflicting expectations, and Anna Wulf does this self-crafting through writing. THAT is what I took from The Golden Notebook. Regardless of whether you’re a Mary, a Virginia, an Anna, a Doris, or a Lorianne, self-determination is inextricably linked to voice. Regardless of whether anyone seems to be listening, write as if your very life depends on it, because ultimately, it does. If you don’t create your own unified self, society will slice you into petty roles of its own choosing. I’m grateful to Doris Lessing for underscoring this fact in The Golden Notebook, and the world seems a smaller place because of her passing.

This is my Day 17 contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

The photos illustrating today’s post come from the Boston Women’s Memorial on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall, which I photographed in April, 2010 and blogged the following month. One of the things I love about this memorial is the fact that both Phillis Wheatley and Lucy Stone are shown WRITING while Abigail Adams is shown standing up for herself, all three women finding a better use for a pedestal than simply being placed upon it.