Stonework is published by Houghton College, a Christian liberal arts college located in New York’s rural Genesee Valley. Stonework seeks a diverse mix of mature and emerging voices in fellowship with the evangelical tradition. Published twice a year, the journal reflects the arts community at Houghton College where excellence in music, writing, and the visual arts has long been a distinctive.

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  • Issue 6
    Poetry by Paul Willis and Thom Satterlee. Fiction and interview with Lori Huth. Essay by James Wardwell, and student poets from Christian campuses.
  • Issue 5
    Poetry by Susanna Childress and Debra Rienstra. Fiction excerpt by Emilie Griffin. Art from Houghton's 2007 presidential inauguration and a forum on women writing.
  • Issue 4
    Matthew Roth--new poems. Diane Glancy--from One of Us and an interview. John Tatter-on gardens and poetry. The Landscapes of John Rhett. Stephen Woolsey--on the poetry of Jack Clemo. James Wardwell--on Herrick.
  • Issue 3
    Poetry by Julia Kasdorf, Robert Siegel and Sandra Duguid. Fiction by Tom Noyes. The portraits of Alieen Ortlip Shea. An anthology of Australian Poets
  • Issue 2
    Thom Satterlee - Poems from Burning Wycliff with an appreciation by David Perkins. Alison Gresik - new fiction and an interview. James Zoller - Poems from Living on the Floodplain.
  • Issue 1
    Luci Shaw — new poems with an appreciation by Eugene H. Peterson & Hugh Cook — new fiction and an interview

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

"For Such a Time as This:" A Forum on Women Writing

Organized around the theme selected for the inauguration of Shirley Mullen as the fifth president of Houghton College, “For Such a Time as This,” the 2007 Writing Festival featured three women writers: Susanna Childress, Jean Janzen, and Leslie Leyland Fields. Susanna Childress, who currently teaches at Hope College, is the author of Jagged with Love, a collection of poems selected by Billie Collins for the Brittingham Poetry Prize. Jean Janzen is a winner of a Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. The most recent of her many books are Piano in the Vineyard (poems) and Elements of Faithful Writing (essays). Leslie Leyland Fields, professor of creative nonfiction in the Seattle Pacific MFA program has published five books including Surviving the Island of Grace and Surprise Child. During the last session of the festival, the three gathered to discuss their writing, the challenges of their professional lives and the connections between faith and gender. The session was moderated by Houghton writing faculty member Lori Huth, who teaches fiction and screenwriting.

Huth: I’m hoping that the questions can be a springboard for you to go ahead and talk in whatever direction you want. First, I was curious to find out what you think it means to be a woman writer, and does that qualifier “woman writer” seem significant to you still? Or, another way of putting this is, does the label “woman writer” pigeon hole you? Does it free you somehow? Or do you think that this is an irrelevant qualifier that we no longer need?
Audience Laughter
Huth: Someone has to be first.
Leyland-Fields: I remember, I was giving a reading and I was introduced as a poetess—
Audience: Ooooo…
Leyland-Fields: That’s what we do. We say women writers. Do we ever say “men writers”? We never put gender for men in front of writers. So there’s part of me that really does object to that.
Janzen: I had never really thought about it, until I was elevated to pioneer by a woman I respect deeply. And there I was going, “yes, I somehow had the vision to write and I was a woman.” I think the strangeness of that has lessened and I’m glad. It’s a relief. There is a sort of comfort with being just a writer. But I think the fact that we are three women speaking about this has some value.
Childress: Well, I’m just barely a woman, so…
Audience laughter
Leyland-Fields: There’re a lot of ways to interpret that.
Audience laughter
Childress: I’m a girl writer—um, no, no…I was about to quote Britney Spears, but no, no, that’s ridiculous.
I don’t know that I’ve ever been referred to as a “woman writer,” but I know that my work seems, at least to me, markedly feminine; and I don’t know how to express that. So that poses a problem in terms of how we offer characteristics of women’s writing or qualify our writing. I’m working from a woman’s body and a woman’s point of view. So how can that perspective not give my writing a particular slant?
I think at this point we don’t have to be like Anne Bradstreet, who had to defend herself and say, “Some would say my hand a needle better fits” or something like that. We don’t have to defend ourselves in that way. It’s an equal opportunity world and we can be writers if we want to be writers. At the same time, I think career, motherhood, attention and energy, are issues that I don’t know that men face in the same way. So, I think being qualified as a woman writer then complicates what it is that I do and how I go about doing it.
Then again, I really don’t like books like Marge Piercy’s The Moon is Always Female, or I only like certain parts of those books. Peircy’s was written back in the seventies when women were writing these really strong pro-woman, feminist poetry, these sort of books that are about sort of metawriting, like I’m writing about being a woman writing. In the seventies that probably worked. That was the issue at the time. But I no longer feel as though women need to be metawriting.
Huth: Well that’s actually a really good segue into my next question. You’ve identified that we’re no longer in the position that Anne Bradstreet was in our attitude toward gender. But do you think that the goals of the feminist movement have been achieved? In other words, do you think that we, as women writers, are as respected? Is there parity in terms of publication and access to readers and so on?
Leyland-Fields: I’ve never thought about parity in publication. I would hope that a publishing house never says, “Okay we’ve got to get fifty percent men—no, actually, let’s get the percentage of men writers to match the percentage of our population.” I don’t know. I guess that I am so confident in women’s ability to write as well as men that we don’t need any sort of quota for women writers.
Janzen: I would say – I couldn’t prove it – but I sense that there is still a kind of “old boy” connection about publishing, especially the big houses…
Childress: And with poet laureates…
Janzen: Yes, so I think that we have not broken the glass ceiling really. There is still a club.
Childress: Oh yeah.
Leyland-Fields: But, you know within the Christian Booksellers Association, 85 percent of the book buyers are women. So as a woman in that marketplace, you know you’re definitely at an advantage. I don’t know the specifics within the ABA, but I do know that the majority of the book buyers are women. Women read more then men.
Childress: Talking from my sub-category of poetry, which is what I know best in terms of movements and whatever else: it has been a male world. You’re very hard pressed to find women modernist poets.
Who are they? Marianne Moore. Gertrude Stein too, if you count her work as poetry. Okay, there’s two. Then you keep going and here comes Anne Sexton and here comes Sylvia Plath. And wow, were they volcanoes of women. And now we’ve sort of got the post-confessional and language movements, which are by and large feminist driven movements. There are so many women writers who are respected and it’s a really wonderful thing but the old white men are still the poet laureates. I’m a little weary of it.
Why haven’t they chosen some vivacious young or old woman to be the face of poetry for the United States?
Janzen: To be fair, we need to mention Rita Dove.
Childress: That’s true.
Leyland-Fields: That was a number of years ago.
Janzen: I was celebrating my sixtieth birthday in New York City and she read at St. John with four Nobel prize winning poets. This was done for my birthday, of course.
Audience laughter.
Janzen: It was the most magnificent event.
Huth: Yesterday, Jean, you talked about a writing passage that you had done that was sensual and, at the time, seemed bold. You made a joke about how that would be mild for Susanna to write about. And so my question is, what’s behind that joke? What do you think has changed in writing generally, or for women writers in particular, in terms of subjects that you can and can’t approach? Is there any sense of taboo?
Leyland-Fields: Well, Susanna and I had a conversation this morning right after chapel. She said she was dying to write a tampon poem.
Childress: That’s true.
Leyland-Fields: And I told her, well I just wrote two essays with tampons in them. And I recognize that there are boundaries. I write creative nonfiction, so that means that I am writing from my life, from lived experience and obviously that means my net is cast around those I live with. So my boundaries have to do more with family and a lot less to do with sex or with gender issues. So I don’t feel any constraint about talking about tampons or having your period or woman things of the body. I don’t feel a restraint and that’s part of what I think is our call as Christians. But okay, not every woman wants to go out and read a tampon poem.
Audience laughter.
Leyland-Fields: I think it goes back to the seventies when the domestic suddenly was legitimate literary territory. That was revolutionary; and so I want to absolutely defend the domestic, the right to write about laundry, to write about all these things. But at the same time, I was just reading on the internet the other day an essay complaining that too many women writers are confining themselves to the domestic. There’s too much chick lit.
Childress: For the record, I despise chick lit. I think it’s embarrassing.
Huth: Could one of you sort of define, or just summarize in your view, what chick lit is, so we know what you’re talking about?
Leyland-Fields: Okay, let’s see if I can be a little more objective. I would say it started maybe with Bridget Jones’ Diary. It was considered the first exploration of the single woman in the city, the angst of the single woman. And you know, it’s really interesting how trends start, and the minute one book is popular, everybody jumps on and says, “Oh I want a piece of that.” And so it created this whole movement of literature about mostly single women in careers. And now, as the chicks got married and had little chicks of their own, that gave birth to mommy-lit. Okay, you can add the vitriol now…
Childress: I’m just tired of this sort of high-heeled, New York girl - you can put another adjective in there - that is all about her pillow-booking and her sexual exploits and how she’s just as manipulative and cruel as a man. Why would we ever want to live up to that? Come on, women! And I just get so sick of it when I walk through the book store and see it filled with these novels. And there are even stickers on the books now that say “chick lit.” Come on…
But there was something else that I wanted to say. What was the original question?
Huth: It was about, are there things that are taboo still…
Childress: Yes. What is so interesting, is that I’m now having a harder time being honest about my family members and about relational experiences. I never believed my first book of poetry would be published. I never sat down to write thinking, “My dad’s going to see this or my mom’s going to read this or my aunts and uncles are going to read this.” I just was sort of writing. What’s funny is that, for those of you who were at my reading last night, and I hope I can be so bold as to say this, I wrote about sex before I had it, before I was getting any, and now that I am married, my husband has forbid me to write about it until he was dead. And so that is a self-imposed taboo. And so I’m trying to find other ways to talk about our life and intimacy and the weird, strange things of being married. Yeah, there are still some taboos.
Huth: Do you want to add anything, Jean?
Janzen: Well, this is probably already understood but it would relate to what you just said so I’m going to add it. I wouldn’t have written about my grandmother’s suicide until my father died. I learned about it the day after he died, so I couldn’t have, but if I had known I still wouldn’t have written it. It was such a sorrow he could not talk about it, and I didn’t know if I would ever publish it, until my very conservative cousin said to me, “Finally, someone has to tell the story.”
So, in some ways, I think we need to respect how people, family members especially, might respond to what we write.
Huth: It’s interesting because it seems like most of you are suggesting that the taboos you sense are more in your relationships and responsibilities than some kind of social pressure, which leads a little bit into my next question.
Maybe the other two of you will disagree with this, but, Jean, you mentioned yesterday that writing is an isolated or isolating task and that caused me to sort of wonder, how have you felt this isolation? Do you feel like this isolation as a writer effects your relationships, especially the relationships you have as a woman out of which you are expected to do a lot of nurturing and caring; you know, as the daughter, as the mother, as the wife? Is there a tension between those responsibilities?
Childress: I’ve been single for most of my life, and there’ve been very few constraints as to when I could or couldn’t write: however, I would agree that it’s both an isolated and isolating process or experience. But I am so blessed that I married an artist and my husband is my very first reader and so for me there’s this sense of immediate community.
Janzen: And you’ve been in a graduate program with other writers. Graduate school, for me, was a time period that was slim because I would take two classes at a time and then go back home. I was not in a dorm or in student activities. That was isolating. I did have the class, but even there it was somewhat limited for me.
Leyland-Fields: I think the isolation is not… I mean, yeah, it’s partly going off to be alone and quiet most of the time when you’re working. You go into the room, close the door, and close everybody out.
But I’ve found that there’s a deeper kind of isolation in writing and maybe it’s what leads writers to write in the first place and that is that you do feel alone. You feel profoundly isolated. And I think that’s the truth; I think we are all alone and very separate from one another and I think maybe the writer feels that most of all and sees that most of all. And the writing is a way of entering into that and a way of remedying that by writing yourself back into the web of people and relationships and family.
So that sense of isolation, I think, is at the core of being a writer. And I think people need to not run from it. If someone says, “I’m so lonely,” I would say, “I understand.” We are lonely, because we are still, in some ways, separated from God and we will not ever be fully whole until we are back with Him in body and in spirit. And in the mean time, loneliness and isolation is part of what it means to live in this world. It’s that very loneliness that compels us to find and create community. But even that community will not fully assuage our apartness from God and one another in this world.
Janzen: That is a beautiful segue for me in that my emerging manuscript which is almost finished, is really about the very different ways God is present in my life. And I think I didn’t even recognize that writing, and the loneliness that drove me to write, is what brought me the possibility to know it.
We should all go pray and be with God, but that sort of forced isolation of writing allowed me to be able to even find some language for it; I hope. Some of you will be reading Paper House and you will find it’s there. And so, it’s really a wonderful pay off for loneliness, because ultimately then, as you’d say, you’re not alone, ever.
Childress: Joseph Conrad said, in Heart of Darkness, that we live as we dream: alone. And when I stumbled upon that quote in undergrad, it was really important to me because I’ve always felt a supreme sense of isolation from my peers. I just felt misunderstood—not avant garde, cool, boheme, kind of misunderstood, but more like people just didn’t quite get me or I didn’t feel like I was connecting fully with them. And I wanted to be known so much.
I was finally able to make a distinction that doesn’t make sense linguistically but makes sense for me conceptually; that my life is not a lonely experience but it is an alone experience. And I don’t know if that makes sense, but somehow it works for me.
Janzen: That’s a better term; that’s what I should have used yesterday, really, it is. And I think we do feel that way. Some of you who are writing, and almost couldn’t know if you’re going to keep writing, find yourself watching what people do and hearing what they say and wondering, “why do people think that’s important?” Sometimes you know there’s something bigger, better, deeper. And you ask yourself, “Does anybody else feel that?”
Does that make us seem arrogant? I hope not.