Which is more important? The stories or the people?
Welcome to the Just Beautiful Newsletter where I write about making space for beauty and justice to meet, share about our journey from tinyhouse living to a home on 3 acres, and give you too many links. Right now, I’m focusing on making space for creativity in the midst of motherhood and other such chaos. If a friend forwarded you this email, hit subscribe to get the newsletter each month.
“When it’s all added up, papa, it will be: he wrote a few good stories, had a novel and fresh approach to reality and he destroyed five persons — Hadley, Pauline, Marty [Martha Gelhorn, Hemingway’s third wife], Patrick and possibly myself. Which do you think is the most important, your self-centered shit, the stories or the people?”
-Gregory Hemingway, Ernest Hemingway’s son, who died, an alcoholic transvestite, in the Miami-Dade Women’s Detention Center.
Rebecca Solnit, contemporary pop feminist writer has an essay from about 10 years ago called the Thoreau problem. Everyone in 2012 was apparently outraged at the news Thoreau didn’t live as a hermit at Walden Pond. He would frequently walk into town to socialize and also drop off his laundry with his sisters. He did not keep this a secret, but somehow it shattered his hermit-image in the popular imagination when we all learned about it. There is a bit of righteous indignation one feels at the idea of an artist-philosopher off roaming the woods while leaving the menial labor to the women. Solnit raises the question though - so what? Why does it matter if Thoreau didn’t wash his socks, why does it matter if Wagner is a bit anti-Semitic (or a lot), if Ernest Hemingway destroyed his family, if Dickens was a horrific father? The art can stand on its own. Can’t it?
On the one hand, for a large part, it doesn’t matter. We know it doesn’t matter, because these men did these things, were not good people, or good fathers, or good husbands, but made great art that we still appreciate today without thinking twice. History has also been kind to them. We don’t normally open A Christmas Carol with an introduction by Dicken’s daughter announcing, “Nothing could surpass the misery and unhappiness of our home” when Dickens sent his wife away because she was fat. Frank Lloyd Wright, the famous architect dedicated to creating deeply human spaces, was a terrible husband and father, going through three wives, and a complete egoist. We discover these things and are a bit shocked. Then we forget.
But somehow, we all know that Virginia Woolf had no children and drowned herself, that Sylvia Plath abandoned her own through suicide, that Doris Lessing left her kids to someone else to raise. We tend to know when the mothers are bad people, even if they produce great art. We police them a bit more.
Leah Libresco often talks about the way that feminism sometimes takes a dehumanizing aspect of patriarchy, applies it to women, and calls it progress. There are people who would say its unfair to hold women artists, mothers in particular, to a higher moral standard. We shouldn’t care if the artists are good mothers. The question should be - are they good artists? We shouldn’t be suspicious of their art if it is great, assuming they have abandoned their children. We don’t do it to the men.
But maybe, a better question is not “can we let the mother artists be poor mothers without condemnation?”, but rather — “can we celebrate our artists that are also good people?”
Maybe it’s impossible. Maybe in a fallen world with limited time, resources, and energy, we have to pick. We can be good artists, but not great artists if we’re concerned with things besides our art. As Charles McGrath argues in his New York Times opinion column, “the creation of truly great art requires a degree of concentration, commitment, dedication, and preoccupation — of selfishness, in a word — that sets that artist apart and makes him not an outlaw, exactly, but a law unto himself. Great artists tend to live for their art more than for others.”
Maybe it doesn’t matter. The art itself is inherently great. The stories themselves contain a goodness that impacts the world. They can remain untainted by the person who produced them. Am I part of the problem? I like A Christmas Carol. But do I want a world where there is A Christmas Carol and a heartsick family? Do I want the Fallingwater House and open-plan living as well as shattered children?
I have a bit of a personal stake in this question, as I watch my kids playing on the patio out of the corner of my eye while I type this essay.
But maybe this a false choice. Maybe we can have beauty and justice. Parental love and art. Or maybe, not? Maybe we just have to choose?
We moved into the new house - or rather, a construction site. We have been solving all the old house problems (which, frankly, are quite overwhelming and I am often lamenting my simple life in the tinyhouse). I wrote about it here and here. We painted some walls, though! (Thanks to our housemate!)
The boys are slowly adjusting. They don’t like being so far away that I can’t hear them the second they call. They don’t understand about taking off clothing in the bedroom rather than the kitchen (because, all their clothes are not just right in the kitchen like in the tinyhouse!) They don’t like having “hard walls” (brick, rather than wood). But on the whole they are loving finding new places and spaces to play!
Just Beautiful Links:
I love the work that this mother artist is doing! Especially her current show. She starts on an artwork and paints until her kids interrupt her, marks the circumstance on the back, and then leaves it as it is.
This book The Art of Gathering is fascinating on many levels. All about making space when you gather people for meaningful connection and transformation. Also, the cover is so fun. She has a TED, too.
Loved this interview about writing a novel on your phone. It’s a myth that artists all go off into the wilderness and write books for 8 hour stretches.
A great comment by Grace Kelly on instagram looking at this question of limits, deep work, and our ability to make “great” art. I try to ask these questions on instagram once every week or so. Normally they are more like 4 or 5 minutes, not 10! But join the conversation.
Loved this from Letters of Note. “Second, always remember that, nine times out of ten, you probably aren’t having a full-on nervous breakdown – you just need a cup of tea and a biscuit. You’d be amazed how easily and repeatedly you can confuse the two. Get a big biscuit tin.”
Thanks, friends, for reading along! As someone trying to pull together a “platform” to keep pitching my book proposal about mother writers in history and their creative processes…. you reading, sharing, commenting, and referring friends is a MASSIVE help, and keeps me from wasting time on social media. So, thank you!