Susan Orlean Asks, Is Writing Harder For Women?

Writer Susan Orlean is generating a lot of discussion with this Tweet: "Is it just an accident there are so few female literary non-fiction writers? The focus necessary plus the travel & odd hours makes it tough."

Choire Sicha at The Awl speculates that (Salon's) "Rebecca Traister is going to be mean to her," presumably over the sexist subtext of the notion that women can't focus, but Orchid Thief author Orlean elaborates thus,

@georgiakral I don't think it's sexist — I think men/women have different styles of focus. Women r better multitaskers, for better & worse.

Aside from the silliness of seeing a New Yorker writer spell "are" like that, this statement is still a little essentialist for my taste. While some studies suggest that women may have some advantage in multitasking, we all know plenty of single-minded women and task-juggling men. And, obviously, both focus and multitasking can be learned. But farther upfeed, Orlean writes,

But 1. Society expects women to do it all. 2. We (I) feel guilty neglecting home stuff. Men I know are more ok with that.

And,

Society would look very harshly at a woman who missed kids' events, etc; men get a free pass on that stuff.

While men don't get quite as big a get-out-of-parenting-free pass as they used to (Michael Lewis has to change diapers now), it's still much more acceptable for a man to put his personal life on hold for work than for a woman to do the same. I've had a lot of conversations with other writers about this, and women almost always report feeling guilty for placing work above relationships — not just with kids, but also with friends, parents, significant others, etc. Anna H. says that when working on her book many years ago, she "had to TELL people that I would not be calling, emailing, socializing for 7 months, and, even though I was upfront about it, I still felt very guilty." Male writers I've talked to, in contrast, sometimes view social life as an imposition, and rejecting it as an almost moral act, a la Thoreau.

Neither of these outlooks is necessarily superior to the other — I tend to view personal relationships as essential to life, and maintaining them as a joy as well as an obligation, but I also understand how being a social entity can be constricting, and how it can be rewarding and even necessary to simply live in your own head for a while. However, it's certainly true that women are largely expected to have the former outlook, and the expectation makes not just writing, but any occupation that requires occasional periods of absorption, more difficult for us.

I can think of several successful female nonfiction writers who are married with kids — Anne Fadiman, for instance, and writer/musician Kristin Hersh, who Sicha points out is currently Twittering about watching squirrels. And not having kids — as Nina Shen Rostagi of Double X reminds us — is no perfect recipe for getting work done. Still, women in general and moms in particular get a lot more criticism for saying, "go away world, I'm working."

So is this a bad thing? Yes, in that it always sucks when men get a pass and women get flak for the same behavior. But it's also true that distractions can sometimes enrich one's work. Orlean writes,

@MDTeresa Yep, and if part of your brain is remembering to buy milk, you have that much less for your writing. It is a zero sum game.

I'm not sure it really is. Some of my best ideas have come from mental digression — and from my conversations and relationships with other people. Sometimes writers need intense, isolated focus to get the job done, but sometimes they need to broaden that focus to take in the world around them. Obviously it's true that time spent caring for kids, calling your parents, and buying milk cut into your writing time. But they may make your writing better in ways you can't predict. It would be nice for female writers to be able to shut themselves off from society from time to time, without guilt. And it would also be nice for everyone to embrace a variety of different processes for writing and for work in general, and not to privilege one single-minded and traditionally male-associated approach.

Susan Orlean Needs a Room of Her Own! Or a Wife! Or Bodyguard! [The Awl]
susanorlean [Twitter]
A Room of One's Own-and No Pesky Kids [Double X]