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Between the lines

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This past summer, I took on a book project in which I wrote 250-word biographies of 50 eminent women authors. Godwin and Walker and Alice Munro, Sandra Cisneros and Joyce Carol Oates—I made a song out of it. These biographies would not begin when they entered college. Rather, I planned to use my meager allotment of words to trace how these women became writers.

Themes repeated themselves with eerie regularity: Nearly all mentioned the influence of listening to stories told by family members. Nearly all described turning to books as a refuge. Many were divorced. Several, including Oates and Alice Hoffman, turned out to be major Bob Dylan fans.

Perhaps most prevalent was the indication that the gift of writing manifests early. I saw multiple variations on this idea. "[Anne] Tyler wrote her first book when she was seven," for instance, or Thirty Umrigar's admission that "As a child I would write 'anonymous' poems to my parents whenever I felt wronged by them." Still, despite the early sense that they were writers, more than half of these women put off devoting themselves to writing in order to first be mothers. They wrote on the side, "in secret," between laundry and lunch prep, to kill the tedium of workaday tasks.

Some of this is generational, of course, but it held for several contemporary novelists. Parenting wasn't the only impediment; the sentiment of "I just didn't feel ready" or "I just couldn't claim myself as a writer" was common, and not just for women like the African-American author Paule Marshall, who said that she was always "waiting for permission." While studying English literature at Barnard, Jhumpa Lahiri, the 2000 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, wondered, "Who am I to dare to do that thing here?"

I'd be willing to bet that if I had been tasked with writing 50 bios of eminent male authors, I would not have come across a single career forestalled by the responsibilities of raising children. I also doubt there'd be a single story of excommunication, though I found three with women: Abigail Thomas was expelled from Bryn Mawr in 1959 because she was pregnant; Alice Thomas Ellis was kicked out of her convent in 1962 after injuring her back; and Jeanette Winterson was excommunicated from the church for her involvement with a woman.

In many ways, I—a 51-year-old man living in North Carolina—did not see myself reflected in my research subjects. I wasn't a prodigious self-starter. I sought refuge not in books but in playing outside all day or making mischief. Unlike many of my 50 subjects, I never flipped for Jane Austen. But on two counts—hesitating to call myself a writer, and having to squeeze writing in between everything else—I completely empathize. I'm currently sitting on a 115,000-word nonfiction book—my first—that I began seven years ago. It has been written between a thousand parenting and household responsibilities.

I've come away from my immersion in women writers with the notion that writing under less-than-ideal conditions is a fact of life—my life, anyway—and one I am more than ever determined to embrace.

Correction: The woman who got kicked out of the convent for hurting her back was Alice Thomas Ellis (not Rafaella Barker).

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