This is what female monstrousness looks like: abandoning the kids. Always. The female monster is Doris Lessing leaving her children behind to go live the writer’s life in London. The female monster is Sylvia Plath, whose self-crime was bad enough, but worse still: the children whose nursery she taped off beforehand. Never mind the bread and milk she set out for them, a kind of terrible poem unto itself. She dreamed of eating men like air, but what was truly monstrous was simply leaving her children motherless.
Maybe, as a female writer, you don’t kill yourself, or abandon your children. But you abandon something, some nurturing part of yourself. When you finish a book, what lies littered on the ground are small broken things: broken dates, broken promises, broken engagements. Also other, more important forgettings and failures: children’s homework left unchecked, parents left untelephoned, spousal sex unhad. Those things have to get broken for the book to get written.
Sure, I possess the ordinary monstrousness of a real-life person, the unknowable depths, the suppressed Hyde. But I also have a more visible, quantifiable kind of monstrousness—that of the artist who completes her work. Finishers are always monsters. Woody Allen doesn’t just try to make a film a year; he tries to put out a film a year.
For me the particular monstrousness of completing my work has always closely resembled loneliness: Leaving behind the family, posting up at a borrowed cabin or a cheaply bought motel room. If I can’t detach myself entirely, then I’m hiding in my chilly office, wrapped in scarves and fingerless gloves, a fur hat plopped upon my head, going hell for leather, just trying to finish.
Because the finishing is the part that makes the artist. The artist must be monster enough not just to start the work, but to complete it. And to commit all the little savageries that lie in between.
published on today at Paris Review website