Way back in November, I read an article in The Paris Review that has stuck with me since. In the wake of abuse allegations leveled against Harvey Weinstein, writer Claire Dederer asked the question “What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?”
Dederer spends a lot of time contemplating the proper response to art by geniuses who have fallen from their pedestals as a result of bad (and in some cases criminal) behavior. Is it okay to enjoy a Woody Allen movie like Manhattan, considering the relationship the director initiated with his juvenile step-daughter? Can we still watch The Cosby Show and giggle at Cliff’s paternal humor?
What really interested me about the article though came towards the end:
There are many qualities one must possess to be a working writer or artist. Talent, brains, tenacity. Wealthy parents are good. You should definitely try to have those. But first among equals, when it comes to necessary ingredients, is selfishness. A book is made out of small selfishnesses. The selfishness of shutting the door against your family. The selfishness of ignoring the pram in the hall. The selfishness of forgetting the real world to create a new one. The selfishness of stealing stories from real people. The selfishness of saving the best of yourself for that blank-faced anonymous paramour, the reader. The selfishness that comes from simply saying what you have to say.
I have to wonder: maybe I’m not monstrous enough. I’m aware of my own failings as a writer—indeed I know the list to a fare-thee-well, and worse are the failures that I know I’m failing to know— but a little part of me has to ask: if I were more selfish, would my work be better? Should I aspire to greater selfishness?
Every writer-mother I know has asked herself this question. I mean, none of them says it out loud. But I can hear them thinking it; it’s almost deafening. Does one identity fatally interrupt the other? Is your work making you a less-good mom? That’s the question you ask yourself all the time. But also: Is your motherhood making you a less good writer? That question is a little more uncomfortable.
This resonates with me because I’ve experienced the struggle. I am selfish enough to write a novel. Even a series of novels. But I also feel overwhelmed by the guilt of letting other things – equally important things – go as I lose myself in a story.
I’m fortunate to have a husband who encourages me to feed the selfish monster in me who demands my undivided attention. My son has reached the teen years and blessed me with a level of indifference that assuages my guilt when I’m showering imaginary people with the love that is normally reserved for family and friends.
But even with their support (or lack of interest), I’ve got to resist that pre-programmed misogynist twaddle that says men may sacrifice themselves to their art, but a woman can only sacrifice herself to her family.
I don’t want to sacrifice myself at all.
It doesn’t feel necessary.
My husband won’t starve if he has to make himself a sandwich. My son won’t turn into a sociopath if I don’t shower him with constant care. In fact, if I recognize that I’m better off when I have time to follow my own pursuits and make my own mistakes, I have to assume that they’ll be better off without me swooping in to take over for them with my Wonder Woman super powers every time they need something.
Or maybe that’s just the monster in me, making a case for self-defense.