ESSAY – Balls, Revisited. Again.

Image of a messy sink,
courtesy of the author;)

Sometimes the stuff of life is so stupid and ridiculous that all you can say is fucking balls, and get on with it.

Recently, I got an invite to read a couple of my stories at a major literary festival as part of a contest I did well in. (I know, big deal, eh?) The phone call during which I was notified was epic in the way only parents of young children can understand, with screaming, yodeling, and dogs barking in the background, and me putting kids into time outs and hiding on my front porch just to be able to hear the contest organizer tell me that my stories were selected.

And the after a stunned silence on my end, the contest organizer asked if I was available to read on that weekend.

My response – sure, my husband’s off work, so he can stay with the kids while I do it.

And that’s the clincher – the kick in the pants as it were – I needed somebody to watch the kids.

Childcare comes first.

Before anything to do with a literary festival or contest winning – I had to figure out what I was going to do with the kids. Hubby’s watching them, because he’s available, and it’s easier if I do a solo road trip by myself than dragging the whole fam along. Now, the awesome ladies behind Twisted Sister would have either taken my kids, helped pawn them off on unsuspecting strangers, sold them on kijiji, or accompanied me on a road trip.

But they’re busy too – with family stuff.

Hubby’s pissed because he’d like to go, our childcare is kaput through a scenario only Rube Goldberg can understand, so somebody’s gotta step up, and it’s him.

But if Hubby was working, I wouldn’t be able to go. Who the hell would watch the kids?

Take a moment to consider this. My stories did well, so I was invited to go to this festival, but I couldn’t because if I didn’t have childcare. I honestly don’t see many men in this position, and it really pisses me off.

Balls. (To be understood as a swear word of your choice, akin to fucking hell or sucks.)

There was a photo of a pregnant sports doctor floating around the interwebs, she was tending to an NFLer while wearing her three-year-old strapped to her back.

And that’s the reality of many women’s lives – one little childcare hiccup, and they’re schlepping a kid through a long workday and dealing with the demands of the job and family simultaneously.

Social media was abuzz with praise for this multitasking mama, and the move was seen as positive for working women everywhere – a sort of you can do it lady, have your kids and a career too.

Which is fine, but – I’ve never seen an NFLer hauling his kids to a game because his childcare arrangements fell through. Just sayin’

It seems to be a woman’s deal. We give birth to them, so somehow we’re stuck with them (legal obligations to provide care aside) we seem to be the primary caregivers and main organizers of such things as childcare.

So when things fall apart – we pick up the slack.

I get this – been in university courses where the prof has to bring her kid along to a seminar and hands them a colouring book and then carries on with the lecture; and I’ve taught university courses where a candidate shamefacedly brings their child to my class and we both scramble to find some age appropriate toys together. I’ve also brought my own kid to the course as guest speakers.

Now, I’m good at multitasking but bringing my – ahem – adorably rambunctious (*snort*) offspring to a literary festival would be like introducing a troop of methamphetamine-crazed chimpanzees to a piano recital. You might say we put the Hyperactive in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

Heck, most days, my kids drive me crazy, why on earth would I unleash this kind of nonsense on a bunch of random strangers?  And having me read, while kid one is beating up kid two in the audience, and kid three is screaming that her brother looked at her funny and kid four is demanding that I sing wheels on the bus – RIGHT NOW –

Uh, I’ll pass. Let’s just say bringing the kids is a no-go.

Which leads me back to the whole premise of this essay. Balls. Or, women and fiction in a contemporary era, where you’re supposed to be strong, and nurturing, and get shit done and have a family and a career and all that.

And something small (but not so small) like childcare gets in the way.

So many things of writing are universal to both men and women (or however you identify gender-wise) – and everybody faces some serious challenges. Everyone needs balls to write – because everybody struggles at one time or another to just shut the door (or quiet the demons in your head) and get on with it. Everyone needs balls to withstand whatever criticism may come your way, and thus damaging your tiny fragile ego, so you either suck it up and go with whatever recommendations are made, or you need balls of ginormous proportions to say no fucking way, I’m doing this thing on my own.

But women (especially women who are parents of children) need a different sort of balls, a sort of super-sized ultramatic deluxe model to stick it out and see things through. (Single and stay-at-home dads out there, I know you exist, and maybe have the same kind of problems, and might be able to relate, or maybe not due to shared custody agreements or their partner’s support – either way, let me know.)

And maybe that’s why so many women I meet who write show me a little story or a novel draft, and smile and say, I know it’s not very good, I just need a little more time…

Time.

Just think about it.

If you have children to take care of, and laundry to do, and meals to cook — who the hell has time to polish and revise a draft umpteen million times and then send if off someplace, and then receive a lovely little rejection letter saying, sorry, but no thanks, it just needs more time…

Unfortunately, time is not what these ladies have. They might have great ideas, and heart, and soul, and sparkling brilliance – but, let’s be honest, they just need a little more time to pull it together; to polish that draft. And keep going.

(Small child interruption – tiny fists are pounding at the door, demanding apple juice. And crackers. Now. I told them to go talk to their father, he can deal with it.)

Maybe that’s why there’s so many ‘mommy bloggers’ out there – Honest Toddler, Scary Mommy and Kim Bongioro of Let Me Start By Saying among the best of them. Because it’s easy enough to write a funny or witty or damned freaking honest blog post while you’re cooking dinner (or nursing the baby) but bigger stuff – like fiction – becomes too hard to manage.

A while ago I was fortunate to meet Canadian writer Jean Rae Baxter, a writer of some pretty dark and twisted stories (A Twist of Malice is my favorite), who didn’t start writing professionally until she retired from her career as a high school teacher. She spent decades teaching others how to write, but had no time to focus on the craft herself.

I asked her about this – why did she start writing so late in life?

She said she was busy, with her career and family.

Balls.

(Ed. Note – These essays were written around 2015-16 and throughout them I’m talking about women in heteronormative relationships with children as a primary caregiving responsibility; obviously exceptions apply, but drop into any #momswhowrite group and you’ll see similar discussion, even now. Balls.)

And be sure to check out the very fantastic Facebook group Moms Who Write and my other essay about women and writing, very creatively called Balls, also up on this site.

Goodreads Review — Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings by Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson’s
‘Let Me Tell You’

Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings by Shirley Jackson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Shirley Jackson is an American writer, now best known for ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ (as seen on Netflix), the book ‘The Birdcage’ (inspiring the movie ‘Lizzy’) as well as being the subject of the novel ‘Shirley’ (by Susan Scarf Merrell) and the subsequent Netflix show.

Previously overlooked for decades (in spite of the success of ‘The Lottery’), Shirley Jackson seems to have crept into contemporary popular culture.

‘Let Me Tell You’ helps put Shirley Jackson, and her work, in a broader context.

Released in 2015, this compilation of short stories, essays, and other artifacts, including drawings and sketches spans Shirley Jackson’s life (1916 – 1965); and includes some unpublished and uncollected stories, and work from her early period during the war, as well as her lectures on writing in as given to college students her final years.

For the truly devoted Jackson aficionado, this collection offers work you might have not otherwise come across; and for the newcomer to all things Shirley Jackson, it offers very readable stories and essays that span styles and decades – from the warm-hearted family slice of life stories, ‘Honestly Mother’ and ‘Questions I Wish I’d Never Asked’ (about the search for resolution regarding a frozen garden hose), to the eerily unsettling ‘Paranoia’ and ‘Daughter, Come Home’ – this collection brings together Jackson’s mastery of humour, and psychological terror – the fears of identity, social pressure, and relationships – set across quiet suburbs and city blocks.

Edited by her children, Laurence (‘Laurie’ of Savages) Jackson Hyman and Sarah Hyman Dewitt (‘Sally’ of the same), with a forward by literary critic and biographer Ruth Franklin, this collection of short stories brings new insight into the work of Shirley Jackson. I highly recommend it to fans of ‘Savages’ and those familiar with Jackson’s biography.

You can see my reviews at Goodreads.com & be sure to visit my Goodreads Author Page

ESSAY — Balls

Image: leftofurban

To write, you gotta have balls.

And to write a lot, and thusly write well, you gotta have really big ones; balls so preposterously enormous they virtually drag on the ground

You gotta have balls big enough to say, “I’m gonna put my damned life on hold, and the lives of those around me, and do little more than write.”

You need balls to say this kind of thing. Of course, I’m talking about metaphoric balls, fictitious testicles; the kind that, if you have them, mean you have heart. Or guts. Or sheer determination. Or even, a reckless nerve of sorts, the kind that leads you to chase the bull out of the field; or to punch that bad guy right in the face; to leap before you look, to do something with little regard for the consequences. In short, balls.

I would argue that to write, you gotta have all these things – heart, guts, and determination. And yeah, you need the short-sightedness to jump in head first and worry about the consequences later.

Writing itself is pretty simple; its requirements are few. A clear head, a device to write with (a laptop in my case), and time to think.

And I see that’s why female writers have historically been in short supply; even today women face tremendous challenges in writing, or heck, really doing anything in a traditionally male-dominated field.

Not always for a lack (of fictitious) balls; but for other reasons. Like time to think. Time to develop their craft.

Good ol’ Virginia Woolf would advocate for a room of one’s own and a comfortable trust fund; but she did not anticipate (in the Victorian ages of servants and cooks) that today’s woman must really do everything. Herself.

The modern woman with a family – I’m talking to you (and, me as well) – is under tremendous pressure. Sure, your spouse or partner might step in, or you might be able to hire someone, but the organizing and scheduling remains your own.

And if you have children, you are pulled in a million little pieces throughout the day, trying to put out fires and take care of everyone else. By the time your allocated writing block comes along, you have nothing left. You’ve given it all away.

I think of “Gone with the Wind”, where Mrs. Tarleton, a renowned horse breeder and rider, spends her days with her mare saddled and waiting while she herself goes about overseeing the plantation, directing servants and family members all while wearing her riding habit. For, she originally intended to go riding.

But her day, and many like that, got away from her. She was busy taking care of others, and lost the opportunity to put herself first.

And that’s a damned shame.

So let’s go back to the notion of balls; phantom testicles so gigantic they require your pants to be three sizes larger, or you simply don’t wear pants at all and hide them under a skirt.

If Mrs. Tarleton had enormous balls (I’m not saying she didn’t have any, just that they weren’t big enough) she would’ve told all the servants and family members to take a flying leap, that they had care of themselves, for at that very minute she was going out riding. And they could deal with life without her for a while.

For a woman to truly excel in anything (writing, the Arts, hockey, dentistry – whatever) balls are the underlying issue. Or a lack thereof. Or having balls enough to say screw all you people, I’m doing the things I want to do (in the writer’s case, shutting the door and actually writing) while the rest of the world carries on without me.

And for many women, it can be hard to put themselves first; I guess it really all does come down to having big enough balls.

*

NOTE: This essay originally appeared in Twisted Sister lit mag and was written in about 2015 with a sleeping toddler on my lap after I got into a fight with my husband over his need to step up around the house so I could get some writing done. So, yeah, it’s real. And honestly, not much has changed. But what carries me through is the fact that I have fucking huge balls.

For more on Women and Writing check out the very fantastic Facebook group Moms Who Write, or any Instagram #momswhowrite and you’ll see women cleaning toilets, changing diapers, and writing novels — because honey, it’s real af. For another essay about women and writing on this blog, check out the soon to be released Balls, Revisited. Again.