"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
I am writing this post where I write most days: at my kitchen table. I am surrounded by Ziploc bags of toiletries and other half-unpacked detritus from our weekend trip to a wedding. The cat, who tends to walk across my computer when I am fool enough to leave it unattended, and the Chihuahua are practicing their WWF wrestling moves and occasionally drawing blood. On his way out, my boyfriend surveyed the piles of review copies of books on the dining room chair and asked plaintively if I could perhaps give a call today to the library to come pick them up. Yes, I said, but not now. First I have to write this post about whether women can write from home without getting distracted by their domestic responsibilities.
Ah, finally a topic on which us writers can actually claim expert knowledge! One of the unfortunate byproducts of writing about women’s lives is that the vast majority of it is done by writers, a group not known for having workdays that resemble those of the average American worker. So when New Yorker writer Susan Orlean began Tweeting yesterday morning about the difficulties of being a woman writer who works from home, it’s hardly surprising that the greater lady blogosphere blew up with responses. Sing it, sister! We may not be award-winning writers for the New Yorker, but we are all your compatriots in the literary pajama parade!
The Tweets (reproduced here with Tweeterese intact) began with Orlean observing, “It’s much harder for women writers to immerse themselves in subjects; our focus gets pulled off by home & kid stuff. Guys tune out.” And then: “My husband is on deadline and he’s so absorbed I think he’s forgotten my name. Me, I’m on deadline too, but can’t afford that monovision.” (Perhaps as evidence, the Tweet immediately preceding this thought was about giving a balloon to her cat.) She then wondered: “Is it just an accident there are so few female literary non-fiction writers? The focus necessary plus the travel and odd hours makes it tough.” She ended with a digital headshake at those who fail to understand the writing life: “When I was pregnant, people said, Yr job is so flexible — perfect w/a baby! Clearly, they knew nothing about writing and/or kids.”
Let’s take the first part of her argument, because it’s easier to address: Is it harder for women with children to put in the, ah, man-hours necessary to write a great piece of literary journalism? Maybe. Earlier this year, Anne Trubek asked essentially the same question in her piece “Where Are the Queens of Non-fiction?” Trubek begins by pointing out that Ira Glass’ anthology of contemporary literary nonfiction was so bereft of women — there were two, one of whom was Susan Orlean, and both wrote stories that revolved around gender — that he seemed to have no problem giving it the exceptionally gendered title “The New Kings of Nonfiction.” What’s more, the anthology tended to favor the kind of pieces that demanded intensive, often dangerous, immersion in their subject: One writer worked as a prison guard; another as a hobo. As Trubek puts it: “That might be the rub. Female writers are busy raising children. It is hard to climb Mount Everest or become a hobo when you have to pick up the kids from school every day at 3:30.”
What’s more, after analyzing the gender breakdown by byline in four prestigous magazines — Harper’s, the New Yorker, the Atlantic and the New York Times magazine — between 2007 and 2008, Trubek found that not only were women writers woefully underrepresented, but they were also likely to be writing personal essays that were in some way about being women. The best contemporary nonfiction, she writes, tends to fall into two categories: “either reported pieces that are unconcerned with style, or essays that are not reported but are stylistic. Whether or not the two categories are mutually exclusive, reported pieces are coded as masculine, and essays as feminine.”
The exceptions — Joan Didion, Lillian Ross, Rebecca West and certainly Orlean herself — are legion. And plenty of male writers — Michael Lewis, Neal Pollack, fellow New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik — have jumped into writing first-person narratives about raising children. But many of the best female writers at the most prestigious publications — Margaret Talbot, Caitlin Flanagan, Sandra Tsing Loh, Ariel Levy — often work the gender beat (as clearly we here at Broadsheet do as well). One might also mention the odd writing arrangement that former New Yorker writer and fellow Twitter star Dan Baum has with his wife, Margaret Knox, since their children were born: While they insist they collaborate equally on their work, he does the bulk of the reporting and gets the byline. It’s probably not an accident that, after decades of turning out books that required intensive immersion reporting, Orlean’s last one was a children’s book that grew out of a Shouts and Murmurs piece (right now she’s winding up a book on the dog who played Rin Tin Tin, which sounds fantastic; no word on how much on-the-ground reporting she did). While the parent of a 5-year-old might not want to commit to a solo trek across Antarctica, there are plenty of options for parents who need a little time to do some research: Find a topic close to home, bring the family along, or be willing to leave your kid for a spell with their grandparents or their other parent.
While these are all tactics well-known to fathers (my own father, a geologist, was required to live on job sites about a third of the year throughout my childhood and no one thought it odd that we were left with my stay-at-home mother), mothers tend to be more reluctant to do so, and tend to get more shit when they do. But being willing to fall into that role is optional. (Choire Sicha, who originally posted the Orlean tweets at the Awl, brought up as a counterexample writer/musician Kristin Hersh, and I would add that when I once interviewed her we spent a full hour talking about how she spent her entire career as a parent — her first kid was born when she was in her late teens — and a rock star, often taking her kids on tour along with her. Husband and wife team Mates of State do the same.) And the second part of Orlean’s argument — that “our focus gets pulled off by home and kid stuff” — seems like a bunch of bogus essentialism. Sure, it may feel that way to some women. But a) that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and b) we don’t have to buy into it.
Over at Jezebel, Anna concedes that male writers “sometimes view social life as an imposition and rejecting it is almost a moral act, a la Thoreau,” then makes a brilliant and impassioned argument for the possible benefits of mental digression through conversations and relationships that may temporarily take you away from your work, yet actually bring you back with a broader understanding than you had in the first place. (Note: She also rejects the idea that men are “naturally” focused and women “naturally” multitaskers.) And over at Double X, Nina Shen Rastogi, who does not have kids, wonders if writing “might actually be easier with kids around,” since her problem has always been her “vast and echo-y apartment” and the way “the emptiness of the apartment begins to reflect the emptiness of the page.” In a word: Yes, it might be. (The poet Ted Hughes used to like to put his desk in the hallway where he could hear the bustle of family life around him.)
My entire writing career — such as it is — has coexisted with raising a child as a single parent. In college, I had a certain number of hours of day care each day and wrote at night. When I had a day job for the first few years out of college, I went to sleep at 8 o’ clock, set my alarm for 3 or 4 in the morning, and wrote until 7, when I took my daughter to school. My parents tell me that once when I was a kid staying with them in a hotel room, I crawled under the bathroom sink to find a private place to write. Now that my daughter is in college, but still living at home, the two of us often work in adjacent rooms, and any minute now she’s going to walk in the door from her barista job (promptly sending the dog into a frenzy of happy barking). My writing has been our sole source of income for over 10 years, and thus I have had very little guilt about ensuring that it gets done.
If the house gets too noisy, I use earplugs. If the dishes aren’t done at the beginning of the day, I don’t make it my job to have them done by the end of the day. If I’m writing in a teeming mess, well, I’ll write in a teeming mess. I can be distracted by any number of things — IM, Twitters about cats and balloons, and until recently, cigarettes — but I don’t think it has much to do with my gender. Though I can’t say he’s happy about it, my boyfriend — who moved in when my daughter was a senior in high school — is the one who maintains orderliness and cleanliness around here. I try to help out in the name of egalitarian partnership, etc., but, like the stereotypical dude who leaves his coffee cups around and his hoodie on the chairs, there are times I simply don’t see the mess. When I’m on deadline, I never do. And though 20-year-olds pretty much care for themselves, there are many days when I believe my focus was actually clearer when I was the mother of a young child and it was crucial that I fit my writing into the hours provided. Honestly, there are some times when I envy those friends of mine who are now having babies — seriously, no one is more focused than a parent who only has two hours till the baby wakes up, or the baby sitter leaves, or it’s time to swap with your spouse. Now, if you’ll excuse me, the Chihuahua has alerted me that my daughter has forgotten her damn keys again.
Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.More Amy Benfer.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)