Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Jessamyn West: "It's Making Something Beautiful"


In the Old House by Childe Hassam, 1914

Jessamyn West, the 20th-century author of The Friendly Persuasion and many other novels, snapped at a young feminist interviewer when asked if wanting to keep her home neat was an obstacle to writing because she was a woman. The interview, published in the book Women Writers of the West Coast (1983), took place on November 12, 1980. The exchange on order in the home went like this:


[Interviewer] Chapman said, "But you've written that, being a woman, you sometimes feel a certain sense of guilt that gets in the way of your writing. For instance, you wrote, 'I wish I could unlearn the need to straighten the house before writing.'..."

West countered: "Where is anything contradictory about wanting to sit down in the midst of something that is pleasing to the eye? Answer that, please!"

Chapman asked: "What about the fact that you didn't tell anyone you wanted to write until you were 26? You said you thought you were somewhat mad initially for having an urge to write, and I wonder if those feelings of responsibility for the house and the fear of admitting you wanted to be a writer are both tied to your being a woman."

West replied, "I don't tie them to either one. I had a sister, and I think a writer would be lucky if she could be born this way, who didn't give a damn if things are in a wild clutter. She wouldn't have been bothered if there were a pair of shoes on the mantle, but as it happens, I am not that way. I wouldn't feel happy writing until I took the shoes off the mantle and put them down where I thought they belonged. That is just a piece of my temperament. I don't understand the house not being orderly, because that's like painting a picture. It's making something beautiful. That is what I feel about straightening a house."

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