Carol’s cooking sucks (& so does her life!) – OR – Housewives as Heroines

May 29, 2008

Well, so I’ve got it a little off. The precise term is “Stinks,” not “sucks” but the implication is the same. I’m referring to an otherwise unidentified woman, who herself made that statement about her own cooking, and wrote of her life in a similar manner. The story appears in a great book called: Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives Through the Cookbooks They Wrote by Janet Theophano.

Although there are many more positive women in Theophano’s book – which focuses not on the cooking and cuisine, but rather on the mostly-anonymous women behind cookbooks of all sorts, from about the 1700s through the 1900s.

Carol stood out to me because of her frustration, and her willingness to write about it – her cookbook doubling as a diary. Carol is a 50 year old woman, living, cooking, writing and “venting” sometime in the 1960s or 1970s. She appears to be desperately unhappy. Her husband does nothing. She works at a full time job, then comes home and works. Dinner is the biggest chore. Housework is a second job with very little compensation – and apparently very little appreciation. She uses the term “dingbat” – so I wonder if she wrote while watching All in the Family – that term used by Archie Bunker to berate his wife. Did Carol’s husband do the same?

Carol, through her cookbook/diary, reminds me of another woman of the same time period, who is the major character in the documentary film called 51 Birch Street who kept journals for decades through a mostly-unhappy marriage. Granted, there were parts of that woman’s story I didn’t want to know, but what emerged through that film was a woman who longed to break free from the roles society, her husband, and family, had placed upon her, as rigid as a prison. Carol seems to inhabit a similar prison. Both women were trapped by their times and paid a heavy price.

I believe that within the next, say, 10-20 years, a new vision of women in the 1950s and 1960s – after World War II and before the “women’s movement” – will emerge that shows the heroism of their everyday lives, their struggles for self-determination, the stubborn refusal of society and their husbands (and perhaps their kids) to grant them a mind, a heart, and indeed a space of their own – and the courage of these women to continue – to fulfill not only their responsibilities to others (it’s always about others) -but to finally grasp and proclaim their own dignity and worth, as individuals, irrespective of husbands, children, or others.

I never thought of housework or preparing dinner as courageous acts – but after reading Carol’s story – I see how preparing dinner every nite was such an act of conformity – which grieved her soul – and an act of courage – “doing what had to be done” despite a desperate desire to flee. In her cookbook, her unhappiness at her situation is clear. She talks of suicide and divorce, all because of the immense weight of the double burden of working outside of the home full time – and working inside of the home, almost equally as much – and her husband’s distance, emotionally as well as his lack of involvement in household tasks.

The more I learn about the *real* lives of housewives in the 1950s and 1960s, the more I am grateful to them for what they did, and the burden they carried as our mothers and grandmothers. We have this “blissful” “nostalgic” idea of the smiling mother, dad with his pipe and a sweater vest, and a boy and a girl cheerfully smiling at the dinner table, but what we don’t see is that Mother is clenching her teeth in a frozen spiteful grin – polite, as always – but seething inside that Dad has his houseslippers on and is relaxing reading the paper, while she has to cook for four in high heels and a silk dress after she has been on her feet all day. (oh, her aching feet!)

I’m not writing this as a rant, or even a diatribe against housewives then or now, or working women or moms, or even the “traditional family.” Not at all, and quite the contrary. What I am saying – and this through what Carol shares about her life, and others like her – is that all of these women deserve our respect and admiration. Housewife and mother are the most taken-for-granted roles and tasks there are. Those women need an award or medal – just like loyal employees who have a perfect attendance at the factory or an accident-free year on the assembly line. All those housewives of years ago – are heroines!!

P.S. I realize some of my readers may in fact be those very housewives – today or years back. Thank you for your courage and dignity in your everyday lives!!!

©2008 writingreading

Women’s Clubs a Great History Resource

May 28, 2008

I realized today that maybe one of the best ways to research women’s history (at least, for around 1880-1920 or so in the United States) is through records, minute books, newsletters and similar materials produced by various women’s clubs, such as book clubs, gardening clubs, and other types of “local” associations – not to mention more national-level and well known groups like women’s church groups, Red Cross, and other groups.

I say this only because I know it is often hard for the beginning researcher to do identify source materials for women’s history. A lot of times, the types of sources like I mention above are not explicitly identified as “women’s history” resources. They might only be listed by their name, or a general identification like “Clubs” or something similar.

Another reason, and maybe the major reason, that I think these are worthwhile resources to pursue is because of the concept of “separate spheres” – women were expected to stay out of the political arena, be concerned with child-rearing, and so forth – but viewed from a feminist and/or modern perspective, sometimes these organizations appear to be quite benign on the surface – but turn out to be very politically active and savvy – wielding women’s power in the forums in which it was “granted,” and then some! Like (fictional example) a women’s charity organized to aid orphans. Well, that could lead to broader child welfare issues, getting the children out of the sweatshops, advocating better city sanitation, or all sorts of other things. I think it goes along the same lines as the adage: “The personal is political.”

I hadn’t thought of using this blog as a way to offer and share (and perhaps receive!) research tips, but maybe that is a good idea. I certainly do enough research and sometimes come across weird and interesting things while looking for something else (one of the pleasures of research – yes, it can be FUN!!) – so maybe I’ll start doing that occasionally. Though I still expect to spend most of my time on other things and topics, something like this might be a nice diversion now and then.

©2008 writingreading

Bibliographies – In Danger of Extinction?

May 25, 2008

I was shocked, dismayed, and disappointed when I recently read a couple of non-fiction historical works – complete with footnotes and written by very well respected scholars – which did not have bibliographies.

I don’t understand why a publisher would omit about 20 pages of truly useful material. Maybe to people who don’t do research, who are just interested in sales of product and economizing, those extra 20-30 pages of academic details are just fluff, icing on the cake, and we’re all trying to be on a low-fat diet. But bibliographies, along with footnotes – are the bread and butter of academic research!

Sure, the footnotes are still there, and are in their own way invaluable – but bibliographies serve a different function. Footnotes help you find the specifics – like the individual newspaper article where X is reported, or the court case that set up Y, or the letter home from soldier Z who told his wife about what he saw at Shiloh.

But bibliographies paint the broader picture. What resources – especially books, some of which might be somewhat obscure – did the author use to inform the broader context and background of their topic? Perhaps there is not a single quotation or reference to a particular book (which would be documented in a footnote), but nevertheless that book’s theoretical background or overall perspective on a subject was invaluable in the way the author approched her subject.

I’ve also found bibliographies particularly important in my own research. If I know I’m going to be making a trip to Indiana, for example, and scholar A cites several collections of materials at the Indiana Historical Society on a certain subject, I can target those materials for my research when I go there. Having a bibliography puts all references to collections at a particular institution together in one place. I don’t have to search through pages and pages of footnotes to compile my own list of “what sources did they use from Indiana?” This, for me, is the most critical and vital purpose of bibliographies. I cannot state this forcefully enough: Bibliographies are an essential tool for furthering scholarly research and inquiries!

What I believe publishers may not realize is that the bibliography may not be nearly as important to the author of a work, as it is to the work’s readers. Maybe I’ve just finished a great book, and I want to read more on the subject. A bibliography enables me to do that.

That being said, a bibliography is still extremely important to the author as well. As a hypothetical author, I would fight tooth and nail to get a bibliography included in my book. I’ve done far too much work and research to have half of my toil omitted by completely ignoring sources that I have consulted, though I may not have quoted them.

It seems also that a bibliography is a good, open method for me as a scholarly writer to inform others about sources that I may have unconsciously drawn upon. Perhaps I pick up and use a phrase or perspective in my work that I “absorbed through osmosis” in my various background reading. A bibliography would cite that source. Without the bibliography, I might be in danger of having the appearance that that catchy concept was my own – instead of someone else’s, though hopefully I would be conscientious enough to avoid this pitfall.

I don’t know how prevalent this practice of omitting bibliographies has become. My recent experience is based upon two books put out by Alfred A. Knopf, by two very highly respected scholars: My Face Is Black Is True by Mary Frances Berry (more on this one, later) and This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust. I don’t know if other publishers are following this trend, or if Knopf is the only one to throw out the bibliography with the bath water.

But I find it a sad day for academic and scholarly publishing – even when done by more popular presses, as opposed to university presses – when the bibliography seems headed the way of the dodo bird, towards extinction.

©2008 writingreading

Swimming the Ocean

May 21, 2008

I believe writing a book is like swimming the ocean. At least, it feels that way. I swim and swim and swim, thinking I must surely be at the half-way point by now – but I look behind me and see that I am only about 500 yards off-shore. The pull of the tide pushes me in, then pulls me back out, so that I no longer have a sense of distance. My muscles ache and tire, the sun reflecting off the waves is blinding, yet I know I cannot give up. I allow myself to drift for a bit, and relax, but I cannot give up completely, lest I drown.

I’ve been working on a non-fiction book now for over six months, probably longer. I’m talking writing, here, not counting time doing research which is a whole different ballgame entirely. It’s like treading water. Even though I know I can’t write much more than maybe a couple of pages a night, on a good night, and maybe not much more than 10 total in a week – it feels so grindingly dullingly slowwww. And I’m talking about the process and progress here – not the reading-pace of the book. (It’s still a first draft anyway, and that comes later.)

The truth is, I’ve got probably 70-100 pages altogether, written – and so maybe I’m 1/3 or 1/2 way through the book, with however much more to go. But at this point, it so often seems like I will never, ever get finished – so much so that at times I’m tempted to say “forget it” and let my dream die. I know that this book is important to me, that it is something that I am truly passionate about – that it is one of the few things that can break through my daily cynicism and give me Purpose and Meaning.

So why is it that I find the going so difficult? That I can have an entire day stretched before me, just waiting to spend the endless hours writing — and not even begin to get started until 5pm? Or wail and thrash about, shuffling papers or surfing blogs and websites, and then wonder why I didn’t get anything done at all today?

I think writing must be like crossing the vast states of Tennessee, cross-wise, or Texas, in any direction, or going lengthwise up the coast of California. It takes forever!! And it’s usually when you are getting close to the end, when you feel the most like you’re never going to get there! But I’ve made enough road trips to know – you just have to keep going, you will get there!

Maybe it’s all in my perspective. I’m all wrong to think I’m swimming the ocean. I’m just a blind woman in a swimming pool, swimming in circles, and I don’t realize I’ve already traveled so far.

©2008 writingreading

Writers groups give life, hope

May 18, 2008

I’ve been reading, occasionally, a book called The Fiction Class by Susan Breen. I rarely read fiction or novels of any sort, so this is a bit of a break for me. I’ve found it an interesting read, so far.

Arabella is a writing teacher, her mother is in a nursing home. The book flows mostly between Arabella’s writing class, and her visits with her mother. It is interspersed with a mostly blank page which contains the writing assignment she’s given to her class for that week. I think that is a clever idea, and is a neat way to draw in the reader of Breen’s book to become a “participant” in Arabella’s class.

Part of what drew me to the book is that there is a thread throughout of Arabella’s “real” life plus her fiction class. That juxtaposition of fiction and reality was what intrigued me. And the exercises neatly sandwiched in.

In the portion I was reading tonight, one of her students becomes suddenly ill during class. Chaos ensues, and come to find out, the student is ill from chemotherapy. Mimi, the chemo-character, pleads with Arabella: “You’re going to tell me I shouldn’t have come to this class today, but I couldn’t bear to miss it.” “When I’m in this class,” Mimi says, “I don’t feel sick.” “I need to be here with other writers. That’s the only way I can survive this thing.”

And though I don’t face anything at all like Mimi does, I believe in her words with all my being. That’s exactly how I feel about a small writing group I belong to. I would have to be pinned under the wreckage of a semi-truck before I would stay away and miss a meeting of that group. It’s just that important.

I hope any writers out there, especially those who might be “tentative writers” or “wanna-be” writers, or those who long to call themselves writers but somehow feel like they haven’t deserved the “title” – find a group where they can come together for support and encouragement and laughter and tears. You will find both your writing and your life enriched because of it!


The group I write with is guided by a woman who is an affiliate of Amherst Writers and Artists (AWA). I don’t know if all their affiliates lead groups or not, but it would be worth checking their list.

©2008 writingreading

Blogging as an Act of Faith

May 12, 2008

I’m not much for faith or religion of any kind. I tend toward the existential, skeptical, doubtful and cynical. That’s where I feel the most comfortable. Among the questions, not among the answers.

But I realized today that what I’m doing by creating a blog, as both a practical matter and from a more philosophical point of view, is in fact an act of faith. And in many ways.

Faith in myself –

  • That I will “commit” to myself (and to others, if there are others) to post often enough to sustain my blog and my readers. That I won’t neglect The Blog to the extent that it becomes a dead carcass.
  • That blogging helps me to create and maintain the discipline I need as a writer (even if drawing time away from my Primary Mission – offline writing!)
  • That I have something to say, even when I think I don’t. Dare myself to try. (and not just “fill space” – nobody wants that!)

Faith in the Web of the universe –

  • That “if I build it, they [readers] will come.” I’m not out to be a Big Blog – that’s obvious enough. But I do hope that I will have some visitors who stop by for a spot of tea now and then, maybe like what they see, perhaps tell another soul, and grow a small but interesting group of readers.
  • That although my blog is still in its infancy, with its features unformed, its voice still a shrill squeal, and uncertain of its bearings, that over time, it will grow and mature to learn, have fun, and eventually take its place in the larger society of the blogosphere.

Like in the real world, I often have my doubts. “Does it matter? (does anything matter?)” “Is there meaning in what I’m doing? (is there ever meaning in anything?)” And sometimes, even if I answer “no” – I still keep searching, and asking the same question(s) again. By asking the very questions, repeatedly – I reaffirm my doubtful faith that surely there must be some purpose, some meaning, some reason…for everything…for anything…for something, even just one thing. For me. For all of us.

Even though I say “There is no reason. Never has been. Never will be. It is just a farce to think there is a reason, and if I didn’t believe it, or try so hard to find one – and just accepted the absurdity of it all – I’d be a lot better off.” And yet I find myself asking the same question(s) again, all over again. My persistence in Asking must indicate I have at least a microscopic mote of Faith in Purpose, and an equally microscopic element of Doubt in my Doubt.

I know from my work with archives and history and similar resources and materials, that it is often not the single “valuable letter” that makes a collection of materials special, unique, or important. It is the accumulation of materials relating to daily life – letters written about the crops, the weather, Aunt Betsy’s hat – that are often of more interest and significance to historians – precisely because of their everyday ordinariness. Just a single letter about Aunt Betsy’s hat might not be all that interesting – but taken in context, within the larger whole, it may gain in significance…because you later find out that her hat marked her involvement in the suffrage movement, for example – and then you get a whole lot more out of it! It is the accumulation of things that marks its significance, not a single item (or post).

In a similar way, I have to have faith that my occasional labors in the blogging world will someday be of interest not only to myself, as a retrospective, but to others, and that as my blog begins to grow – so will I.

I have the Faith – skeptic tho I am!

©2008 writingreading

Secrets for the World to See

May 12, 2008

I’m sure this is all very old news, but in case there are other writers/readers out there with their noses in a book or notebook, instead of staring at the web, here’s a great site. It is called Post Secret. People mail in (the old-fashioned way) postcards with their secrets on them, and they are collected and some are posted online or even published in hard copy. I found the current collection in honor of Mother’s Day, especially intriguing. (Look fast – a new round of cards is posted every Sunday!)

More than all of that, however, as a writer, I see “prompts”. Not only do I imagine the “real life” stories behind all of the cards – but I can easily see how I could develop my own characters and plots based on these cards. I had seen some of the published books in a bookstore – and for some reason, the online version does more for me. But I hadn’t really consciously thought of these as writing prompts until now.

©2008 writingreading