Women Writers and the Creative Drive

Women writers explore different facets of their creative drive and the writing process.

| May 2014

  • Rosellen Brown finds that her writerly ambition is no longer a constant force, and that her creative drive has at times been dependent on a need to be appreciated and admired.
    Photo by Fotolia/idildemir
  • Collected and edited by Janet Burroway, "A Story Larger than My Own" follows the trials and thoughts of women writers as they trace the highs and lows of their creative careers.
    Cover courtesy University of Chicago Press

When a writer finds success, he or she is also visited by the pressure to sustain that success, and with that a constant pursuit of new stories, characters, and themes. A Story Larger than My Own (University of Chicago Press, 2014) explores the frequent crises of confidence faced by women writers as they approach middle age. Janet Burroway collects the thoughts of writers who are all over the age of sixty, and shares their challenges of a changing publishing scene and the difficulty of combining writing with the ordinary stuff of life—family, marriage, and jobs. In this excerpt from "Parsing Ambition" Rosellen Brown addresses the waxing and waning of the creative drive, or what she refers to as her "writerly ambition."

Every Sunday, like so many who are still addicted to paper, I sit at the kitchen table and turn to the New York Times Book Review, whose attention, for better or worse, is a measure of a certain kind of public notice. I used to find myself idly thinking, as writers will, “Oh, wouldn’t it be lovely to have your book featured on the cover of the Book Review?”

And then I’d stop myself and, with that temple-bopping gesture from the old TV ad for fancied-up tomato juice (“I could have had a V-8!”), I would be forced to remember that I have had a book featured on the cover of the Book Review. I am not boasting; being reviewed so prominently is as much a matter of luck and marketing as it is of talent, as witness all the wonderful books that are born to blush unseen on the tables at the Strand bookstore, where reviewers cadge a little money for their unread copies. On the contrary, I have come to terms with the fact that, for whatever reason we drink from this sweet and bitter cup called writerly ambition, and no matter how, at its best, it should quench our thirst, it will not satisfy us. Our ego needs are deep—unassuageable—or we could never have done this difficult thing, and done it for so long; we wouldn’t have found it worth the dangers.

Writerly Ambition and the Creative Drive

But what, in fact, is that “writerly ambition” about? And is it a constant over time?

Many years ago I had a dream so potent I’ve never forgotten it. I tend to interpret my nocturnal wanderings in the most obvious and conventional ways, but this dream didn’t worry me as much as it amused me for the dramatic way it posed a foundational question.

When I was in college I was at first a contributor to, and then the editor of, our campus literary magazine, called Focus. I was writing only poetry back then, earnestly, wearing the requisite black and taking myself very seriously indeed; the only writerly accessory I lacked was a cigarette habit, for which I’ll be eternally grateful. On the day we brought the finished magazine from the printer’s, we would put large boxes of Focus out on a table at the crossroads of the campus, Barnard Hall, so that students and faculty could pick them up as they passed. And I was accustomed to receiving comments on—read praise for—my writing. Sometimes a faculty member would even be kind enough to send a letter of appreciation for one of my poems, and you can imagine how I cherished those, and how much of what little confidence I had was bolstered by, even built on, such small local fame.

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