belong to nobody but yourself

Simone de Beauvoir ( source )

Simone de Beauvoir (source)

‘In order to write, in order to be able to achieve anything at all, you must first of all belong to nobody but yourself.’ - Simone de Beauvoir responding to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One's Own, in a 1966 lecture called ‘Women and Creativity.’

I have been a (silent) fan of fellow Australian writer Louise Omer (formerly Heinrich) for years. Today, browsing through my Feedly in between bits of spicy leftover rice noodles at my desk, I saw she had updated her website, with a different name. Curious, I read on and clicked on the article she shared which explained why.

I find it interesting that we (and by we, I mean society) are always curious about why a woman changes her name, or doesn't. We assume so many things. If you've been reading me for a while, you'll know I didn't take Tom's surname when we got married eight years ago and no one has ever questioned that decision, least of all him. But sixteen years ago I did take my first husband's surname and I was very excited to, because the idea of being an entirely different person was kind of the point of the whole thing (something I can only acknowledge looking back). Strangely, I would have taken Tom's surname if he had really wanted me to…but he didn’t. And that signalled to me that I’d made the right choice. A man for whom that was vitally important would not have been the right man for me to marry. 

The world is no doubt on the cusp of change, and hopefully it won't always be this way, but it's weird that a woman changing her name or choosing what name she will be known by, still feels like a political act. But to me, and it sounds like to Louise as well, it was a deeply personal way to reclaim my identity and do what felt right to me, in my bones, not just what the convention was. It was time, as Louise says, "for my grown-up name." Which in my case had been my name all along. But for others, their "grown up name" is taking the surname of the person they love and have chosen to spend their life with. Which is totally fine too. We're all just making our private, personal choices. We are all different - a fact that hasn't really been reflected in how women have been treated and expected to behave over the past few centuries. 

Perhaps it comes back to this idea that many of us still feel inhibited when it comes to meeting our own needs. Being selfish, I suppose, which I was raised to think of as a bad thing to be and something to avoid at all costs. But the flipside of that is that you suppress your feelings and desires because you learn early on that expressing them is not safe. In the end you become numb to them and on the rare occasions you are asked directly what you want, you have no idea. 

And there's the "selfishness" you need, in order to create, in order to be an artist. For men this never seems to be an issue but for women it always surfaces at some point. I listened to a podcast a few weeks ago, an interview with American novelist Stephanie Danler, whose words stopped me in my tracks:

"The reasons I left my marriage were not clearcut but they had something to do with writing the book. And that has always felt like a very ugly thing to talk about. There was a point where I felt I had to either choose my life with my husband - the one we had spent six years building together - or I had to choose myself and my novel. And even with the success Sweetbitter has had, I still to this day don't know whether I've made the right choice. But this is the one I'm living with.....I couldn't have done it [written the book] in the relationship I was in, not because it wasn't supportive....but because I couldn't be selfish in the way I found was necessary for me to create. I feel that's a bit of a taboo, it's not something I find women talking about often - is that you actually might have to be deeply, deeply, painfully selfish in order to make art a priority."


It’s funny. As I get older and (hopefully) mature, I feel I know my younger self better now than I ever did then. Every time I'm brave enough to confront something in myself, or I read articles like this or listen to podcasts with people who have also been through a divorce young, another lightbulb goes off, another penny drops and I think, yes, that was it, that was what I did, that was what I thought, that was me too

I long for the day when it will no longer be radical for a woman to belong to nobody but herself.

words help me to be in the world

Photo of Laurie Anderson by Clifford Ross, via  BOMB Magazine

Photo of Laurie Anderson by Clifford Ross, via BOMB Magazine

I listen to the radio most days. Today on BBC Radio 6, I listened to Laurie Anderson interviewed. Her voice had a lovely calm quality, listening to her was like hearing a bedtime story read to you when you were a child, but some things she said made me jolt to attention and reach for my notebook to scribble them down.

She said that life can be so intense and overwhelming, for many of us, and we often aren't sure of the right thing to do, so she and her late husband Lou Reed came up with three rules to live by. I loved them and thought I'd share them as you might love them too.

Don't be afraid of anybody.

"What would your life be like if you were afraid of no one?" Laurie asked the airwaves. It's quite a sobering thought.

There has only been one time in my life where I can honestly say that I steamrolled over fear and didn't let it stop me doing anything. It was a brief, golden time when I was 25 and 26, in the immediate aftermath of the end of my first marriage. That period certainly had its dark times, but the fear that had so defined my life up to that point was suddenly on mute because I no longer felt I had anything to lose. I no longer 'over thought' anything. I just did things and didn't really consider what anyone else might think. It was wonderful.  And so freeing. 

Get a really good bullshit detector. And learn how to use it.

This is something for me to work on. I need to trust my gut more and be less afraid of making it known that something doesn't sit right with me. I need to switch the discs on my cerebral mixing deck and stop overthinking everything. If I overthink, my bullshit detector's batteries get low. 

Be really tender.

I love this one. It's a nice antidote to the harshness of everyday life. I want to apply it to my art too. Hannah Kent told me that one of the best things you can have as a novelist (and as a human being) is empathy. I've been absorbing myself in research for what I hope will be my next book and the characters are slowly making themselves known to me as the notebook I started just as a place to scrawl the occasional line is nearly half full already. The challenge for me with this work is exploring the worlds and inhabiting the minds of women who are so different to me, who are going to make choices that I don't think I could. So I'm keeping 'tenderness' in mind as I read, scrawl and get to know these people.

I think I need tenderness for myself too. It's very tempting to keep pushing myself, make life centre around "the next Big Thing" but, again and again, being present and in the now is what frees me, unplugs me and helps me move forward. The minute I stop all the pushing, all the pressure, is always when all the good stuff happens. Patience, and tenderness. 

"Words helped us both, a lot, to be in the world," said Laurie towards the end of her lovely interview

Me too, Laurie. Me too.