stephanie danler

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.