Miriam Schapiro, Celia Gilbert

As we know, I am fascinated with Working It Out. I need to put this volume aside, though, so as to pore over other things. I also think I will see some things in it more clearly still if I come back to it later, yet I do not want to leave it unfinished on the present read-through. This is a set of brief notes on some pieces to which I shall not attempt to do justice now, and quotations from two which draw my attention sharply: Miriam Schapiro‘s “Notes from a Conversation on Art, Feminism, and Work” (283-305) and Celia Gilbert‘s “The Sacred Fire” (306-322).

Essays to which I am paying less attention now are Kay Keeshan Hamod’s, which includes a really useful discussion of women in Victorian England (and I do think my mother and I were both raised to believe we were there); Hamod was later Professor of History at Rutgers University and died in the late 1990s. alice atkinson lyndon (Alice Wingwall) writes on her work as a sculptor; Joann Green shows telling work in progress or process; Diana Michener talks about the difficulty of daring to become an art and not a journalistic photographer.

Alice Walker’s 1974 piece for Ms., In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, is reprinted here; it carries the power of the saints. “Our mothers” are plural and they reach back and back in time. Connie Young Yu writes about deciding to “write Chinese America;” I think “but she is a doctor’s wife, she can afford to work in the way she does;” then I think of the doctors’ wives I know in real life, now, who do not do such things. Naomi Thornton writes about acting; I will return to all these people in a few months.

There are references in many of these pieces to the fear that if the writer is truly successful, in a way that is true to herself, people will die (or, alternatively, she will be killed). I am assailed by these images as well.


Born in 1923, Schapiro grew up with the idea that the world was a place where only a man could work. She did not act on this idea, of course. What constitutes work? She considers teaching, which she does for pay, her second work and painting her primary work. I knew that when I was in school, but this idea has been considered almost sinful, for women, in some places I have been a professor. She has trouble recognizing the kind of domestic labor her mother performs as work. Read Alice Walker, and also become aware of the skill and planning that goes into that kind of work – especially if one is doing more than take care of a student apartment, or helping out with light cleaning.

She was a token woman in a male art world, and was beset by doubts as to whether she, a woman, could or should really be an artist. And the male artists were not comfortable with woman artists who did not establish themselves as female – e.g. relate in a sexual way, discuss sexual identity – first. Women artists, meanwhile, did not seem to respect each other deeply. They would talk about their personal lives, but not about painting.

And she was, like many writers in this volume, lost in her role as a woman artist. Not having the conditions to work the twelve hour days Rembrandt had, giving pieces of herself to others as women in patriarchal society do, she began to have difficulty affirming herself in her art in the time she did have to devote to it. She actually lost the ability to work, and experienced this as having forgotten how to make a painting. She went into a psychoanalysis based on the theories of Karen Horney, which are worth studying. Looking up Karen Horney, I found this sentence, which explains many things: “In the 1930’s, Brooklyn was the intellectual capital of the world, due in part to the influx of Jewish refugees from Germany.”

She started working again, but in a different vein and spirit. “Although I was indoctrinated early into the ways of work, no one had been able to tell me before why to work or for whom.” (291) In California in 1970, she met and worked with Judy Chicago. She was fascinated by the women artists she met in California — serious people but poorer than New York artists, working “in the most invisible, most anonymous way” (294) and with what I would call a much stronger feminist consciousness. (292-294)

After this experience she began working in a more feminist way. This had various aspects, only one of which was beginning

to redress the trivialization of women’s experience…. I learned … that my sense of my life, of my conflicts, of my work as mine alone, was a false view of my own history. I learned that all women had experienced some version of problems I had taken to be unique. (300)

She says:

When I talk to you about my ambivalence, my fears, my guilts, I too am trying to help us make new connections. I too was “victimized” by this culture. It took a movement of women to equal, to balance, in my head, my father’s image. Until I was struck by the mass, the weight, of women’s works, I could only live with my fears, not overcome them. Women made me understand that I could join them, that we could join together, that I could proclaim myself a woman and do my work. Things seemed to snap into place; my work ecame joy. I had been in the fog for many years. I had been clear about being an artist, but not about much else. (302)


When I look back on the years of excessive self-doubt, I wonder how I was able to make my paintings. In part, I managed to paint because I had a desire … to push through, to make an image that signified. The fear of death is on the other side of that desire, the other side of creativity…. I don’t want to be mystical. I do want to stress … the interconnectedness, the experienced duality, of death and creation. The principal artists in the fifties were men; and almost every other one drank himself to death. Why? … It had to do with … responsibility for one’s work and doubts about fulfilling that responsibility alone in the studio. It had to do with facing death, alone, while trying to create life.” (303-304; there is much more here about the relationship between life, creativity, work, and death, that is worth reading and considering.)

Schapiro works in a very different way than does her husband, less apparently “organized.” And she notes that to work, to place work at the center of your life, is living, is being a full person. This is, of course, why I have always resented it when people try to break my concentration by saying, “You work too hard.” (Although these people might be related to those who say taking time off is “decadent,” I reckon.)


I am avoiding reading e-mail today because there is a letter from Evergreen Review, on a story I submitted last year. I am assuming it is a rejection. I submitted it four places – you can do that with creative writing – and it has already been rejected from two of these. I sent another fragment of this novel to only one place, and it was rejected.

I have not decided yet where to resubmit that second piece and I somehow want to get it sent off, or get that manuscript moving again in some way, before reading this rejection slip. That is one reason why I want to put Working It Out away for a while, although this book has me mesmerized. I will say a few things about Celia Gilbert, and then go.


Born in 1932, Gilbert grew up in a traditional family. Her aunt was happy as a “career girl” but her parents considered this aunt a “poor thing.” Her father appreciated her intelligence, so long as it was (at least so far as he knew) officially inferior to his own. She married a man who did not have values nearly so traditional, but she insisted upon reproducing her parents’ marriage with him – largely so as to retain her own mother’s love.

When at 34, in 1966, Gilbert began to work again as a poet (she had won a poetry prize at Smith in 1951, but stopped writing when she was married), she found that she was ignorant of work. She was “unfamiliar with the process: the need for persistence and encouragement, the small achievements that lead to greater confidence, the courage to try, the courage to fail.” (312) She was unused to viewing her actions as important, and she had a sense of inferiority that masqueraded as modesty. She assumed that others’ achievements were “real” and hers were not. (312)

Being a good daughter meant not working; Gilbert felt passive and dependent (I do not or do not realize that is what to call it) and saw herself as captive and paralyzed (I do that). She grew stronger slowly. She doesn’t feel she can write “just anytime,” and she learned to insist on her writers’ hours. Anne Sexton was one of her professors in the graduate program in Creative Writing at Boston University, and it is not clear to Gilbert that she would have become a poet without the women’s movement. And had she begun writing seriously earlier, she “might have believed in the androgyny of art and ignored the hegemony of male editors, publishers, and attitudes,” but she did not. (317) On work she says, and I could write almost exactly this:

For me, there had been a taboo on work as powerful as the proscription against incest. To give myself to my work–to admit that I loved it as much as husband and children, needed it as much, perhaps more, was the most terrifying admission I could make. [But] the challenge of work is in daring to use my whole self in the struggle for growth. Without that growth, I would be living an “unlived life.” … [Like Prometheus, women], defying their fear of punishment, [should] wrest from men that jealously guarded fire, the sacred right to a work. [She contrasts the fire Prometheus steals to the hearth fires women traditionally tend.] (319)

Perhaps the reason I am fascinated with Working It Out is that I would like to write my own contribution to it. Perhaps I will do this but if I do, I will have to find a way to limit the amount of time spent upon it per day or week. I used to think Friday evenings would be a good time for this kind of writing; perhaps they are.

It might be a creative piece, or it might be a chronicle for a feminist journal. It might be an academic piece on working — not necessarily for this journal, but for some journal. This piece and the piece I may have had rejected from Evergreen Review are some of the kinds of writing — literature, personal essay, journalistic essay — I really like to do.


One thought on “Miriam Schapiro, Celia Gilbert

  1. …although I might get bored writing that piece, too, since it would go over so much old ground.

    I think the difference between me and all these people, unless they are being super discreet, is the abuse and the jealousy around money. They don’t seem to have parents mad at them for going to college / going where they did / choosing the majors they did / having their own money to go to college / etc. … they don’t talk about the jealousy and envy and the way my going to graduate school scared my mother because it made it still easier for me to discuss topics she couldn’t with my father … then there was my father’s anger at us about her … and so the whole thing is so imbricated with my parents fighting with us over my father’s aunt’s money, and then all the warnings from him not to be an academic, and all the discussion from my mother about how only academics and artists were honorable, etc. … so that Reeducation and those unwanted book revisions, together with the awful conditions at my first job, were the last straw. I’ve thought about all of this so much that I don’t want to think about it any more, and yet I note in all of these stories how comparatively *easy* things were for some of these women, less affected by the recriminations from the parents I live with, helped out by someone else’s primary income, and with the clarity of the 60s and 70s movements to support them.

    What new could I talk about? Realizing in 4th grade I could have a career, surprising the teacher. And not having had enough s*** jobs and why. And why I wouldn’t have gotten married as most of these writers did. (I didn’t feel I could do these things because of the guilt / criticism / etc. from my mother — I was not good enough for the jobs or for a marriage in which I wouldn’t be mistreated. These things have hampered me quite a lot.)


    Anyway: what I learned from this book generally: that I *do* have the problem of guilt over having A Work Of My Own (which these writers also have) and that it is common. And — how much influence the abuse and guilt had. And — how I almost did overcome it all (and still overcame a lot). Hmmm.

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