Tillie Olsen - "The Essential Angel”
Suzanne Montz Adams
Maxine Hong Kingston called Tillie Olsen’s Silences “a valuable book, an angry book, a call to action.” This was true for me on a very personal level. Reading Silences for the first time a year ago, I finally found a reason to stop berating myself for not writing more, not publishing more, not being more. At the same time, thanks to the voices of indignation and wisdom in Olsen’s book, which I highlighted or dog-eared or noted on literally every page, I also found a way to claim a writing life for myself—to make the time, to recognize writing as a valuable endeavor regardless. Though Olsen and I were fifty years apart in age at the time of her death, with all the cultural, technological, and feminist change implied in that passing of a half century, I felt in her a kindred soul—a woman who knew firsthand what troubled me, the struggles I had experienced, the jagged angst that lived inside me.
Olsen was an activist in labor, social, and political causes, yet it is in her work as a writer that she has had the most widespread impact and where her legacy endures. She may have spent two decades silenced as a writer while her energy was devoted to raising her children, but when she finally had the time to speak and to write, her words resonated with marginalized people everywhere—women, the working class, the poor—in a voice of truth which will, for many years to come, continue to echo off the deep interior spaces of those who have been silenced.
In Silences, Olsen gives voice to the challenges faced by working women and women with children who long to write. Reading this book, I vacillated between anger at the social situations that remained unchanged in the twenty-five years since Silences was first published and exhilaration at discovering a community of women writers who grappled with the same obstacles that I did.
Olsen had four daughters vying for her attention, their incessant needs clawing away at her time. I have three sons. Though in their teenage years now and less demanding than they once were, my boys are still my priority and I suppose I will always find it difficult to weigh their wants and desires against my own. As Olsen points out, “Women are traditionally trained to place others’ needs first, to feel these needs as their own . . . their satisfaction to be in making it possible for others to use their abilities” (17).
Even though I was a woman who recognized her feminist tendencies early, I quickly relinquished my dreams for my family. Not only did others expect it of me, I expected it of myself. Someone else’s needs always came first while I had to be satisfied with whatever time or energy was left over. When my boys were young, Time or Energy never appeared without their frequent companion, Guilt. Why was I writing when the dirty clothes were multiplying like rabbits behind my back? How could I spend an hour at the computer when we were out of milk?
My role as a mother provided an important sense of self-worth. I kept my love affair with words fairly private with only my husband and a few close friends and family aware of its existence, but I tried to squeeze in creative writing classes and I read every book on writing I could find.
When two of my three boys were in school, my first essay was published and I felt ready to embark on a new career with writing more central to my goals. But my husband had recently been offered a new job requiring extensive travel. Within six months of his acceptance, it was painfully clear that my goals would be simmering on the back burner for a while. “More than any other human relationship, overwhelmingly more, motherhood means being instantly interruptable, responsive, responsible . . . that there is no one else responsible for these needs, gives them primacy” (Olsen, 18-9).
I was faced with the catch-22 of being financially able to choose whether or not to work and feeling solely responsible for the well-being of my three sons. I was afraid that if I pursued my own goals during those years, my sons, who were already struggling with the emotional effects of an absent father, would suffer further. In Silences, Sallie Bingham writes:
I don’t believe there is a solution to this problem, or at least, I don’t believe there is one which recognizes the emotional complexities involved . . . life with children imposes demands that consume energy and imagination as well as time, and that cannot all be delegated—even supposing there were a delegate available. . . (210).
In protecting my children from suffering, I suffered. I made sure that all desires were met except my own, swallowing my protestations in a slow process of self-annihilation. As my stash of unmet needs and desires grew, I swallowed them, one by one. When my husband’s baseball coaching took precedence over my attending a coveted writing class, I choked on my resentment . . . fumed a little, then gulped it down. Every time a rare day set aside for writing was cancelled by a sick child, I slid the disappointment down my throat. On a day when I could no longer contain my anger, I raised my voice in anguished objection and was called a bitch. That word, with its pointed edges and raw, metallic taste, was particularly difficult to swallow, but I finally managed it even as it cut my throat going down.
In those silent years, I lost precious hours of becoming better acquainted with all the nuances of my beloved words—how they held up under pressure, how they performed in various settings, how they were perceived by others, how I could improve them. Even though I had more demands on my time than ever before, I was determined not to relinquish my dream so easily. Perseverance became my constant companion as I struggled to learn how to write well on my own.
Publication was a ghost I chased for many years after. In my defense, I wasn’t submitting very much material and I didn’t understand the game very well. I had little imagination or energy to give to my writing when my life as a virtual single mom to three little boys left me depleted beyond words. As Katherine Mansfield says in Silences:
I am too tired even to think. What makes me tired? Getting up, seeing about everything, arranging everything, sparing him, and so on. That journey nearly killed me, literally. He had no idea I suffered at all, and could not understand why I looked “so awful” and why everybody seemed to think I was terribly ill… (215)
Next to this passage, I wrote in large script in the margin: “This is so familiar to me.” It was eerily familiar. Several years prior, a surgeon had removed a mass in my throat, a large lump plainly visible to all who chose to see it. I did not make the connection to what I’d been swallowing. And I kept silent, habitually swallowing my anger and frustration until several years passed and another surgeon removed a large polyp in my stomach. Only after she told me that I was very young for this type of polyp and that little was known about its cause did I consider that my stomach had become the new burial ground.
When I was actually entombed in those silences, I blamed myself for not being talented enough, prolific enough. I was incredibly busy, but why couldn’t I find time to write when other women seemed to be able to blend their writing lives with raising children so effortlessly?
My perfectionist and sacrificing nature was certainly no help. I was the epitome of what Virginia Woolf names “The Angel in the House” who “must . . . be extremely sensitive to the needs and moods and wishes of others before her own . . . ” (Olsen, 34). Olsen writes:
there is another angel, so lowly as to be invisible, although without her no art, or any human endeavor, could be carried on for even one day—the essential angel . . . who must assume the physical responsibilities for daily living, for the maintenance of life. (34)
Someone has to do it and that someone has, almost without exception, been the wife or mother in the house. In such situations, women become “mediocre caretakers of their talent” (Olsen, 37). Not only was this true for me, but I simultaneously supported my husband in his career to the detriment of my own. He was the financial slayer after all; how could I argue for the time and right to work on my writing when I was not being paid to do so? What was I adding to the family’s welfare? In my husband’s mind, and to a large degree, in mine, when writing, I was engaging in a selfish activity with no apparent benefit.
Olsen quotes Jane Cooper in Maps and Windows:
‘Didn’t anyone ever tell you it was all right to write?’ asked the psychiatrist who came along much later: ‘Yes, but not to be a writer.’ Behind me lay the sort of middle-class education that encourages writing, painting, music, theater, so long as they aren’t taken too seriously, so long as they can be set aside once the real business of life begins . . . (197)
I knew that ignoring my ambition was not inherently right or fair or even justifiable, yet until I could prove my worth as a writer, I also couldn’t seem to wholeheartedly engage in it. This seems to be in line with what many writers have experienced. Carolyn Heilbrun writes of “the forming of a life in the service of a talent felt, but unrecognized and unnamed. This condition is marked by a profound sense of vocation, with no idea of what that vocation is, and by a strong sense of inadequacy and deprivation” (Heilbrun, 53). Although I thought writing might be my vocation, the doubts were continuously fed by the lack of publication and the problems I encountered in the act of writing itself. My affair with words had seemingly become toxic to my sense of self-worth.
Margaret Fuller, quoted in Silences:
If any individual live too much in relations, so that [s]he becomes a stranger to the resources of [her] own nature, [s]he falls, after a while, into distraction, or imbecility, which can only be cured by a time of isolation which gives the renovating fountains time to rise up. (225)
Because I viewed my writing as an unsuccessful monetary endeavor, an interesting hobby when everything else was marked off my “to do” list, I never gave it the love and attention necessary for its growth. If and when I did sit down to write, my mind was empty, the creative juices shriveled up from lack of use. As Olsen recognizes, these “habits of years—response to others, distractibility, responsibility for daily matters—stay with you, mark you, become you” (Olsen, 39). I cannot stress enough how true that statement is, how undeniably an issue for many women even today.
Unfortunately, it is still often the case, albeit less so, that “when Sleeping Beauty wakes up she is almost fifty years old” (Heilbrun, 60). Olsen was fifty when her first book, the celebrated short story collection Tell Me a Riddle, was published in 1962. The title story went on to win the O. Henry prize—an inspiration for those of us who continue to fine-tune our writing skills despite lack of awards and even publication, into our middle years and beyond.
I finally completed my first novel when I was forty-three, writing during sacred hours, time I had learned to safeguard in the same way I had protected and nurtured my children—with devoted tenacity. My writing is now the canvas on which my life is painted; there is no solidity or cohesion without it. Yet I often wonder what colors might have swirled, what shapes might have formed if I hadn’t spent so much time making false peace with an abandoned canvas.
Without the work of Tillie Olsen, I would not have fully claimed my own writing voice—a voice that now refuses to be silenced, no matter how frantically the essential angel flaps her wings.
Heilbrun, C. G. (1988). Writing a woman's life (1st ed.). New York: Norton.
Olsen, T. (2003). Silences (25th anniversary ed., 1st Feminist Press ed.). New York: Feminist Press at the City University of New York.
About the author
Suzanne Montz Adams spent many years as a misguided CPA until she finally acknowledged the writer within. Her essays have been published in national magazines and she is currently marketing a novel for representation. She’s a student in Goddard College’s Individualized Master of Arts Program with a concentration in Transformative Language Arts. She lives in Texas with her husband and three teenage sons.
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