One of the most impressive debuts of 2017 is The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, by Cherise Wolas, a big, ambitious novel about the tension between motherhood and literary ambition, motherhood and creativity. I loved it, despite the fact that I totally disagreed with its take on the central question—can you be a mother and a writer at the same time? It is an issue that has played a big role in my own life, and though I started with some of the same ideas, my conclusions are opposite.
The novel opens with a long article reprinted from a fictional literary magazine. “Joan Ashby is one of our most astonishing writers,” it begins, and the praise just gets more ecstatic from there. Exploring the early evidence of Ashby’s talent, the piece includes a list of rules she wrote at age thirteen in a notebook titled “How To Do It.” They are:
- Do not waste time
- Ignore Eleanor [this is her mother] when she tells me I need friends
- Read great literature every day
- Write every day
- Rewrite every day
- Avoid crushes and love
- Do not entertain any offer of marriage
- Never ever have children
- Never allow anyone to get in my way
Eight years later, the article continues, this preternaturally focused young woman took the world by storm with a collection of stories about incest, murder, insanity, suicide, abandonment, and other similarly light topics. Two of these stories are included in full as part of the article, and Wolas’s first major coup is that they are good enough to make the premise that Ashby is a genius reasonable.
Four years later, Ashby followed up with a second collection, an instant international bestseller. At that point, her celebrity was such that “it is impossible to overestimate the titanic interest that attended her every move.” But then, despite her intentions to remain independent, she met a guy, got married, and became pregnant at 25. Bearing out her own prediction, this was the last she was heard from for nearly three decades.
Motherhood and Creativity: The Break That Stifles
Having revealed this much, the article stops, to be “continued after the break.” The rest of the book then closely follows Joan through those three decades, through her life as the spouse of a neuro-ocular surgeon and the mother of two boys. We see how her obligations shut her down, and what strategies and deceptions are engineered by her shuttered muse. After a shocking twist and more embedded stories, we finally get back to the magazine article in the last few pages.
I closed this book with wildly mixed feelings: I was entertained and impressed. I was jealous of the abundance of its invention. But I would have really liked to have a word with author Cherise Wolas. I tried to find out if she has kids—her bio says “she lives in New York City with her husband” and doesn’t mention anyone else. So probably not. But in any case, my own experience with the relationship between motherhood and writing, motherhood and creativity, is exactly the opposite of Joan Ashby’s.
We see how her obligations shut her down, and what strategies and deceptions are engineered by her shuttered muse.
Right after I finished my MFA program, at 23 years old, I found that I had completely run out of ideas for writing. I tried “writing down the bones.” I tried keeping a dream journal. I did morning pages, meditation, heavy drinking, and every other trick in the book, but I was apparently finished as a writer. After five years of this torture, I decided that I would officially retire from writing so that at least I wouldn’t have to worry about it anymore.
Bad Examples, Self-Defeating Ideas
As a young woman, I had definitely shared Joan Ashby’s impression that isolation was essential to creativity, as was a certain distance from the grubby mechanics of domestic life. Surely this was the image of the artists of the 19th and early 20th centuries. They were mostly male, and potential counterexamples like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton ended up not only bad mommies but suicides.
I needed to write in the thick of the world, without crippling ideas of my own importance.
I never vowed not to marry, though I assumed I wouldn’t. At my first book party, at age 21, I announced “this is the closest I’ll ever have to a wedding.” Well, I was wrong about that: I was married at 27. I had never really liked children—I was the laziest babysitter in history—so I was surprised when I started feeling mushy toward babies when I was about 26. By then I was well into my creative drought, so I figured what the hell: I might as well drown my sorrows in baby shampoo.
And this is how I found out that the idea that writing and motherhood are opposed is not only self-defeating, but wrong. Shortly after learning I was pregnant, my retirement ended with a piece that just poured out of me one day. “How to Get Pregnant in the Modern World” was followed by dozens of essays and even books inspired by having and raising children.
But it wasn’t just the subject matter of motherhood; almost more important was the emotional and philosophical stance. Writing in a lonely garret, in the splendid, narcissistic isolation Joan Ashby idealized, turned out to be no good for me at all. I needed to write in the thick of the world, without crippling ideas of my own importance. Far from destroying me, motherhood saved my life as a writer.