Feminism, History, On Writing, Social Justice, Politics, and Culture

Inky Adventures & Scribbling Women

The phrase “Inky Adventures” reminds me of Nathanial Hawthorne’s famous 1855 diatribe on female writers: “America is now wholly given over to a damned mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash-and should be ashamed of myself if I did succeed.” Admittedly I’ve always found his work a bit too heavy-handed on the moral symbolism scale, so saying “screw you Nat” wasn’t hard for me. Plus, his hissy fit seems a bit ridiculous given that he was a highly celebrated and successful author at the time. But his whining does provide a great example of the extent of the fragile male ego. He was horrified by the idea that “his” space as an author should be shared (or even slightly usurped) by a woman. He saw it as an affront to HIS definition of the craft and by extension himself. Of course, he wasn’t (and isn’t) alone in that view. This male-centric attitude continues to shape the writing world in a variety of important ways including who gets published, who gets reviewed, and who writes the reviews. Statistically, the answer to all three of those “who” questions is MEN, despite the fact that more women exist, women read more, and studies show that women prefer to read books by women. Doesn’t seem like a smart marketing strategy to me. But what do I know, I’m just a girl. (Sarcasm detector BLARING!)

But I digress. I was ruminating on inky adventures and Nat Hawthorne’s scribbling women. Good ole Nat didn’t intend it to be a compliment, but like “bitch” and “slut” I choose to reclaim it as an empowering phrase. I love the images it conjures in my head. Women—all kinds of women—grabbing moments to scribble down their thoughts. Spending their days and nights working and then staying up a bit longer to write by the light of a single flickering candle. Or rising before dawn to plot out a story by the lone gaslight while the dough rises or before it’s time to milk the cows. Making a space. Putting their hopes and dreams and imagination on paper. Finding the perfect words to convey an image or a narrative or an idea. In this age of technology and relative freedom, it’s easy to forget that simply having the ability or the tools to “scribble” wasn’t a given for many women. Masters denied enslaved women the right to read or write. Poor women often didn’t have the funds to purchase paper or pencils. Middle-class women feared stepping across the boundaries dictating women’s “proper” conduct. “Scribbling” was an act of defiance. It was (to bring this conversation back around) an Inky Adventure.

When I was a practicing historian (instead of a “used to be”), I spent a lot of time researching and writing about ordinary women defying expectations. Women like Celestia Rice Colby. As a (sometimes) hopeful writer, she wanted to be one of those “scribbling women” disparaged by Nat. But like many women of her time, she was only allowed to scribble in the rare down moments of her very long days. This reality weighed heavy on her mind and spirit. “Have done nothing of any account. Made cheese and finished my dairy work, got Rose asleep and sat down with my pen but the thoughts that kept bubbling up when bending over the cheese vat, would not come. So I could not write…. So the day has passed. I have read none, wrote but two pages; the rest has been work, work. But it is one of the days of my life, and has passed as most of my days do; yet it saddens me to think it is gone, and that thus the succeeding ones will go and leave no worthy trace behind.” (Circumstances are destiny by Tina Stewart Brakebill)

It’s a timeless thought: that idea of a “worthy trace,” a legacy. I don’t know if any of my writing will stand the test of time but I do know that I find inspiration in all those “scribbling women.” I too want to leave a “worthy trace.” But their stories also remind me NOT to take my luck for granted. I was born here and now. I get to do what I love. And the people who love me support my efforts. I still complain and doubt myself. But when I’m having a particularly bad day, I remember Celestia Rice Colby. If I had been born in another place and time, her words could have been mine: “I can only muse and dream impossibilities.” But I am here NOW in this place, so I mentally shake myself off. Then I sit back down with my notebook and I scribble, while I muse and dream POSSIBILITIES.

 

Thanks for the inspiration Putting My Feet in the Dirt

 

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