Sunday, April 11, 2010
Anthropologizing like a parent
It was from martinimade that I found my way to this blog post on how / why having babies might make you a better writer.
First off, I am so glad to see someone else reacting to The Guardian’s 10 rules for writing fiction, which it collected from the likes of Elmore Leonard and Margaret Atwood – in particular to the list from Richard Ford, which begins:
1. Marry somebody you love and who thinks you being a writer's a good idea.
2. Don't have children.
I am not a writer of fiction – or at least, I am not supposed to be, as an academic anthropologist (and a former newspaper reporter) – but I felt that a number of the rules for writing fiction might apply just as well to what I do.
Ford’s 1st rule might be one of the more important and meaningful suggestions that I have seen made because it acknowledges that a person does not, in fact, write or accomplish any other work in a void, but does it with the seen and unseen support of others.
Despite his misgivings, StraightMan supported my decision to leave a good job in journalism for, of all things, graduate school, so apparently he thinks my being an anthropologist is at least not a bad idea. Which it could be.
By the by, a 2008 survey by the University of Washington Center for Innovation and Research in Graduate Education, found that women receive 45 percent of the PhD’s in the social sciences (specifically, anthropology, communication, geography, history, political science, and sociology). We are less likely than men to be married 6 to 10 years after the PhD. When married, 34 percent of us are married to partners with PhD’s. Anecdotally, I feel like the non-PhD partners of women with PhD’s whom I know are among the most supportive, self-assured, relaxed, and confident men I ever met. Which I think speaks to Ford’s 1st rule.
As for Ford’s 2nd rule.
I admit that there are days when this makes complete sense to me. Or at least, if one has children, one ought to have a good, old-fashioned wife. I need a wife. The kind who likes to pack lunches for her Brady Bunches, to paraphrase Nelly McKay.
However. Were it not for having become a mother (not just once, but twice), what would I know? I mean specifically what would * I * know?
As an anthropologist, I find myself taking more interest in more things, not less and not fewer, as I move along. Over time, also, I am learning to be more patient with other people – possibly even with myself.
Anthropology Sidney Mintz – who happens to have been one of StraightMan’s teachers – once wrote that fieldwork requires watching people do what they do and listening to them. “Do not expect them to be consistent,” he advised.
For me, having children has made me less demanding of consistency, more accepting and even appreciative of how much contradiction we live with, big and small. I have learned to care more and to care less.
On the care-more front: I think what drew me first into journalism and then into anthropology has been the idea that everyone has their stories to tell, and they deserve to be heard. Which, by the way, I read a thoughtful reflection about “objectivity” in journalism – by Christiane Amanpour in Eric Alterman’s April 12th column in The Nation: “There are some situations one simply cannot be neutral about, because when you are neutral you are an accomplice. Objectivity doesn’t mean treating all sides equally. It means giving each side a hearing.” I think this is what anthropology does especially well.
With varying degrees of success, I try to practice while I preach to Beanie and Bubbie about manners and civility – to respond, in talk or in kind, so that people feel included and respected.
Also, I am obsessed with composting, individually and collectively, and I covet a rain barrel for our house. (See image above. Sigh.)
On the care-less front: A friend and I were chatting over breakfast the other day. This is a treat that we have ritualized, dubbing it “break fest” because we only have it during college breaks (not vacations). I will call this friend Maker because she is so accomplished as a maker of things like books and sweaters and children and home and so on. As a journalist, Maker said she thought that having children made it easier for her to ask impertinent questions. “What’s the worst you can do?” she said. “Yell at me?”