Many writers will tell you they knew they wanted to become a writer almost as soon as they could read. Remembering that first journal someone gave them, they wax eloquent about the initial thrill of putting pen to paper. I’m not one of those writers. Don’t get me wrong. I loved writing in notebooks with my collection of pens. And I even had a fancy old-fashioned desk, complete with secret drawers and hidden chambers in which to stash less well-crafted prose. But I didn’t really discover I wanted to spend my life writing until after I had already published several books.
My first books were academic ones written in fairly conventional—and occasionally obtuse—scholarly prose. Compassionate Authority: Democracy and the Representation of Women, The Political Interests of Gender, Women Transforming Politics were some of the titles. Not surprising, this list of titles, since I was educated in political theory at City University of New York’s (CUNY) Graduate Program in Political Science, and had a long university career teaching political theory and women’s studies, first, at the University of Louisville, then at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington and, finally, and for twenty-three years, at San Diego State University.
Except for a few passages in Compassionate Authority, where I let myself break into story-telling in what I would later recognize as my own, more authentic voice, I tended to confine my prose within the familiar language and argumentative style of political theory.
Nothing wrong with that. I’m proud of these books and the conversation about basic political ideas that they joined was, and remains, exhilarating. But today, when I call myself a writer, I think of myself as practicing a different art. Instead of the art of analysis and argument, I practice the art of imagination. Still, I know my training in political philosophy continues to inform my craft. It even shaped the way I came to write literary works.
I came to the art of writing only in my mid-forties, later than most. And I came to this art as a way to grapple with a traumatic event: the murder of a young woman student of mine. When I decided to write about her murder, I began to approach it like every other academic topic I had investigated—as a philosophical problem to solve. The problem, as I saw it then, was the paradox of choice in situations of violence.
But I wasn’t getting any closer to understanding what happened. Because I hadn’t let the event get under my skin. Then I went to Sweden for four months. And there, far away from my home and familiar surroundings, I began to write a very different kind of book.
Living Between Danger and Love became a memoir about loss and coming to terms with the unsettling of self loss entails. It was a meditation on mourning. Pushing past thinking about what could have been different I arrived at another place. No matter what had happened, the past was irrevocably over, and I had to accept the role I had played in it.
The philosopher/novelist Rebecca Goldstein explains that tackling intellectual problems requires more than cognition. To understand a philosophical problem, you must also “feel the problem.” (p. 23) Unlike Iris Murdoch, who considered literature and philosophy opposing enterprises, I tend to think these two disciplines grapple with some of the same topics—for instance, what does it mean to be human? how do we deal with loss?—through different means. Both creative non-fiction and fiction plumb our emotional connections to intellectual concerns.
And so I continue writing, allowing my “imagination to go visiting,” in the words of Hannah Arendt, as I explore the many dimensions of what it means to be a woman, to be human.
Through art, the human capacity for thought transforms feeling and releases into the world a passionate intensity from its imprisonment within the self.” (Hannah Arendt (paraphrased), The Human Condition, p. 168).