The Female Moratorium

Everyone knows that the writing of poetry, of becoming a poet, entails a long apprenticeship. Mine began at age nineteen, which was when I wrote my first poem. Both an initiation and a damnation, it was Plathian and full of deep, female associations: mother, womb, kitchen knife. In the years to come, I would carve out a womb of my own, a place of artistic nurturance. The world would not do this for me, in fact, it would tear out the fragile membranes of the fetal self I attempted to assign to writing.

My apprenticeship, then, was a long travail, a rupture that stained more than a decade. Like Plath, I made a bad miscalculation after graduate school and subverted my energies by trying to write short stories. This is what Ted Hughes had to say about Plath’s digression: “It was only when she gave up that effort to ‘get outside’ herself, and finally accepted the fact that her painful subjectivity was her real theme, and that the plunge into herself was her only real direction, and that poetic strategies were her only means, that she finally found herself in full possession of her genius.”

As for myself, it wasn’t until my life caved in to complete despair that I was able to adequately bear what James Hillman would term my daimon and my calling. Even so, I was still decades away from hitting the vein of my own painful subjectivity, a vein struck and mined, at last, in my latest book, My Life as a Doll, which emerged, evolved, became my most genuine work.

Carol Heilbrun, in Writing a Woman’s Life applies Erik Erikson’s term “the moratorium” (used by Erikson only of males) to the lives of women. He describes this state as “a time when the individual appears to be getting nowhere, accomplishing none of his aims, or altogether unclear as to what those aims might be.” Writing of Dorothy Sayer’s despair at the age of twenty-eight, Heilbrun diagnoses a case of the female moratorium: “With highly gifted women, as with men, the failure to lead the conventional life, to find the conventional way early, may signify more than having been dealt a poor deck of cards. It may well be the forming of a life in 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.”

My moratorium felt bottomless—although I knew my calling, I trained it in all the wrong directions and was totally without the wherewithal necessary to enact it meaningfully. This, to me, may be peculiarly female—to know what one must do, but to be without the confidence crucial to its realization. Will was not the issue for me, nor desire, but I was very much undermined by “inadequacy and deprivation.”

In the end, my writing was the bridge I built over despair. If the soul of my writing has a primarily female disposition, and I think it must, I will study it—its curvaceous geometry, shifting nature and unforeseeable appearances. Now I may need to write about my mother, as I did in My Life as a Doll, in order to accomplish this or, as in one instance, about a lawn ornament, but my private hell of a moratorium, though I didn’t know it at the time, was my breeding ground and yes, the fish do multiply.

Filed under: Elizabeth Kirschner, Prose