How could an intelligent woman stay in a marriage like this?
Blog Post by Brenda Webster - Jul.21.2008 - 6:43 pm
Narrative Poetics Most of my writing starts with a puzzle. Often a personal one. How in the world did this happen and what does it mean? My first novel, SINS OF THE MOTHERS began when a New Yorker editor scrawled on the margin of a story I'd submitted. "But how could such an intelligent woman stay in a marriage like this for twenty years? Since, in slightly disguised form, I was the woman, answering the editor's question seemed vital, not only to my fiction but to my life. My first draft of SINS was a chronicle of the end of a marriage and was as honest as I could make it. My style was transparent: it let you see through to what my heroine, Connie was thinking and feeling as she tried to care for her children and keep her marriage going while being bullied by a tyrannical husband and an imperious mother. In the first draft, Connie's self©distrust was palpable, her weaknesses mercilessly displayed. But when it came time to send the book out, editors, particularly young women,couldn't accept it. "I can't stand behind the life choices of this woman," one wrote. Others said they couldn't empathize, Women weren't like this any more. I knew that this wasn't true. Many women still had problems with masochism though it had become unpopular to write about it, with a resultant narrowness of characterization in much recent fiction. But I saw that in my effort to tell the truth about an unpalatable experience, I had unwittingly emphasized my heroine's weaknesses. If I wanted people to see her dark underside of my‹ heroine I had to include more of her strengths. To show her complexity, I had to re©structure the book and speed up a process that in real life would take years: Connie might start out as a passive masochistic person but by the end she would have learned to confront the people who put her down, her husband and her mother, and take control of her own life. I developed a technique of dramatic encounters between Connie and other characters at key points in the story so that readers might see the changes taking place in her. Re©writing not only improved the novel but it enlarged my notion of what was possible not just for me but for other women in abusive relationships. Though I hadn't intended Connie to serve as a model for other women, I was deeply touched when a woman told me how my book had changed her daughter©in©law's life by giving her the courage to break with a tormenting mother. The puzzle that set off my second novel, Paradise Farm, was what made my mother the person she was. I had accepted my own earlier self. Maybe re©constructing my mother's early life as a young artist would enable me to understand and forgive her. To show the family history of self©hatred (my grandmother ran off with a con©man, my uncle went mad),I devised a symphonic structure where important figures from my mother's past were given their own voices so readers could empathize with them too. The rise of anti©semitism in the late twenties gives the character's struggles with their own self©doubts and hatreds a wider resonance. One character dies, another©©his sister,the young artist©© survives. To do so, she has to struggle with a male centered art world. What interests me is the way people find what they need in their cultural context. All the characters are deeply involved in the intellectual currents of their time. Psychoanalysis, surrealism, eclectic religions. A byproduct of my fictional exploration was a continuing commitment to exploring the darker side of experience along with an increased respect for the multitude of ways we invent to heal ourselves.
Brenda Webster, author of the forthcoming novel, AFTER AUSCHWITZ: A Love Story (Wings Press, March 3, 2014) was born in New York City, educated at Swarthmore College, Barnard, Columbia University, and University of California, Berkeley, where she earned her...
Causes Brenda Webster Supports
Doctors Without Borders
The Nature Conservancy
Women Support Women