Adrienne Rich and Nancy Sommers are both women writers, that in “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision” and “Between the Drafts” respectively, are struggling to identify themselves as writers through the revision of their own work. In both texts we can follow their travel in past through which they recognize and analyze all those things that influenced them and formed their writing style. They are both facing the same fear. They do not write as themselves. For different reasons and each with her own perspective they are trying to break free from the bond that holds them in “another writers shoes”.
Though Rich and Sommers are both dealing with the research of their writing self and despite the similarities in their arguments and some of their conclusions their approach differs as issues of identity, gender and tradition arise.
Adrienne Rich mainly bases her text on the fact that literature and poetry where created by men, whose perspective of woman became a tradition in writing. She defines revision as “the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction”1. For a writer she claims that this is an “act of survival”. Literature until recently gave us a view of how life is, how we see ourselves or how we would like others to see us.
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She recognizes a pattern in the majority of texts and poems. Women are considered a luxury for a man. They are creatures of grace and beauty. Silent, yet powerful a woman is a “dream and a terror”2 for men, in the words of Jane Harrison. Always distant and with almost never emotional outbreaks the historically image of a woman is that of a “muse, model, nurse, cook, comforter, a bearer of his seeds…”3. Her inevitable fate is to suffer for love.
The writer sees herself as a captive of that image. For a very long time she has been writing for women, as a man would. At first, in order to please and seek acceptance from her father, to whom she owed her education, then her professor, her mentor, followed by her fellow writers and the writing community, also male dominated. Similar to Adrienne Rich, Nacny Sommers also finds herself to write in a stereotype way. However she claims her influences came from the way she was brought up and more specifically from her parents. She does not put so much weight on her gender as a writer but she rather identifies the problem as not being able to combine academic and personal writing. Like there is an authority dictating the limits of personal and academic writing which she must not cross. This sense of authority is also something she inherited from her parents.
Nancy Sommers came from German Jew Family that escaped Nazi Germany in 1939, moved to the United States where the children were brought up. She mentions examples of her family life, as evidence of parental authority. Her parents, even though they were speaking German fluently, bought tapes that instructed the language to their children, instead of talking to them. A specific ritual was followed for every lesson. The chairs at the same place, strict body posture and the voice of a German professor would for Nancy Sommes’ parents guarantee the “right way to learn”. Following the same principle of the “right way” to do anything her parents used a guide for their travelling, following strictly the instructions given, spending no more or no less time at each venue, making no additional stops. As if they did not have a voice of their own, as if they could not choose for themselves what to do or not to do, or even how to do it. Her parents gave her the world of two options: the right way or the wrong way.
So, both our writers are influenced from authority. Rich, on the one hand, from the authority of men writers in a man dominated society, and on the other hand Sommers influenced from parental authority. When Sommer as a parent herself subconsciously embraced that same principle and projected it to her own child, she found out that, contrarily to her, her daughter had a voice of her own.
Nancy Sommer had disguised herself and hid behind the title “Researcher”, reading and revising, exploring the knowledge of other writers. But she kept herself out of her own writing, being absent from her own work.
Just like her parents hid behind the tapes and the guides and excluded themselves from their lives, creating and living someone else’s experiences, she hid behind the authority of a “researcher” and used other people’s work to justify her statements. Never once did she use her personal experiences to support her statements.
Another similarity between Rich and Sommers lies within their position on the role of the writer in respect to tradition. Rich is facing artistic tradition, of the way writers write about women, their image and how she as writer is able to cop with all her roles: that of a traditional female and of a writer. As a wife and a mother Rich found it hard to find free time, to think, to question, to imagine; free time that traditionally women never have as they are mainly loaded with the duties of raising children and caring for the family. But following the traditional way of performing female duties is in direct conflict with the main element of writing: imagination. Daily duties, put aside any imaginative activity, that can be put in words. Adrienne Rich felt the conflict between these two roles. She thought herself as a writer or as a mother. The choice of “either” and “or” was later replace by “and”. She sought ways to embrace both parts of her life, the creative one and the maternal one.
Likewise Sommers faces again tradition, yet of another kind. Academic tradition is full with either/or sentences: the students are either taught to write academic or personal essays. This tradition seems to create a certainty, an illusion of control to the academic community. Everyone knows their exact role and what they are supposed to do. But Nancy Sommers identifies the fact that students carry their own experiences, their own voices and if encouraged they could use these experiences as evidence to support their own statements, thus creating a new reflective way of writing.
In both texts, tradition is questioned, whether artistic or academic as a result of a revision, a deeper look in one’s writing, from a different perspective, with a fresh eye. Both writers emphasize the importance of breaking the tradition, that narrows the imagination and this might be their most important common statement.
Even though they are both objecting to different kind of tradition they both have the same objective, to help writers, including them, to write for themselves, to use their own experiences and voice, to write from their point of view, breaking every stereotype of either artistic or academic writing.
Rich and Sommers mention incidents of their personal and family lives. It is interesting how these specific events reflect the obedience of authority they inherited from their close environment. They follow traditional models, artistic and academic, that forces boundaries to their imagination and self expression. Rich show us how the traditional female model kept her captive in just one role, that of a mother and eliminated her fantasy, thus her writing. Sommers from the other side illustrates how her parents’s sense of authority influenced her own perception of authority, this time the academic one, upon her writing.
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Even though both writers are of female gender their arguments and conclusions also apply to non female writers. They are both looking for way to express purely themselves in their own writing, creating their own images, with no influence of tradition artistic or academic. Using a female point of view, they have managed to reach a problematic area for all writers. Both male and female writers should be able to speak for themselves and use their imagination, freely creating texts and statements which are supported with their own experiences.
As mentioned before, both writers notice that there is something missing from their writing. And that something is their own voice, their own point of view. Trapped in the tradition they learned to obey they do not use their own experiences and images in their work. Their similarity lies upon the fact that they were both raised under the influence of tradition. Even though they have a different point of view when revising their work, they come to the same conclusion mainly because the source of their conservatism is the same: obedience to authority.
According to Rich, the role of a writer is to create images through words. These images influence other writers and especially women, as they seek their path reading poetry and literature, trying to find ways of expression, looking for examples.
And in this effort they come across again and again with “the image of Woman in books written by men”. But what they do not find is a way to express their own personality in their text, rather than reflect and reproduce a flattering or not image created by another writer.
I find it easy to agree with Rich’s statement. I have often read literature and identified myself with the woman hero of the book. I found my self to be flattered with similarities of character. Of course, in every attempt to write about my self, or to tell a story, I tend to reflect the same image of the woman I read about in my own writing. It is not that I have nothing to say for myself, rather than I find that image charming and want others to see me in this way.
Still like Sommers, I am absent from most of my texts. Certainly influenced by my female gender, I tend to have a more romantic and soft approach in my writing. My class and culture are also reflected in my texts as a have no experience from anything different and thus I can not write about it. However the presence of my own experiences is limited in my writing. Mainly because I think of myself as insecure and that I do not have a strong enough statement to make.
Another reason is that I find it easier, and I believe I am not the only one to do so, to talk about others than talk about myself. Talking about oneself requires painful digging to reach to self awareness. Of course the fear of revealing personal experiences to others plays its part as well, as again I do not intend to mess my traditional female image, with outbursts of anger, anxiety, passion, and obsession.
- Adrienne Rich: “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision”, p.18
- J.G. Steward, Jane Ellen Harrison: A Portrait from Letters (London 1959), p. 140
- Adrienne Rich: “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision”, p.19
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