What does resistance look like for the artist in middle age? When the
artist is also a parent, a teacher, a homeowner, a manager, and deep in
the system—indeed, keeping the whole system running? Writers Dana
Spiotta and Emily Ogden address this question and other issues of
midlife—motherhood, menopause, abjection—in their conversation for The Yale Review, conducted over email in the late spring.
Middle age is rich territory for both writers, who delve into it in their recent books. In Spiotta’s fifth novel, Wayward,
a menopausal white woman, shaken by the 2016 election, leaves her
husband and teenage daughter to find a new way to live outside the
comforts of suburbia. But one of the hard realities of the seemingly unraveling
world is her own unshakable entanglement. In her essay collection On Not Knowing: How to Love and Other Essays,
Ogden also takes on the settled questions of midlife and seeks to
unsettle them. Imparting lessons from experience with a healthy
skepticism, her essays affirm resistance to authority—even and
especially one’s own—as a lifelong project. The middle is the most
emily ogden Last time we corresponded, you said something that really
stuck with me. It was about fiction’s possibilities for writing about
privilege and complicity, and it was one of the reasons I wanted to have
this conversation. You said that in fiction, one can present complexity
without having to resolve or reduce it—fiction can “twist, revise, and
twist again,” you said. I’ve thought about that so often, whenever I’m
writing an essay and bridling against what feels like the genre’s demand
that its speaker be one person and not several—maybe even a person with
a definite opinion. Becca Rothfeld has written critically about
“sanctimony literature,” novels that take pains to let us know they’re
on the right side politically. How do we go about writing, instead,
dana spiotta It’s definitely a challenge that motivates me. We are
bombarded by reductions and certainties rendered in received, inert
language. Countering and undercutting those is part of a process, for
me, of identifying questions or tensions I want to engage through
fiction. And then, in the writing (in the language, in the particularity
of characters, in the structural patterning), I’m often discovering
different, deeper questions. Don’t you find that the closer you look and
the longer you look, the more paradoxes you discover?
It reminds me of a Joy Williams quote: “The writer doesn’t want to
disclose or instruct or advocate, he wants to transmute and disturb.” In
that earlier correspondence of ours, you wrote that it is difficult to
avoid “self-expiation, piety, obliviousness.” I want to pin that to my
bulletin board. Art shouldn’t be used to exonerate yourself.
eo I want to pin that to my bulletin board.
In your newest novel, Wayward, the main character, Sam, does
something those around her are inclined to condemn: she abruptly walks
away from her husband, her daughter, and her middle-class domestic life.
But she also doesn’t go far. She stays in her home city, Syracuse, and
impulsively purchases a dilapidated house. You tend to be interested in
flights inward, not outward, to freedom—for example, your novel Stone Arabia is
partly about the secret freedoms of garage bands in suburbia. Is there
something we see more accurately when we attend to these contained acts
of rebellion? These characters who are in, but not of, middle-class
ds I like that framing, “in, but not of.” I wanted Sam’s leaving to
be emphatic, but I also wanted there to be the opportunity for
backsliding, and for the painful awareness of her own
backsliding/hypocrisy. There is no such thing as a clean break. One is
very invested in the self and the status quo by middle age.
eo Were you thinking about models of midlife crisis as you wrote? I was reminded of the film Wanda, Barbara
Loden’s rediscovered classic, in which a woman gives up custody of her
children, loses her job, and ends up on the road with a second-rate bank
robber. Stories of female bildung as female dismantling.
ds Right, the inciting refusal of Wanda but older.
Interesting how a woman leaving still feels so transgressive. Sometimes
when I begin a novel, I think more about what I want to avoid than what I
want to achieve. I wanted to work against the clichés of a woman having
a midlife crisis. I didn’t want her to have an affair. I didn’t want
her to mourn her lost beauty. I wanted the confrontation with aging to
be a mortal, moral one. Part of that was being ruthless about aging. I
deliberately set out to write about the menopausal body. I also did not
want the book to be marriage-centered. I took pains to make the marriage
not terrible. I didn’t want Sam to be blameless. It seemed important
that she be reckless, perverse.
One model I had in mind was Doris Lessing’s The Summer Before the Dark,
in which the aging protagonist spends a summer away from her
not-unhappy marriage. It does involve a very strange affair of sorts,
but I thought of it because it places her in a distinct post-’60s social
and political context. It tries to interrogate her privilege, which is
also something I wanted in Wayward. So that began as a
subtraction—or like you said, a dismantling. My character’s sense of
self is in flux, and she wants to know who she is if she subtracts her
identifiers: her money, her marriage, even her motherhood, her
daughterhood, her geography.
I was playing with this notion of invisibility, which you hear aging women discuss. They gradually become invisible, not just to men but to everyone.
Of course, real subtraction is difficult. She still sleeps with her
husband. She still takes money from him. She still kind of stalks her
daughter, and she buys an expensive mattress for her little austere
nun’s bed. It is hard to extract one’s self from one’s context—a version
of this occurs more seriously in the book in the separate storyline of
Clara Loomis, a fictional early feminist who runs from the constraints
of Victorian-era Syracuse to what she perceives is a place of
alternative liberation. It gets to the American folly that one can
In your book of essays, On Not Knowing, you write about how
we are shaped by the culture into which we are born, the “cultural
placenta” and the “structuring matrix.” Would you argue that one can’t
escape, but one can be conscious of, this shaping force? Not just the
context of culture and history, but also the family and the body. Do the
body’s boundaries (and the porousness of those boundaries) profoundly
shape an experience of self?
eo I have twins, as you know, whose birth and nursing I talk about in
the book; I also had a miscarriage when they were one. All of
that—birth, lactation, miscarriage, early childcare—happened in the
first two years of Trump’s presidency. And so my body’s eroding
boundaries, the sense of the country’s erosion—those definitely felt
like shaping forces I couldn’t escape. I also felt only intermittently
or partially able to be conscious of the latter. It’s a struggle to get
your situation into view, politically speaking, while also waking up to
pump every two hours around the clock, but that was a struggle I wanted
to get onto the page.
ds In writing about a menopausal body in Wayward, one thing
that struck me is that when the corporeal asserts itself—as it does for
some people in menopause with hot flashes, insomnia, and hormonal
fugues—one is forced to confront mortality. No matter how fit you are or
how you look, you are reminded that your life is finite and going in
one direction. Only now do I see that this is weirdly analogous to the
election of 2016: what was and should be obvious about the country (and
the world) became undeniable. The vanity gets ruptured. Trump’s
election was like a giant horrible hot flash, maybe.
eo It’s interesting how various forms of complicity are figured through the reproductive body. In my book I write about The Matrix, the
image in the movie of the human farm, in which unconscious humans are
being amniotically supported each in their own transparent pod, and at
the same time they’re being “milked” as an energy source. Meanwhile, the
world as we know it is an induced hallucination used to pacify them.
It’s the filmmakers’ nightmare vision of our enmeshment in power—and,
essentially, just a representation of pre-and postpartum infant care. I
was much more able to see this as horror before I gave birth, or for
that matter, before I was enmeshed in a large institution, as a tenured
professor. Now it’s hard to clutch my pearls about being “hooked up” to a
system of nourishment or production. “Something / cunty, something
used,” is one definition for the mother that Brenda Shaughnessy tries
out, in her poem “Liquid Flesh.” There may be misogyny hiding somewhere
in the dream of non-complicity.
In Wayward, when Sam “escapes” her context, still she is
“something used”; she has responsibilities to her daughter, her elderly
mother. It seems women are always deeply implicated in our society,
indispensable to the care work that supports it—even as they’re
sidelined, especially in midlife, in menopause.
ds I was playing with this notion of invisibility, which you hear
aging women discuss. They gradually become invisible, not just to men
but to everyone. It is a loss of power, no longer being the center of
attention—but was that attention ever good for them, really?
eo And maybe being outside the center allows for great perspective. Abjection is clarity.
ds Yes! I often thought about abjection when I was writing. There’s
one character who wants to put the bodily details of her life in
everyone’s face; she sees in that the potential for liberation.
I wonder about the structure of your book, its origins, with the
chapter titles that all start with “How to.” The headings are inviting
in the way of a self-help book, promising to tell you secrets. But then
the book’s title, On Not Knowing, inverts that. It seems that
the essays often begin with something from your own experience you want
to investigate, and then things shift, evolve, recur, until you attain a
clarity, but one that still feels volatile to me—mysterious and honest
and beyond the limits of the self.
I guess this takes us back to where we started this conversation:
the shared ambition of building on questions to arrive at a deeper place
of not knowing. How did you find the form the book would take?
eo The book started out as a set of essays about modes of unknowing:
surprise, irony, innocence. But early readers of those essays,
especially Alan Thomas, my editor at University of Chicago Press, made
it clear to me that there was a bit of a performative contradiction,
arising from my scholarly stance of impartiality: I was adopting an
attitude of knowingness about these states of not-knowing. The
unconscious doesn’t really have a place in scholarly prose, but it
needed a place in this book. It arises through figurative language,
through motifs that thread the essays together on a level other than
argument. Minnows come up a lot; also whales, milk, animal husbandry,
birds taking flight.
I never wanted my own childhood to make an appearance, because I didn’t want any moment where the narrative voice was innocent.
ds There’s a way in which the ordering of the essays creates its own kind of argument. We get stories of your sons throughout, for example, but not their father. So the narrative of your experiences with sex and men is often traumatic until late in the book, when we get to the essay about John the Revelator and also the twins’ father, John. It is a beautiful, moving piece—and maybe it lands so well because of its late placement.
eo In an early version of the table of contents, the essay about John came first, because its main question is also the book’s main question: how do you avoid routinizing your desires, thus maintaining space for the unknown? But I didn’t want this problem to seem like one that was narrowly a shortcoming of monogamy. And so I wanted the essay about marriage to follow other essays about sex. One-night stands can be a routine, just as marriage can. The issue isn’t that we fall into routines but that we might leap into them; a deadening routine might be a temptation.
The psychoanalyst Anne Dufourmantelle referred to “the risk of ‘not yet dying.’” It’s risky, and difficult, to stay alive to the surprises that genuine otherness may present, because the surprise could be a bad one. I wanted the essay to say not simply, “at middle age we have to figure out how to get out of a rut,” but something more like, “middle age is just the most obvious, the paradigmatic instance of our lifelong attraction to ruts.” So it had to follow other stories of routinization in youth and turmoil.
ds That makes sense. Which also gives the book a sort of life-cycle arc.
eo Exactly. Though not necessarily an autobiographical arc. The essays having to do with childhood, for example, are about my children, are from the perspective of being exhausted and frustrated by—but also passionately interested in—the weirdness of infant care. I never wanted my own childhood to make an appearance, because I didn’t want any moment where the narrative voice was innocent. I wanted that more complicated, more complicit not-knowing of new motherhood.
Maybe that takes us back to the idea of not using art to exonerate yourself. Of wanting, instead, art of self-implication.
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DS I would say that self-implication is always the task for me. Sam is, in many ways, not me, but a lot of the satire in Wayward is directed at my own demographic. Punch up instead of punch down, sure, but punch self first. There is a moment early in the novel in which Sam is at a “resistance” meeting in which Trump’s win is blamed on older white women. And Sam admits that the state of the world is in fact “on them” precisely because they have been alive long enough that they have failed to do enough, given their privileged position. She has, as she is well aware, very comfortably inhabited this compromised world. And in many respects the world is worse than it was when she inherited it. So she feels responsible. At the same time, she also reads into the election the particular contempt the culture holds for older women (specifically the body realities of older women) and the odd experience of feeling that contempt herself because of her own internalized misogyny.
EO I think this may be one reason I was drawn to write about sex and birth. It was part of the process of situating the voice of the essays in a limited persona, rather than in a neutral voice. In the process of writing, I think I realized as a practical matter something I had known as a theoretical matter for a long time: that the neutral voice was not a voice that had had bad sex, or had given birth. So to write somewhat graphically about these things is to begin to abject oneself, to begin to disqualify oneself for certain kinds of authority.
DS You describe the problem of white womanhood in your essay on Blossom Dearie, the white jazz singer of the ’50s. You quote James Baldwin (“One writes out of one thing only—one’s own experience”), which reminds me of Flannery O’Connor’s advice that the writer write “truthfully what he sees from where he is” via “concrete observable reality.” Which, as you say, is “a fearful piece of news for a white American.” So where does that lead a white woman writer? It leads to the subject of complicity. (And the case of O’Connor herself, who, despite her genius, was unable to overcome her own racist attitudes.) Blossom Dearie has one approach, but how do you write in good faith about the complexity of complicity, without, as you say, “petitioning for forgiveness”?
EO I think of that process of subtraction that you described at the beginning of our conversation. In my case, rather than avoiding certain familiar novelistic plots, I wanted to avoid the memoiristic plots of self-exculpation. These are many and various and they tend to sneak up on one. Anything that struck me on rereading as an attempt at exculpation through self-awareness, I cut.
I remember being sixteen. It’s a dangerous time, because your mind is as acute as it will ever be, but you don’t know what experience teaches you.
ds Right. For me, the narcissism of Sam’s self-implication was also a central tension. She is highly self-centered, self-reflexive, particularly at the start of the novel. The apotheosis of this is the scene of her doing unfunny standup, in which she confesses her self-loathing. But it doesn’t go the way she imagined it might. The drama of fiction often comes from unintended consequences. Good intentions, good faith, but so what? And her engagement with the trauma of the world beyond her own concerns is ineffectual. The best she can muster is to bear witness. As I followed her, I discovered the thing the novel ends with: her acceptance of the world without her and her glimpse of the time between now and then. So the question becomes: you are not the center of everything, and now what? The subsuming of herself and her narrow concerns into some unknown (unknowing, as you say) place leads to more questions.
eo You’ve written beautifully about motherhood in fiction and in nonfiction. I wonder how motherhood connects to narcissism, and also to imagining the world without us.
ds Sam’s attachment to her teenaged daughter, Ally, and to her own mother is partially the thing that gives her life meaning, but also the thing that makes her unable to see beyond her own narrow interests. I guess I’m curious about the blinders of fierce affection. And how the cult of motherhood, the narrowness of family, can become another capitalist trap. In functional terms, in the novel, Ally needs to be her own person, find her own way. This is banal, but the hardest thing about parenthood for me is letting my child make her own mistakes when I can clearly see them happening. Our children are not our corrections, a better version of us. But when they are little, there is such intense intimacy, and then one has to let go. Motherhood is difficult.
eo It’s impossible.
How has it changed your political outlook to have a grown daughter? I ask because I’m trying to get at something unique about Wayward’s perspective, the way Ally is used as a secondary perspectival character, with Sam and Ally representing the political judgments of each generation on the other. Ally’s generation, for example, thinks Sam’s is racist; Sam’s generation thinks Ally’s is naive about the transactional nature of sex. Yet Sam alone seems to understand the force of both viewpoints, as if mothers take daughters’ criticisms to heart, whereas daughters dismiss mothers as out of touch.
ds When I started the book, I only had Sam’s point of view, but I found it a bit oppressive. When I added Ally’s voice, the book opened up. It became a way to critique Sam, to see how she is judged by a precocious child. Partly this was inspired by my daughter’s very accurate ability to pinpoint my own compromises and contradictions.
But here is the thing: I remember being sixteen. It’s a dangerous time, because your mind is as acute as it will ever be, but you don’t know what experience teaches you. You also don’t know that to be middle-aged is to still be that sixteen-year-old. She is still inside you, with all her righteousness and idealism, and so to be middle-aged and to be a parent is, of course, humbling. You see how those younger ideals played out over a life.
eo I’m struck sometimes by how external the transition to middle age is. I’m not really any more or less involved in the hierarchies of the university or the family now than I have ever been, although I’m higher up in them. I still feel like the same person I was twenty years ago. But because I’m a professor and not a student, a mother and not a child, I am the legitimate target of complaint. Not because my generation hasn’t changed anything, even if that’s true—personal responsibility is beside the point. The point is that now you occupy the position of authority through which, alone, people can confront power. “If man will strike, strike through the mask,” as Ahab says in Moby-Dick. Middle age to me is like, you’re Ishmael, you’ve always been Ishmael, but now someone has inexplicably given you Ahab’s job.
ds Yes, exactly, having a job as a tenured professor is in many ways great for a writer but also makes one a cog in an institutional system. It becomes much harder to retain the vanity of seeing yourself as a resister, and I think grappling with that in your creative work is essential but not sufficient. Another humbling aspect of aging is the horror of knowing that, in significant ways, you are in charge— you’re the captain, as you say—and realizing that it doesn’t feel empowering at all.