Writer's life, near death become her only truths to share

January 8, 1995
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us

``Surviving A Writer's Life'' by Suzanne Lipsett (HarperCollins, $18, 1994) is a small book packed with observations by a woman who found her writing voice (relatively) late in life.

Lipsett of Petaluma published her first book in her late 30s. She is now in her late 40s. She published three books: ``Coming Back Up,'' ``Out of Danger,'' and ``Remember Me'' before ``Surviving A Writer's Life.''

``Surviving,'' her fourth book, is a selective autobiography. It focuses on those great and terrible things that turned Lipsett into a writer, which included a shocking rape, strange world travels and two battles against breast cancer. Along the way, she also found a supportive partner and had two children.

``I read one time that Richard Ford taught the would-be writers in his creative writing classes that if you wanted to be a writer you couldn't have children: Choose.

``But I think if I were asked to name what I needed to become a writer, I would have to say - proud feminist that I am - that I could only write well-loved. It took me until nearly 40 to feel myself on solid ground, secure in my family,'' she wrote.

This is not to say that her daily life was easy when she decided to commit herself to writing.

For many years, Lipsett made her living as a freelance editor in the Bay area - and it wasn't much of a living, at least financially. But as she neared 40, Lipsett reached a point where it was do or die.

``I had a small sheaf of published reviews and stories, and a large file filled with promising drafts of more, but I was 38 years old, far too old to be a beginner at anything. And yet I knew that the bitterness of Cassandra, which I had discovered within myself and which was already corroding my professional relationships and even tainting a friendship here and there, would grow to fill not just myself but my marriage and my relationship with my son.''

Keep in mind here that George Eliot published her first book, ``Scenes of Clerical Life,'' at age 38 and her first novel, ``Adam Bede,'' at 40.

Lipsett determined to write a novel or quit for good. Then, at age 39, she found she was pregnant for the second time.

``(But) my determination was so fierce I managed to save enough money to give myself six months' worth of paid maternity leave. I set out on faith that fate would grant me two, only two requirements: the facility to create a draft of my short novel before my savings ran out, and a healthy, peaceful baby who slept through the night and napped three and a half hours a day. Amazing to tell, given its usual fickleness, the universe complied.''

Anyone with a family will tell you that raising children is a full-time job. Indeed, achievement in literature was left to childless women for much of this century. Consider these childless authors from a list compiled by writer Tillie Olsen: Willa Cather, Ellen Glasgow, Gertrude Stein, Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen, Katherine Mansfield, Isak Dinesen, Katherine Anne Porter, Dorothy Richarson, Henry Handel (Henrietta) Richardson, Susan Glaspell, Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman, Eudora Welty, Djuna Barnes, Anais Nin, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Zora Neale Hurston, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, Christina Stead, Carson McCullers, Flannery O'Connor, Jean Stafford, May Sarton, Josephine Hebst, Jessamyn West, Janet Frame, Lillian Smith, Iris Murdoch, Joyce Carol Oates, Hannah Green and Lorraine Hansberry.

In order to accommodate writing and motherhood, Lipsett got up at 5 a.m. to sneak a couple of hours at her desk before attending to her family. She remembered that Harriet Beecher Stowe foot-rocked her baby's cradle as she wrote ``Uncle Tom's Cabin'' by candlelight.

``From the practical point of view I found motherhood periodically noisy and demanding but caring for children involves many stretches of long, empty time,'' she wrote. Motherhood, she said, provided time to think.

``I went episode by episode through my novel, and it was at the wheel of my car, or in the shower, or even as I read the wacky cadences of Dr. Seuss that the next scene, the next knot, the next inch or two of plot floated up.''

The result was her first novel, ``Coming Back Up.'' Shortly after her second novel was published, in 1987, Lipsett was diagnosed with breast cancer. Two years later, the cancer reappeared. Lipsett learned the lessons that people facing an imminent death learn. Beyond that, she experienced ``a mad, creative ecstasy in which all impediments fly away and the inner voice calls from the very bottom of the well.''

``It was a prolonged experience of art from the inside and it brought with it a taste of where I could go if I were allowed the time,'' she wrote. The result of that creative period was ``Remember Me.''

In the process of dealing with the claws of cancer, Lipsett says she finally became a true writer.

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