Sunday, 1 June 2014


Once, the term “women writer” did not mean celebrity author or jaunty comedy woman, full of exuberant wit, or gently envied best seller. Those words brought a kind of doom.

As a teenager I felt haunted by the ghosts of tragic women writers: George Eliot forced to become a recluse; Christina Rossetti, dying an invalid on her couch; the Bronte sisters, dying of consumption and sadness; Sylvia Plath, resting her unhappy head in the gas oven and even the great Virginia Woolf, drowning with pockets full of stones. 

Such often inaccurate versions of their lives tolled like bells, warning me that “being a writer” was an unwise choice. These writers - or what I knew of them then - offered solid evidence that any girl or woman bold enough to write faced loneliness, unhappiness, disgrace, and illness, Probably there would be madness death by one's own hand. 

I was too young to know that "happy writer" does not make good copy. 

Besides. there were whispers of madness close to home. My great-aunt and grandmother spent time in mental asylums, as such places were called. I had seen their empty, bewildered eyes and how hard they found it to hold on to reality. I'd heard talk about "electric treatment" and "women's problems" and other mutterings. I was terrified that “trying to be a writer” would invite such shadows into my already unstable life and lead towards that unhappy darkness. 

Time has passed, and now is not how it was back then, what with equal opportunities and writing courses, and a host of women writers and more. Yet I can't have been the only would-be writer stretched out between longing and fear, being subtly taught that writing was definitely an unsuitable and dangerous occupation for a woman.

So, right now, although I feel sadness about Maya Angelou’s passing, I feel glad that she offered a different model. I thank the many joyful heavens for her and her generous spirit. She was a woman writer who lived into a fine old age, kept her thirst for justice, her love of words and, incredibly, and her hope for humanity alive, despite all the terrible things in her life. She did not die young.She was not a tragedy.

Writers like Maya – the ones who survive and last long, who do good work, who lead positive and full lives - are also the ones we should celebrate, the ones we need to chase away our writing fears, the ones who call out sisterly encouragement, no matter how hard they have lived. We need the joyful ghosts. 

And for all those male writers haunted by similar tragic ghosts, I hope you find your good angels too.

 Penny Dolan


michelle lovric said...

Penny, so glad you did 'invite the shadows' - look at the result!

Joan Lennon said...

Joyful ghosts, we salute you!

Penny Dolan said...

Brainpickings blog highlights some of Maya's words & philosophy today. Sorry, this will be a cut and paste activity:

jual hajar jahanam said...

how it feels haunted by the ghosts of tragic women

PaperParks said...

So many writers, male and female, have had such tragic lives- artistic temperament? It's good to have Maya Angelou to go against the grain, not that there wasn't tragedy in her life too.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Having experienced two writer friends'... both male... suicides, your blog was particularly poignant. Maya Angelou was truly an amazing women. Thank you for reminding us Penny.

Eda Gül said...

very nice blog and thanks for share this
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