When Lauren Sandler asked, in an Atlantic essay, how mother-writers could best “negotiate the balance between selfhood and motherhood,” she probably wasn’t expecting a direct reply from Jane Smiley, author of 23 books, Pulitzer Prize winner, and mother of three children and two stepchildren. In response to Sandler’s suggestion that “stopping at one child” might be “the answer, or at least the beginning of one,” Smiley took to the comments section to retort:
The key is not having one child, it is living in a place where there is excellent daycare and a social world that allows fathers to have the time and the motivation to fully share in raising kids. Ames, Iowa, where I lived for many years was just such a place. I thank you, Iowa State University and the Ames Community Pre-School Center for enabling my career and my life as a mother.
Before reading Smiley’s comment, I didn’t know much about her. I’d read A Thousand Acres years ago (and honestly I don’t remember much about it), and have had Moo on my shelf since I bought it at a used bookstore at the beginning of our Midwestern sojourn. But for the past couple of weeks, I have been reading as much of her writing as I can get my hands on. (And that is quite a lot, given how prolific she is.) It turns out that Smiley is not only a gifted and celebrated novelist, but also the author of several non-fiction books and works for children and a frequent and vocal commentator on everything from progressive politics to a topic near and dear to my heart: writing as a mother.
A sitting duck, she is not.
Jane Graves Smiley was born in 1949 in Los Angeles, but was raised in suburban St. Louis. She studied literature at Vassar, from which she graduated in 1971, then earned a master’s, MFA, and PhD at the University of Iowa. She was a distinguished professor of English at Iowa State University until 1996, when she gave up university life, moved to California, and started writing full-time.
Jane Smiley very much raised her kids alongside her writing career. Her first book – the novel, Barn Blind - was published not long after her oldest daughter was born, and she continued to publish regularly – fiction in the 1980s and 90s, a mix of fiction and non- in the 2000s – as she added to her family. In various essays and interviews, she is sanguine about the challenges of balancing work and family. In Leslie Morgan Steiner’s Mommy Wars, Smiley quips, “This is the cardinal rule for ‘having it all’ – have it all inside a very small perimeter, so that you can get to any problem ASAP,” citing the close proximity of her Ames, Iowa home, workplace, day care, grocery store, and kids’ school as an example. Having that perimeter in a family-friendly place with a supportive partner is also essential. According to Smiley, “There wasn’t a tremendous amount of stimulation,” in central Iowa, “but friendships were warm and I got a lot of work done and from the point of view of a parent, schools were good and the children were safe on the bus and it had a lot of virtues.” In another interview, she says, “Ideally, you would also have a mate who is willing and able to share childcare responsibilities…Ideally, your mate is enthusiastic about your working life and everything that comes with it.”
In addition to her renowned fiction, for which she has won the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN USA Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Smiley has produced a large body of non-fiction writing, not to mention semi-regular op-eds at the Huffington Post. Smiley describes a writing schedule that is surprisingly light for a writer as productive as she: “I’ve always written every day, for a few hours a day – maybe 1 1/2 to 3. This fits in pretty well with the kids, because you aren’t busy all day.” When asked elsewhere how she managed to raise her kids, Phoebe, Lucy, and Axel, while publishing so much, she shrugged, “Well, it’s my job…If I couldn’t do my job, I would suffer the consequences – put it that way.”
Among her many non-fiction pieces, my favorites – surprise, surprise – are her essays on the politics of motherhood. In her 1998 introduction to a New York Times Magazine issue on motherhood, she writes eloquently about becoming a mother and realizing, given the opinions that rained down upon her from doctors, books, politicians, and random passers-by, that “motherhood is the most public of personal conditions.” After many years as a mother, she decides that “the only true state of motherhood is the private one.” In a lecture given at the Aspen Writers’ Conference, she argues that the long absence of writing by mothers about motherhood has left a void in our cultural understanding. According to Smiley, a mother-writer’s “particular and complex vision of life…, if we can insert it into the stream of literature, may help our culture to pause so we can save ourselves and the world that cradles us after all.”
Jane Smiley may be much more “momish” than the mothers of one that Sandler writes about in her Atlantic piece, but she is no less successful. Moreover, she seems completely disinterested in throwing up needless walls between different categories of women. Mothers of one, many, or none, daughters, grandmothers, women of all ages, you’d all be welcome at Jane Smiley’s table. Of her “micro-generation,” Smiley says, “our job was not to write the book or make the plan as it was for Steinem, Friedan, Millett, but to serve as examples, positive and negative, of how ideals and plans are realized in the real world. The good sign is that our daughters have not repudiated our lives but have decided to do us one better.”
As a mother-writer, it’s hard to imagine doing too much better than Jane Smiley has.