The Feminist Writing Life of Marge Piercy

Marge_smilingA longtime favorite of feminists, author/poet/social activist Marge Piercy wrote a short story, “Saving Mother From Herself,” that we published in the last issue of Ms. magazine—it’s about a women who resists her family’s efforts to clean up what they consider her messy life. We talked to Piercy about the story, her writing and her teaching:

Ms. Blog: What made you write this story?

Marge Piercy: Watching the TV show Hoarders. I had watched it a number of times, but then I started thinking about the people. Some are just nuts, but some just love the stuff they have, and it’s a lifestyle decision. Whose business is it if it isn’t a health hazard? Maybe they don’t want to deal with their kids; maybe they don’t want to deal with their sisters. It’s so intrusive.

I began to see women being controlled. The policing of women who step out of line, who don’t behave the way they’re supposed to. They’re not good housekeepers! Women used to be put into insane asylums if they weren’t good housekeepers! I started identifying with the women..

You’ve been writing short stories lately.

I’m on a short-story binge. I hadn’t written short stories in 20 years. Some I like, some felt too dated—like historical fiction. So I started writing new ones. I’ll have a collection out in 2014.

How does it feel to be writing in this format?

I love it! It’s so much more pleasant to write a short story, because you’re not in it 2½,  3 years [like a novel]. You can turn it around and turn it around and play with it. It takes me about a month. The initial writing doesn’t take as long as the revising.

Why write “Saving Mother From Herself” in first person?

Because I really wanted to get into [the character]. I’ve done a couple of the stories in first person. I did a story about a woman whose sister has cancer and she goes up to see her regularly from Massachusetts to Buffalo, and her sister is going into hospice, she’s been given only weeks to live. That one is about someone very close to you dying; the other is the opposite: It’s about a very accomplished woman poet who has a very hostile relationship with her mother, but when her mother dies she creates this whole false relationship. They’re total fiction—not about the mother she had but the one she wish she had had. I’ve written a lot of poems about my mother, and I thought, What if I didn’t like my mother?

Then there’s one about a lesbian couple, and one of the women is developing Alzheimers. Several of these stories are about older women—the deaths of people you love, their deterioration and your kin interfering with your life.

My mother had so few choices—she had a very unhappy life. It inspired my feminism. I always had this idea that I could somehow save her, but I couldn’t. I thought my father, who smoked and drank a lot, would die first and I could bring her up here. But then she died first. When I went down to take care of the arrangements … I had been sending her things for years to help prevent high blood pressure, and I found it all on the highest shelf she could reach.

You live on Cape Cod, but not in Provincetown.

Living in Provincetown is not possible if you’re a serious writer. People drop in. Where I live, nobody finds me unless I give them directions. I live in the woods.

I have some friends who will come here in the summer, but I tend to hang out with all kinds of people, and I like that. That’s one of the advantages of not being in academia—you have friends who are fishermen, carpenters, plumbers, work in a bank, work in a post office. In academia you’re dealing with people much younger than you or fellow academics.

But you lead writing workshops.

I do workshops during the year in many places, and I have one I really love that it is juried: Everyone is chosen because they have talent. There’s a huge age range, from 22 to 72. I don’t look at their resumes, I just look at the poems they submit.

I feel I can help them.  It takes people to a new level. It’s very intense. We have a lot of fun, too. I like doing it. We have a bonfire on the beach, a meal together, a public reading.

It’s no bullshit, just craft. There’s a lot of “woo woo”—people who teach writing who can’t write. I give [workshop participants] assignments every day designed to look at a different aspect of craft. For instance, imagery. The second day I do “oral” aspects. I tell them, “Everyone has their own stuff.” They have to work out of the stuff that’s in them. You can’t teach that, but you can teach them how to shape the material so it works.

What were your own writing studies like?

I did not study poetry with anybody, because I did not like the poetry I studied while in college—I found it excessively stilted and formal. I worked a very long time to learn how to do what I wanted to do.

I studied fiction. How do you use dialogue, for instance? People often start out acting like court stenographers. You’re not doing realistic dialogue but an illusion of it.

I was a street kid from Detroit; I didn’t write about what ladies were supposed to write about. And I was sexually experienced.

What kind of responses do you typically get to your work?

One woman wrote me and said, Your books ruined my life! And she didn’t mean it in a good way. But usually I get pretty good feedback: You’ve helped me through a very difficult period, you enabled me to go on after my divorce …

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Michele Kort is senior editor of Ms. She is the author of Soul Picnic: The Music and Passion of Laura Nyro and coeditor (with Audrey Bilger) of Here Come the Brides: Reflections on Lesbian Love and Marriage.