A writer’s solitary choice

 Inventor Nikola Tesla at age 40 in 1896, around the height of his career.

Inventor Nikola Tesla at age 40 in 1896, around the height of his career.

The Bookends column of The New York Times Book Review – which each week poses a provocative question that two writers then answer in essay form, often offering diametrically opposed viewpoints – had a goodie for Thanksgiving weekend:  “Are domestic responsibilities at odds with becoming a great artist?” 

It’s a question I’ve wrestled with periodically but particularly at holiday time when gathering with married family members makes me acutely aware of my singleton status. I often suspect that the invitations are accompanied by a tacit, “Poor thing, what else would she do, where else would she go?” as much as by a genuine desire to see me. And, indeed, if this were the 19th-century such a woman would be an object of pity, Jane Austen notwithstanding.

“A single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable,” know-it-all Emma reminds hapless sidekick Harriet in “Emma.” But the truth is – apologies to Jane – a single woman, good fortune or no, must be in want of a husband and a family of her own. Otherwise, she’s a lesbian (in which case she must be in want of a wife and a family of her own) or an anomaly.

But there is a flip side to nature’s and society’s desires to perpetuate themselves and, thus, the pressure to wed and reproduce (for society preferably in that order): There is the resistance, sometimes smug, of the outliers.

“I think, therefore I’m single,” proclaims a magnet with a glamorous woman’s face that a determinedly single, Jane Austen-loving (female) friend gave me. I immediately stuck it on the metal tea table I use for what passes for an entertainment center in my bedroom. Precisely. I come from a disciplined, well-behaved family, but I can’t tell you how often I’ve observed a woman with a controlling husband and uncontrolled children and thought: I’m glad that’s not me.

I realize to admit that makes me something of a oddity still in our postfeminist age, maybe particularly in our postfeminist age. It goes against the grain that someone, especially a woman, doesn’t long to pair up and have children of her own. It’s as if you’re a man-hater or, worse, a despiser of children. It suggests at the very least that you’re selfish.

But just because you’re self-aware doesn’t make you selfish anymore than the desire to remain single means you hate marriage and family. I’m always encouraging single, career-minded women I know to keep an open mind and heart. I enjoy a wedding or a christening as much as the next person. And I find my little cousins and grandniece and grandnephew – along with friends’ and colleagues’ children – enchanting.

Still, I know me. And I know how much it takes to be the best writer I can be. Nothing gives me greater joy. And nothing makes me unhappier than to give less than my best, because of some pressing concern.

So I’ve limited the concerns. In this, I’m not alone. Lately, I’ve been researching the life of Nikola Tesla (1856-1943), the Serbian-American inventor whose creation of the alternating current motor made continuous electricity possible and whose pioneering work in wireless technology – he in effect invented the radio – prefigured the digital age. Tesla worked tirelessly, leaving his lower Manhattan laboratory for dinner at Delmonico’s or the Waldorf Astoria before returning to one of the Manhattan hotels he lived in. Though the handsome, natty Tesla was a darling of café society, gave dazzling lectures and had a number of intense friendships, he thought marriage and children incompatible with science. Some biographers speculate that this was because he was a not-so-closeted homosexual. Regardless, science – like the arts, even the visual arts – unfolds in time. And it’s hard to compress such work to fit less time or interrupt it so you can meet some family obligation.

But perhaps Tesla and I are looking at the question the wrong way. Domestic responsibility is not limited to a spouse and children. Though he had no domestic responsibilities, I certainly have had some – caring for the beloved aunt who raised me, and, now, caring for the home that was once hers and that I inherited. (Rare is the woman who is free of any domestic responsibility and mine serves as a counterpoint to my writing and a form of exercise. And a good thing, too, because few people are more exploited in the workplace than single women, who are expected to pick up the slack for “busier” married coworkers, often for less pay.)

Domestic responsibility has other advantages. It might focus you to do your best work. There can be few greater impetuses than mouths to feed. And as domestic responsibility then is no hindrance to artistic success – many great artists have been married, albeit most of those men – so the absence of domestic responsibility is no guarantee of it. I certainly don’t consider myself to be a great writer, and Tesla biographers acknowledge that he might’ve been a greater scientist had he spent more time realizing what he theorized in his head. But I am – and, I suspect, Tesla was as well – the kind of person who is reluctant to give up the freedom of living mostly in his head. And that’s why people like us don’t marry.

It comes down to what – and whom – you love most, doesn’t it? If you want to be a film critic with a number of dependents, you’ll find a way, won’t you?

“In the end,” film critic Dana Stevens writes in her Times essay, “what’s mysterious, worth aspiring to and impossible to prescribe for anyone else are the conviction and fortitude that allow some creators to do their best possible work in whatever circumstances they find themselves….”