Grammar Stage Reading
What are the central events in the author’s life?
- At 23, moves to Heidelberg to write her first novel, Fear of Flying, published 1974, which became a bestseller.
- Has affair with Martha Stewart’s Husband
- Daughter enters rehab for drug use. Stops drinking to concentrate on helping her daughter
- Acted in a play of the Vagina Monologues
- Works with Julia Phillips to turn Fear of Flying into a movie. Does not materialize.
- Father dies.
- Grandson is born.
What historical events coincide with these personal events?
- The late 60’s and early 70’s was a period of sexual liberation. The late 1960’s saw the publication of books such as John Updike’s Couples and Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, which dealt explicitly with sex.
What is the most important person (or people) in the writer’s life? What events form the outline of that story?
- Erica’s daughter Molly is frequently mentioned.
- Erica takes Molly to Heidelberg to show her where she wrote her novel.
- Molly enters rehab for drug use.
- Molly follows in her Mother’s footsteps as a writer.
Give the book your own title and subtitle:
A writer’s story: in which Erica Jong struggles with her demons and makes peace with her past.
Logic Stage Reading
What is the theme that ties the narrative together?
The theme is “heroic”. The author faces a series of obstacles which she has to overcome. She uses the image of a demon to represent these obstacles: her lust, her thirst for fame, her alcoholism, the struggle with truth she has had to face in writing about her family.
Where is the life’s turning point? Is there a conversion?
The change that Jong experiences is gradual. There is no sudden epiphany for her. For example, in looking back at her sexual past, she says, “As for the care and feeding of studs, I did that in my thirties and forties and had my fill. Every woman should try it briefly.”
On alcohol, and the search for ecstasy: “I have found through long, excruciating experience that for me the most enduring transcendence is found in the trance of writing.”
She does not speak of a sudden realization when wrestling with the allure of fame. She says, “deep in the recesses of my brain, I was trying to choose between Hollywood bling and the life of the noiseless, patient writer … I was making a choice and I didn’t even know it.”
For what does the writer apologize? In apologizing, how does the writer justify?
Jong admits that she was wrong to sleep with Martha Stewart’s husband. She justifies herself by saying that, “Authors are rogues and ruffians and easy lays. They are gluttons for sweets and savories. They devour life and always want more. The writer’s job is to absorb. The most uncomfortable things I did, I did knowing in my gut that I would write about them.”
That impulse is not unknown to me. Whenever I veer off the well-worn tracks of my life in search of adventure, I tell myself that I will at least have some novel experience to write about, no matter the shame I might experience. David D has good advice for this, “when you screw up, shake your head and laugh. Here’s another lesson for me. Teach me oh universe!” Life is one big absurdist play.
Connecting lust and creativity, she offers a non-explanation, “Why is lust so critical (for poetry)? I really don’t know. Our bodies may not last forever, but while we have them, they are heat-seeking missiles.” Which is also an oblique excuse for her lust.
Lust is probably not a good word to use. It is one of the seven sins and is therefore bad by default. There is a sexual instinct which we all possess, men much more than women, and a societal attitude towards sex, that does not seem to match with me. More on this later, the idea of sexual hypocrisy.
Jong justifies her alcoholism with the idea of connoisseurship. That she is appreciating the finer things in life. “I don’t smoke dope. I never tried cocaine. I don’t like gin or vodka or whiskey – martinis deliver a blow to the back of my head – but wine is one of the delights of life. I know good wine and can taste it. I won’t drink plonk.” Sometimes, we shouldn’t be so strict on ourselves, and learn to enjoy life a little: “I feel wonderful when I’m abstinent …. But when I’m in Provence it seems criminal not to have a glass of wine.” “you cannot be in love and not drink wine. Or I can’t, anyway.”
Explaining the allure of fame: “my grandson Max shines when the camera comes his way, so did molly. The camera creates a magical transformation. It’s not enough to exist; we must chronicle that existence.”
In these terms, I can understand fame. Not as an invasion of privacy, which I would abhor, but as a chronicling of our past.
What is the model – the ideal – for this person’s life?
This question is connected to the above question. A writer apologizes because she falls short of some ideal. Thus, her apologies reveal what her ideal is.
In the introduction, Jong stresses the importance of telling the truth, and the power of language to either distort or tell this truth. Whether in politicians sending young men off to war, or pregnant women deciding on the merits of abortion, language makes a difference. For instance, Jong tells us that framing anti-abortion as “pro-life” was a master-stroke that swung the debate against pro-choice.
Being a young writer looking to the past for role models, Jong found none. In Sylvia Plath, a contemporary, she found, “a full blooded woman, seeking a full blooded man, and children – a life of creativity leavened by sex, love, parenthood.” Plath was a female voice that spoke from the gut, and Jong took Plath as her model.
The ideal for Jong then, is to tell the truth, but from a female perspective.
What is the end of the life: the place where the write has arrived, found closure, discovered rest?
She has found rest from simply aging.
“The best part of getting older is this: watching the circles get completed and former enemies or lovers join hands again”
She has also found rest as a grandmother. As a mother, she experienced guilt for divorcing Molly’s father and doubt about whether she could be a good mother. With Max, her grandson, she can enjoy him fully and un self-consciously.
“I wish I could protect the baby frozen on this film. (Molly) Yet when she was four I could not change anything. Nor could her father. I am so pained by this that I eject the disk.”
How many times have I thought of some past memory that so pained me I laughed aloud and shook my head to the consternation of my colleagues around me. These vignettes, “so pained by this that I eject the disk” are on point and true, condensed truth that speaks to me.
Rhetoric Stage Reading
Is the writer writing for herself, or for a group?
Jong sees herself as a female voice. She assumes female sexual desire to be universal. It is normal to be female and have sexual fantasies. “The book kept selling anyway, became famous in Croatia, Poland, Korea and Taiwan and was pirated in China. Women in all these disparate places wrote to say they thought that Isadora’s story was the story of their lives. I marveled over this – how alike womens’ feelings were in such different cultures.”
I think that Jong led a good life. The pattern of her life, overreaching and the subsequent moderation, I think is a good example. When she admonishes, “Every woman should try it briefly”, she speaks from experience. This is no armchair theorist here. She lived lustily, in its fullest sense. Want I want to model is the adventure, the experiencing it for yourself, the banishment of grey timidity.
What have you brought away from the story?
I borrowed this book with 2 expectations. Firstly, I wanted to understand how to be open. Susan Wise Bauer says that “Honest confession is difficult. When a writer unfolds his soul to an unknown mass of listeners, it requires the confessor be sure of the listener’s sympathetic ear.” How could Jong manage to write so honestly about her sexual past, something that feels so intimate to me?
Secondly, I wanted to understand my sexuality. How do I understand the sexual desire that drives me, how do I integrate it and accept it as a part of me? If Jong can write so openly about her sexual history, she must have accepted it herself. I wanted to learn how she had done so.
The most important reason she writes is to “tell the truth – my quixotic calling.” Honesty is important. What is not written is not clearly spelt out. What is not clear is not properly understood. What is not understood can deceive us. Therefore it is important to be truthful. If there is much foggy thinking about sex today, it is ever more important to write about it. She wants to expose the hypocrisy of sex: “we Americans seem to need sex and contrition at the same time. All our media use sex to sell products, yet we constantly demand that teenagers join the anti sex league.”
She also wrote because she felt she wanted to be a female voice. This higher mission to break steoreotypes appealed to her. “Fatherhood was liberated. Men can now admit they like being close to their kids. Women can admit they don’t always.”
Jong describes her work as art, not pornography. “I’m often asked what is the difference between pornography and literature, if a piece of work is merely utilitarian, if it stimulates and facilitiates only masturbation, it is pornography. If it illustrates human feelings, it is something more.”
She does admit that it is hard to be so open: “the hardest thing about writing sex scenes is that I know when writing them that I am revealing myself totally. There’s no place to hide.”
So then, Truth, Art, speaking for the female voice, these are her reasons. I can understand intellectually, but emotionally, how do you write that I met so and so and we had sex in a hotel room and this is what I observed and felt. I suppose that after we gather the intellectual reasons, we just have to do it, and with experience, the emotional fear dies away, and with experience, you say, “that’s it? There was nothing to it in the first place.”
“Change is terrifying – and necessary. How do we accomplish it despite the terror? … it is really Homer who has the answer. The gods put mists of their own making before our eyes so that we can do what we are meant to do without fear stopping us. The mists can be made of sex, of filial love, of witchcraft. Without them, we would never leave home. Or return.”
“Hotel rooms inhabit a separate moral universe”
“Nobody wants to read – or write – about perfect people. Perfection is boring. And Unbelievable.”
“I tried women a couple of times, but it just seemed too cozy. It was like hot cocoa and angel food cake. Men are more like pungent hunks of meat. Their bulk, their smell, their muscles turn me on. Women are too delicate, too sweet, too (dare I say it?) empathic.”