Sometimes the big barriers in life aren’t abject poverty, dreaded disease or death. Sometimes it’s the subtle ones set upon us by time and place. The ones that can’t be seen and can’t be acknowledged because we don’t know they are there. They creep up silently on padded feet and, if we sense them at all, we choose not to turn and face them. The decade of the 50s was a time when barriers like these faced those with dark skin, those who lived in closed religious communities, and those who were female.
When I applied for a job as a writer for Good Housekeeping (Hearst Corporation) in New York in 1961 I was required to take a typing test. I was piqued because I wasn’t applying for the typing-pool, I was applying for a post as an editorial assistant.
I was told, “No typing test, no interview.” I took the test and was offered a job in the ranks of those who could do 70-in-a-minute. I had to insist upon the interview I had been promised. I was only twenty and had no real skills in assertiveness. I am amazed I had the wherewithal to insist on anything.
The essentials of this anecdote lie in the fact that I was putout for the wrong reasons. My irritation was a reflection of hubris. However, that pride was probably what goaded me into speaking up so I guess pride is not always a bad thing to have.
It never occurred to me that this typing requirement was one that applied only to women, much less that I should be angry for the sake of my entire gender. Prejudice is sometimes like traveling on well-worn treads; you have no idea you’re in danger. It also feeds on the ignorance of its victims. They benignly accept their lot because they know no better.
Something similar was at work when I married and had children. I happily took a new direction to accommodate my husband’s career and the life the winds of the times presented to me. I left my writing with hardly a backward look. Back then — in the days before women had been made aware — the possibilities were not an open book to be denied or accepted. I just did what was expected by the entire culture.
Things are so much better now. I don’t think women younger than their mid-fifties have any idea of how ignorant most women were to their own possibilities. That there was a time when we didn’t even know we had choices is not fiction.
I had always wanted to sit in a forest or an office or a newsroom with a pencil in my hand. I dreamed writing, lived writing and loved writing. I wanted to write the next Gone With The Wind only set in Utah instead of the South. (I figured enough had been written about the South and hardly anyone knew anything about the unique culture I was raised in.) That was my plan but it was soon gone with the wind.
It was the 1950s and women in that time, and especially in that place, had a notion of who they should be, could be and, mostly, they got it from those around them because many of them couldn’t see the difference from society’s expectations and their own.
“You can’t be a nurse,” my mother said. “Your ankles aren’t sturdy enough.” I also was told I couldn’t be a doctor because that wasn’t a woman’s vocation.
“Be a teacher because you can be home the same hours as your children, but learn to type because every woman should be able to make a living somehow if their husband dies.”
Writing was not a consideration. It didn’t fit any of the requirements. So when I gave it up, it didn’t feel like I was giving up much.
When I began to put myself through college, I took the sound advice and studied education so I’d have a profession. I made 75 cents an hour (this was, after all, the 50s!) working as a staff writer at the Salt Lake Tribune. That I was making a living writing didn’t occur to me. I met a handsome young man and we were married. His career took precedence; that was simply how it was done back then. Then there were two children, carefully planned, because that was how it should be done. By the 70s we both yearned for careers with autonomy. We wanted spend time with our children and be in command of our own lives.
My dream was a victim of the status quo. It never occurred to me to just strike out in my own direction when my husband and children needed me. The pain was there. I just didn’t recognize it so I could hardly address it and fix it.
My husband and I built a business. We raised a lawyer and a mathematician, grew in joy with a grandson, lived through floods and moves, enjoyed travel. For forty years I didn’t write and, during that time, there were changes. Women had more choices but more than that they had become more aware. The equipment, gears and pulleys were in place for a different view on life. In midlife I became aware that there was an empty hole where my children had been but also that the hole was more vast than the space vacated by them. I knew I not only would be able to write, I would need to write.
Then I read that, if those who live until they are fifty in these times may very likely see their hundredth year. That meant that I might have another entire lifetime before me — plenty of time to do whatever I wanted. In fact, it’s my belief that women in their 50s might have more time for their second life because they won’t have to spend the first twenty years preparing for adulthood.
One day I sat down and began to write the “Great Utah Novel.” I thought it would be a lot easier than it was. I had majored in English Lit. Writing a novel should be pretty much second nature.
It wasn’t long before I realized that writing a novel wasn’t as easy as writing the news stories I had written as a young woman. There were certain skills I didn’t have. It was a discouraging time. I might not have to learn speech and motor skills and the ABCs but there sure was a lot I didn’t know about creative writing.
Somewhere after writing about 400 pages (easily a year’s work), I knew something major was wrong.
I took classes at UCLA in writing. I attended writers’ conferences. I read up on marketing. I updated computer skills that had been honed in the days of the Apple II. And all the while I wrote and revised and listened and revised again. This Is the Place finally emerged.
It is about a young woman, Skylar Eccles, who is a half-breed. In Utah where she was born and raised, that meant that she was one-half Mormon and one-half any other religion. Skylar considers marrying a Mormon man in spite of her own internal longing for a career. By confronting her own history — several generations of women who entered into mixed marriages — and by experiencing a series of devastating events, she comes to see she must make her own way in the world, follow her own true north.
Much of what I wrote about is my own story. If my novel were a tapestry, the warp would be real but the woof would be the stuff of imagination—real fiction.
I think I bring a unique vision to my work. Utah has a beauty and wonder of its own. The Mormons are a mystery to many. I think I tell a story about Utah in the 50s that could only be told by someone who lived in that time and place and who was a part of the two cultures—the Mormon and the non-Mormon—that make it a whole.
I am proud that I did write this book. I’m glad that I waited until I was sixty. I believe that forty years brought insight to the story in terms of the obstacles that women faced in those days and a gentler perspective of the culture in Utah.
I also really like being proof that a new life can start late—or that it is never too late to revive a dream.
Short story by permission of its author.
- Coping With Scatterbrain Syndrome (sylviadickeysmithbooks.wordpress.com)