Last night, after a quick picnic dinner on the most beautiful community college campus I’ve ever seen, my friend Kate and I went to hear Diana Gabaldon speak about her writing. I’m not especially proud that I read Diana Gabaldon, and there was a time when I would never have admitted on the internet that I do any such thing, but whatever. One of my favorite things about this blog is the fact that both Jill and I are fairly eclectic readers. On any given day you can find us reviewing Anna Karenina or Dead Until Dark, A Breath of Snow and Ashes or The Portrait of a Lady. So yes – I read Diana Gabaldon. I roll my eyes at some of her excesses, but mostly I’m happy to ride along. Her novels are like long drives on rutted dirt roads in pickup trucks without shocks with a tough, wise older woman at the wheel and a half dozen drunk teenage boys in the back, passing a whiskey bottle and a bucket of fried chicken back and forth, occasionally firing a shotgun at the sky.
One of the take-homes from the evening for me was that my vision is deteriorating, fast. Kate and I sat a few rows from the back in a medium-sized theatre, and Gabaldon was mostly a blur. I was a little alarmed by it, to be honest – and yes, an optometrist visit is in my near future, I think. But even as a blur, Gabaldon is a sleek, confident woman who could pass for half of her 62 years. She eschewed the podium and stood center stage. At times her voice was hard to hear (is my hearing going now too? Crap!), and there were a few microphone issues early on. There is a touch of the nerd about her; topics covered over the course of the evening included Doctor Who, Gabaldon’s mid-eighties participation in various Compuserve discussion forums, and the fact that at one time Gabaldon’s job was to sort through a storage room full of data about the contents of bird stomachs. At the same time, the evening was plenty raunchy. She asked if any men in the audience were wearing kilts, and one was. She had him stand up and wave. Then she announced that the reason men in kilts are alluring is the idea that “you could be up against a wall with them in half a second.”
Embarrassed kilted man aside, the audience consisted mostly of women, and Kate and I were on the young side. The room was full of crocheted shawls and long denim skirts and reading glasses on little chains and quilted handbags and grey hair of every conceivable length. When Diana Gabaldon stepped on stage and the crowd leaped to its feet, Kate whispered, “This is like Twilight for older women!” My own thought was that – the few awkward-looking men aside – this was the exact crowd that would have attended one of those getting-to-know-your-clitoris parties that women used to throw in the seventies, the exact crowd one finds in the waiting area of a mammography clinic. Most of the audience members were likely mothers and grandmothers, but when a baby being held by an awkward man in the back row began to cry loudly, heads swung ferociously around, poised not to smile sympathetically but to KILL, and I thought of the final episode of M*A*S*H, when Hawkeye witnesses a woman on a bus suffocate her own crying baby under the pressure of the other passengers on the bus, who are trying to remain silent under threat of attack.
But don’t worry. The baby didn’t die. Everything was fine. Gabaldon was as charming and surprising as her novels, with occasional forays into a certain tough arrogance – at one point, when an audience member asked her whether her editor helped her with a draft, Gabaldon replied, “I don’t write drafts. I was a professional writer for fifteen years before I wrote my first novels. I write polished work or I don’t write at all.” I was a little stunned by this comment, since my education focused so much on the sacredness of process – of the discovery draft, the process of getting feedback from other writers, followed by months or years of rearrangement and experiments in point of view, by letting manuscripts sit until I can view it with an objective eye, and so forth. At first I thought her response was a little obnoxious, but then I realized that on some level I agree with her. I can revise my writing – this skill, along with a whizzbang collection of friends, is probably the most important end result of my MFA in fiction writing – but one some level I feel the way Gabaldon does. If a story or novel doesn’t work, I can revise it (and my training has taught me that I should), but on some level I always want to chuck it and start over with a new idea.
In Gabaldon’s novels (some of which you can read about here, here, here, and here), the protagonist ages twenty years between the second and third novels, and at times I’ve had trouble finding the older Claire Fraser plausible. For me, the problems occur in the action/adventure scenes in the novel, in particular the many shipwrecks. There is one scene in Voyager in which Claire and Jamie are being chased around a sinking ship by a band of marauding pirates or some such, and at some point Claire (who is close to fifty at this point) shimmies up the ship’s mast and takes refuge there for only a moment until the ship rocks to the side and the mast with Claire on it smashes down into the ocean, and Claire swims for a while and maybe rescues someone – I don’t remember all the details. Are there women in their late forties who could do this? Sure – but these women are likely athletes or people who make their living doing physical labor. Claire spent her ‘30’s and ‘40’s in 20th-century Boston, working long hours as a doctor, raising a child, and living in a passionless marriage. There are other moments like these in the novels, and they’ve annoyed me. At one point last night, an audience member asked Gabaldon if she thinks Claire and Jamie’s vibrant post-fifty sex life (which, in my defense, never bothered me much – it was the shipwrecks and mast-climbing and similar scenes that I question, not the sex) is plausible, and Gabaldon happily announced, “I’m 62, and I recently announced to my husband that I intend to continue having sex for a long, long time, and so does he if he knows what’s good for him.”
I’m known for being hard on women – in literature and in life – and I accept that charge. It’s true. Women frustrate me. But it occurs to me that the event I attended last night could easily have been titled “A Celebration of the Female Life Span,” or something similar, and I wouldn’t have gone within a mile of the place. But that’s what it was, when you think about it, and what really drove the point in was this: When Kate and I became friends in 1997, she had a one year-old. Last week, that one year-old graduated from high school. While we ate dinner before the presentation, we talked about his graduation, about all the drama and struggle involved in being the parent of a young adult. Then I told Kate what was up with me, about the fellowship and Ph.D programs I plan to apply for this fall, and then I said, “And if I get in, I’m going to celebrate by getting pregnant.” This was not an impulsive statement – it’s been part of my plan for a while – but it was the first time I’ve said it out loud, and the combination of my own plans, of Kate’s son’s graduation, and the Steinemfest nature of Gabaldon’s audience struck me as almost beautiful – the way women’s life spans have stretched and expanded over the last fifty years as if made of silly putty, and everything that comes with these changes: freedom of choice and uncertainty and anxiety and the long nights and days spent wondering if we are doing things the right way. Because Gabaldon’s novels place the same woman in two different centuries, and because ultimately Claire manages to gracefully embrace the realities of a woman’s role in both centuries, these novels may be first and foremost about what it means to embrace both the freedom of choice and the received wisdom of tradition and authority. These novels are not literary art by any means, but they matter.
When Gabaldon’s talk ended, it was about 8:45 pm. It was still mostly light out, and I remembered that the summer solstice is just a little over a week away. The campus was tranquil – students gone home, offices shut up, silent except for the hum of sprinklers. Kate and I hugged, said goodbye, made some tentative plans to get together again soon, and headed in opposite directions to our cars. I tucked my car key in my right hand, its etched end protruding between my first and second fingers, the way you do when you’re a woman and you’re walking in a deserted place, and drove home through the eerie and unexpected light.