'Spinster' Celebrates The Single Ladies

'Spinster' Celebrates The Single Ladies

7:02pm Apr 20, 2015
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It's what every young girl is expected to do: Grow up, get married and have kids. Or is it? Writer Kate Bolick questions that social edict in her new memoir, Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own. She tells NPR's Rachel Martin that, growing up, the expectation that she'd get married eventually was just part of life. "It didn't feel oppressive, it didn't feel confusing or like something I didn't want to do," she says. "My parents had a nice marriage, I liked having boyfriends, I assumed one day when I grew up I would want to marry one of them. I never felt it as an extremely strong expectation, but it was an unspoken, unquestioned eventuality."


Interview Highlights

On her mother, and the tension between her identity as a mother and as a writer

She wasn't resentful of us, or I don't think that she actively questioned or felt angry about the choices that she had made, but at the same time I was watching her frustration around her work, and to have her die at midlife like that ... I was left with the feeling of, she didn't get to finish doing what she wanted. And so I felt like she'd been cruelly robbed of the rest of her life. And that combination of feeling the tension she felt around work and family when she was alive and then just the cruelty of her life being foreshortened had a huge impact on me.

And I also felt that the shock of losing her before I had started my own life had made me feel very strongly that I must start my life. I must create a foundation for myself, I must be able to take care of myself and that was more important to me than anything else.

On feeling lonely

15 to almost 20 years ago was when I was setting out. And it was a much different time. I noticed that there wasn't any positive depiction of single women in popular culture at that moment in time ... You could either be Carrie Bradshaw and be very fabulous and frivolous, or you could be Bridget Jones and be pathetic and desperate. And there was a way in which the conversation around single women or how single women spoke about themselves was very self-deprecating. It was as if single women were a comic figure. So I didn't feel like there was a legitimate representation of the complexities of what it means to be a single person in the world in our pop culture. And then in my own life, everyone I knew was getting married or talking about getting married. I really didn't know unmarried people. And a lot has changed in 15 years, it's a much different landscape now.

On women whose lives didn't go according to plan

Maeve Brennan was a staff writer at The New Yorker and would write these "Talk of the Town" columns ... The Long-Winded Lady was her pen name. And she lived alone in various apartments and hotels. And she did marry briefly for five years, didn't work out. So she was alone for most of her life and never had a home of her own. Y'know in her later years [she] started moving around out further outside of the city going to writer's colonies and friends' summer houses and became more and more untethered. And she ended up the quintessential bag lady on the streets of New York. The cat lady. The whole shebang. Everything that every single woman in her most desperate moment fears is what Maeve Brennan ended up becoming.

But once I had heard her whole story and known it and walked around with it for years thinking about, I couldn't let go of this idea. I just wasn't convinced that it had to have been as bad as it was. ... And so when I was working on the book I was able to find one of her very last friends, and got to hear about the whole kind of hidden, unspoken or unknown last chapter of Maeve's life in which while she was going from one writer's colony to the next, she was meeting these women and had these great friendships. And I came to think that Maeve lived her absolute best life, the one that she wanted.

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's what every young girl is expected to do - grow up, get married and have kids. But what if they grow up and figure out that they'd rather stay single? Can one live a life alone and still be happy? Writer Kate Bolick examines that question in her new book. It's called "Spinster: Making A Life Of One's Own."

KATE BOLICK: I'd say that growing up, the expectation for marriage was just part of the air I breathed. It wasn't - it didn't feel oppressive, it didn't feel confusing or as like something I didn't want to do. I felt like I would want to do it. It seemed - you know, my parents had a nice marriage. I liked having boyfriends. I assumed one day when I grew up, I would want to marry one of them. I never felt it as an extremely strong expectation, but it was an unspoken, unquestioned eventuality.

MARTIN: You write in the book, though, that your mom felt a kind of tension between her identity as a mother and a professional identity as a writer. Can you talk a little bit about that?

BOLICK: Yeah. I'd say, you know, when she died in 1996 and when she was alive, that tension was present. It wasn't overwhelming. She wasn't resentful of us or - I don't think that she actively questioned or felt angry about the choices that she had made. But at the same time, I was watching her frustration around her work and to have her die at midlife like that - and I was left with the feeling of she didn't get to finish doing what she wanted. And so I felt like she'd been cruelly robbed of the rest of her life. And that combination of feeling the tension she felt around work and family when she was alive and then just the cruelty of her life being foreshortened had a huge impact on me.

MARTIN: So did that crystallize for you some kind of choice about wanting to do everything you want to do in a job or in a professional kind of career track? And if marriage is going to be something that happens in your life, it'll happen after that?

BOLICK: Definitely. And I also felt, you know, that the shock of losing her before I had started my own life made me feel very strongly that I must start my life. I must create a foundation for myself. I must be able to take care of myself. And that was more important to me than anything else. And so I just pursued that directive.

MARTIN: Did that feel like lonely territory? I mean, it is 2015. We look around, there are all kinds of women leading independent lives. But clearly, you felt a little bit alone.

BOLICK: Well, oddly enough, I think that, you know, I'm talking about 15 to almost 20 years ago is when I was setting out. And it was a much different time. I noticed that there wasn't any positive depiction of single women in popular culture at that moment in time. So now we're talking about the year 2000. And you could either be Carrie Bradshaw and be very fabulous and frivolous, or you could be Bridget Jones and be pathetic and desperate. And there was a way in which the conversation around single women or how single women spoke about themselves was very self-deprecating.

It was as if single women were a comic figure. So I didn't feel like there was a legitimate representation of the complexities of what it means to be a single person in the world in our pop culture. And then in my own life, you know, everyone I knew was getting married or talking about getting married. I really didn't know unmarried people. And a lot has changed in 15 years. It's a much different landscape now.

MARTIN: Besides your mom, you write about five other women in the book who serve as inspirations to you at different chapters of your life - Neith Boyce, Maeve Brennan, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Edith Wharton. I'd love to focus on Maeve Brennan if we could for a moment. She ends up leading what appears, at least in some ways, to be this very lonely, solitary life. Her - things don't go according to plan. Can you talk about what happens to her?

BOLICK: Yeah, so Maeve Brennan was a staff writer at The New Yorker and would write these talk-of-the-town columns called - "The Long-Winded Lady" was her pen name. And they were sketches of urban life in Manhattan. And she lived alone in various apartments and hotels. And she did marry briefly for five years - didn't work out. So she was alone for most of her life and never had a home of her own.

You know, in her later years, started moving around further outside of the city, going to writers' colonies and friends' summer houses and became more and more untethered. And she ended up the quintessential bag lady on the streets of New York - the cat lady, the whole shebang. Everything that every, you know, single woman in her most desperate moment fears is what Maeve Brennan ended up becoming.

But once I had heard her whole story and known it and walked around with it for years thinking about it, I couldn't let go of this idea that I just wasn't convinced that it had to have been as bad as it was. You know, there were some things so autonomous about her voice in her writing and her commitment to her own ideals that made me feel like there was more to the story than I was aware of. And so when I was working on the book, I was able to find one of her very last friends and got to hear about the whole, you know, kind of hidden, unspoken or unknown last chapter of Maeve's life, in which, while she was going from one writer's colony to the next, she was meeting these women and had these great friendships. And I came to think that Maeve lived her absolute best life, the one she wanted. And so I think that the freedom that she achieved by never being tethered to one place, by being, you know - living in the city and the kinds of webs of relationships that we have with the doorman or the bartender or the dry cleaner - you know, that these are the interactions that sustained her. That's what I ended up deciding.

MARTIN: May I ask a personal question?

BOLICK: You may.

MARTIN: Where are you at in your life now? Are you coupled up with someone?

BOLICK: I am. So I've been seeing somebody the entire time I wrote this book. And we don't live together, and I think of - oh, gosh. I still don't know how to answer it fully.

(LAUGHTER)

BOLICK: But yes, I am seeing someone.

MARTIN: Because I'm forcing you to define a relationship, and you don't want to do that.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: You guys really don't have those conversations - next steps, planning the future?

BOLICK: Well, I mean, not really. I mean, sort of. It's not like we don't talk about it at all. But there's no - we don't have a future. It's a relationship without a future, at least right now. So we haven't gone into the future zone yet. And that is one thing that makes it different from other relationships for me.

MARTIN: The book is called "Spinster: Making A Life Of One's Own." It's written by Kate Bolick. Thanks so much for talking with us, Kate.

BOLICK: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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