Every other Thursday, I manage a day without children. I leave the house early to meet my writing group, allowing an hour to drive 17 miles through rush hour traffic. If I’m lucky I arrive in time to pick up some tea at the Peet’s on the corner. We circle our metal folding chairs in a kindergarten classroom decorated with posters defining “community” and “friendship.” Some of us bring our kids–the nursing toddler, the preschooler on vacation — and we set out crayons and Lincoln Logs to keep them occupied while we catch up on our personal and publishing news, then settle in to discuss and critique each other’s writing. Even when I haven’t shared my work, I leave after 90 minutes recharged and full of ideas for my own writing. I spend the afternoon holed up in a cafï¿½ with my laptop and my latte.
I’ve been feeling particularly grateful for my writing group since watching The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio (Jane Anderson, 2005), the true story of a woman who “raised ten kids on twenty-five words or less.” It’s partly a sentimental period piece about an innocent time when women wore neat hats, white gloves, and pink lipstick whenever they left the house; it’s also a darker story of a pre-feminist time when a husband’s drunken rages were met with jokes from the local cops and a wife couldn’t co-sign a mortgage even when it was her own earnings buying the house. But what I saw was a film about a writer who works for years with no community, and then one day enjoys a glorious few hours with her writing sisters.
Evelyn Ryan (Julianne Moore) is a contester, one of thousands of “overworked housewives [who exercise] their underused wits” by participating in jingle-writing competitions sponsored by companies ranging from Dr. Pepper to Frigidaire. Raising ten kids on her husband’s inadequate salary, she wins $2 on a poetry contest, a toaster, a donkey (sold for the cash). She works at a typewriter tucked in a corner of the crowded living room, and when the film shows her young children pounding ineffectually at the heavy keys, it occurred to me there might be some advantage to using that old-fashioned machine over the light-touch keyboard which lets my toddler, Eli, so easily edit my work.
Evelyn’s attitude in the face of clamorous children, unrelenting chores, and a useless husband is welcome mix of salty and sweet. Faced with the arrival of an impossibly large chest freezer, she observes, “It inspires me; it’s something to be filled.” When she wins a ten-minute grocery store shopping spree, she never considers stocking up on staples. Instead, she builds up the sides of the cart with long packages of bacon, then piles it high with exotic tinned pates and imported fruit. At home that evening, with bottles and cans of gourmet treats spread across the table, she urges her family to try capers and cornichons, then giggles delightedly as she piles caviar onto a cracker. Like any writer, she’s constantly turning her experiences into material. When a tussle with her husband results in broken bottles of milk spilling across the floor, she falls asleep thinking of the possible jingles: “Spilled milk? Don’t cry, unless of course it’s hip high . . . Spilled milk can’t be poured, if it’s spreading cross the floor; but no need for tears or sorrow, there’s always more to spill — tomorrow.”
The jingles capture her attitude well: a cheerful tone wrapping a darker truth. When her husband complains about her writing, she reminds him sharply, “Those ‘stupid notebooks’ are the only reason this family isn’t out on the street.” And when her daughter, Tuff (who went on to write the memoir on which the film is based) wonders at her mother’s outlook, Evelyn says, “Well, [being angry all the time] wouldn’t do me any good, would it?”
The film emphasizes Evelyn’s narrative authority by pulling Julianne Moore, still in character, out of the action occasionally to address the audience; she guides us through the logistics of a contest and outlines her writing strategy in montages that look like contemporary commercials. The film shows us plenty of ads, too, both on the family TV and popping out into their living room, where jingle-singing choruses in Easter egg dresses appear with stylized graphics to display Evelyn’s winnings.
Evelyn downplays her talent, allowing only that she was determined and prolific, but no mere “wit,” as she describes herself, could have kept such a large family afloat without real skill. Her family only enjoys the results of her work, the seemingly serendipitous arrival of pogo sticks and sleds, ice crushers and cartons of crackers; no one really appreciates the work itself until she hears about a group of contesters called the Affadaisies, who invite her to their meeting in a town eighty miles away. The first time she attempts the trip (leaving the fridge well-stocked) her plans are derailed at the last minute. Years pass before she can try again, and when she finally arrives, the Affadaisies pour out of the house to greet their new friend. “We’ve got a stray bird back in the nest, girls!” cries Laura Dern’s Dortha.
The group gathers in the living room, balancing cups of tea with their pens and notebooks, to talk shop and critique each other’s work. References to alliteration, inner rhyme and homophones fly as these sharp minds, not in the least dulled by years of suburban life, work on the next jingle or limerick; when they learn of a new kind of contest (no skill required), they view it as the death of literacy. They don’t set their sights much higher than earning the occasional $5 prize or brand-new toaster, but they find enough satisfaction in that tangible response to their writing that they keep on going.
Evelyn returns home to find her hungry kids locked out of the house and her drunken husband in tears, afraid she was never coming back (“For goodness sakes,” she says, exasperated, “You know I’d never leave the kids with you.”) He’s bought her a new desk, though, so although you get the feeling she may never see the Affadaisies again, there’s hope she might get a bit more support at home.
I’m writing this column for Mother’s Day, a day when my boys will let me sleep in, and likely they’ll bring me breakfast. But in the afternoon, for a change, we’ll all make that 17-mile drive together, where my writing group will gather to give a reading. I’ll dedicate my part to Evelyn Ryan and all the other mamas who write with little encouragement, and still keep at it, however they can.