How lack of time holds women back from creativity

BY Debbie Taylor

29th Nov 2023 Life

5 min read

How lack of time holds women back from creativity
Debbie Taylor, editor of magazine for women writers Mslexia, examines why we are missing women's voices in the arts as lack of time holds women back from creativity
Have you always wanted to write a novel? Or return to the poetry that excited you so much in your teens? Perhaps you’re itching to try your hand at a memoir, to capture that time in your life when something extraordinary was happening to you?
If that sounds like you, and you’re a woman, you’re typical of many who have been signing up for creative writing classes and joining writing groups in their thousands in recent years, and who are—slowly but surely—changing the face of literature.
When Mslexia, the magazine for women writers, was launched in 1999, books by men dominated all the literary prize lists and reviews pages, and most of the top jobs in publishing companies were occupied by men. But research undertaken by Mslexia for its 100th edition in December 2023 reveals that the balance has shifted quite dramatically in the intervening years.
"Research undertaken by Mslexia reveals that the balance has shifted quite dramatically "
In the early 1990s only one in three of books published were by women; 30 years later, for the first time in history, the number of titles by women equalled those by men. In the 1990s women won just four per cent of the top poetry prizes; these days they are winning 50 per cent. In the 1990s only one in three of novels shortlisted for the Booker Prize were by women; these days it’s 50 per cent. And women now hold 60 per cent of the management roles in publishing. 
These astonishing achievements have been hard won, however. Mslexia's research lays bear the many false starts and lacunae in most women’s literary careers. This is because women’s creative writing is usually the "third shift" in days already crowded with earning a living and caring for their families. 

Balancing writing with family life

In a survey of 2,349 women writers this October, Mslexia found that one in five were looking after children, and one in nine were the main carer of another adult with a long-term illness or disability. When asked what practical factors prevented them from writing, earning a living and housework were top of the list, with caring for adults and children following soon after. 
Many who started writing seriously in their twenties ground to a complete halt when their children were small, and didn’t start again until they started school. Others didn’t start writing until their children were more independent, or actually left home altogether. The oft-quoted equation "one baby equals two unwritten books" is oft-quoted for a reason!
Woman with baby
"I wrote most before I had children and after my children left home. Yes, there’s a big gap there!" commented one woman who took part in Mslexia’s survey. "I wrote least when I had very full-on full-time jobs, plus childcare and other carer responsibilities," was a typical observation. "I returned to college in my forties and began writing in earnest shortly after that. My children were also headed to college, so the nest was getting empty," said another. 
"Mslexia found that one in five women writers were looking after children, and one in nine were the main carer of another adult"
Those empty nests seemed to be a pivotal point for many women, who talked about reaching the age of 40 or 50 and deciding to act on literary ambitions that had been bubbling under the surface for decades. "As I approached 50, I realised I had better get on with it," was a frequent comment. "After going through menopause I have reduced my usual employment working hours to free up time for writing. If I don’t do it now I never will."
Of course not all women writers have yet had, or will eventually have, children. For the so-called "child-free" who sidestep that first era of caring responsibilities in their thirties and forties, there’s a second era waiting in the wings, when their elderly parents begin to need more of their time; and perhaps a third era, further down the line, for those with partners needing care later in life.

Age is no object

What all this means, of course, is that the usual image of the "emerging writer"—as someone young, smooth-skinned and edgy, with glossy hair and multiple piercings—omits at least two-thirds of the population of emerging women writers, who are starting to take their work seriously after they turn 30, and are producing interesting and well-crafted texts, and climbing the ladders of publication, well into their sixties, seventies and beyond.
There are six times as many university creative writing degrees today than there were 20 years ago, and a similar dramatic explosion of short writing courses, evening classes and workshops. And women of all ages are the majority of students. 
"At least two-thirds of the population of emerging women writers are starting to take their work seriously after they turn 30"
Writer Tricia Cresswell was in her sixties when she won Mslexia’s annual competition for unpublished women novelists in 2020, as were Grace Kitto and Alison White when they were finalists in Mslexia’s memoir competition—all went on to publish critically-acclaimed books.
Bernardine Evaristo, Sharon Olds, Carol Ann Duffy, Marilynne Robinson, Ann Carson, Ruth Ozeki, Susanna Clarke—to name just a few mega-prize-winners of recent years – are all aged over 60. Currently aged 84, Margaret Atwood has written 28 books since her 65th birthday, including three in the last two years. A mere stripling by comparison, 75-year-old Joy Ellis is currently writing at least two bestselling crime novels a year and shows no sign of slowing down. 
Margaret Atwood
After 25 years of this kind of progress, is there still a need for a magazine for like Mslexia? Yes, of course there is. Because although the survey found that 62 per cent of women felt more confident about their writing in recent years, and 39 per cent felt there were more opportunities for publication, one in four thought the literary world was ageist and one in three said their writing time was curtailed by caring responsibilities—both factors which affect women more than men.
Mslexia runs free fortnightly workshops for subscribers: on everything from time management to poetic memoir—plus their famous Agent Extravaganza events, where novelists and memoir writers can pitch their work directly to agents looking for fresh voices. There are 20 different ways to submit work for the magazine too—for fiction writers, poets, journalists and memoirists—and 90 women are published in every edition. 
It was famously said of Ginger Rogers that she did everything that Fred Astaire did—but backwards and in high heels. Mslexia’s research shows that this is true of women writers too.
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