In search of new narratives, I have found myself drawn to Diane di Prima’s 2001 memoir, “Recollections of My Life as a Woman.” It focuses on her childhood and life in New York — a portrait of the artist as a young woman, in all her romantic and intuitive glory. Ms. di Prima is remarkable because as a poet in her early 20s in 1950s New York, she decided she wanted to be a mother, and a single mother at that.
“I was a poet,” she wrote, continuing, “There was nothing that I could possibly experience, as a human in a female body, that I would not experience …. There should, it seemed to me, be no quarrel between these two aims: to have a baby and to be a poet.” Nevertheless, she continued, “A conflict held me fast.”
Her memoir revolves around this conflict between motherhood and the demands of an artist. At a certain point, overwhelmed by the demands of parenting children alone while running a press, founding an avant-garde theater, protecting her left-wing friends from raids by the F.B.I. and the grinding poverty of an artist’s life in New York City, Ms. di Prima entered into a marriage of convenience with a man she distrusted. He was the ex-boyfriend of her male best friend. Besides its messy origins, this relationship resembles the dream I’ve heard so many straight women describe, in a joking, not joking way — wishing to start a family with a friend, to avoid the complications of romantic love.
But Ms. di Prima is honest about the limitations of the arrangement. She wrote that she avoided the pains of romance, but the man she married is still a domineering, abusive mess, in her recounting. Furthermore, in marriage, she has lost something integral to herself. “One of my most precious and valued possessions was my independence: my struggle for control over my own life,” she wrote, continuing, “I didn’t see that it had no intrinsic value for anyone but myself, that it was a coin that was precious only within the realm, a currency that could not cross borders.”
These words, when I read them, sounded in me like the chime of a tuning fork. I had never before read such a precise description of what marriage asks some people to give up. Those who panic over the rise in the number of single Americans do not see that this statistic includes lives of hard-won independence — lives that still intersect with a community, with a home, with a belief in something wider than oneself. The people clinging to old narratives around singledom and marriage can’t yet see these lives for what they are because, as Ms. di Prima puts it, they are not “an objectively valuable commodity.” Their meaning is “a currency that cannot cross borders.”
These lives threaten the communal narratives currently in place. But what is a threat to some can be to others a glimmer of a new world coming.