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Brooks, Olsen, Sarton Meet For First Time

December 7, 1987

WORCESTER, Mass. (AP) _ Three literary grande dames meeting for the first time clashed over whether families wreak havoc on women writers, but Gwendolyn Brooks, Tillie Olsen and May Sarton all agree times have changed.

″I don’t think women have come such a long way in the last 25 years, although it’s true we wouldn’t be together here if a lot hadn’t happened,″ said Ms. Olsen, whose ″Tell Me a Riddle″ won the 1961 O. Henry award for best American short story.

The three pioneers in women’s literature, all septugenarians, met Thursday with Clark University students who have studied their writing in a course entitled ″Triptych.″

They discussed writing technique and traded stories about their struggles to create.

″I’ve had a tough time, very tough, but it’s going to change,″ said Ms. Sarton, 75, author of more than 40 novels, journals and poetry collections.

She said harsh and unfounded criticism of her work had made her ill and scared away readers.

″I’ve been slapped in the face for 20 years. Try and take it,″ she said. ″It gave me cancer.″

The 70-year-old poet-laureate of Illinois did not elaborate.

Ms. Brooks, whose volumes include ″The Bean Eaters″ and ″In the Mecca,″ became the first black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

″I write what is underneath,″ she said. ″I was writing words that were strong in me. It was inborn.″

The 75-year-old Ms. Olsen said difficulties encountered as a stuttering child in an ethnically mixed neighborhood taught her the value of language.

Born of socialist parents, she joined the Communist Youth League, but quit after she came down with pleurisy in 1932. ″That ended up being a good thing because I stopped trying to make a revolution,″ she said.

A question from the audience about whether women can write while raising children sparked a spirited fight among the writers.

″Look at the great women writers and how many married and had children,″ said Ms. Sarton.

″Few did. I was in love with a man in my 20s, but I realized I would never write what I did write if I were married because I would have been a very good wife and mother and that would have taken the energy that went into the work.

″I get 10 letters a day, many of them letters from women with small children who live in a state of quiet desperation,″ she said.

Ms. Olsen countered that men have long managed to write and raise families.

″The writers we most look up to, the men, did most of their work in three or four hours a day through certain times in the year and had great social lives,″ she said.

″There were others doing these things (housework, child care) that enabled them to work,″ she said.

Ms. Olsen, however, said she stopped writing for 20 years while tending to her children, and Ms. Brooks said she wrote poetry while her children took naps.

″I had this crazy idea that I wanted to do it all,″ the poet said.

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