Originally published in The Cape Codder, Day & Night, July 7, 1999

On Saturday evening, July 17, Erica Jong, poet, novelist, and essayist offers what will surely be a spirited evening, when she appears at the Wellfleet Congregational Church under the auspices of the 1999 Distinguished Artists and Writers Chair at Truro's Castle Hill Center for the Arts. Jong will speak about writing, about "what it means to devote your life to creativity, how risky it is."

Inaugurated in 1997 by Derek Walcott and followed in 1998 by Saul Bellow, The Distinguished Chair program is one more way the nearly 30 year old, prestigious Truro art school is contributing to cultural life at the tip of the Cape and enriching the experience of the many summer visitors to the area. It was set up three years ago in an effort to move the school's presence out beyond the campus and studio to serve a wider adult population. One weekend a summer, a famous and distinguished artist is invited to visit the school and to offer a public lecture and a workshop. Jong's Sunday workshop "The Writing Process: Writing as an Act of Liberation" begins at 10 AM at Castle Hill.

When Erica Jong's first novel Fear of Flying appeared in 1973, it catapulted her into international fame. Since then, more than twelve and a half million copies of this book have sold worldwide. Twenty-five years later she has again astonished and captivated with the publication of What Do Women Want? Bread. Roses. Sex. Power. (HarperCollins, September 1998). It is a book of potent essays and bold commentary, written in the engaging, free-wheeling tone that has been her signature style since that first novel, published when she was only 31, blew the top off the myth of muted female sexual desire and made her a heroine of women the world over who had been holding back and resenting it.

Even the youngest woman who was "of age" when Fear of Flying hit the streets is into her fifth decade now, long past the summer of love, and she has probably given up on the search for the "zipless fuck," the rollicking, outrageous and, at the same time, deadly serious quest of Jong's liberated, vulnerable character Isadora Wing. Perhaps now it doesn't seem so scandalous in a time when the word "orgasm" appears monthly on the cover of every women's magazine at the grocery store, but at the time, many people found it horrifying and titillating that a woman would admit to having such a desire for uncomplicated sex.

Some labeled the book pornographic. Book critics, cultural commentators and writing contemporaries attacked Jong in venomous and vicious terms. But there were others, many, who found it hopeful. They glimpsed themselves in Isadora's conflict between her desires for sexual fulfillment, career satisfaction, home and security.

While this first novel continues to be reprinted, most recently in Chinese and Russian, Jong has gone on to build an incredible stack of publications -- seven more novels (The first two of them complete a trilogy of Isadora's adventures.), five collections of poetry, and a children's book on divorce (Megan's Two Houses). Witches (1981), an inspired blend of poetry and prose and reinterpretation of myths of witchcraft, magic, and the Mother Goddess, was revised and republished in 1997. Her memoir of her friendship with Henry Miller, a genre-defying book that is at once a memoir, a study of American literature, sexual politics, and literary censorship, appeared in 1993.

Fear of Fifty, published in 1994 as Jong herself crossed into her second half-century, is a blistering mid-life memoir that assesses how far women have--or have not--traveled since the explosion of feminism in the late sixties and early seventies. It is her story --as a member of what she calls The Whiplash Generation -- "raised to be Doris Day, growing to womanhood wanting to be Gloria Steinem, then raising their daughters in the age of Princess Di and Madonna." Like Fear of Flying , about which Jong says, "I just happened to write the book that expressed where women were at a certain point in history," Fear of Fifty was right on target in defining the current conflicts of the age, and it, too, became a literary event and a super bestseller.

The essays in What Do Women Want? question why life for "brainy" women is so difficult and trace the source of the ongoing castigation of working mothers. In "Jane Eyre's Unbroken Will," Jong writes: "Jane seems to be possessed of the greatest treasure a woman can have: self respect...she seems to know her own worth, an unforgivable sin in girls and women."

In "Deliberate Lewdness and the Creative Imagination: Should We Censor Pornography?" Jong, who is definitely anti-censorship, is especially critical of "well-meaning feminists who assert without evidence that pornography is rape." "What bothers me," she says, is the idea that somehow feminism is anti-man. That fringe going to turn off a whole generation of young women."

Her latest fiction, Inventing Memory: A Novel of Mothers and Daughters, published in July 1997, is a four-generation saga about a Jewish family in America. It began, according to Jong, as a wish to "go back to Russia and find out all about my roots." "After writing my autobiography, Fear of Fifty, I became so aware that that heritage had really made me who I was...I wanted to write about the lineage of women and how one generation gives strength to the next." The novel tells the story of the twentieth century through the lives of four women who embody it. Jong thinks that whereas in the early part of the century, immigrants were desperate to assimilate, now "there's a feeling that there's something valuable in the heritage, something interesting and positive."

Both Jong's grandparents came from Odessa, Russia, although they met in London at the turn of the century. Jong grew up on Manhattan's Upper West Side, in a “totally assimilated, very unreligious" family, the second daughter of a painter-mother and musician-turned-businessman father. As an undergraduate at Barnard College, she edited the college literary magazine and produced poetry programs for the Columbia campus radio station. She majored in writing and literature. In 1963, she received her BA from Barnard, Phi Beta Kappa, magna cum laude. Two years later she was awarded an MA in Eighteenth-Century English literature from Columbia University. She later studied poetry with Stanley Kunitz and Mark Strand.

Of Kunitz Jong says, "I took his poetry workshop. He was a great presence, a great teacher and mentor. His poetry is very sharp and very enduring." Kunitz was "very kind and supportive" as Jong put together her first book of poetry, the book that really began her literary career. Fruits & Vegetables. was published in 1971. The book became a classic and was reissued by Ecco Press in 1997. Her poems have been praised as witty, passionate, bawdy and beautiful.

Although she left Columbia half-way through the PHD program in eighteenth-century English literature to write her assumption-shattering first novel, she returned to that century with her 1980 picaresque novel Fanny, Being the True History of the Adventures of Fanny Hackabout-Jones It is a book about the adventures of a kind of female Tom Jones, about which Anthony Burgess said in Saturday Review, "Jong has gone further than Joyce." The book is now being developed as a musical by the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York.

Going further and provoking controversy has taken its toll on Jung's personal life. She has been married four times. "I had tough times," she said of the split from the father of her daughter, Molly, now 20. "It was incredibly painful." But time and experience have brought happiness to Jong in the mellowing middle years. She now has been married to attorney Ken Burrows for ten years. She wrote about the happiness this relationship has brought her in Fear of Fifty. And her daughter Molly is out in the world and doing well, publishing her own first novel. "When you're a mother," Jong says, no matter what your work, "the child has your total focus. When that period ends, you feel a huge internal shift. You want to do things in a new way, take risks. I was finished with my responsibility as a mother and I began to feel a need to make changes. I wanted to learn new things, to change my writing style." Jong sees Hillary Clinton as emblematic of this struggle for balance in the lives of women in our current culture. Smart, capable, ambitious, yet wanting to sustain family and relationship -- how difficult the culture makes it still for a woman to live out her potential.

In an interview last fall in The Independent, Jung talks about where that shift took her:

Once you decide not to be ashamed of who you are, almost anything is possible. You can investigate all these seemingly negative things and find in them what you need, which is 'who am I, where do I come from?' And I think that's a pretty interesting quest and a quest that everybody wants to go on around the time of mid-life, because of your grasp of your mortality, which is maybe the thing that makes us human.

Now that she has written an autobiography, she is free, she says, to invent.

It's tremendously liberating to realize you don't have to write only out of your own narrow little world. You don't have to be literal-minded to write what you know.

Lately, because of the new book and its coincidence with the Presidential Scandal, and the impeachment hearings, Jong has been asked to appear on a lot of talk shows and to write a lot of opinion pieces. "It uses a different kind of energy," she says. "It's reacting to political events. You aren't required to go into yourself." "To move from that into writing fiction requires a transition. Fiction demands a kind of trance state. Shutting everything out." When Jong is working on fiction, she doesn't do anything else. She goes to her study early in the morning and doesn't leave until 3 or 4 in the afternoon, when she often works out with her daughter and a trainer. When you're writing, you can't be concerned with future recognition or past successes, she adds. "You have to have a beginner's mind."

Speaking from her country home in Vermont, Jong reports that she is working on several projects now. She's writing a new novel, which she doesn't want to talk about while it's in progress. She's writing a short book on Hillary Clinton for her Italian publisher which will be distributed internationally. And she has a new book of poems in process, poems she's been collecting since Becoming Light came out in 1991.

"I feel blessed and lucky," Jong says, "for my creative work. Even though it's really hard, really difficult. Because you have to generate everything out of yourself."

For twenty-five years, Jong has expressed herself in her poetry, fiction, and essays, and has spoken for contemporary women with great empathy and humor and courage. She continues to provoke controversy. According to Naomi Wolf, Jong treats her work "as a sacred calling, no matter who it enrages, rather than a career move. For this reason she will probably always continue to enrage many of her contemporaries. For this reason, she is sure to outlast them."

©2007 Rena Lindstrom All Rights Reserved