Flying Lessons

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Chicago Tribune, Sunday, April 25, 1993 by Dana Micucci
  Flying Lessons Thanks to an unlikely mentor, Erica Jong survived the turbulence E rica Jong leans closer as she speaks,as if eager to reveal a secret. Her en-thusiasm lingers in her blue eyes andwide smile before bursting now and theninto warm-hearted laughter. As refreshinglycandid in person as she is on the page, sheexudes the serene authority of someone whohas weathered the varied turbulences of fame, love and the writing life and has comein for a smooth landing.She is inspiring in, a generous, nurtur-ing way, a quality that she says she foundin her mentor and friend, Henry Miller, thelegendary “bad boy” author of the auda-ciously erotic novel “Tropic of Cancer,”which was published in Paris in1934 and banned in the United States foralmost three decades. Their lives intersectedin 1974, when Miller, then 83, wrote the 32-year-old Jong an effusive letter praising her rst novel, “Fear of Flying,” and its sexu -ally liberated heroine, Isadora Wing. Hecalled it the female counterpart to “Tropicof Cancer.”That was the beginning of a friendship,carried out in lengthy correspondences andconversations on everything from literatureand mysticism to love and feminism, thatlasted until Miller’s death in 1980. Miller,to whom Jong says she is forever indebted,encouraged in her a gutsy sense of freedomand courage at the threshold of her career. ‘’’Fear of Flying’ was very controver -sial,” says Jong, who wasn’t prepared forthe cataclysm of early fame. “I wrote it at atime when sexual rebellion wasn’t accept-able. Suddenly, I had gone from being ayoung poet to a household name. I was be-ing treated as the queen of smut, the whoreof Babylon, and Henry guided me throughthat. He had been through the same thingand understood that you had to climb yourown mountain. Henry was the person whoalways helped me to center, and his under-standing kept me going.” Jong, 51, who describes Miller’s rst letter as a “life raft to a young author whohad been hurled into a political maelstrom,”has more than a few things in commonwith her mentor. Both have been alternatelyadmired and criticized as sexually liberatingwriters and high-brow pornographers. Theywrote lusty vernacular prose that fusedlogue between the two writers, is a tributeto Miller and their friendship as well as acritical study of sexual politics.Buoyed by Miller’s support early in hercareer, Jong says she had promised him thatshe would one day write a book about him.But she had trouble reconciling his writingwith her feminism. While she acknowledgesthere is blatant sexism in Miller’s work, shebelieves he was a victim of sexual politics,that his exuberance was resented by detrac-tors who saw only fornication rather thanfreedom in his books. She wrote about himbecause he demanded “that we understandthe connection between Eros arid life. And autobiography with ction and offended people on moral and feminist grounds. Andthey had the courage to stay true to them-selves regardless of reactions from the restof the world.“Henry’s story and my story have onething above all in common: the search forthe courage to be a writer. The courage tobe a writer is, in a sense, the courage to bean individual, no matter what the conse-quences,” Jong writes in her recent book,“The Devil at Large: Erica Jong on Henry Miller” (Turtle Bay Books, $23). Her rstfull-length work of non-ction, the book, which includes letters and an imaginary dia-Chicago Tribune, Sunday, April 25, 1993 By Dana Micucci “The courage to be a writer is, in a sense, the courage to be an individual, no matter what the consequences,” says Jong Photo for the Tribune by Chrystyna Czajkowsky / AP  and look for strength in a man. But thetruth is that we’re stronger. I learned that ahusband is not going to solve my problems.And I won’t tolerate a relationship that puts down my work or individuality. I gured out a while ago that men are icing on thecake.”Jong hopes her books will help womento realize that it’s OK to be alone. “It’s afate worse than death to feel that you’renothing without another person,” she says.“A woman who is not horribly needy andenjoys her own life and work will always have men ocking around her if that’s what she wants,” she says.She relishes motherhood and says she was fortunate to have had the nancial resources for childcare, which allowed herto continue writing. “I would have had threechildren if I could have dealt with it, butyou can’t do everything,” says Jong, whoadmits to an enormous capacity for work.Part of the inequality problem is thatsome women are sexist themselves, andthere isn’t an easy scapegoat, according toJong. “The men in our lives aren’t respon-sible for the patriarchal system,” she says. “We can’t rebel against anyone specically,so we must continue to ght on the political and legal fronts.”Jong has spent a lifetime waging revo-lutions for herself and other women, speak-ing out against censorship and defendingfreedom of expression. Although she’s still ghting, she has found a renewed spiritual calm at the eye of the storm. “I’m more andmore able to come back to my center andtake care of myself,” she says.we have still not understood.”“Although I’m a passionate feminist,I don’t think we should burn the books wedon’t agree with,” says Jong, the authorof six novels and seven books of poetry. “Freedom of expression will get us further than censorship, which is always usedpolitically anyway. Henry once said that hisonly subject was self-liberation, and that’sthe subject of my books too. He spoke tosome deep knowledge in me. He was ananarchist and a lover of mystical ideals.Henry was very critical of the social orderand reinforced a tendency in me to questionauthority. He lived and wrote with suchfreedom. All the artists of my generation areso bourgeois by comparison.”Jong grew up on the Upper West Sideof Manhattan in what she calls “ a veryintellectual Jewish family.” Her grandfatherwas a painter. Her mother is a painter anddesigner; and her father was a songwriter,before starting his own gift business.The middle daughter of three, Jongbegan writing at age 10. She graduated in1963 from Barnard, College in New York,where she majored in English literatureand writing. Two years later she received amaster’s in 18th Century English literaturefrom Columbia University, also in NewYork. Planning a career in academia, shebegan working toward her Ph.D. there, hav-ing already published two books of poetry before “Fear of Flying” became a popular success in 1973. That book was a dare toherself “to write from the female point of view with as much verve as Philip Roth andJohn Updike had written from the male,”according to Jong. ““I eventually decided that I was toofree a spirit to put up with all the crap of academia,” Jong says. “I needed to write,but I wasn’t interested in writing scholarlypapers.”Jong describes writing as a personaltransformation. “It’s a very profound self-analysis. It’s like a meditation,” she says. “Itry to tell a certain truth about the interior of my life and other women’s lives. If you’rewriting the kinds of books I write, you comeout a changed person.”Jong, whose more recent novels include“Serenissima: A Novel of Venice” (1987)and “Any Woman’s Blues” (1990), a steamystory of a woman’s struggle to overcomesexual addiction, says her writing mirrorsher own spiritual journey.“I’m a recovering addict,” she admits.“I’m a love addict, a sex addict, a work ad-dict. I’m very passionate and intense. I’ve had to nd the center of myself again and again at different stages of my life. AndI’ve always found it through writing and12-step recovery programs, which are foranyone who’s an addict. Those programshave started a great spiritual movement inour country.“Women of my generation were raisedto look for satisfaction outside themselves,particularly in men. But we discovered that we can’t nd it there. Learning to take care of yourself is a particular problem forwomen.” Jong has had to rely on a signicant re -serve of tenacity and resilience on her pathtoward personal and artistic freedom. Whenshe’s told that something can’t be done, shesays she’ll do it anyway.“It’s easy to get discouraged when youencounter a lot of vicious criticism for writ-ing about sex,” she says. “It’s hard enoughto be a writer in a society that doesn’trespect writers and only cares about mak-ing money. Rebellious and sexual writershave an even tougher time, especially if you’re a woman. That’s why it’s importantto have mentors and role models. Writerslook to other writers to give them courageto continue. And I found that in Colette andHenry Miller.”She says her need to write and thefeeling that she could be of use to peoplethrough her work have also kept her going.“When women tell me how my books havechanged their lives, I feel that I’m being theteacher I was meant to be,” she says. “I geta lot back from that.”Jong, who is now in her fourth mar- riage, says she gured out who she was in her late 30s and 40s when she was a singlemother, running her own life. She has onedaughter, Molly, 14, with her third husband, writer Jonathan Fast. For the past four years, she has been married to New Yorklawyer Ken Burrows.“When I was in my 20s, I thought I wasnothing without a man,” she says. “But afterraising a child alone and supporting myself most of my life, I realized that I was enor-mously strong and that there was nothing Icouldn’t do on my own. The sexist assump- tion is that women should be self-sacricing “I was being treated as the queen of smut, the whore ofBabylon, and Henry guided me through that.” - Erica Jong
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