why you need to write like a bad girl, part two: selfish




There’s a scene in the movie Dangerous Beauty when the protagonist’s mother, an ex-courtesan who wants to save her daughter from a lifetime of ignorance and drudgery, convinces the girl to follow in her perfumed wake and reinvent herself as an ‘honest courtesan’.

How does she convince her? By throwing open the doors of a library — forbidden, like all public places, to women in 16th century Venice, which is where the movie takes place — and allowing her daughter to enter. The daughter is an avid reader and aspiring writer forced to hide these dimensions of herself if she is to remain within respectable society.

Become a courtesan, says the mother, and she’ll hide no longer. She’ll have access to literature, knowledge, intellectual stimulation, public life: all the places where good girls can’t go.

Because bad girls get to go everywhere.


When I read Elaine Showalter’s A JURY OF HER PEERS: AMERICAN WOMEN WRITERS FROM ANNE BRADSTREET TO ANNIE PROULX I was struck by all the stories — so frequent they became a kind of motif or refrain — of women writers who flourished intellectually as children (usually due to progressive fathers who believed in female education), nutured artistic ambitions as outsized as any male’s, and achieved as adults the first golden apples of success — only to have those dreams choked off as soon as they inconvenienced their husbands and families, or endured the censure of society that labeled them crazy, unfeminine, selfish, destructive, dangerous.

If they survived those hurdles, they were defeated by the exhaustion of childrearing and housekeeping.

The great female writers who are studied in college classrooms today were spinsters (Jane Austen) or recluses (Emily Dickenson) or fallen women (Edith Wharton, who divorced her husband and wrote frankly about divorce in an age when ‘divorce’ was taboo, or George Eliot, who fell in love with a married man and shacked up with him to the horror and condemnation of her culture, or George Sand, who carried on affairs with men and women and disguised herself as a man in order to go to the places where women weren’t allowed).

To develop their potential and realize their ambitions, they had to find some way to escape the constrictions of a society that refused to allow women the ability that every artist needs and most men take for granted: the ability to be selfish.

A woman who was selfish was a bad girl, forced to live out on the edges.

A woman who was selfish wasn’t a real woman at all (once George Eliot achieved success and intellectual respect, she became known as an ‘honorary man’).

The double standard for selfishness still amazes me. The same culture that celebrates Ayn Rand’s “virtues of selfishness” will turn around and call women selfish and not exactly mean it as a compliment. Call a man ‘selfish’ and he’ll shrug his shoulders; call a woman ‘selfish’ and she’ll feel so shamed and cut to the core she’ll twist herself inside out to prove otherwise.

And to be a writer, or any artist, is to be inherently selfish. You must claim time for yourself, away from family and friends and jobs and so-called productive activity. You must claim that your art is important because it is important to you. You must make it a priority even though years will pass before you achieve anything that other people might recognize as ‘success’, assuming you achieve it at all.

You must allow yourself the dreamtime, the mental wandering, the internal stillness in which you can become acquainted with your inner voice and allow it to guide you. You must shut out the outside voices that tell you to zig when you know you must zag. You must figure out how to feel and think your way forward, into your work and into your life.

You must claim your right to knowledge, including self-knowledge, and experience, because what can any artist be without them?

What kind of novel could Eve have written before she had the good sense to bite into the apple and get out into the world?

As girls we are taught that we do not belong to ourselves: our time, our sexuality, our ambition, must be channeled into fulfilling the needs of others while our own needs are dismissed as unimportant, trivial, ‘female’.

The need to write isn’t about the desire to find meaning in the world, but to make meaning. If you have it, you know it; it’s lived inside you from a young age and will never leave. It will continue to call and nag and eat away at your soul until you start to do something about it. To deny it, to allow others to deny it, is to kill off a part of your personhood.


People will say that the best thing an aspiring writer can have is a wealthy spouse. As someone who actually did find herself with one of those, I can say it’s only partly true: what’s important is that you have a spouse who genuinely supports you (and I don’t mean financially), who doesn’t argue that because the income you earn through your art will never contribute in any significant way toward the outrageous costs of your household, your time is thus better spent cleaning the house (or overseeing the cleaning of the house).

Otherwise you’re just being selfish.

But to be selfish means to be concerned with one’s own interests , at least when the word applies to men. When the word applies to women, it seems to be synonymous with narcissistic. And this, of course, is bullshit. You can be concerned with your own interests, including your deep-seated need to make meaning from the materials of yourself and your life, to take part in the artistic traditions and contribute to the culture (and maybe, just maybe, even change the culture, at least in some small way) and still love and be good to your partner, your children, your colleagues and friends.

The world won’t end if you write instead of doing the dishes, and if your partner bitches about it, maybe you should get a new partner.

I did.


If Adam had plucked the apple, he would have been a hero.

Instead it fell to Eve, one of the original Bad Girls. Good for her. She had the artist’s drive for exploration, knowledge and experience. I, for one, can relate.

Good girls stay in the garden.

Bad girls get the world.

Why You Need to Write like a Bad Girl, part one

Why You Need to Write like a Bad Girl, part three: truth

Creativity Coaching: Selfish Girl, Ugly Girl

The 12 Secrets of Highly Creative Women

Women’s Roles in the Creative Economy


Tweet This!


Dec 2, 2009

23 comments · Add Yours

Yes yes yes!

It applies to any woman who wishes to tread the uncommon path, not just in the arts.


I always say, if the bible were true then Eve must be seen as it’s greatest hero, the one whose actions gained us freedom of choice. Eden and heaven are virtually identical, so why bother with life on earth unless there is free will?

Thanks for your thoughts. I have a female protagonist in my novel-in-progress and I don’t want to fall into the traps that so often snare writers. I want to write the kind of realistic character that a strong, independent woman would write, not one an average man or a conservative woman might write.


I’m pretty blown away by this post. You have inspired me so much.
Thank you!


I visited Hemingway’s home in Key West and they talked about how both of the wives that he lived with there were writers too. Yet. The upstairs walkway that was built from his 2nd floor bedroom to his 2nd floor office in another building was put there to suit his writing habits. He liked to start writing immediately upon waking. I’m sure it was the wives who went and got breakfast for the children, did the business of the day, etc. It kind of brought home to me at the time the epiphany of the selfishness that is required to write. Especially as a woman.

Even with a supportive husband/family – that time has to be taken. Taken like a hostage.


Thanks. It’s past time I put my bad on.


this was so inspiring! thank you so much for writing this.


It does, doesn’t it? You can be ‘good’ and consent to being a second-class citizen, or you can reach for the big life.


Love your comment about Eve — nearly said something like that myself. Free will, yes. The garden of paradise is nice for a week’s holiday, but Eve & Adam must have been bored to tears (else why reach for that apple in the first place?).


oh my pagan gods, you are so welcome. :) thanks for your comment & that terrific profile pic.


and Hemingway took it for granted — that’s just the way it was supposed to be — the man gets to write, and the little woman gets to cook his eggs and bask in his genius. not that I think there’s anything wrong with either cooking or basking, and men (& male writers) are awesome, but some reciprocity would have been a very cool thing.


I think that’s my new favorite saying. Thanks.


my pleasure.

now go be bad.


Pursuit of art/expression; yet another place where women need to stop battling themselves, each other, and the rest of society. Women are labeled as selfish if they don’t want to have families, and prefer to focus on their careers. They are selfish if they choose to have families and careers, and don’t give their family first dibs on every moment of their time. And then, they are considered unmotivated and antiquated when they do give their family enough time and let their career ambitions slide at all.

The mythic sword of Damocles has hung over the heads of women since before the women’s liberation movement ever began. But don’t forget. That sword only hangs over the head of the powerful. And the one with the real power can remove it. Women everywhere can remove it, by not judging each other and ourselves.

So next time you see a ‘family woman’ stick her nose in the air at a ‘career woman’, throw a foam sword at her. At the least, her nose will lower when she looks down to wonder what the hell you just threw at her. :)


This was precisely the sort of thing I needed to read today. I’ve been contemplating a great deal about the writing process, the time I put into it, and the conflicts it sometimes makes with my own domestic life. Thank you, Justine! Glad to be bad. To quote another bad-girl writer, Edna St. Vincent Millay: “I’ve been a wicked girl,” said I: “But if I can’t be sorry, why, I might as well be glad!”


Maybe it’s like magnetism when bad girls find good boys and bad boys find good girls. How many models find the craggy rock star? From the 80’s Paulina Porizkova and the guy from The Cars. More recent Bobby Brown and Whitney Houston? He was way too bad for her to be bad by herself.

Why do I keep hearing George Thorogood riffs…ba ba ba baaaad.


I’m speechless. That was exactly what I needed to get me going today. Thanks for that. Now I’m off to be so bad I’m hoping to be arrested. :-)


Before Eve, there was Lilith, the first and mightiest bad girl: Adam’s first wife, created in her own right, from her own clod of earth, not from his rib. She would not “lie beneath him” as commanded, as was deemed proper for the “helpmate” of Yahweh’s crowning creation.

So Adam whined to Yahweh, who cast Lilith into the abyss, where she became the mother of demons. Yahweh commanded his angels to kill her offspring every day, to which she replied with renewed defiance. It was her, rather than Lucifer, who first said, “I’d rather reign in hell than serve in heaven.”

Lilith’s story was suppressed, as many of this kind have been. But they simmer underneath the surface, in every act of defiance that women perform: “Remember. Try to remember. But failing that, invent.” (Monique Wittig, Les Guerillères)


boosting this signal in my itty bitty blog and in my FB (though I don’t like FB it is one place to reach certain young people of my acquaintance I would like to see this.)

Thank you, and it’s past time I put MY bad on, as well. *wicked grin*


Thanks for this post. I’ll add my voice to the chorus that this was exactly what I needed to hear.

I had a job interview last week. The pay wouldn’t that great, but the job would give me more security than my current freelancing gigs. And yet I have been terrified of actually getting that job, because not only did the guy who interviewed me not respect me as a person (he couldn’t even be bothered to look up my name) but he also made it very clear that he disapproved of any of my extracurricular activities, even if they would not affect the job. Part of my wonders whether he would have been as disapproving if my extracurricular activities had been tending to children and a husband rather than being selfish enough to write and work on a PhD in my spare time.

By the time the interview was over, I knew that I didn’t want the job. But I feared that turning it down would be selfish, particularly in the current economic climate. Even though I get by pretty well with my freelancing.

But even if I am offered the job (which I don’t expect to be honest), I’ll be a bad and selfish girl and turn it down.


One thing I’ve learned in the past couple of years — and at some point I’ll write a post on this — is how important it is to listen to your instincts, intuition, whatever you want to call it…So many of us get trained out of doing that for one reason or another (usually because it conflicts with the agenda of whomever we’re trying to please) and have to relearn how to tune back into that voice, and trust it…

It sounds like the guy is a jerk and working there would be a miserable experience. And your intuition is flashing DO NOT TAKE THIS JOB in brilliant neon. I’m really glad you’re paying attention. You deserve better.

And by the way, my sister went through a similar experience — leaving her job to go back to grad school to pursue what she really loves, fighting off the belief that she was being “selfish”. Luckily her instincts also won out.

Thanks for sharing — I’m very glad you dropped by.


This is the first post that I read on your site and I am officially a fan.

And a bad girl. (Go female writers woot!)


Oh, this is really good. I needed to hear this (about ten years ago). Thanks!


I’m a bit speechless… at 39, I am just discovering my creative side, and you seem to have been in my head to write this post.

Beautiful writing, btw.



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