I recently purchased Natalia Ginzburg’s The Little Virtues at a discount book store. I was unfamiliar with the author and picked out the collection of essays because of my interest in topics related to virtues and character. Later, scanning the table of contents, I was pleased to find an essay titled, “My Vocation.” Written in 1949, when she was in her early 30s, the essay traces her development as a serious writer. It’s clear from Ginzburg’s biography that vocation was always creeping from her room, to borrow a phrase from a a Jeff Lynne lyric.
She was born Natalia Levi in 1916 in Sicily; her Jewish father and Catholic mother raised Natalia and her four siblings in Turin. She married Leone Ginzburg when she was 22, and they had three children. After her first husband died in the hands of Fascist torturers she remarried, to Gabriele Baldini in 1950. She moved to Rome and later served as a member of Parliament from the Left Independence Party, and she died in 1991. Her life and work have enjoyed a resurgence of critical interest outside of Italy due to new English translations of her writings.
“My vocation is to write and I have known this for a long time,” opens the essay. Much of the essay reflects on Ginzburg’s self-awareness of changes in her calling as a writer, as a girl who wrote poems, to an adolescent who created stories more original than her poems, and then, after her children were born, as a mature woman who wrote novels and wrestled with the inevitability of her vocation. The last half of her essay is especially rich; she describes her vocation as beautiful, restless, domineering, saving, dangerous, and finally self-consuming. Ginzburg struggled to find her voice as a woman, she recounts, until she had children, lived through a period of not writing, and then returned to her “beautiful” vocation, writing as if she had never written anything before.
Most current commentary focuses on the essay’s relevance to thinking about what it meant to be a female author in the 20th century. For example, in her perceptive 2019 article in The Guardian titled “If Ferrante is a friend, Ginzburg is a mentor,” Lara Feigel observes:
(Ginzburg) described her early attempts to write like a man, using ‘irony and nastiness’, and her realization after having children that she could only write authentically as a woman: ‘I no longer wanted to write like a man, because I had had children and I thought I knew a great many things about tomato sauce, and even if I didn’t put them into my story it helped my vocation that I knew them.’ This is one of the places where I find Ginzburg so stimulating as a mentor from the past. She’s offering women writers our daily experience not as domestic writing but as an ingredient in the larger project of writing about complicated times.
I won’t pretend to know, from personal or scholarly perspectives, what are the early-21st century experiences of young women in cultures that remain patriarchal. Having been raised in a patriarchal culture and having taught for many years at a college whose theology reflects the values of a patriarchal church, I can speculate on two things I’ve observed.
First, for young women, who are more likely than young men to pursue majors in art and English, is it possible that the traditional or patriarchal pressures to marry and make homes have been further divided by the pressures of becoming so-called “professionals” and achieving economic independence? For young men coming out of patriarchal cultures and not as likely to pursue majors in art and English, is it possible they have been raised to assume that becoming an artist or writer is not a legitimate, masculine aspiration? When I accepted the invitation to teach at this college 17 years ago, I felt called to help young men see that vocations in the fine arts were important and worthy. In reality, I’ve had little opportunity to influence male majors; it’s more likely, however, that that aspect of my calling gets expressed to young men who complete general education courses with me.
Ginzburg’s essay rightly emphasizes the intensely personal experience of her vocation. Readers from outside the creative class might think her opinions prove that vocations in the creative class require the called to have innate talent or “genius.” Ginzburg reflected on the ease, skills, and happiness of her vocation, but she never used words like “talent” or “genius.” In fact, she wrote, “My vocation has always rejected me, it does not want to know about me.” She claimed her writing served the “master” that was her vocation.
From inside of vocations in the creative class, most practitioners experience their callings as being humbling and laborious. From the outside, people should acknowledge that all vocations which are developed through specialized training, in competencies, require similar degrees of what we call talent or genius.
Finally, because so many of us inside and outside the creative class assume that callings in the arts depend on a felt, or extraordinary, experience, we should not be surprised that young people especially are prone to misjudge these same callings. Ginzburg’s essay hammers away at the crucial roles played by time and maturation. As a 60-year-old practitioner, I deeply respect her realization that for young artists the world often “has only one dimension and lacks secrets and shadows.” I can remember my own youthful “interminable, desolate empty Sundays in which I desperately wanted to (create) something that would console me for my loneliness and boredom.”
Ginzburg’s essay reminds me that my role as an art professor, advisor, and mentor is to help young women and men stand on unsteady feet and gradually overcome their loss of vocation-equilibrium. If you have a similar role, I highly recommend her essay.
Paul Burmeister is Professor of Art at Wisconsin Lutheran College, where he is also Assistant Dean of Advising. He was a member of the 2019 cohort of NetVUE’s Teaching Vocational Exploration seminar. Here is a link to other posts by Paul.