My essay “Into The Woods,” excerpted from a collection edited by Chad Harbach called MFA vs NYC, was posted last week on Medium. This happened because I insisted that the essay be published somewhere besides in the collection; it’s the only formally structured and edited piece of first-person writing I’ve produced in the last four years and I wanted to make sure people read it. During the six months I spent writing it and then the time I spent on final revisions prior to the book’s production deadline a year later, my life changed dramatically. Writing the essay was part of that change.
I didn’t feel, as I felt with some of the essays in ATHSW, that I was exorcising something by writing, and I didn’t feel, as I did with Friendship, that I was initiating something by writing, inviting something in. Instead I felt almost the same way I do when I force myself to do some kind of organizational task or rote exercise that doesn’t come naturally to me, like figuring out how to make an Excel spreadsheet. Writing this essay felt like learning, like forcing myself to learn. I feel less like change happened to me and more like I changed myself.
One of the most crucial changes is that since January 2013 I’ve been working full-time in an office (two different offices, but the same one since July.) A few weeks ago I took the day off work and went up to New Hampshire to speak to an undergraduate creative writing class at Southern New Hampshire University.
It was a freewheeling discussion of fiction and I’m sure I said a lot of nonsensical things about how writing fiction is best accomplished, but I did think I was useful as an emissary of “how New York works and how different publishing models work and how to think of your career in terms of money.” Being the foremost expert on this stuff that many of these students had ever encountered felt like a big responsibility. I did the best I could. And then afterwards a student emailed me (I’d told the students to feel free to email me.)
Her email was great and very honest. She said she was worried about not being able to make a living as a writer, and her own worrying-prone nature would prevent her from taking the leaps of faith necessary to leading the life she thinks she wants. She wanted to know whether I thought getting an MFA or working in publishing would help her get better at writing and/or help her get published.
This is the letter I wrote back.
I vividly remember being your age, about to graduate, and asking myself and other people all the same questions. Looking back, I regret the time I spent worrying about how on earth I was going to be a writer and make a living, when it was so clear that the odds were stacked against me. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a valid concern.
I don’t need to be the billionth person who tells you that most writers don’t make their whole living from their writing. For example: I don’t!
I have in the past, though, and that was great, but doing other stuff besides writing can be good too — for your life, your mental health, and even … for your writing. How else will you get the experiences of the world and other people and relationships that you need in order to reimagine them in fiction or memoir? The key is just to find work that won’t steal all your energy and kill your spirit. This is hard, and takes time, but you will find it eventually if you keep trying.
Definitely don’t worry about not being good enough. Work in publishing if publishing is interesting to you. Get an MFA if you love workshop classes and school. If those things aren’t interesting and fun, don’t do them. If something else is, do that! Follow your curiosity and your (sorry to be cheesy) heart. Pretend that you’re sure of yourself, even when you’re not, and you will learn to trust yourself. Don’t wait around for other people to give you permission to do what you want, or to say you’re “good enough.” You’ll waste time waiting that you could be writing, having fun, learning, and living.
I am pretty proud of the advice I gave her. I am trying to take it myself. Some days, I succeed.
I turned in the copyedited manuscript of Friendship on October 7th and since then I haven’t written or thought about writing anything besides tweets and emails. Which, to be fair, I have written MANY tweets and emails. But it is a huge brain shift away from thinking about the problems and characters in my book. I already feel like the book is no longer a part of me; it has its own life and I feel like I would potentially respond to any questions about it by saying “God, who knows??” When the time comes to answer questions about it I’ll probably have developed some fun and interesting theories, but I can already tell it will be a lot like discussing a book someone else wrote. Which feels, right now, like what happened. I’m having an excruciatingly hard time even writing this blog post. I feel like I’ve lost the ability to organize experiences into thoughts and words into sentences, probably permanently. Having experienced this feeling and its remission before isn’t comforting because what if this time it really is permanent? That happens! People quit, or just start sucking. That could be what’s happening to me right now. It’s probably not, but it could be. So all my relief and happiness is tempered by fear.
Other than that fear and the constant feeling of loss of an essential part of the self, life turns out to be so much easier when you’ve turned off the part of your brain that does writing! I have a job now where I work during the weeks and for the first couple of months of it I was in the library each weekend working on the book, but now my weekends are weekends. I experienced the feeling of “TGIF” for the first time in years on 10/11 and I probably don’t have to tell you that TGIF is A GREAT FEELING. I’ve had so much time these past few weeks to hang out and have fun and organize and clean and budget and transfer balances from one credit card to another and make obsessive plans for the future. Does that not sound fun? It has been GREAT. One of the things about working on a book, at least for me — and probably it doesn’t have to be this way! — is that you spend a lot of time in “finals week mode.” Like, years on end. Neglecting your body, your friendships, your family and your finances because nothing is more important than your book. Some of that damage will take years to undo (financial, mostly), but my skin already looks better. Not writing a novel is a beauty treatment. Not writing a novel is a spa vacation. Not writing a novel is the best thing that’s ever happened to me, except the nagging terror that this happiness is temporary and fake and could shade into misery the minute I try to start another one.
That first weekend of my novel-less life was also my birthday weekend, and for my birthday Keith got me a bike from Craigslist and a ring from Erie Basin; we’re getting married, finally. I spent the first day of being engaged so happy I couldn’t stop smiling and the second day, Monday, I couldn’t stop throwing up. I had eaten oysters at my birthday dinner but I don’t really think they were to blame. As anyone who’s read this blog for a while knows, my feelings about marriage are, as a politician might say, evolving. I was happy but terrified. I looked at Keith and felt the way Liz Phair succinctly describes feeling in “Love is Nothing”: “I thought, ‘Who am I?’ Who’s this guy?’” As Liz sings, love is nothing like they say. It’s better and worse, and it’s not, I guess, describable. I didn’t feel ready to tell anyone that I was engaged. I told my parents because I knew it would become a weirder and weirder conversation the longer I waited to have it, but it was super awkward (I interrupted their dinner and they asked if I could call back before they knew what I was calling about!) and I told Ruth and Bennett and Lori, but the idea of sharing the news on social media felt completely wrong. And then that feeling itself also felt wrong; who am I, I thought, to feel this way? I thought, is this what it is to crave privacy? The idea of subjecting my happiness to the internet’s infinite potential scorn seemed borderline insane to me. I told myself and several close friends that I simply would not do it.
If you clicked the link in the previous paragraph you can see that I did, on October 30th. I took that photo sitting at a bus stop on Van Brunt Street. I was wearing a fancy outfit because I had thought I was going to see Nico Muhly’s opera that night, but early that morning Keith and I woke up and realized that it was time to take Raffles to the vet for the last time; we’d been waiting for about a week to see if he would make another miraculous recovery — he’d made dozens, in his long and high-maintenance little life — but he was in pain, we could tell, and not eating, and so thin that you almost felt you might be hurting him when you stroked his bony spine. We decided and then I lay in bed with Raffles resting his head on my head while I cried, and I felt like he knew and was saying goodbye, too (let me have this delusion.) I must have at some point gotten out of bed and put on clothes and put Raffles in his carrier and waited with Keith on the curb for Arecibo but it’s hard to remember any of that clearly now. I remember the feeling of Raff’s head on my head. He loved to put his head there, to sleep with at least a paw touching me at all times. This was sometimes very irritating but now I miss it; waking up alone is the worst part of Raffles being gone.
I went to work after we got home from the vet because I wanted to be distracted and I selfishly stuck Keith with the task of putting everything cat-related away before I got home. At work, everyone was very understanding, but I felt queasy and like I was on drugs, dehydrated from crying and slightly hysterically punchy. I had a call with Manjula Martin from Scratch (hi Manjula!) during which I think I acted sort of normal? At lunch I picked at a salad in the park with Ruth, who wisely told me to skip the opera, and then I got an email from Russell at Erie Basin saying my ring was done getting resized and I could pick it up, so I left work early and went to Red Hook.
I got the ring and then when I was waiting to go home on the bus I looked at the memorial photograph of Raffles I’d posted on Tumblr that morning to see how many likes it had. People were universally nice. No one had made fun of my grief. A lot of people, who are familiar to me either from real life or the Internet, had left personal messages, including one person who said that Raffles was “one of my favorite cats of Tumblr,” which for some reason I found especially moving. I stared at the photo for a while. I’d just missed one bus and the next one was taking forever to come. And then I looked at my ring, so pretty with my dark nails and blue dress, and I took a photo of that and posted it on Instagram. It felt like the exact right thing to do.
Last weekend I talked to a friend who has a books-related job. This woman wants to be a writer. I mean, she is a writer, but not of books, yet. And she’s not exactly, at this particular moment, on a career track that will lead her closer to the goal of writing books. She is really young and has plenty of time to swerve. But at some point she’ll have to make a decision about whether she wants to continue to work at her fulfilling, stable job that she’s great at or write books, because there isn’t enough time in the day, no matter how early she wakes up or how late she goes to bed or what kind of productivity-enhancing software she installs on her laptop or how much hygiene/fun/personal life she neglects, to do both. Or enough time, I should maybe say, to do both well. Some people are superhuman and can do both well. But such people are very rare, and that pretending they’re anything but rare just makes everyone else feel bad, so let’s actually just pretend they don’t exist. They functionally don’t exist. She told me it’s taken her a long time to figure out that she carries around a lot of resentment towards people who make their entire living by writing. Although she has a close relationship with at least one such person, and so she knows firsthand that making your whole living that way can make you crazy. So it’s not like her resentment is predicated on a fantasy: she knows both ways of living have their pitfalls/can make you crazy. But the bottom line is that one way of living results in books and the other, mostly, doesn’t.
When I was her age, the age she happened to be turning on the day we had this conversation, I thought that making my living exclusively by writing was the goal of my life. Or if not “exclusively,” primarily. Dimly, and without ever lingering in thought too long about the specifics, I imagined teaching, being a teacher almost exactly like my least-engaged college professors, the ones who showed up to workshop with a large coffee and some xeroxed Raymond Carver stories and then sat there for two hours while their students talked, sipping the coffee and sometimes nodding. The rest of my time would be spent alone in a library or a home office, some room with a computer, a desk, a chair. I would write novels and then, later in the day, make dinner. Maybe sometimes if I felt like it I’d accept an assignment from the kind of magazine no one really reads but that basically exists to pad the bank accounts of already-rich writers, travel and specialized beauty magazines, you know, ”[So and So's] Wacky Adventures In Bangkok,” ”What [Whoever] Really Thinks Of Several Slightly Different Spa Treatments.” I’d slide on up into that echelon effortlessly. My inherent greatness would be recognized and one day I’d wake up and just find myself there. I mean I’d also have published novels, in this fantasy. The parts of this fantasy that pertained to my personal life were just as inchoate and illogical. I thought and maybe (cringe) even said out loud, “I’ll have my first baby after I finish my first novel.” As though those were two goals you could easily work towards simultaneously. As though they were not two distinct and unrelated life paths.
While I was busy fantasizing about the future, I neglected to realize that — aside from some details that would only grow to seem important in retrospect — I was already living my fantasy life. Well, sort of. I did make my entire living, for a year or two, by writing. I did spend most of my days in a room alone with a computer. I didn’t teach bored undergraduates how to talk less annoyingly about short stories, but I did teach teenagers yoga, which was fun and rewarding and not in any way something that I was good enough at or cared enough about to push it towards being a meaningful secondary source of income, which was the ostensible reason I was doing it. But I didn’t ever have to go to an office, didn’t ever have to commute during rush hour, didn’t ever have to go to a meeting, and never had to buy or wear any article of clothing because it would be good “for work.” As my remnants of workwear wore out, my wardrobe devolved in a cotton-lycra blend-y direction. I got really good at creating elaborate procrastination regimens, taking advantage of my ability to do chores and errands on weekdays that office workers can only squeeze into their weekends and lunch hours. It took me several years – really, it took starting a business — for me to figure out that this attitude is anathema to getting any kind of work done; even if you don’t have a 9 to 5 job, it behooves you to be at your desk during those hours, even if it means taking more-crowded yoga classes.
During those years I thought about the baby thing a lot — would I ever get there, how would I get there, would I like it if I did get there — and for a long time I thought it was because of some genuine, possibly-biological longing my genes/soul. Now I think it was probably 90% because when you’re a freelancer in Brooklyn, walking around in Brooklyn in the middle of the day, mothers of young children are the only people you see. Most everyone else is in Manhattan (or Dumbo or downtown Brooklyn), working in offices. So of course you think about babies, the same way you’d think about sand if you lived in the desert.
Needless to say — you aren’t reading this in Elle, are you? — I was not lifted up easefully into the realm of the brand-name. Probably because I didn’t do any of the things that I would have had to do in order to get there. I still don’t quite understand what it takes to get there. More and more I think it’s not what I’m good at, or even what I want to be good at. I still feel jealous of people who get paid well to go on junkets and describe them humorously and vividly, of course. But I want something else, and it does not, for the moment, involve sitting alone in a room with a computer. It also does, of course. I have been happiest and most miserable alone in that room.
When I went back to working in an office after years of not, I could suddenly see the particular brand of crazy my former compatriots in freelancing exhibited, revealed in high definition. Their obsessive Facebook status updates, their public declarations about how much or how little they’d written that day or how their writing was going, the kind of super-involved tweeting that you only see in people who are either trapped at desk jobs where there’s too little for them to do or in freelancers desperate to avoid the work they’ve assigned themselves. I have done all of this stuff, of course, but the moment I didn’t have time to do it anymore, I could see it for what it was. It was, initially, a blessed relief to be rendered unable to ride the waves of Schadenfreude and fleeting, irrational enthusiasm that wash over the social Internet all day. I was also rendered incapable of feeling jealous of everyone whose writing was momentarily elevated by a stream of “THIS!”-style sharing. I had other stuff to do. I have other stuff to do.
My fantasy now is that I’ll be able to write books AND run Emily Books AND have a full-time job helping other people realize their Emily Books-style dreams, with the goal of learning skills that will help me make Emily Books into an enterprise that has employees and an office and a future that includes growth in all kinds of directions. The only reason I think this goal is more attainable than my previous goal is that the outlines of that future aren’t hazy: I can envision the steps that will take me further down this path, in detail. The only part — minor detail! — that’s hard for me to imagine is the writing part. I’ve never witnessed myself being able to get writing done without making myself bored and lonely and a little bit crazy. But maybe the future will surprise me; certainly the past, from my current vantage point, seems to have nothing to do with what I thought was happening at any given time, so maybe I’ll look back on right now in the same way in a few years.
At least, that’s what I’m telling myself, over and over again, so I won’t have to feel like I’ve failed the previous version of me, or the vision of success and happiness that version had. But that version’s vision does not seem relevant to my current life, except right now, as I luxuriate in the privilege of writing this blog post on a weekday morning in a deserted beautiful library. I am not going to get to do this kind of thing whenever I want to anymore, at least not for a while, maybe not ever again. Probably that’s why it feels so good. I have to remember that it hasn’t always felt this way.
Yesterday I left my part-time job in the middle of the day to take Raffles to the vet. He had been behaving strangely for a few days, hiding under the bed and acting confused and frightened when we pulled him out to feed him, and he’d peed on the floor. I thought it was going to be the final or penultimate vet visit; he was diagnosed with lymphoma last summer but has maintained an ok level of health on prednisone for almost a year now. I spent a lot of time freaking out when he was first diagnosed, then as the months went by I guess I had slowly ceased to believe that he was dying. Or, well, I still don’t really believe that he is dying; death is one of those things that, no matter how much preparation you have, never seems possible until the moment when it does. That moment finally came as I described his symptoms to the vet, who gently said that we were no longer in the realm of curative. “We haven’t been in that realm for so long now,” I said, and started crying in front of a stranger for the first time in a long time.
Then she looked in his eyes with a lens and put him on the floor to see how he interacted with a new environment, and as he took a few tentative steps than looked up at us, clearly just turning his head in the direction of our voices, I realized what the vet had probably suspected from the outset and confirmed for herself with the scope a moment earlier: he’s gone blind. He hadn’t been peeing or hiding because he was demented or sick, he’d been doing it because he couldn’t see and couldn’t find his litterbox.
So it didn’t turn out to be the last appointment, or the second to last appointment, at least probably not. (Whatever caused him to go blind — ministroke, brain tumor, etc — isn’t exactly a good sign.) “Blind animals adjust really well, as long as you don’t move things around,” the vet said, and this does seem to be the case — he’s since found his litterbox, explored the apartment with more confidence, eaten, etc. As he lay next to me on the pillow last night making little sleep grumbles as I watched Buffy on my laptop, he seemed so peaceful and happy it was hard to imagine that he was suffering. But if I think that he is suffering I have to summon the strength to end his life. I can’t imagine where that strength will come from. There’s a lot about the immediate future I can’t imagine.
What made my first year of full-time freelancing so happy, besides not ever having to ride the subway during rush hour, wasn’t anything specific about what my workdays were like. I wasn’t accomplishing much, I was wasting a lot of time, and a lot of the time I was bored. Most days, my work did not go well and I felt dejected about my actual writing. But I still felt good and hopeful, because all these potential paths seemed possible. Everything seemed possible. Unpleasant things had happened to me but I still had never been majorly unlucky. This sense of infinite possibility was like a drug; hooked on it, I clung to it even after it should have been clear that I needed to move on, I couldn’t just stay poised to do something forever.
Hi! There are a lot of upcoming events that I’m participating in, all of which pertain to other people’s books. (O.P.B., yes, you do know me.) I thought I would list them all in one place. Well, two places, because I’m also going to post this on my other social medias. Anyway, open up your Google Calendar in another tab, because you are likely free for at least one of these events and I’d love to see you IRL.
Sorry, I feel really rusty at blogging right now, I think this post will get smoother as it continues!
MONDAY MAY 13: WHAT IS THE QUEER NOVEL?
7pm, Housing Works Bookstore Cafe // FB RSVP
At this Emily Books event, authors Sarah Schulman and Barbara Browning will read from their work then discuss this question, and maybe by the end of the night we’ll have a definitive answer! (Well, probably not, but it will be fun to try.) Their conversation will be moderated by Topside publisher Tom Léger, and your enjoyment of the evening will be enhanced by free drinks courtesy of Togather. (1 free drink each, get there early)
SUNDAY MAY 19: HOME COOKING IN 2013
3:30pm, The Great Googa-Mooga Literary Stage
If you’re heading to this festival, take a break from standing in line/stuffing youself and come listen to me talk about food! Cookbooks and food writing shape the way we cook, eat and live, and no one expressed that better than pioneering food writer Laurie Colwin. Her two beloved collections, Home Cooking and More Home Cooking, were published more than 20 years ago, and despite all that’s changed since then, much about them still feels timeless. Cookbook author Lukas Volger, editor and writer Sadie Stein, who have (along with me!) cooked together from these books and many others, will join with writer, editor and literary agent Jenni Ferrari-Adler to discuss what’s changed since Colwin’s two essay collections were published, what hasn’t, and her influence on the way we eat, cook, think and write about food.
TUESDAY MAY 28: A CONVERSATION WITH SEPTEMBER GIRLS AUTHOR BENNETT MADISON
7pm, McNally Jackson Bookstore
Bennett and I have been friends since before either of us had armpit hair, so we will try not to make our conversation — about his gripping, funny, poignant, sexy + inventive new book about trashy mermaids who are named things like L’Oreal and need to deflower teenage boys to survive — too full of decades-old inside jokes.
THURSDAY JUNE 6: JAMI ATTENBERG THE MIDDLESTEINS PAPERBACK RELEASE PARTY!
7pm, Housing Works Bookstore Cafe
Jami had planned this party for the fall, but Hurricane Sandy intervened. The theme of everyone’s readings (bc of the theme of Jami’s novel) is “Jews+ food” and conveniently there’s a scene in my forthcoming book that features Jews + food, at least by default. Other readers include Maris Kreizman, Rachel Fershleiser, Jason Diamond, Rosie Schaap, Beth Lisick and Bex Schwartz. It will be sort of like Jami’s adult Bat Mitzvah, maybe. Drinks are on Tumblr.
I’m hosting a discussion of a new internet-trollery-themed novel The More You Ignore Me by poet Travis Nichols at WORD on July 18, more details as they develop. And who knows what else will happen? Stay tuned.
In mid-January I started working at a job, envisioned originally as part-time and short-term, where my duties include managing a corporate social media presence. As you can probably imagine, this is the most effective social media addiction aversion therapy I’ve ever had. All that torment over the years about my ambivalent relationship with my Internet habit, and it turns out all I needed to do in order to curb my desire to scroll through Tumblr on a Saturday was to spend the preceding Monday-Friday thinking of how best to use Tumblr as a marketing tool! Well, now I know.
Besides its incidental Internet-Antabuse benefit I am also enjoying the work and being around people. The only downside is that I am rusty at writing things that aren’t copy and fear that I have maybe completely forgotten how. Oh and also my shadowy one-sided relationships with People From The Internet are suffering, which is a weird problem to have, but I like to know what’s going on in my favorite semi-strangers’ lives. Unfortunately I have been so overwhelmed — with this gig, with Emily Books, and with my nagging guilt about not having even looked at the edited manuscript of my novel that’s been in my possession for a month now — I have been barely managing to maintain my friendships with my friends who I see regularly IRL. The one huge exception to this trend is that I started posting little profiles on the Emily Books blog of some of our subscribers and frequent book-buyers, which has given me an excuse to peek into the lives of people I’ve previously only known by their usernames or avatars. Now I know all about the books they’re reading and how one book leads to another for them and how the Internet informs their book -reading and it’s one of those exercises that’s simultaneously superficial and so intimate. I am totally obsessed and what I’d really like to do is make every single one of our subscribers answer these questions, and maybe I will!
One of the first things I did after it became clear that the subscriber profiles were a GREAT IDEA (they were Blake’s idea, btw — thank you Blake!) was to contact someone who’d recently purchased ten books from us over a very short span of time who, per her order information, was located in Tokyo. She wrote back and explained that she was 9 months pregnant and had been put on bed rest due to threatened premature delivery. She apologized for her English, which was perfect. She wrote “Devouring those books you selected really really saved my life (thus, I guess, my baby’s too).” I can’t even try to describe how I felt, reading that! Like my heart would break from joy, basically. She was due to be induced last Wednesday. I hope she and her baby are well. I have thought of them so much, even though I know almost nothing about them except that she publishes a zine named after Kathy Acker and has translated Michelle Tea into Japanese.
Today I put some of my collection of early-period East Village Inkies in the mail to her because that’s what I always think of giving new parents, and because she is a zine publisher. It was a gray day, my neighborhood had a sad fried chicken and damp smell, and no one I passed on my way to the post office seemed particularly thrilled to be alive. I also had really terrible period cramps, not usually a problem for me, but I haven’t been exercising much and have been drinking a million cups of coffee a day. I felt okay on the walk but then standing in line at the post office I suddenly felt extremely terrible. I thought about maybe just going home. Then I had the sudden thought that giving birth was probably kind of like this but a whole, whole, whole lot worse, and how on earth does anyone ever do it? How does anyone do any of the excruciating but necessary tasks that must be done?
The moment passed, though, and I went on to the drugstore and the grocery store and home.
I spent all weekend thinking about Emily Cooke’s provocative essay about New Narrative and its legacy. I also spent all weekend at a yoga retreat center in the Berkshires. It felt a little weird to be abandoning my city when it is still in the middle of a crisis, but we had planned the trip a long time ago and I figured my city could get along without me for the weekend. Besides, I was on the verge of becoming useless at volunteering due to an increasing tendency to tear up if anyone made eye contact, so maybe it was a good time for me to take a few days to eat vegan food and hike and attend workshops on meditation and mantra taught by people named after Hindu deities.
Toward the end of our retreat experience I said something mildly bitchy to my Mom about the whole thing of [retreat center] — I can’t remember what it was — and my mom said that it would be great if someone wrote about [the place] because there was so much “material.” I told her that this surplus of material was exactly why it would be impossible to describe. There’s just too much detail, where would you start? Sure, you could describe the place’s ample ridiculousness – the “Noon Dance,” the army of near-identical ladies of a certain age with a certain haircut and a certain type of shawl talking to each other very seriously about Eastern spiritual matters they have learned about in the previous half-hour, the injunctions posted in the stairwells that read, for example,”Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” — but it would be tricky to do that and also capture the profound seriousness of what happens there. I just deleted a whole paragraph that had the words “good energy” and “healing” in it. Anyway: not the point. The point was that we were having a conversation about “material” and what writers do with it.
One idea that I felt like Emily Cooke’s essay gave me permission to have: there’s a fine line between rejecting formal conventions and just being too lazy or incompetent to adhere to them. Often critics get this distinction wrong, or privilege “craft” in a way that is plainly sexist. Still, it’s true that New Narrative-school writers sometimes exploit the fuzziness of this distinction by being lazy and incompetent and passing their laziness off as, at best, a formal choice and, at worst, a revolutionary gesture. When someone publishes a book that’s simultaneously self-serious and sloppy, even I — bloggy writing’s #1 fan — lose my patience.
And yet I would still hesitate before privileging, as Cooke seems to by the end of her essay, the tried-and-true methods of “ordering experience” that her “semiautobiographers” have one way or another rejected. ”New Narrative’s inheritors invoke a repressive culture that no longer really exists, traded in for one that gorges on sex scenes and has no use for privacy,” she writes. While certainly some amount of sexual weirdness has become more mainstream, and Dick Hebidge’s piteous cries of violated privacy circa I Love Dick’s publication are incomprehensible in our era of constant social media self-surveillance, I have a hard time seeing these cultural tendencies as liberatory, exactly. Repressive cultural forces still exist, they’re just changed shape — self-repression, in an era of widespread self-publishing, is a newly relevant enemy to be reckoned with. Market forces — the people who are in charge of, per Chris Kraus’s maxim, “who gets to speak and why,” give us all those sex scenes to gorge on. And as large as “Girls” looms in the Brooklyn-based cultural imagination, it’s still true that only a small sliver of sex scenes reflect women’s perspective and women’s experiences. Women who bring cultural artifacts into being still, unless they’re unusually uninhibited or plain crazy, have to shake off all their fundamental training and self-preservation impulses in order to produce work that is at all truthful. If “repressive” isn’t the word I’m not sure what is.
When I was younger I didn’t have as much control over the narrative strategies I deployed; I didn’t really have multiple strategies at my disposal. I don’t think I could have figured out how to “cook” my experience; it was raw or nothing. I’ve just begun to get slightly better at cooking, and many of the people Cooke lists as New Narrative’s progenitors have, too — either they have shifted away from first-person writing to close-third-person narration mostly full-time (Chris Kraus) or they are consciously deploying different modes as different projects demand them (Dodie Bellamy). But I think it’s dangerous to see this as a straightforward path of evolution. In that same conversation with my mom I tried to tell her that I’d been sad to lose the previous clueless/fearless self who had put so much of her unmediated life online. Here is E. Cooke’s deft and almost unjudgemental analysis of the “raw” “blog-like” or “bulimic” style:
Never edited by an alien hand, totally under the control of the writer, the blog post refuses to be anything but what it wants to be. It will not subject itself to “some highly toned artificial neat form,” to quote Zambreno. The (ostensibly) vomiting or blog-like narrative will make the mistakes it makes; it will be as clear or unclear as the writer pleases. Most important, it will read as it was first written. The amount of time that passes between the writing and the posting is between the writer and herself, but if she wishes, there need be none at all.
One of the terrifying things about writing is that sometimes the same techniques and strategies that can improve your work can destroy it, and it’s hard, as you work, to know what’s happening. Sometimes a long process of revision and outside editing can strengthen and clarify stories and make them worth reading; sometimes it can leave them as limp and lifeless as an oil-free steam-table vegan curry. Worse, incompetent editing can shunt experience and description into the evil proscribed molds — This American Life-y punchlines, women’s-magazine happy endings — that kill truth.
Writing that’s aware of itself as writing and that is performative and spontaneous will often be able to sidestep those concerns. As much as I regret huge swaths of what I’ve written — sorry to sing this tune again, but I have to remind myself that it keeps being true — I am grateful to myself for not always waiting for my “material” to coalesce into meaning before writing.
I can’t think of a way to end this so I’m leaving you with this Gabrielle Bell comic, which somehow says it all. It’s from her new book The Voyeurs. Dear Emily Cooke: read this next!
Last night I went to a panel at The New School about the question of “what is particular about women’s depiction of sex and sexuality,” moderated by Sheila Heti with panelists Chris Kraus and Lynne Tillman plus, because the event was partially supported by the French Ministry of Culture and Communication, two French writers, Emilie Noteris and Wendy Delorme. Some aspects of this event were very cool. It was fascinating to hear, from Chris, about the beginnings of the Semiotext(e) Native Agents series. Those are some of my favorite books. I still feel stupid that it took me as long as it did — 5 or 6 years from when I first read Romy Ashby and Cookie Mueller and Eileen Myles to when I finally read I Love Dick — to realize that those books were all animated by the same sensibility, and that the sensibility was Chris’s. The idea that first-person narratives by women that weren’t therapeutic or apologetic-confessional could be published was and is revolutionary. But that this is still a revolutionary idea more than twenty years later seems like the kind of thing we should have a war crimes tribunal about, not a panel discussion.
And that wasn’t really what the panel discussion was about, anyway. To the extent that it was about anything, it was about how annoyed all the panelists were that despite the big differences in their work and career stages and cultures, they had been united by their biological femininity to deliver some kind of definitive conclusion about “what is particular” about “women’s depiction of sex.” The panel began with each writer reading a prepared statement, and the only theme that recurred in all of the statements was that there aren’t panels like this for male writers, because no one would think to make a distinction between “male writers” and “writers.” After the prepared statements were read aloud — copies were also distributed to the audience members so we could follow along — the panelists mostly complained about how their work had been misunderstood and insulted, and how frustrating this had been.
I sympathize with this frustration, having experienced it myself, but I am also sure that everyone in the audience of New School students and faculty and French cultural-embassy types and people who work at New York-based magazines and publishing houses already knew and sympathized with this issue, so it seemed extra silly that we were devoting an evening to complaining about it. What would be cool is if there was ever a solution posited, rather than a litany of grievances. I wanted all the writers to be free of having to talk about this shit so that they could get back to their work. I was also annoyed that no one mentioned money, making a living as a writer, and what that has to do with writing narratives with “unlikeable” ie fully human women narrators or protagonists. I mean, it was a panel of people whose work is not published by major publishers in the U.S. and later, when someone (ok it was me) asked about money some of the panelists laughed it off and made fun of themselves for being inept at making money with their writing. ”Whenever someone wants to pay me to write a book, I can’t finish it!” Wendy Delorme said. Lynne Tillman mentioned teaching, which is the dignified way for writers to make a living.
I don’t want it to be ridiculous to want to make a living at the thing you’re best at. And I think women who want to make a living as writers have to make compromises that women who’ve figured out how to make a living some other way have the luxury of never considering. Can we find a way for women to join the “big league” of writers, the Jonathans and Michaels and Pauls and Chads, without either unsexing themselves or playing to cuddly, maternal or sexpot-exotic sterotypes? This is what I should have asked a question about, if I was going to ask a question. Instead I was that terrible person who asks a statement-question that was all about myself. I started out trying to ask the money question but then I got distracted by the Bookforum banner covering the podium where Sheila stood.
I didn’t tell this story last night to complain, but it sounded like a complaint. I fucked up the telling. I was nervous and scared. I’m telling this story now to expose what happened, not to blame anyone or grind an axe. I can’t go back in time and change how my book was received or how my behavior and the way I’d led my life up until that point fed into that reception. But the fact is, when my book was published two years ago, Bookforum asked my publisher to provide my author photo. But when the review was published, it ran alongside a photo from two years earlier, the photo of me in a bathing suit giving the finger. It’s a cute photo. I’m not sad that I posed in a bathing suit giving the finger, and seriously fuck anyone who thinks I should be. But the review was negative, and negative in such a gendered, stupid way, and the combination of review and photo was so blantantly sexist, so ridiculously unfair, but there’s no way for me to talk about this that doesn’t involve me being an author whining about getting a bad review. Look, I’m not “okay with it” when people hate my book, and I’m not pretending to be. Despite its flaws, I love my book, in the same way that I love my most-despised parts of my own body: because they’re mine, because of what they’re capable of doing. There are valid reasons to dislike my book, and there are things about my book that make me cringe. But this review did not engage with the book as a book at all. The review was a review of my body, which illustrated the review, and of my personality, and more importantly, this happens to women
and it still happens in Bookforum, too. So kudos to Bookforum for helping the French people throw together this panel discussion, but I do not accept it as even a first step in the right direction. Corralling women into a pen together and feigning concern for them when they say they feel trapped is not helping anyone.
There are concerns more pressing right now than how people who aren’t heterosexual men are marginalized and condescended to in the literary world, like how someone who believes women should be forced to give birth against their will might be elected president of this country. But this is not an unrelated issue, or not as unrelated as we in our privileged panel-discussion-attending world might like to believe that it is. Books, words, stories are still at the heart of our culture, and we need to look right into that culture’s dark heart, rather than its most esoteric fringes, so that we can figure out how revolutionary ideas about real justice and freedom can exist and thrive in both places.
I felt humiliated after I told this whiny story last night, rightly so I think. It was inappropriate and selfish. I kept reliving it on the way home and wishing that I’d articulated my thoughts better, or not at all. When I got home I made myself some dinner and then we watched the latest episode of Homeland, which Keith had pirated from, I think, Russian Facebook? The video quality was very bad but we persisted in watching it anyway because we knew that this would be the episode when Carrie got to find out that she was right all along about Brody. Carrie, a disgraced and discredited former C.I.A. agent who was fired from the agency last season for being “crazy,” in part because she persisted in telling her male C.I.A. bosses about her suspicion that Brody, a heroic-seeming former P.O.W. had been turned by Al Qaeda during his years in captivity and is now a dangerous double agent. She kept believing this and telling them it was true until they fired her, and then she had to get electroshock therapy. (This is not a subtle show.)
But the scene of Carrie’s vindication was not very satisfying. Instead of a glorious return to her old job and apologies from the bosses who fired her, she watches the video that proves her right alongside her mentor Saul, who’s mostly been on her side all along, and now it’s not clear whether anyone will believe either of them, and it seems like maybe the evidence will be lost — she and Saul are still the only ones who know. And Carrie isn’t happy to be vindicated, either. She weeps as she says, “I was right … I was right.” She seems to be mourning everything she lost in order to be right.
Sometimes being right is not very satisfying in and of itself. It seems like, on the show, Carrie’s troubles are only just beginning.