AWP 2014: Writing Feminism in Creative Nonfiction

Mandy Len:

A guest blog post on Brevity:

Originally posted on BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog:

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A lot of folks are talking about feminism right now, especially in writing and publishing. And a lot of folks are talking about creative nonfiction, the wayward fourth genre that’s finally asserting itself in classrooms and literary journals. But we aren’t talking much about the intersection of feminism and creative nonfiction. And we ought to be.

Sarah Lenz’s AWP panel on ‘Writing Feminism in Creative Nonfiction’ featured five women who have spent a lot of time thinking about the feminist issues unique to nonfiction writing: Lenz, Marcia Aldrich, Kristen Iversen, Sonja Livingston, and Mary Kay McBrayer. Rather than report on each panelists’ talk, let’s just dive in to the most urgent and interesting ideas.

Creative nonfiction is a genre of de facto feminism:

“I’m a de facto feminist,” Lenz said, opening the panel. “I write from a woman’s perspective because I can’t escape my own identity.” Regardless of their initial motivation or agenda, all…

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Faking it

When I finally read Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running a couple years ago, I hated it. As you might expect, he talks about running both as a discipline and a metaphor. He outlines his training process for marathons and triathlons and, as he plods along, he considers the relationship between running and writing. I like hearing about other people’s creative processes, and even though Norwegian Wood is the only one of his books I particularly liked (and I did really like it), I still thought I might learn something from Murakami. After slogging through 1Q84, I hoped he and I might find some common ground again in the genre of memoir. But no.

Murakami says a few things I completely disagree with, like: “Talent has a mind of its own and wells up when it wants to, and once it dries up, that’s it.” And cliché things like, “Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest.” And smug things like, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” The thing is, running marathons and triathlons is impressive—especially when you start in your late twenties and continue into your sixties. And writing a bunch of highly-acclaimed books with cultish following is also very impressive. But I have a badass friend who regularly runs ultramarathons—and once a hundred miles!—and he’s not nearly so self-satisfied.

Reading What I Talk About felt like an ongoing reminder of my lack of discipline. I thought the book could’ve been subtitled, Why I’m so good at things (and you’re probably not). The fact is, I agree with Murakami on some basic points. I believe dedication will always take you further than talent. I believe in sticking to regular routines and putting writing ahead of other obligations that sometimes seem more important. But, not only did his book not inspire me to write more or better, it actually made me feel a little embittered about the whole process.

the view from my computer this afternoon.

the view from my computer this afternoon.

I say all this because I want to talk about what does work for me, and how I’m hoping to keep motivated without such Herculean smug-guy self-discipline. I much prefer Alain de Botton’s idea: “Work finally begins when the fear of doing nothing exceeds the fear of doing it badly.”

When I was a kid, my main (and most loathed) chore was mowing the lawn.

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Authenticity. Or the problem of the far away faraway.

When I told my sister I wanted to cut my nails because my manicure made me feel like Barbie, she looked me square on and said, “Mandy. That’s a good thing.”

While staying at her place over Christmas, I came home one night to find her on the couch with the dogs. She was wearing pink leopard flannel pajamas and drinking a mango margarita from a Butterbeer mug and watching The Voice. This is what I like about her: nobody else inhabits their preferences that joyfully.

She has kind things to say about every performer on The Voice, even as she critiques their wardrobe. And I think this is what other people like about her, too. She has specific tastes, but feels no obligation to defend them. She is like the anti-hipster, wholly sincere, consistent to the core. She can wax happily about the luminance of someone’s skin in a Manet painting and the cake-to-icing ratio of a Little Debbie Christmas Tree Cake. She is intelligent, hyper-feminine, quick to laugh, and quick to point out her flaws.

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I have always wanted to say what I intend to say with no thought for others’ judgment, to feel not an ounce of self-consciousness when someone scrolls through my iTunes library. I don’t want to be the person who works SAT vocabulary into the conversation when she meets someone smart, as if desperate to say, “See! Me too!” But I am.

I’ve been thinking about authenticity in this new year. Going from Vancouver to Appalachia and back seems to do that, to call up the space between what’s meaningful and what seems constructed to incite a sensation akin to meaning. Take, for example, the Contemporary Christmas Eve service at the Methodist church. There was bread and grape juice (Methodists don’t do wine), the Lord’s Prayer, a reading from Luke, an acoustic guitar, candles and Silent Night. But no altar, no hymnals. Instead two large projectors aired a slickly-produced video about the many distractions of the holiday season. It’s fairly standard Christmas sermon stuff, but it felt especially hollow up on the screens. I wanted to hear the pastor talk, to dwell in the sanctuary of a sanctuary. As a devout teenager, I could always summon gratitude at church, especially when the lights went down for the candlelight service. Maybe I was hoping for some echo of that. But I only felt the fullness of the evening’s chicken casserole and that last glass of pinot grigio.

Sometimes I worry that the longer I live in Vancouver, the more alienated I become from the place I grew up. It begins to feel too far away. I notice Food City sells Duck Dynasty beer koozies and home no longer feels like home but instead like a satire of rural America. But two weeks later I’m at Vancouver’s Whole Foods grasping a $5 organic chocolate bar while examining a slab of soap that looks like Jell-O and I wonder how this life feels any more authentic. Continue reading

some holiday procrastination reading

I’ve finished marking 98 final papers, and 96 final exams. If you’re thinking that doesn’t add up, you’re right. I have two exams left. They’re sitting on the coffee table right in front of me as I type. Waiting. Reading them is exactly what I should be doing right now. But I’ve been honing my procrastination techniques over the past few weeks and I’m getting pretty good. So I thought I’d share some of my favorite non-exam reading of late, the short-and-sweet things (the love-story-ish things, to be consistent) that I’ve enjoyed between stacks of papers. My philosophy is, if you must procrastinate (and sometimes I must, for everyone’s benefit), procrastinate well.

a view of procrastination from my house

a view of procrastination from my house.

So, some reading for you all.

1-I’ll open with the best, which is Kent Shaw’s “How to Fall in Love for Real” from the most recent issue of Brevity. It opens:

At twenty-two, I fell in love with the sales clerk who helped me pick out clothes at the mall. I was in love with my best friend’s wife. I was in love with everything. The sales clerk’s name was Cricket. She was six months pregnant.

It’s beautiful, especially his declarative sentences. It makes me grateful to no longer be twenty-two. If you haven’t read Brevity, and you are disciplined enough to do some short-form procrastinating, it’s fantastic. And each micro-essay is under 750 words.

2-This New York Times wedding piece reads like a parody of New York Times Weddings, but it is 100% sincere. It’s a perfect artifact of the unironic hilarity possible within the genre of public love narrative. And I love it more than I could love any piece of satire. For example, there is a real woman, the bride’s sister in fact, named Elisabeth van Lawick van Pabst-Koch. And Ms. van Lawick van Pabst-Koch describes her sister as the kind of person who just “loves to travel and will hop on a plane to Bahrain or wherever just to visit somebody.” Bahrain! You know, for a visit! I don’t want to spoil anything, but I will say that the piece involves a sabre, millinery, a dog named Sir William Sugarplum, and a trip to the Waffle House. Read it.

3-Because I’ve been a little down on Vancouver of late, here’s a pretty great thing my city did: public mistletoe. After a trip to Paris a couple years ago, I can certify that Vancouver can handle a little more PDA. Hilariously, someone posted this link in the comments. So safety-first, guys.

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The truth be known, the truth be told, my heart was always fairly cold…

(No photo today, so for your listening pleasure a song–and inspiration for the title)

The phone rang on a Saturday afternoon. I was still sweaty from mowing the lawn. My best friend Kim was calling from her car, someone must’ve had a cell phone. It was the nineties and we were in high school and cell phones were still novel in that Zack Morris kind of way. “Someone wants to talk to you,” she said. I heard shuffling and then a guy’s voice on the line. It was Zane and he wanted to know if I would be into seeing a movie, maybe next weekend.

I remember thinking several things at once: Zane was asking me on a date; Zane was asking me on a date in a car full of kids who had better things to do than mow the lawn; my parents were not going to like me going on a date with Zane.

At sixteen, I did not go on dates. I had dates—to homecoming or prom, usually a friend’s boyfriend’s friend, someone to have photos made with. But going on dates required asking. And I was equally terrified of showing someone I liked him, and of being liked by someone I wasn’t into. Needless to say, no one asked.

Zane and I had nothing in common. He smoked cigarettes and rode BMX and had recently run away from home for a month. (Where had he gone, I remember wondering. Where could anyone run to in rural Virginia?) But I liked his silhouette in low-slung jeans and a tank top—the outfit he wore pretty much daily. I liked how his hair hung in his eyes. It seemed like effortlessness was a lifestyle choice he made when he woke up each morning. He wouldn’t try. Trying was not for him.

I had always tried at everything. Not trying seemed exotic, like the idea of running away, like Zane himself.

I said that, yeah, I had next Saturday afternoon free and sure, I’d be into going to movie. He asked if I could drive—this would become a pattern in our brief relationship—and I said it’d be no big deal to come pick him up. I played it very cool. Then he handed the phone back to Kim. “Hey,” she said, also playing it cool but I could hear the grin in her voice. In response, I squealed. It just emerged from my mouth like pent up bird. High-pitched and squawky. She laughed. “Um…everyone just heard that.” I was mortified.

Someone I liked liked me enough to ask me to the movies. It was okay to be happy about that. But I had just squealed in front of a group of kids who spent their weekend smoking weed in an old Ford Bronco while I was at home helping my parents with the yard work.

Recalling this moment, writing it all out, still makes me cringe. Like I can feel my organs drawing inward, my lungs shrinking into my ribcage. The word “shame” is etymologically related to an ancient Greek verb meaning “to cover.” I can feel that impulse for self-protection now as I imagine you, reader, imagining me in my grass-stained tennis shoes and damp, oversized t-shirt squealing in an upstairs bedroom decorated with Foo Fighters posters and pompoms. Gross. I feel gross.

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How to be oblivious. Or, some thoughts on privilege and happiness.

Lately, when I catch my reflection, I see my mother and father looking back at me. The shape of my face is not mine, but my dad’s. The slight asymmetry of my nose belongs to my mom, not me. Maybe this is what it means to age, or maybe they are just on my mind. Maybe I have finally outgrown my adolescent desire to be different and separate. I’m not quite sure why I have disappeared in the mirror lately, but I’ve been thinking of this website [disclaimer: don't click if you aren't prepared for some depressing statistics] since I first read about it. It estimates, based on demographic data, how many times you’ll see your parents’ faces in person before they die. I haven’t been brave enough to try it. But I guess I don’t mind it so much if I catch a glimpse of them in the cafe window or the glass of my computer screen.

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I want to try out an idea here, an essay in its etymological spirit, a trial. I don’t know where this will go. Bear with me.

The idea is this: I want to suggest (Can you tell I’ve been reading and teaching academic writing lately? As I say to my students, “Don’t tell us what you’re going to do, just do it!” But maybe this convention has some value in the “trial essay” that it lacks in the scholarly essay.) I want to suggest that the inheritance of a family love story comes with some personal and social privilege. By privilege here, I mean an ability to take certain things for granted, to trust that the systems in place around you are working for you, but also, simultaneously, the ability to ignore those systems most of the time.

A common form of privilege that most everyone is familiar with is white privilege, which I can probably best illustrate with examples from my life. As a white woman in North America, I can safely assume that most of my news will be about and delivered by people who physically and culturally resemble me. I can comfortably cross the US/Canadian border without worrying about being searched or harassed. I am not self-conscious when I fill out an application to rent an apartment. I get to be fearless when standing in front of a classroom, whether my students are racially-diverse or racially-homogenous. These are a few of the privileges conferred to the racial majority. And we get to ignore how easy our lives are if we want to. Probably, unless we dramatically change our circumstances, we can’t help ignoring it. That’s just how privilege works.

I was given certain advantages, without request or even notice, when I was born with pale skin and blonde hair. And lately I’ve been thinking that my parents’ love story—the story of the cheerleader and the football coach—also helped me to move easily through the world. Because they, too, are blonde and blue eyed, because by the time my sister was born we were essentially middle class (and by the time I was in high school we were upper middle class), because my dad worked in the school system and was well-liked, I grew up within a bubble of privilege. I was never taught to notice it, but I was taught to take advantage of it. My dad urged my sister and me to use extra credit to keep our GPAs high, to dress in a way that encouraged teachers and authority figures to judge us favorably. When I got my first speeding ticket, he shut down every social avenue in my life. But he also made me write a letter to the judge and take it to court, rather than paying the ticket by mail. The letter conveyed my respect for the law, my deep regret at breaking it, my extensive punishment at home, but it also pointed out my good grades and extra curricular activities at school and church. My dad was giving me a lesson in how to work within the system, how to maximize my privilege. This from a man who believed both that hard work was the path to success and that “it never hurts to know someone.”  Continue reading

I’m willing to lie about how we met

A few weeks ago I was having a beer with a guy named Scott. It was a date—a first date—with a photographer I’d met online. I like to think I’ve gotten good at this online dating thing*, or at least proficient, but Scott was a pro.

Shortly after we sat down on a charming–if potentially rat-infested (the folks at the dive bar insisted on calling them mice)–patio, another couple walked out. The guy looked at Scott, paused, looked back and said, “Hey, I know you.”

Scott gave me an awkward smile.

“Aren’t you the guy who ran after me the other day when I dropped a fifty dollar bill on the sidewalk?”

Scott looked embarrassed and shrugged.

“Yes. It’s totally you,” the guy said. He looked at me. “Can you believe this guy? Who does that? Returns a fifty-freaking-dollar bill.”

“Pretty amazing,” I said.

“Hey man, let me buy you a drink,” the guy said. Scott laughed politely and said no thanks and the other guy made his way to his seat.

Scott smiled at me for a moment, then said, “That’s my buddy. I ran into him outside before you got here. I wanted him to do a bit about me saving a kitten but he thought you might not buy that one.”

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We had a long talk that night. When he heard I was writing about love stories, he had a lot of questions. Mostly, he wanted to understand the function of love stories. He agreed that they probably don’t make us better at loving each other, and, while they might transmit certain values, they don’t, as some researchers have suggested, seem to make us better people.

“Well, they probably offer us a lot of vicarious pleasure,” I offered.

“Yeah, but they must do something constructive,” he insisted.

“It’s obvious to me that we really need them—not just other people’s stories, but our own,” I said. I mentioned the common phenomenon of online dating profiles containing some iteration of the phrase “I’m willing to lie about where we met.” Continue reading