Attending to the small

I’m not getting much writing done these days. Partly this is because I’m back to work and teaching can be demanding. But my classes are new—new material and new approaches and new conversations—and after a year spent sitting alone in front of a computer, I’m happy to turn my attention outward, away from myself and my preoccupations and toward a room full of young, thoughtful people. Students get a lot of flack these days but the think pieces I read about them almost never match up with my experiences in the classroom. And right now, I’m having a really good time there.

The other reason I’m struggling to write is that writing feels trivial compared to the ongoing injustices that are consuming all my attention. Writing itself isn’t trivial; it’s a necessary tool for speaking to and about those very injustices. But still, writing about love when all I can think about is systemic racism and police brutality feels disingenuous.

I’ve been thinking about the Black Lives Matter movement in particular and more broadly about who gets a voice in the world. Today I learned that two writers I really admire—Claudia Rankine and Maggie Nelson—were just awarded MacArthur genius grants! Rankine writes about race and Nelson writes about queer identity. Winning one of these grants means five years of generous funding to keep doing the work they do. Here is some progress, I think, some important voices being amplified. But the reality is that well-educated white writers (people like me) have a disproportionally large voice in the world.

Recently I told someone I love that I make an effort to ensure my students’ reading materials are diverse and represent of a wide range of writers.

“Well that’s fine as long as you’re still teaching good writing,” she said.

I got really defensive.

I was angry that she didn’t seem to think I could choose appropriate materials for students to read. And self-righteous about the implicit assumption that filling my course with women and queer writers and writers of color meant teaching lower quality writing. There I was taking such great pains to do my job well, and there she was implying that I was doing the opposite.

As I tried to point out the value of exposing students to all these different voices, I could see myself in her eyes: a caricature of an over-zealous liberal who sacrifices professionalism for ideology.

But I love this person, I thought.

And she’s right in a way: I am willing to cut something well-written from the list and replace it with something I like a little bit less. I have spent years thinking about the responsibilities of teaching and the value of any given reading assignment; she’d never thought about it until that moment. I shouldn’t expect her to just congratulate me for taking that Pulitzer winner off my syllabus. And I know feeling self-righteous can alienate me from the people I love—but sometimes I can’t resist.

I’ve seen people on social media vouch for a zero-tolerance approach to racism, sexism, ableism, and homophobia, regardless of whether it’s implicit or explicit, genuinely mean or just oblivious. And, in many ways, I respect someone who is able to take a hard-line stance on a moral issue. But I’m not comfortable alienating people I love in the name of ideology, even in this high-stakes election season.

The result is something I’m equally uncomfortable with: I avoid talking to the people I love about things we see differently. I am choosing love over righteousness—which sounds good when you type it out, but I don’t always feel good about it.

I recently watched a Daily Show segment interviewing Trump supporters.

“Why do you think Barak Obama wasn’t in the Oval Office on 9/11?” Jordan Klepper asks a small man in a big red Make America Great Again hat.

“That I don’t know,” he responds in a thick accent. “I’d like to get to the bottom of that.”

I get it. It’s supposed to be funny how uneducated these Trump supporters are. How stupid and racist and hillbilly. But another response is to consider why someone wouldn’t know that George W. Bush was our president during 9/11? What does this say about our education system? And about us—that we are so quick to laugh at someone whose circumstances we don’t know?

I laughed when I first saw it, but the more I thought about it, the more the segment felt mean. It felt like the kind of meanness that enables smallness and self-righteousness.

A few months ago I got into an argument with a friend about the terms “feminism” and “humanism” and the weight each of these words bears in the world. And I got so flustered trying to convince him that feminism actually means “everyone-ism” that I couldn’t have a civil conversation. I still feel the strain of this on our friendship sometimes, and I don’t know what to do about it.

Then this morning I read this article about the word “black” and the weight it bears in the world. And I wondered who else read the article through to its conclusion. Were they all people like me, people who feel gratified to see someone articulate what they were already feeling? Or were there others, whose ideology is still malleable?

What does it take to change someone’s mind? And to what extent do the things we read just reinforce what we already believe?

I’ve been thinking about all the things that make us small, that make us turn inward, that alienate us from one another.

After I sold my book, my days got very small. When you spend all day alone, lost in your own words and ideas, the world can feel as small as the circumference of your skull. And when your ideas are left to bounce around in the echo chamber of your own mind, they take on outsized significance. Of course there is real value in introspection, but it has its limits.

My students are doing small writings and I tell them it’s important to attend to the small, that there’s insight to be found in the ordinary. There’s a difference between attending to the small and being small—but I wonder if too much of the former can lead to the latter.


I spent the past two weeks looking at (and feeling anxious about) cover art for my book. I knew the cover would be my avatar in the world of books and so my hopes for it were impossibly high. But today, in the scope of everything that’s happening in the world, these concerns seem so petty.

Sometimes I think I should re-write my bio to read, “Mandy Len Catron just wants you to take her seriously.” I do! It’s such a waste of energy—but I’m working on it.

A Facebook friend recently mused about quantifying the ways privilege affects our lives and careers as writers. What if we could assign a number to how much each demographic descriptor—age, class, race, education, physical mobility, health, sexual orientation, gender identity, and on and on—influenced our success in the world? Would you want to know? Would you, upon seeing your own advantages quantified, step aside for someone else?

I spent hours thinking about her post (which I am roughly paraphrasing because it wasn’t posted publicly and it isn’t mine to share) and my desire to be taken seriously.

I don’t want to give up my spot. I think I worked hard for it, even as I feel the force of luck and privilege every day. (After all, I have the time, resources, and health to make room for writing in my life.) But maybe I am holding on to my spot too tightly. Maybe all that holding on is making me small.

Last week I tried to write a blog post about Elizabeth Gilbert and all the uproar about her personal life. Maybe I’ll still write that post. But the gist was this: I was annoyed by all the readers who seem to think they are entitled to know about and comment on her personal life—all because they read a book she wrote a decade ago.

I wanted to say something intelligent about the reader-writer relationship. And I wanted to say something magnanimous about Gilbert—about the risks one must take to write memoir and how we might all benefit from acknowledging those risks. But the truth is that all these thoughts came from that same small place, from my own fear of readers one day feeling entitled to know and comment on my personal life—and my fear of those insults always lobbed at women who write about themselves: arrogant, narcissistic, self-absorbed.

All of this is to say that sometimes you have to attend to the small, and sometimes you have to attend to the world. I don’t feel particularly good at this—at striking a balance between attending to book covers and attending to systemic bias. Or at attending to my politics while also attending to my relationships. Sometimes it’s not even clear which is small—politics or relationships?

And sometimes attending to the world means watching videos of American citizens being killed by the very people charged with keeping them safe and it feels unbearably awful. I just keep reminding myself that it is easy for me, a white woman living in Canada, to want to shut out the world and attend only to the small matters of my daily life. But for some people—like the people I love who are the mothers of black boys—the small matters of daily life contain the injustices of the world. And maybe a good way to think about my place in the world is to consider how often I am inconvenienced by injustice–to make space for it, to welcome it in.

73 thoughts on “Attending to the small

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and putting them across crisply. These things are complex, and doing our best is all we’ve got. Reading this, and I wonder if I will come back and read this piece again, your best is more than good enough!

  2. I appreciate your attention to matters of the world, from queer to racial ideals…I appreciate your attention. Thank you for trying to help people understand that we are all people. Every life holds value and color, sexuality, and even title should not make us regard one another as big or small or beautiful but as people just the same. Thank you.

  3. I’m thinking about doing a blog post about this – privilege and writing and what it all means – sometime in the next few weeks (it’s germinating away in my brain currently) and I love the way you talk about it here. It really resonates with me how you mention that at times your passion for something may seem alienating to people, because I’ve felt that at times too, especially when it’s someone I love and I just can’t understand how they don’t get it. This was an excellent post, thank you 🙂

  4. I love your mind. At times my mind is cluttered and I’m torn between which stance to take in relation to pursuing my passions. I’m sure that’s not the sole point you we’re making but I was touched by how you went indepth about the things that were going through your mind with current events and prioritizing what is more important as far as where you will exert your energy. What I will say, from reading your post, is that I hope you continue to communicate your current thoughts through your writing as wells as the way you you normally write. I was definitely touched by this and I believe the world needs more transparency like yours. Thank you for this. Peace and love to you.

  5. Thank you for your post. I too have been struggling with injustices. It pains and angers me what is happening to my country and it’s citizens. It also greatly pains me and angers me that the societal structure has left me and my husband struggling to put food on the table for our beautiful family. You can read about my very personal struggle on for further detail.
    You have every right to feel uneasy and struggle with accepting these facts that surround us. That is difficult. Should we accept this? Should we speak out?
    I feel very much like you. Alienated. It’s difficult to speak about these issues with friends. Even great friends. There’s always the fear of alienation.

  6. How our belief system has made us ignorant instead of opening ourselves to the world most of us like to live in our comfort zones. And if we try to break free from this creating a balance with friends , relative and friends become difficult especially when they want to hold on to their comfort zones.
    The small things which we often neglect are the ones which shape our life. Beautifully articulated

  7. Keep writing and don’t let alienation keep you from preaching about injustice. Unfortunately, many people may need to be told something is an injustice. Speak it, write it because it requires love to do so, it should fit right in. One final unloving comment, IPA’s really suck stick with Heineken. Thanks for a great message.

  8. Your writting i will say is a comfort to so many blacks,just keep doing it in sincerity and please join also with your prayers,because only God alone can save us all..
    Thanks ma..

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  10. Thanks for being brave enough to share! I’m right there with you on the not discussing points with loved ones that may lead to disagreement because I think I’m being safe and showing love. It’s difficult, but I think it’s important to find a balance too and speak up when it matters. You did that very well!

  11. I love the state and region in which I live, but to share my feelings and opinions about certain topics and issues would almost certainly alienate me to a large group of acquaintances, friends and family due to the overarching ideology of many who live in this area. Striking that balance between being true to one’s self versus the likely outcomes of doing so is a challenge. Thank you for inviting me to think about that personal balance. Terrific piece.

  12. I laughed at the same segment of the Daily Show. And actually it’s been an on going joke in the show, and at the time I was glad that I could release some of the political frustration through laughter. Reading your post made me realise, that I have been somehow fake to my own ideology.

    Every time I get into a political argument I always have the same answer: the longtime solution is education and inclusion. The root to all problems is misinformation (in my humble opinion).

    I live in the UK, where a few months ago it was voted to leave the EU. Which in some certain aspects I understand. But the message that it was most heard among this big mess, was that people are tired of experts’ opinions. Tired of the ruling class.

    I understand the need to minimise the distance between working class, middle class and rich people. And I would vote for any kind Brexit that would promise exactly that. But I am afraid that what people want is academics to disappear. We should all aim to be experts, to be informed, to have a real opinion.

    If we all had a good education, there would not be a majority of citizens gathering their information from sensationalist newspapers or being confused by people like Donald “Trumph”.

    Anyway I went on and on for no reason. I really liked your post!

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  14. I may be completely wrong in my assumption, you are after all a professional writer, but shouldn’t the students’ reading be based on the quality of writing and not who or what the writer is? I am not saying that some race write better or something like that, I am saying that if you select a book based on who the writer is, doesn’t that make your aim moot?

    I hope you don’t take any offense at this.

    • Hi: I don’t have time to respond to all the comments here, but I wanted to make sure to respond to yours because I think it’s important. First, thanks for taking the time to comment. Second, I thought I’d just take a minute to explain my thinking about choosing reading material for my students.

      I definitely want to give them great writing to read. The simple fact is that it’s really easy to find good writing by white men–because these books get more press and have a wider reach. Students will read these without my help or encouragement. Data shows that books by men are disproportionately reviewed in major publications ( and–and this trend continues when you look at other demographic minorities: people of color, queer writers, disabled writers, etc. Their voices just don’t have the same reach. Finding writing by these writers takes a lot more time and effort–because the system has long favored one kind of writer and one kind of voice. So as someone with a little influence on what people read, I try to do my part to choose at least a few things they might not read otherwise.

      I also understand that even my own preferences are–to some extent–shaped by the books I’ve grown up reading (mostly by white writers, many of them men). I assume that I have unconscious biases about what constitutes “good literature”–research suggests we all do. One way to counter this is to feature more diverse voices in my class–texts that other writers have recommended to me: things that display cultures or ideas or experiences that are really different from mine; texts that allow my students (many of whom are not white or not straight or not cis, etc.) to see that “writer” doesn’t just take one form, one demographic, or one voice.

      All of these concerns are as important to me as quality of the writing. Maybe this helps explain my thinking.

      • Thank you for explaining. I had heard of disproportionate reviews but I had no research backing it. I did go through the websites you provided and yes it does make sense. You are right: it is very easy to find a lot of books by white writers and difficult to find diversity in writers. When I did comment, I did think that I was being unfair: I just would like a world where a person’s writing is what finds the readers and not the writer’s gender, sexual orientation or race. But that world is a dream that needs guidance and it will not happen very easily.

        And lastly, I hope, I really really do hope that you continue doing so. That even though there will be millions like me who will question your methods, you do this.

        Because people like me need teachers like you to show us the things not visible.

        Thank you for your very valuable reply and if I have offended you, I am sorry. 🙂

      • THANK YOU FOR THIS! It is, I believe, important to intentionally look for diverse writers because they give diverse perspectives. If you do not intentionally seek out writers of different backgrounds, our kids are only going to get a very limited view of the world!

  15. Excellent. The mere fact that you worry, you contemplate and that you make the world’s injustices a fore thought shows that you care. By writing about it and exploring these issues, you are making a difference. Well done.

  16. Writing is an art and how can we expect to get same feating from all the writers as each writers comes from different background and always tries to show an mirror of the society through his/ her words and hence some times it can be good and sometimes it’s not up-to the marks. Its up-to us.. to choose what is best for them.

  17. I agree, writing so often feels like a small thing to do in the face of injustice. But writing can have great power and yours certainly does! I wrote a post on privilege in the context of travel a while back (link below if youre interested). Maybe if more people write small posts on privilege, a few more people will understand and big change will happen..

  18. It’s very hard to share these thoughts and relating towards an everyday issue, sometimes I think it’s just us and how we view everything around us but then I realised it’s everything us, how we use technology and our mobile and even movies. This is an amazing piece.

    I’m currently doing a campaign based on the range of side effects through the use of mobile phones and writing a different range of activities, besides going on your through personal stories it would be great if you could check it out on my WordPress.

  19. As a former teacher, thank you so much for continuing to introduce kids to a diverse set of books and stories – I think that is so important in trying to bridge the divide. People and kids oftentimes aren’t exposed to other viewpoints other than the mainstream typically white male because we feel like we have to read the “classics.” But who decided what the classics are? White men. We have to turn the tide somewhere and I think it starts with teachers like you.

    Similarly, adults surround themselves with people who are just like they are and think just like they do. I’ve found, over time, I have drifted away from old friends who have different ideologies than I do. While I think that is natural, I don’t think it’s what’s best for our country. We have to keep having those awkward conversations even when it seems like nothing comes of them. My husband and I were recently road tripping through W. Virginia and stayed in a backwoods hotel built for the railroad engineers. We hung out on the patio and drank with people who led very different lives from ours and it occurred to me that it had been a long time since I had a political argument with anyone other than my family. It’s so tiring, but no change is ever possible if no one personally confronts other viewpoints.

    • We are a global world. There are so many differences in customs, upbringing, community and financial status that make us different. We need to learn about others to be able to truly learn more about ourselves. @

  20. Thanks for all the thoughtful comments! Sometimes I feel so alienated and other times I’m just amazed by the people who take time to comment on a total stranger’s blog! It’s a good antidote to all the helpless feelings I’ve been writing about here. So thank you.

  21. I loved reading this. I struggle with trying to find my own voice in certain matters. I have my own thoughts, obviously, but I truly prefer to keep the peace. To go more with the flow. Then I will get upset with myself for not voicing my opinion more.

  22. I can relate to so much of this. We are writing, working, living, loving, all in the context of rapid, constant violence and upheaval. Lately it seems impossible to respond to one atrocity before the next one is reported. And all we can do is pay attention to the small moments, report truthfully, stay open, and hope all these gestures pile up to great change. But as my children get older, I am so conscious of how little time I have left with them to change their world.

  23. The professors I had in college and the literature they introduced me to had a great impact on me and some of the views I have as an adult. Have you ever read Trumpet by Jackie Kay? Phenomenal book. Opened my eyes to the transgender experience (for lack of a better word.)

  24. Freedom of choice, we ALL have it. Thoughts, beliefs and feelings drive our choices. I am more concerned with my life and how I respond/react to the world I co-create. I liken opposition to sports; if I am cheering my team that’s support. If I spend the entire game focused on the opposing team (how lousy they are…), it is what I call non-productive and a waste of my energy. All of the labeling, name calling, division people participate in is a choice of distraction and certainly not inclusive.

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