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.