What it Means to Write about Sexism Today

For the past decade, people have been telling me to shut up.

One winter day in high school, I stayed after to watch a Vermeer documentary for my Art History class. The deal was we got extra credit if we filled out a worksheet based on what we learned from the film. There were two boys sitting behind me who were making a valiant effort to be as disruptive as possible—throwing popcorn, talking and laughing loudly, you get the picture. They were classmates but not friends of mine. The teacher had left the room, so eventually I turned around and said, “Hey, can you stop?”

I can still see this plain as day. One of them stood up, and, out of nowhere, a hard, blazing look appeared in his eyes. It was maybe the first time I had ever seen such intense hatred and anger directed solely at me.

“Shut up!” he screamed. “You think you’re so smart. You think you’re smarter than everyone here. You need to SIT DOWN and SHUT UP.”

I was already sitting down, and I wasn’t speaking. He wanted me to be smaller than seated, to crouch, to disappear into the floorboards. He wanted me muted, silenced, gone.

Tears smarting in my eyes, I turned around and finished the worksheet without a word. I could still hear him muttering “shut up, just shut up” to me from behind.

In the decade since then, both men and women have explicitly and implicitly told me to shut up when I speak up about something they don’t want to hear. Being headstrong since childhood, I have never been very good at following their orders.

Moreover, I have come to learn since then that hostility and anger are often rooted in hurt and fear. But what had I done to hurt this classmate so much that he screamed such pent-up hatred towards me? What in that moment had made him so afraid?

Since my first blog post went up two weeks ago, my words and story were described on the comment section and on Facebook as: farcical, overly-sensitive, humorless, victimized, useless, anti-feminist, ageist, classist, “thin gruel,” fallacious, and “absolutely wrong.”

Men and women alike commented that I needed to embrace my femininity; to be more receptive to what others perceived as flattery even if it made me feel uncomfortable; to use “more visceral examples of sexism” (and believe me, I’ve had plenty) in my life to better illustrate my point; and to extend some grace to the man whose misguided remark hurt and stunned me.

While I expected some critique and backlash, I did not think that people would devote several hours of their day ripping apart my blog post and making crude assumptions about my character. Where did all this anger come from?

Reading the responses to my post taught me a lot about what it means to write about sexism in 2013. Several men and women had a knee-jerk reaction to my situation: either I must have been acting crazy in my story, or I must be misremembering, because it could not have possibly gone down the way I told it. In their minds, I clumsily transcribed the dialogue, overreacted with all of my lady emotions, or simply felt things that have no meaning since those readers chose not to empathize.

In fact, the only empathy that was present in those responses was directed towards the man at the bar. Readers defended him with a heated passion. I was told that I misjudged his words and that they “hoped this poor guy never reads this.” Likewise, whenever I tell my high school story, people will often brush it off as “Oh, he was probably just trying to get your attention” or “Boys will be boys!” In both of those instances, I was the one who was hurt and humiliated, and yet now I am also the one who needs to be kinder.

The biggest awareness I came away with from the haters was this: the story that I told is not my own. My authority as a writer is stripped away. Others are open to invalidate my experience and discredit my feelings, regardless of the fact that I was there—again—alone. Technically, it’s my word against theirs, but some readers continued to insist that I must be misinterpreting my own story.

What hurt or frightened people so much that they couldn’t just believe me? That they couldn’t say something like, “Hey, it sucks that this happened to you, and that benevolent and misguided sexism (as well as overt and visceral sexism) happens to countless women everywhere in a myriad of other ways, and maybe we should talk about it”?

I don’t know the answer to these questions, but what I do know is that I have also received an outpouring of support, compassion, and insight from other men and women through sharing my story. To them, thank you. I’m not looking to change minds through argument; I’m looking for a connection. I’m looking for empathy and a conversation.

As Virginia Woolf wrote in her 1931 speech “Professions for Women,” while describing the main challenges of writing seriously as a woman: “telling the truth about my own experiences as a body, I do not think I solved. I doubt that any woman has solved it yet. The obstacles against her are still immensely powerful–and yet they are very difficult to define.” We’d like to think that we have progressed in the eighty-two years since then, but countless examples of women writers—including this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature winner Alice Munro (who was born the same year that Woolf gave her speech)—still deal with many of the same struggles. Likewise, award-winning author Laura Lippman writes about similar challenges here in her recent article titled “Female in Public.”

Our stories are important the way we experienced and remembered them, and the adverse responses I received to my post–not to mention the adverse responses to women writers around the world–are all the more reason why we should tell them.

Haters, hate on. I’m not shutting up anytime soon.

Why I'm Sick of Writers Or: (Lovingly) Calling “Bullshit” on Writer Culture

As a senior set to graduate in May of 2013, in the past few months, the most common question I receive is: are you applying to grad school? It’s a fair question to ask, considering a large percentage of my English/creative writing friends are applying, or planning to apply to a variety of schools all over the country. Though I’ve tossed around the prospect of an MFA since freshman year, my answer to this questions is always some variety of, “Not now, but maybe in a few years.” This decision took a long time, a lot of research and general soul-searching to make. However, this fall semester I came to the realization that cemented my decision to not pursue my MFA right now: I need to take some time off from writers. 

You gonna take time off of me?

Initially, when I typed that sentence, I wanted to say “undergraduate writers,” because I thought: “Hey, maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. Maybe this is just one aspect of the ‘lost, confused, identity-crisis, annoying-as-hell twenty-something’ bubble that every undergraduate student at any university in any field of study experiences. Maybe I just need a break from undergraduate writers, not writers in general.” But I have a gut feeling, and this gut feeling, mingled with reports from friends who have attended or are achieving an MFA right now, reassures me that this is not an isolated undergraduate phenomenon. So, I can say, with confidence, that I need to take some time off from writers because, quite frankly, I’m sick of writers.

I’m sick of verbal acrobatics, both in conversation and on paper. I’m sick of sentences crammed with strategically obscure vocabulary in order to make the writer look smarter. I’m sick of hearing a haphazardly-written first draft of a short story called “postmodern.” I’m sick of holier-than-thou writers who know they are better than the writer they are workshopping and offer visibly half-hearted feedback as a result. I’m sick of the realization that all of “the best writers” in my classes wear the same kinds of shoes. I’m sick of the worship of famous writers (“all hail DFW – or David Foster Wallace for you Philistines!”) as tragic demigods who my fellow young writers claim they could never become and yet imitate constantly. I’m sick of every writer I know desiring fame, when in actuality, none of us, or at least very, very few of us, will achieve the kind of fame we dream of when we turn in our final drafts.

I’m calling bullshit, on all of it. I can no longer tolerate writers and their bullshit that has taken all the joy, truth, and beauty away from an art form I so dearly love. And since the bullshit is probably here to stay, considering it has only gotten worse the older I’ve grew, my best solution is to run for higher ground for the next five years or so, until I’ve recuperated enough to withstand another dose of bullshit. 

Yes.

Before I went to college, I knew I wanted to write, considering it was (and is) the only real talent I possess. But I heard that the worst thing you can do if you want to be a writer is study English or creative writing. Study something else, anything else, that interests you, I was told – biology, math, history, anything – and the knowledge you gain will inform and enrich your writing. For a long time, I planned to major in journalism, but I chickened out at last minute and chose English anyway. I don’t by any means consider it a mistake that I majored in English and creative writing. I’ve had too many inspiring teachers and non-bullshit writer peers to believe that. But I do think the advice I heard holds some weight. It’s not simply that studying something other than writing can enrich and inform your work – it’s that studying writing for so long and with so much depth inevitably distracts you from what writing should actually be about. Thus, the bullshit occurs.

Though I may be disenchanted with my fellow writers, the culprit is not only the bullshit, but (more importantly) the fact that the bullshit takes all of us farther and farther away from good storytelling. A non-writer friend who understands my frustration sent me this article the other night, and I loved it so much I read portions of it out loud to her and swooned as though the article was a love letter. It’s a letter/assignment from Kurt Vonnegut to his students at Iowa, asking that they read Masters of the Short Story, choose three stories they loved the most and three they loved the least, then write a report on each. In this report, they must pretend to be an editor at a journal where each story is up for publication, and they must write about which stories deserve publication. Vonnegut specifically instructs his students how to write these reports, and these instructions particularly struck a chord:

Do not do so as an academic critic, nor as a person drunk on art, nor as a barbarian in the literary market place. Do so as a sensitive person who has a few practical hunches about how stories can succeed or fail. Praise or damn as you please, but do so rather flatly, pragmatically, with cunning attention to annoying or gratifying details. Be yourself. Be unique.”

Not pretentious.

Sometimes, when I finish reading a story that leaves my mind empty or buzzing from the pretension, I’m tempted to simply write at the bottom of their draft: “Just tell me a story.” This is, at the heart, the purpose of writing. Don’t try to be an academic constantly drawing conclusions or parallels, or a wordsmith drunk on her own cleverness, or a jaded, seen-it-all barbarian desperately trying to write the one story he knows he hasn’t read yet. Don’t try to be anything else that will soil your identity, first and foremost, as a human being. Don’t even bother trying to be a writer. Just write. Just tell me a damn story.

Book signings at our AWP table that you won't regret attending!

You’ve probably been wondering what kind of book signings will take place at the Missouri Review table this AWP. “How many will there be,” you’ve wondered.  “There are so many writers. Which ones will I get to meet at the Missouri Review table? And, for that matter, when exactly will I have those opportunities?”

Grope helplessly for answers to these questions no longer!  The book signing schedule for our AWP table is an exciting one, and here it is:

Thursday, March 1st at 2 pm:  Greg Brownderville

A native of Pumpkin Bend, Arkansas, Greg is the author of a volume of poems entitled Gust (Northwestern University Press, September 2011). His poems have appeared in the Oxford AmericanPrairie SchoonerMeasure, and several other journals and magazines. He has been the recipient of a Tennessee Williams Scholarship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Jane Geske Award from Prairie Schooner, and the Porter Prize. Brownderville completed an MFA at the University of Mississippi in 2008, and currently teaches creative writing at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri.

Friday, March 2nd at Noon: Lucy Ferriss

Born in St. Louis, Lucy Ferriss has lived on both coasts, in the middle, and abroad. She is the author of nine books, mostly fiction. Her memoir Unveiling the Prophet: The Misadventures of a Reluctant Debutante was called Best Book of the Year by the Riverfront Times; her novel Nerves of the Heart was a finalist in the Peter Taylor Prize competition; her collection Leaving the Neighborhood and Other Stories was the 2000 winner of the Mid-List First Series Award.  Other short fiction and essays have appeared most recently in the New York Times, Missouri Review, Shenandoah, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Georgia Review, and have received recognition from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Faulkner Society, the Fulbright Commission, and the George Bennett Fund, among others,  She received her Ph.D. from Tufts University and currently lives with Don Moon in the Berkshires and in Connecticut, where she is Writer-in-Residence at Trinity College.  She has two strong sons and abiding passions for music, politics, travel, tennis, and wilderness. She has a historical novel, The Woman Who Bought the Sky, on deck, and is working on a new novel, tentatively titled Honor.

Saturday March 3rd at 12:30 pm: Danielle Deulen

Danielle is a poet and essayist. Her collection of poems, Lovely Asunder, won the Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize and was published with the University of Arkansas Press in 2011. Her memoir, The Riots, published with University of Georgia Press in 2011, won the 2010 AWP Prize in Creative Nonfiction, was a finalist for the 2011 Grub Street National Book Prize in Nonfiction, and won the 2012 GLCA New Writers Award.  Formerly, she was a Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her poetry and essays have appeared in such journals as The Utne Reader, The Missouri Review, The Iowa Review, Smartish Pace, and The Indiana Review.  She received her MFA in Creative Writing from George Mason University and her PhD in English from the University of Utah.  She currently lives in Ohio where she is an Assistant Professor of poetry in the Graduate Creative Writing program at the University of Cincinnati.

All three authors will be at our table for an hour. We welcome you to visit, meet these writers, buy their books, and have them signed.  We will have enough pens, don’t worry.