An Interview With Clare Needham
In the interview that follows, Clare Needham talks with TMR interns Persy Clark and Kim Potthast about her essay “Cover Up.” In that essay, the author describes her time spent living and working in Jerusalem. The essay was a nonfiction runner-up in the 2020 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize competition and appeared in print in TMR 44:3. You can read the essay here.
Kim Potthast: The title “Cover Up” is simple but effective. How did you choose it? Were there ever any other titles this essay went by?
Clare Needham: I chose “Cover Up” because it can be read as a verb or, hyphenated, as a noun: Cover-up. I intend both readings. I read the title as an imperative, as a command I gave myself to disguise my body as much as possible. As a noun, it functions as a secret note for me, with its suggestion of suppression and concealment. There’s so much I left out in this essay to tell this one particular story. It’s a reminder that the essay is itself a cover-up for a larger, longer story.
There weren’t any viable alternative titles, but I remember that while walking around Jerusalem I’d often think of writing a story I’d call “Who Do You Think You Are?”—without understanding what it would contain or how I’d begin. It’s a question that ricocheted around my head a lot, a question I directed at myself, and also one I wanted to ask constantly of everyone else. It’s a good question, in all its tonal possibilities and responses.
Persy Clark: If you had written this essay while still living in Jerusalem, how different do you think it would be?
CN: I would not have written this essay while living in Jerusalem. In those years, I was fixated on and defeated by trying to understand and explain the reality of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. In the years since my return to New York, I’ve drifted back to my usual self-contemplation. I still think constantly about Jerusalem, though. It was an education that went beyond the limits of what this essay conveys.
I didn’t intend to write this essay at all—it took me by surprise. I wrote it very quickly in early April 2020, a singular time to be living in New York City, then the epicenter of the pandemic. A couple of weeks before New York issued a mask mandate, I decided one afternoon that I’d tie a scarf around the lower half of my face and keep it on in the grocery store. On my walk over, a man saw me in my makeshift mask and crossed the street before I could pass him. I don’t know what he thought—did he think I was infected?–but his action catapulted me back to the times in Jerusalem, when I would have wanted nothing more than to have that power, to appear dangerous and repel everyone (meaning men) around me. In April 2020, it was as if I’d assumed this incredible power I’d needed and wanted so much in another city, in another time. When I reread “Cover Up” recently, I was surprised by how quickly I launch into a description of what I’m wearing, the uniform I develop and change. But then I’m reminded that I really did begin this as an essay about clothing, and the sometimes-magical thinking I’ve had around clothes: that the right clothes change everything and will protect me. That adding (or removing) clothing is an effective form of control.
KP: In your essay, you mention the death of the American activist Rachel Corrie, who was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer under contested circumstances. The story was told to you as a warning. Were there any other examples of violent or deadly incidents like this being used as warnings to resident aliens?
CN: An Israeli colleague mentioned Rachel Corrie to me not as a warning but as an example of how I was being perceived by authority—in specific, by Israeli airport security at Ben Gurion. Jerusalem is not a dangerous city. It’s safer than many American cities, if not most. But in any city, your safety depends on who you are, how you appear, how likely you are to be treated or mistreated by the police, or, in the case of Jerusalem, by the Israeli army, too. Jerusalem is safe for me in a way it’s not for a Palestinian living in Sheikh Jarrah. What happened to me, this kind of stranger vs. stranger violence, was an anomaly, something that shocked Palestinians and Israelis alike. I knew that some people back in the States assumed that I was contending daily with the specter of bus bombings, but I lived in Jerusalem in so-called quiet years. There wasn’t the kind of violence that makes international headlines. But there was, and still is, the everyday violence of the occupation, which Westerners can more easily ignore. In “Cover Up,” I describe limitations to my movement in a specific neighborhood, but in general, in retrospect, I was very free. Often, I’d walk through the Old City to get to West Jerusalem, and sometimes the Israeli army would create surprise checkpoints, say at Damascus Gate. One hot afternoon, I took my place at the end of a long line and prepared to show my ID. Within a minute, a soldier led me to the front, apologizing and explaining that the line was “for Arabs only.” Burning with shame, I continued on my way.
KP: How and why did you develop a desire to conform and not make waves, to be a “perfect stranger”?
CN: Sometimes I think of Jerusalem and New York as opposites. In New York, people dress to be seen. I love looking at what people wear. Also in New York, you can dress outrageously, and no one will look twice. I love New York for its gift of anonymity. It’s a kind of anonymity that is not possible in Jerusalem, and really, it’s hard to find this anonymity in other cities, too. In Jerusalem, there are large religious communities, Muslim, Jewish, also Christian. There’s an emphasis on modesty—which is not to say that modesty precludes style. But I knew even before I moved to Jerusalem that I would no longer be operating as I had in New York. I wanted not so much to conform as to pass as a respectful outsider. Is it possible to be a “perfect stranger”? Probably not. It gets back to this interesting question: Who do you think you are?
PC: Do you think conditions for women in America could ever become similar to those in Jerusalem, given the right circumstances?
CN: Women in Jerusalem lead all kinds of lives. There, as it is here, in America, or anywhere in the world, the status of women as people is never secure. It’s constantly being negotiated and is often undermined.
PC: Were there any parts in the final draft of this piece that you considered excluding? If so, why?
CN: I’d consider excluding the entire essay. I usually write fiction, and there’s freedom and power in not claiming anything I write as hewing too closely to my own experiences, thoughts, obvious shortcomings. In fiction, there’s freedom in parceling out bits of my life and observations to different characters.
Also, I’d exclude nothing. I’d leave everything in. But I’d interrogate every sentence, elaborate on it, make it lead to other places. I’d write a longer work that departs from the same material.
There is one small edit I’d actually like to make. In the final sentence, I write: “In America, I could be as dangerous or as harmless as I believed myself to be.” I’d like to exclude “In America.” I’m not sure why I qualified the sentence that way when it’s true for me elsewhere as well.
Clare Needham is a writer living in New York City. She is the recipient of grants and fellowships from the Elizabeth George Foundation, PEN America, MacDowell, Yaddo, Vermont Studio Center, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. During her second year living in Jerusalem, she worked for the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence and oversaw the English translation of Our Harsh Logic: Israeli Soldiers’ Testimonies from the Occupied Territories, 2000–2010, published by Metropolitan Books in 2012.
“Cover Up” by Clare Needham
In Clare Needham’s memoir about her experience as a young woman living and working in Jerusalem, the author reflects on issues of women’s bodies, national identity, and physical safety. The essay was a nonfiction runner-up in the 2020 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize competition and appeared in print in TMR 44:3. You can read our interview with Clare here.
I did not begin my time in Jerusalem with the desire to be dangerous. I arrived in that most intoxicating, infuriating, enervating, derelict, and sad of cities with a large black suitcase into which I’d folded a year’s wardrobe, plus books and toiletries. I had a postcollege fellowship at an Israeli civil rights and legal organization that soon came to feel too conservative for me. Its mission was laudable: it advocated for a greater separation of religion and state and for equal allocation of government funds for all minority groups within ’67 borders. But the organization relied on funding mostly from Jewish groups in the United States, Europe, and Australia, which were, as one colleague explained to me, “progressive except for Palestine.” In the fundraising materials I helped compose, I could not mention Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem, which began about four hundred meters from our office, or its occupation of the West Bank, or its occupation and total blockade of Gaza, even as we approached the one-year anniversary of Operation Cast Lead. Granted, antioccupation work was not within the organization’s purview, and among the staff there was disagreement and a spectrum of political opinion. But I felt stifled nonetheless.
I was, however, free to wear whatever I liked to the office. I had two bosses, one an American who’d explained to me before I moved that I didn’t need to worry about packing a separate work wardrobe. Israelis dressed casually; they wore whatever—the organization’s press liaison liked to wear thigh-highs and little black dresses to work. My American boss now felt stuffy whenever she had to put on button-down Ann Taylor blouses to meet with potential donors. I adored my Israeli boss, the organization’s executive director, who had been a champion swimmer in a former life. She wore jeans and T-shirts, so I did the same.
My first day out in Jerusalem, before I had to report to work, I wore jean shorts. The temperature was in the mid-90s, and at noon there was a blinding white heat. Almost as soon as I left my apartment near the city center—where something like a secular atmosphere still prevailed—I began to feel my mistake. A man grabbed the backs of my thighs and parted my legs with his hand. I vowed never to wear shorts again.
I put on jeans that covered my ankles and then decided it was better to cover my shoulders as well, even if, for a little while longer, I left the rest of my arms bare. Within two weeks, I’d added a scarf to the ensemble. Often I wore a black one dotted with tiny blue and violet flowers that I adjusted each morning to hide my vulnerable neck and collarbones, then double-checked my work in the mirror—though mirrors were not necessary in Jerusalem. As soon as you stepped onto the street, your body was reflected back to you, and your body was understood as your essence. Jerusalem, reputed to be a spiritual place, was rooted in the physical, in the crudeness of surface appearance. I was a young white woman, secular, not obviously Jewish: everyone I passed reflected that image back to me.
My excessive paleness—red hair, blond eyebrows and eyelashes—made strangers often stop and demand where I was from. The first time I flew out of Ben Gurion Airport, I underwent extensive questioning— Why did I speak Hebrew? What was the origin of my last name? Was I really Jewish?—and my passport was slapped with a stickered number 5, the second most serious security rating. On my return from Istanbul, as I rode up an escalator with other passengers from my flight, airport security summoned me out of line before we reached passport control. They searched my luggage; they asked more questions. When I described the experience to an Israeli colleague, she didn’t miss a beat. “Oh,” she said, “you fit the Rachel Corrie profile. European-looking woman, traveling alone. They assume you have a Palestinian boyfriend, a blog where you write about the occupation.” (Rachel Corrie was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer in March 2003 while defending Palestinian homes in Gaza from demolition.)
I did not have a blog, and my boyfriend was American, but he taught at a Palestinian university and lived in East Jerusalem, and soon I moved in with him. With the move, I became the one white lady in At-Tur, a neighborhood on the Mount of Olives, a part of East Jerusalem crowded with many histories and lives. It was a Palestinian village with an illegal Israeli settlement embedded in it, whose compound flew an Israeli flag large enough to be seen clearly from the Old City. Soldiers patrolled 24/7 outside. Christian tourists were bused in every day to visit the Garden of Gethsemane and the storied churches that spread up the slope. Our apartment was not far from the Russian Orthodox Church of the Ascension, on whose property the head of John the Baptist was rumored to have once been buried.
I would have been interested in many of these details if I’d had a different body, if I were not thinking so much about the uniform I needed to wear. Growing up, I spent time looking through a book my mother had, called How to Be a Perfect Stranger, an etiquette guide for every religion. What to bring to a Baptist wedding, what to wear to a Muslim funeral, what to avoid saying, whether to give gifts or take photographs. It was in this spirit of respect, of not giving offense, that I planned my dress. I was an outsider; I was no one’s sister or daughter; I had no family protection. I could not blend in, but I wanted to float through; I wanted to be safe.
This was not possible. One morning an old man pulled down his trousers and extracted his limp dick, holding it in his hand as he crossed the road toward me. I knew then that I’d have more problems. Still, I thought the right clothes might help minimize them. No matter the weather, though easier in colder months, when I could wear a coat, I kept on the jeans and the scarf and traded my T-shirts for long, loose shirts that fell at least midthigh. I’d learned that any part of a woman could tempt—a man once grabbed my naked left elbow and imprisoned it between his hands, briefly, before I could pull away—so I tugged down the sleeves of my shirts to cover even the backs of my hands. Though I felt like a colonizer all the same, I wanted to make clear that I was not an Israeli settler: a long skirt was out of the question. Loose red hair was too suggestive, so I put mine in a braid. I wore Supergas or low-heeled boots; I didn’t want to show my feet, much less my occasionally painted toes: that was slutty. When I went outside, I pretended to be married and wore an opal ring on my left hand.
I repeated the lie of my marriage often to Samir, one of the taxi drivers who waited at the foot of the Mount of Olives every day to drive tourists and others up and down the slope. He introduced himself to me shortly after I arrived and it became clear that I was a more permanent resident, though I’d noticed him right away, in part because he was exceptionally well-dressed. Palestinian men, in general, dressed more formally than Israelis; they wore blazers and shoes with laces, while Israeli men wore shorts and Crocs. Samir’s daily uniform was impeccable, a triumph, almost a fuck-you to the occupation, a hint of whom he might have become had he not been born under a system of foreign military rule designed, among other things, to disrupt daily life and thwart ambition. He wore a fresh white button-down shirt tucked into dark denim Levi’s, a leather belt that matched his polished shoes. Nothing he wore ever showed dirt, dust, or sweat. His head was shaved, and he managed to sport Ray-Ban Aviators without looking like a tool. He seemed imperious until he removed the sunglasses and showed his gold-flecked eyes.
He began offering me free rides, and at first, I accepted. When I sat next to him in his clean cab, I felt ashamed of what I wore, designed to minimize everything about me that was desirable. I felt ashamed of my dress because I was attracted to him, as he was to me. We never spoke about it, though often he suggested that we drive to Jericho (we never did). But I had a boyfriend, and he had a wife and kids who lived in Silwan, a neighborhood next to the Mount of Olives, where settler violence against Palestinians was well documented. Around him, I was especially aware of my American passport: I could leave whenever I wanted. My citizenship, for which I’d done nothing other than possess the random good fortune of being born to American citizens, granted me powers he would never have. When one afternoon he leaned over and kissed me as I was getting out of the car, I decided I had to refuse his rides as often as I could. So I began treading carefully down and up the steep slope each day on my way to and from work in West Jerusalem. If Samir was there, I would make small talk, then move on.
But I was far from slipping into the crowd. Often I was the only woman walking outside, or the only one unaccompanied by a man.
Late one morning, when I was on the slope and almost in sight of the taxi drivers, a man came running from behind. He slammed his body into mine and put me in a chokehold. One arm gripped my neck and the other belted my waist. In memory, it feels as if he had his pants down, though I might be confusing this time with other times, with other men who unzipped their flies as I walked past. I would like to say I fought off the man on my back, but he had the advantage of the slope, of gathering the energy of the hill before putting me in his grip. He must have chosen to let me go. He disappeared, and I ran the rest of the way down the hill, shooting past Samir and the others, propelled by fear. When something like this happened, I scrolled through my recent calls and talked to whoever was first to pick up. I screamed at my boyfriend or at a friend as I described the latest incident. Nothing they said was enough. I was outraged but stubborn, and stupid. I kept walking. Everywhere I wanted or had to go required my first getting down the hill.
Soon there was trouble every day. A good day meant only being called a slut or a Russian (i.e., a slut). A bad day meant I was touched, grabbed. And almost every evening, I would tell my boyfriend what had happened, and he’d suggest that I had a bad attitude: I just had to shrug it off. He did buy me pepper spray, which I knew I’d never use. I tried it out on our roof, and with comic predictability, a sudden gust sent it stinging into my eyes. Other people said I should move. Another friend told me to wear a hijab. I balked at the idea, in part because I knew that covering my hair would not work. I was from elsewhere, and it was visible in the way I moved; a piece of cloth could not change that. I had been in Jerusalem long enough to realize that actually I was my body: it was my essence; my body was my soul.
I decided I would become ugly, neglect my hair and skin and clothing. I would make myself repulsive, untouchable. Then I might be safe. I tried becoming more like a man: I started wearing my boyfriend’s clothes. He was disappointed; he wanted a sexy girlfriend. But the new uniform didn’t work, anyway. The incidents continued.
My boyfriend and I went on a short vacation to Greece, where I could wear whatever I wanted. I understood this conceptually, but my body did not. In Thessaloniki, we went for a walk along the promenade, looked out over the shining Aegean Sea. I had put on a dress I’d loved wearing in New York: horizontal black-and-white stripes, thin shoulder straps. We had not gone far when I insisted we turn around so I could change. I felt like a slut, I said. Someone could hurt me in the dress.
Things got worse when we got back. One evening at the end of February, I was returning from having a drink with a friend in the Old City. It wasn’t late—just after seven—but the sky was dark, and Samir and the others had all gone home for the day. I reached the base of the Mount of Olives and started walking up. The road I took was poorly paved, with no shoulder and no sidewalk, and was barely lit by streetlights, several of which had been extinguished for months—Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem paid municipal taxes, yet there was an appalling and unequal distribution of municipal services. But I had experience with this path, a sense of how to handle the road.
Five or so cars passed, a couple of drivers sounding a friendly beep of their horn to let me know to watch out. Generally when a car approached, I moved to the edge of the road and waited for it to go by. Since it was dark and the headlights were bright, I looked down at my feet each time the beams swept over my body and face. It had rained earlier that day, and it was cold. I wore black leather boots and an androgynous black raincoat that tumbled to my knees and hid my form.
Soon I was walking up the steepest section of road. My breath was heavy, and the sound of it filled my head. On one side of the road was a high stone wall that bordered private church property and on the other, directly to my left, a steep drop down to an open field, usually dusty and dry, though in late February, the start of Jerusalem’s brief spring, covered in vibrant poppies and wildflowers exuding their colors, even in the dark.
Someone flung himself at me sideways. I remember an expression, eyes and teeth—not a face. I began to wrestle with a body much stronger than mine, though both of our bodies were, in that moment, transformed by adrenaline. My mind was clear: I was an idiot, and I was going to die; it was my fault, because I’d insisted on being alone and walking. In seconds, this other body had slammed mine onto the ground. I had a gray leather bag slung diagonally across my chest; now he reached for its base and pulled it away, over my head, while I clung to the strap. He began to drag me, headfirst, back down the steep hill, pulling me behind him like a dog. I skidded along on my right side, scraping elbows and knees, but I managed to hold up my head, and that’s how I saw the idling car, the open door, and knew I’d be thrown inside. It did not occur to me to let go of the bag. I held on to the strap and tried to use all my weight to stop this trajectory: I would do all that I could not to be put into the car.
But he only wanted the bag. I was an available body lugging a bag of unknown treasure, there in the right place, the right time—for him. He dragged me until I could hold on no more. He tore the strap from my hands, and I rolled further down the road with the momentum and the slope’s decline, then stopped. I raised my face from the ground and saw the car’s taillights, its exhaust curling into the dark air, the silhouette of a man holding up my bag, then jumping into the passenger side, the car screeching down the slope. My instinct told me to pursue them. I was somehow on my feet, then running down the road; I can’t remember if I was screaming. For that moment, I was pure adrenaline. I wanted so badly to kill someone. I imagined turning superhuman, leaping in front of their moving car, smashing through the windshield, strangling them. Instead—there was never a chance to catch them; they were gone almost instantly—I turned and ran back up the hill, for once not noticing its steep pitch or my ragged breathing.
I reached our compound, stormed up the stairs, slammed open our apartment door, and greeted my boyfriend with an unsettled grin. At first, he thought I was laughing. I managed to explain what had happened, though not before backing him against a wall and knocking a glass from his hand. Then I went to my desk, took out a sheet of paper, and in a gesture I thought even then a bit grandiose, titled it “What I Have Lost.” It was meant to be a list of items from my bag—driver’s license, passport photocopy, a laminated card of the traveler’s prayer—so that I could sort out what needed to be canceled, replaced, what could not be retrieved. I tried to hold a pen and write down a few words, but I couldn’t control the shaking of my hand and kept stabbing the pen through the paper.
I went to bed with a stomachache. Lying awake, sleep impossible, I saw how things could have gone much worse. It was the first time that fear broke through my conditioned numbness, and I started to feel afraid for myself—a feeling that would become constant for the next few years. What might have happened if I hadn’t been able to pick myself up in time? Or what if I’d been taken into the car? I fell into a nightmare and woke vomiting over the sheets. For days after, I could not keep down food. My throat was raw, and my arms and ribs were sore from the pummeling on the road.
My boyfriend reversed his policy of telling me to chill: he said I couldn’t walk on my own up and down the hill, and this time, I agreed. The taxi drivers urged the same. They told me the men who’d mugged me were drug addicts, thieves from neighboring areas. The police wouldn’t do anything, as the men were also collaborators with the Israelis, and the police didn’t care about making a Palestinian neighborhood safe. Their explanation was plausible; regardless, the no-walk rule meant that after work in West Jerusalem, I walked to Damascus Gate and got a taxi or went further east, to Herod’s Gate, where I could pick up a ride in a shared car. I hated this new system; I felt trapped in the vehicles. I also hated what it confirmed. I wrote in my journal: “And then I was dropped off at the top of the hill, and the good little white girl ran all the way home.”
The mugging was an earthquake that went off only inside me, an event whose damage could never be fully shown. But its devastation was extensive. A colleague at work expressed concern that I had changed so much, even in the few months she had known me. She gave me the number of her therapist. And one day soon after, Samir found me sitting on a bench in the Dominus Flevit Garden, where sometimes I went because I was unlikely to be molested there. I was pretending to read and was listening instead to an American pastor describe for his congregants how on this very spot Jesus had wept for Jerusalem, how Christ’s tears were similar to those some of them must have shed when faced with a person who did not accept the Lord. Samir appeared during this sermon, his uniform intact as ever, and asked how I was. How was my life, my husband? I made up some lies; he nodded. He turned away, went back up some steps, where he joined the Americans and waited to provide them with rides down the hill. Then he came back down to me. He asked more questions. How was I really doing? “You don’t seem okay,” he continued. “You look bad.”
I was bad. In the aftermath of the attack emerged someone new, someone who wanted to do harm. Again and again, I had experienced how easy it was for someone to get too close, to cross a line, to touch me so it hurt. I saw now that it was easy to do. They did it because they could; they understood it was easy to do, so they did it. Most people didn’t see this, how easy it was, but now I did. I saw it, too.
I wanted to commit violence, to trespass into someone else’s life. I was given many chances. Wherever I’ve gone, people have asked me for directions, maybe because I’m often walking alone, at a good clip, so they assume I know the way. But also, likely, they stop me because I do not appear to pose a threat. In my previous life (and again, now, in a more recovered life), I thought of giving directions as a sacred duty. When someone asked which way to go, I did everything I could to direct them. I felt a failure if I didn’t know, and I’d take out a map or my phone. On a few occasions, I’d run after strangers, maybe slightly startling them, as I reappeared to say I’d gotten it wrong: they were to go right, right, then left.
In Jerusalem, after the mugging, these requests for directions presented an opportunity to abuse my power—no one would suspect me. I grew breathless with the potential. One time in particular: a pair of blond European tourists, both women, were heading toward the Mount of Olives. As I followed them, I wrestled with conflicting desires, the urge to help, the urge to hurt—or to do both, perhaps. I imagined a scenario. I’d tell them, do not walk up the hill; it’s not safe—and as they were thanking me, I’d find a way to take something from them. I imagined they’d be too distracted to notice my hand slipping into a coat pocket or purse. Or maybe I wouldn’t even attempt a cover-up: I’d approach with a smile, then take their stuff and run. I knew the city better than they, and they almost certainly did not possess my kind of fury, which gave me energy even as it exhausted me.
Instead, I called out to them from a distance and told them to take a taxi.
The fantasies made me dizzy. When I did get asked directions, I’d keep my sweating hands in my pockets, or I’d clasp them behind my back, fingers curling, just in case I couldn’t control the desire to do something more physical. I wanted especially for people who seemed protected to experience violence. I wished to trouble their lives. I would come down from these urges scared for my sanity. I fell into weird states. One day, I was late to meet a friend for coffee because a young man had asked me what time it was, and I assumed this was the prelude to an attack. So I screamed at him, and when he turned away, I followed him, galloping alongside and telling him never to fuck with me again. My friend thought this picture of my anger was funny. But I thought it was horrifying.
That year, a Christian radio host in California made a widely publicized prediction that the Rapture would begin in May and culminate with the end of the world five months later. I was unconcerned. The end of the world seemed fine by me. I welcomed an apocalypse—an uncovering, an unveiling.
I returned to the States in June. But anger and fear continued to warp the familiar. Walking one evening from the train station in my parents’ suburb to their quiet home close by, I glimpsed ahead on the sidewalk a tangle of dark shapes. My mind constructed a group of Satanists crouched close, ready to turn me into a sacrifice. I took a longer route home. As I walked, I reasoned that what I’d seen was unlikely to have been real— but I didn’t trust my body to register reality in time and avoid going into panic. The next day, I walked back in sunlight and saw that the menacing shapes from the night before were a bundle of tree branches. Every place, every person could cause a flare-up. Every landscape was strewn with traps. On a night typical of many, I abandoned a group of friends on Brighton Beach. Their chaotic energy, their eyes flickering bright as they shouted and ran into the shallow waves—suddenly I didn’t trust them. Alone, I found my way to the elevated subway platform. But there I experienced a fear of being thrown onto the tracks. The next subway station also troubled me, though I did not know why. A voice told me to go back into the night. I obeyed. I kept walking.
With time, and with the rescue of EMDR psychotherapy, I improved, and New York came to seem a safer city. While a shadow or something just outside my periphery would continue to suggest the mugger and I’d feel a surge of sick energy spike up my right side, mostly I no longer feared for my life. As my fear receded, I was granted the New Yorker’s wish, the writer’s wish, the solo walker’s wish, to feel invisible, anonymous, all the better to observe. Walking home at night in Brooklyn, I noted the regularity with which Black and Brown men were first to move to the edge of the sidewalk or cross the street as I came toward them; they knew how their bodies were perceived. I had to break the habit I’d learned in Jerusalem of walking straight toward a person if I thought they were going to fuck with me—though I knew I was not the one seen as dangerous. Still, I tried to give people space, the right of way. Here, you don’t know me. You don’t know the harm I wish I’d done; you don’t know how violent it’s been in my head. Let me move first.
I made these minimal gestures.
With time, I no longer felt the need to cover my neck or elbows or ankles. But I could not drop the urge to hide and disguise myself. For five years I wore a broad-brimmed men’s hat that turned me confident and made me mysterious. Mine was not the face people expected beneath; this discrepancy was doubtless part of its power. I wore the hat for style, and to block the sun, but also because it was slightly too big and sat low on my forehead, cast a shadow, concealed my eyes.
Late one spring evening, on a subway ride home, I noticed a young Black man wearing an incredible wool hat. It had about six inches of excess fabric that stood straight up and was stitched with a gold-sequined slightly smiley face that gave its wearer the power of having two expressions at once. We got off at the same stop, and at the corner, waiting for the light to change, he came up to ask for directions and to praise my own much-prized hat. He might even have used a phrase I was familiar with, that many people used when they described how I looked: “bandit chic.” Everyone who said those words did so with good humor: to them I didn’t look like a criminal. The young man and I were walking the same way, and we kept talking about style. He had an internship at Michael Kors and was a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Within a block, a police car pulled up, and an officer leaned out to ask if I was okay. In America, I could be as dangerous or as harmless as I believed myself to be.
Clare Needham is a writer living in New York City. She is the recipient of grants and fellowships from the Elizabeth George Foundation, PEN America, MacDowell, Yaddo, Vermont Studio Center, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. During her second year living in Jerusalem, she worked for the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence and oversaw the English translation of Our Harsh Logic: Israeli Soldiers’ Testimonies from the Occupied Territories, 2000–2010, published by Metropolitan Books in 2012. (Author photo by Bree Zucker)
An Interview With Daphne Kalotay
In the interview that follows, Daphne Kalotay talks with TMR intern Angela Horina about her story “Heart Scalded” (TMR 44:2). Viv, the story’s protagonist, is a terminally ill cancer patient who attends a Halloween Party and endures a painful encounter with her ex. You can read the story here:
Angela Horina: Every time I read “Heart-Scalded,” I find another layer that I didn’t see before. You’ve managed to blend several themes into a traditional breakup story that touches on many topics: Viv is a terminally ill cancer patient, and she and Aziz broke up over moral divisions. How did you come to balance the different issues and themes in the story?
Daphne Kalotay: For me, the story is about understanding both that things come to an end—including our own lives—and that there are consequences to our actions, including grave ones for our planet and the people and plants and animals trying to survive on it. These themes were naturally entwined for me because the story was inspired by my dear friend, Judy, an environmentalist who was often morally enraged by a lot of what she saw around her (without being outwardly annoying about it) and who lived with terminal cancer for nine years. So the balance of topics occurred organically.
AH: Did you begin with the idea of a terminal illness story or the idea of a breakup story—or were the two intertwined from the start?
DK: They were intertwined from the start. During a summer toward the end of her illness, my friend attended a party (not a Halloween party, or a pig roast) where she knew her ex (the great love of her life) would be with his fiancée, whom she had never seen before. It struck me as incredibly brave. Then, before she died, she told me she hoped I’d write about her and her ex (with whom she was still close and who came to be by her side at the end). I still haven’t figured out how to write about that relationship, but the idea of the party where she faced meeting the fiancée stayed with me. Finally, last year, I was able to sit down and do something with it.
AH: “Heart-Scalded” is an incredibly visual story, and the setting itself acts as a kind of character (the references to color stand out). Why did you place so much emphasis on the visual?
DK: In part, I was simply imagining what the character would notice, since the story is a companion piece to a story I wrote a few years ago from Viv’s friend’s perspective, in which we learn a bit more about Viv’s paintings—so I knew that Viv, as an artist, would think visually and notice colors. And because the story is so internal, it reflects the way she experiences the world around her. As for that green color, green was Judy’s favorite color, and a couple of the walls in her apartment were painted a vivid green. She had many plants growing all around. So I’m not surprised that I seized on that color specifically.
AH: Viv’s vulnerability in the story is poignant: her dealing with shame of being “so Viv,” her facing her own mortality, and her seeing other people get stuck in their own decisions all force the reader to assess their own decisions. Was it part of your intention for the reader to experience Viv’s pain?
DK: As a writer, I want my writing to be true. I don’t mean that the story is a true story; I mean that whoever the character is, I’m being true to how that character would feel in the moment. And I think that when a writer does this, the reader is able to experience, to a certain degree, whatever the character experiences in a way that, as you point out, reverberates, so that we reassess our own experiences and decisions.
AH: There are pointedly political elements to this story. Would you consider, or have you ever considered, working on a political novel or series of stories?
DK: My first novel, Russian Winter, was about the lasting repercussions of totalitarianism, and my most recent novel, Blue Hours, is about white privilege and Western paternalism, with the second half of the book specifically about American intervention in Afghanistan. So it’s possible I’m unable to write a book that doesn’t in some way touch upon the political!
Daphne Kalotay’s books include the award-winning Sight Reading and Russian Winter, the fiction collection Calamity and Other Stories — shortlisted for the Story Prize — and the new novel Blue Hours, a 2020 Massachusetts Book Awards “Must Read.” Published in 20+ languages, her work has received fellowships from the Christopher Isherwood Foundation, MacDowell, Yaddo, and Bogliasco, among others, and her story “Relativity” was the 2017 One City One Story Boston pick. She teaches for Princeton University’s Program in Creative Writing but makes her home in Somerville, Massachusetts.
“On Voice” by Amitava Kumar
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too lively to be confined between the covers of a print journal. In his craft essay “On Voice,” Amitava Kumar explores voice by taking his readers on a sprawling journey that winds through his home state in India, the words of his literary influences, and the worlds of his novels. Readers will be able to hear Kumar’s own “entertaining and incisive” voice in his forthcoming novel, A Time Outside This Time (Knopf, October 5), which Publishers Weekly has deemed “fake newsworthy.”
Plots are for dead people, but voice—oh, voice is how you know you’re alive.
Mars Blackmon, the Spike Lee character in She’s Gotta Have It saying, “Please baby. Please baby. Please baby, please baby. Please, please. Baby, baby.” I had arrived in the US the same year the movie was released, in 1986; I was a new immigrant, a graduate student, when I watched that movie soon after it came out. The idea of language as excess. Language not just for writing academic papers. Language of desire but also language as desire. This was an early lesson about voice.
Years passed. I was producing academic essays, exercises in critical theory, and my writing had the consistency of freshly mixed cement. But I was dreaming of escape. There is a clipping from a newspaper that I printed out and stuck in a notebook—an exchange between a journalist and the literary agent David Godwin. The journalist asks Godwin what turns him on in a book, and the literary agent replies, “Voice, not so much story.” Godwin says that he has been reading a book about a woman’s childhood in Botswana. The beginning twenty pages are dull, and then there is a wonderful scene. “Her grandfather is sitting on a verandah, surrounded by masks, drinking red wine. Two little red drops hang on his lips. Suddenly the masks come down, sit on his mouth in the half-light, sip, and speed away. You know that’s where the book begins. It’s so arresting, so different.”
Godwin wasn’t my agent yet. But when I began writing something to show him, I thought, that’s what I will do: something “arresting” and “different.” I wasn’t worried that I didn’t really have a plot ready; I’d have voice. What was I hoping to catch? I was hoping to avoid that hushed tone of TV tennis commentators at Wimbledon—public but with a false intimacy—that is adopted a few moments before a difficult second serve: “Venus has appeared frail, but she can summon an inner reserve. Let’s see if she can do it here.” “Seventh double fault. Her task will be uphill now.” This also meant I wouldn’t have green grass or white lines or players in fashionable skirts. No strawberries and cream. I’m from the Hindi heartland in India, and I thought a prison would be rather nice. My first cousin had been arrested and jailed around that time. The state of Bihar, where I’m from, was described then as having only one growth industry, kidnapping. A doctor, or a businessman, or their kid, would be kidnapped and a call would come for a ransom.
A call had been traced to my cousin’s phone. My sister believed that the police had made a mistake. It is true that my cousin had suffered. Unlike my sister, I chose to believe that my cousin had suffered for literature. In that first novel, Home Products, my narrator, Binod, visits his cousin in prison. This cousin, Rabinder, is full of plans. He tells Binod that he would like to sell an idea to some big mobile phone company. It was an idea for a commercial, but Rabinder’s real scheme was to get into filmmaking once he was out of prison.
The commercial would begin with a shot of a blue-green planet afloat in dark space. Then, with instant thousandfold magnification, the camera would digitally zoom into the part of the landmass in the northern hemisphere that lies above the Indian Ocean, the subcontinent flecked closer to the top of the screen by the white crest of a wave representing the Himalayan snow peaks. The camera would veer right, coming closer to the ground to reveal, for one five-hundredth of a second, the muddy expanse of the Ganges, and then fanning above it a city visible only as a dirty wash of miniature rooftops, their color a uniform gray. The camera’s eye would pick out a large yellow building, the state’s prison. There would be a short pan along the length of a tall wall before it paused at a barred room in which sat a solitary man. The film would cut to a shot from above: the top of the man’s head and, pressed to his right ear, a mobile phone.
“What do you think?” Rabinder asks Binod.
Binod says that the idea is a good one but asks why is the prison necessary.
Rabinder says, “Honestly, can you think of any place where a mobile phone would be more needed than in prison?”
My cousin was released from his jail cell; soon, he started building a luxury hotel. And David Godwin didn’t take me on as a client for that book. That would happen later. I think I had mistaken a scene, the masks coming down from the wall to sip wine, as an example of voice. It was just a scene. A surprising scene, no doubt. So, too, the man in the prison cell. Voice is something else. Maybe the next novel I wrote had it, this element of voice, because Godwin decided to represent me and sold Immigrant, Montana. For this novel, I had picked up another lesson in voice.
I had read Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir, Speak, Memory. Nabokov’s writing was for me a wonderful example of a desirable voice for writing because it was alert to the fact that art is always also artifice. When I learned later that he had published parts of Speak, Memory also as fiction in the New Yorker, I felt doubly delighted. I didn’t for a moment think that he was being false or meretricious; instead, he was announcing that the text was fabricated, made up through labor and a love of words. This is the most honest thing a writer can do.
In Chapter 3 of Speak, Memory, Nabokov is telling the reader about his distinguished family tree, his affluent ancestors and their role in history, their eccentricities, etc. At one point he is talking about his Uncle Ruka, Nabokov’s mother’s brother, who at his death at the end of 1916 left his enormous wealth for Nabokov to inherit. Of course, the revolution came and divided Nabokov from his inheritance. A lovely little description of the property follows before Nabokov breaks off and inserts a new section which is no more than ten lines. He directly addresses the reader: “The following passage is not for the general reader, but for the particular idiot who, because he lost a fortune in some crash, thinks he understands me. . . .” More than anything else in the memoir, it was this turn that demonstrated to me the writer-as-magician stepping out of the job of pulling rabbits out of hats and revealing to you, the true magic this, how it is all done. I carried this voice in my head for years and then sneaked it into Immigrant, Montana; Nabokov’s sense of command, or maybe it was just his grasp of artistic freedom, also gave me permission to directly address my reader and take them into confidence. This was another lesson in voice. I included commentaries on my writing process and also pictures of clippings from my notebooks.
In a 1997 interview for BRICK magazine, W. G. Sebald told James Wood the following: “I think that fiction writing, which does not acknowledge the uncertainty of the narrator himself, is a form of imposture and which I find very, very difficult to take. Any form of authorial writing, where the narrator sets himself up as stagehand and director and judge and executor in a text, I find somehow unacceptable. I cannot bear to read books of this kind.”
I am of the same view. So the voice of a narrator struggling with truth, indicating with a pointed finger the joints in the scaffolding, is also mine. In a piece of fiction I’m working on right now, an Indian woman who works for CNN in Atlanta has this memory: “I had become conscious that when we were in the company of educated people in Patna, my father would tell them that he was born in the same hospital as Orwell in Motihari. I later found out that Orwell was indeed born in the same sleepy town as my father, close to our ancestral village Khewali, but it is quite likely that his mother had given birth in the small bungalow that served as the Orwell residence. Richard Blair, Orwell’s father, was a sub-deputy opium agent for the British. The bungalow in which they had lived in Motihari, now a dilapidated cow-shed overrun by pigs and stray dogs, was described recently in one Patna newspaper as an ‘animal farm.’” The story that the woman is telling is very close to mine, except that I discovered Orwell when I came to Delhi on a scholarship to finish high school. His essay “Why I Write” was a part of the assigned reading for our class. I’m mentioning Orwell now because the boldness, the freedom, the playfulness I see in Nabokov is at a huge remove from Orwell’s voice that I first associated with the voice of a writer.
Back in my late teens, when I read Orwell’s essay, I didn’t know that this famous writer had been born in Bihar, close to my ancestral village. I identified with him chiefly because in his essay he described a voice in his head, “a continuous ‘story’ about myself, a sort of diary existing only in the mind,” which was “a mere description of what I was doing and the things I saw.” Orwell had written:
For minutes at a time this kind of thing would be running through my head: ‘He pushed the door open and entered the room. A yellow beam of sunlight, filtering through the muslin curtains, slanted on to the table, where a match-box, half-open, lay beside the inkpot. With his right hand in his pocket he moved across to the window. Down in the street a tortoiseshell cat was chasing a dead leaf,’ etc. etc. This habit continued until I was about twenty-five, right through my non-literary years. Although I had to search, and did search, for the right words, I seemed to be making this descriptive effort almost against my will, under a kind of compulsion from outside.
It is possible we all do this as children or adolescents and then grow out of the habit, unless you are a writer. In my case, I had become conscious of this activity after I began reading literary texts. Orwell was a part of that early education. I could be in a Delhi Transport bus in Daryaganj, and a voice running in my head would name the objects I saw being sold on the street, their colors, the look in the eyes of the sellers.
I also read Orwell’s essay about the politics of the English language; he wanted to promote writing that was unfussy and modest, never calling attention to itself. He was, of course, giving voice to an ideology, postwar socialist, I imagine. When I first encountered that language, I wanted to make it my voice. It was also a part of my desire, as a postcolonial, to escape the colonial inheritance that dictated that our use of English ought to be, as Lord Macaulay had intended it, the language of the clerks. My father wrote his letters to us in a stiff, bureaucratic language. My fondness for the Orwellian diction was challenged in the American graduate programs in critical theory where I found myself writing sentences suffocated with defensive subordinate clauses. In my time since, especially in the writing of Immigrant, Montana, I tried to embrace a voice that was not just loud, exaggerated, sexual, but also exuberant. In interviews, I would say that English had been taught to us as a language in which we had to do our homework; to write fiction or imaginative nonfiction was to sense a liberation in language.
The voice you own, or adopt, is to a large extent based on your education. Orwell was a part of my education. But that was long ago. When I think of voice now, pure voice in nonfiction, the richest most enduring fabrication, the first thing that comes to mind are the interviews collected and shaped by Svetlana Alexievich. I also like that the voices collected in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen came in response to a questionnaire shared on some listserv. What were the questions, I’ve always wanted to know. I admire Rankine’s collaboration with sculptor Kate Clark to access what is uncanny and disturbing in our racialized existence. Or think of Janet Malcolm’s “Forty-One False Starts.” I have used that piece in my journalism classes a few times, but my main desire was to learn from it myself. How to have a voice that is provisional and probing, fragmentary and precise? I think my friend Teju Cole’s essay on the “Black Panther” attains that ideal in a satisfactory way.
It is often easy, as in this essay, to slip into memoir. I have a mild distrust of this voice: it is a distrust of the comfort that an easy access to the past offers. It is possible that I have on occasion tried to overcorrect this tendency. If you have ever read my essay “Where is your White Literature Section?” you will know what I mean. At a friend’s suggestion, I walked up to the counter at different bookshops in New York City one fine spring day and asked the salesperson there, “Excuse me, where is your white literature section?” Over and over again, I posed this question to helpful sales staff who—bewildered, patient, clueless, condescending, and in one case, angry—tried to tell me what to buy. At McNally Jackson, the nice sales guy said, “Who are the great white authors?” Immediately to his right was the seeming answer. Withdrawing a copy of Freedom half an inch from its place on the shelf, he gently intoned, “Franzen.” He also introduced me to other names, Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy, Philip Roth. In my essay, I talk of how wearying I found the exercise, not just what people said but the pretense I had to maintain throughout, this voice I had adopted as the Sacha Baron Cohen of American letters. I remember thinking to myself that I had dissembled, I had lied, and I would never be allowed to be on This American Life. But that unstable place, where earnestness gives way to exploration, and you have found a voice that is unsettling and maybe even disturbing and exhausting, is a place I want to visit again. I hope an enterprising and fun editor comes up with a compelling idea, or that inspiration strikes me at the right moment. I’d love to find out how English is spoken there and the voice in which I’d report from that place.
Amitava Kumar is a writer and a journalist. His latest book is A Time Outside This Time (Knopf, forthcoming in October 2021). Kumar’s writing has appeared in the New Yorker, Granta, Vanity Fair, the New York Times, Harper’s, and many other publications. He is the Helen D. Lockwood Professor of English at Vassar College.
Five Ways For Writers To Avoid Oversharing
Today’s blog post comes from author Erika Dreifus
Not long ago, another writer paid me what I considered to be a supreme compliment. Essentially, she said that I write well on personal subjects without “oversharing.”
The comment pleased me, but it puzzled me, too. That’s because I’ve received plenty of criticism for being—well, let’s just say a bit too forthright with my words. And no small amount of that disapprobation has come in response to words on the page (or screen), rather than those flowing from my vocal chords.
But I do try to disclose judiciously. Therein rests the pleasure; the comment suggested that I’ve been at least somewhat successful in meeting that aim. When I considered it more carefully, I discerned some patterns that may have helped me earn my fellow writer’s praise. If “oversharing” concerns you, too—I’m well aware that not everyone experiences this particular anxiety—these five tips may be helpful.
1. Try the second-person point of view.
I know. You’ve heard that some editors detest the second-person point of view. You’ve heard correctly. But sometimes, it’s a technique that works. And sometimes, editors agree.
Some of my most autobiographical writing, in poetry and prose, has succeeded (I think) because it employs a mediating, distancing “you” to create what might be best described as a “safe space.” A space in which I’ve waded though some difficult material a little less fearfully. A space in which readers, for their part, might be a little less overwhelmed with the insistent thrum of what Joan Didion termed an “aggressive,” albeit admittedly sonoric
Case in point: the four-essay sequence I call the “Sunday in the City series,” a quartet that stemmed from an assault I experienced in early 2009. Initially, and instinctively, I drafted all four essays using the second-person perspective. (One, later published in a column featuring first-person work only, was adapted for that venue.)
As I worked, I came to see these deeply “personal” essays as being at least as much “about” the people they cited and alluded to as they were about me. And I didn’t think that was a bad thing. In fact, again recalling Didion, I perceived a benefit: an easing of the pressure embedded in the first-person entreaty to “listen to me, see it my way….” A chance—for both the readers and for me—to breathe.
Still not convinced? Will you perhaps try the third-person point of view instead? At the very least, it may get you started working on difficult material.
The third-person perspective sure seems to have helped the pseudonymous Anna Lyndsey, author of the new, buzzed-about memoir Girl in Dark. According to this New York Times T Magazine piece, when Lyndsey began writing about the strange illness at the heart of her story, “even the act of writing ‘I’ was enough to make her wretched. So she wrote in the third person instead. ‘The girl in the dark did this, she did that . . . it was a bit like a fairy tale.’” Notably, “[i]t was only after an agent, who had heard about her situation, asked to read her work and requested she change voice that Lyndsey entered her own story.”
I can’t help wishing the agent hadn’t made that request. I’d love to see the original—and to know if Lyndsey might, in fact, still prefer it.
2. Move beyond memoir.
Pro tip: “Personal” isn’t always a synonym for “autobiographical.” I write about many subjects that matter to me deeply, that I probably wouldn’t write about at all had they no links to my own experiences or viewpoints. But I’m not, primarily, a memoirist. Nor do I aspire to that title.
In fiction, I’ve sometimes transferred to characters the role of dealing with subjects that, for various reasons, I haven’t addressed in print in my own voice. Take, for instance, how lingering distress over an incident that I witnessed many years ago emerged some time later in the history belonging to one of my characters (a character who happened to be different from me in innumerable ways—male, a Baby Boomer, a spouse and parent, etc.).
But fiction isn’t the only alternative. Which issues matter to you? Which ideas get your blood going? What would you love to read more about? Maybe—just maybe—others may have addressed those topics, too, in ways you can analyze and discuss in writing. Maybe you needn’t re-invent the wheel.
For example, last year, rather than writing all about my own status as a woman who hasn’t had children, I pitched a review-essay on books relating to that topic. Yes, I wove into the final piece some of my autobiographical thoughts and circumstances. But the essay wasn’t about me. And that, I suspect, considerably reduced any risk of “oversharing.”
3. Take your time.
No more thought pieces. That’s it. Let’s keep our thoughts inside, think on them, our thoughts, let them become ideas even. Then write. Ok?
— Jennifer Gilmore (@jenwgilmore) January 27, 2015
Some writers seem to have an instant opinion on every single event (or pseudo-event) that makes the news. They consider themselves thought leaders and cultural commentators. In some select cases, they may merit such titles.
But too many insta-pieces suggest that, above all else, their authors simply love the sounds of their strident voices (or maybe the sounds of their equally strident computer keys, clicking away). Subject-matter expertise, reflective prose, critical reading and examination of other sources—sadly, too much insta-punditry lacks these staples.
I can be as susceptible to clickbait as the next person. But I’m getting better. These days, when I see certain headlines and bylines, I don’t think, There’s something I want to read. There’s something that might make me think about an issue in all of its complexity. No. I think, What is this person spilling from her guts/preaching about this time? And then I move on to the next item. Because sometimes, less really is more. Sometimes, it really is a matter of quality, not quantity. Sometimes, readers really don’t need to hear your every thought on every subject. Certainly not immediately.
I’m not saying one should never write a timely, self-inflected opinion piece. We all know that editors look favorably on work with a current “hook.” (As it happens, being child-free/childless also energized this pegged-to-the-news commentary.) But I do think that, for many of us, there is value to the notion of “everything in moderation.” And in taking one’s time.
4. Check (with) your sources.
A great deal of my published writing has connected, in some way, with my family history. Much of this has to do with the history of my paternal grandparents, German Jews who immigrated to the United States in the late 1930s, met and married in New York, and became the parents of an only child (my dad).
My paternal grandmother, who passed away in 2002, loved to talk and share stories. These days, she might be considered “an oversharer” (I cringed whenever she regaled companions with tales of my toddlerhood toilet-training triumphs). I believe in my bones, as the saying goes, that she would bless my telling her stories. Moreover, much of what rests behind this material is historical—and it’s “public” history, about persecution and war and immigration.
But that’s not the case with everything I write that may be inspired by family background or circumstances. Which is why, whether it’s a short story rooted in my maternal grandparents’ not-so-amicable divorce, or a poem written the morning after my young niece’s lead performance in her school’s winter musical, I share my work. With my mother. With my niece’s mother. (In that vein, if you write about her own offspring, you might pause and review Andrea Jarrell’s recent Washington Post piece titled “Why I’ve Quit Writing About My Children.”; at this point, not even receiving her children’s blessing is necessarily enough for Jarrell to proceed toward publication.)
In some cases, I’m asked for a simple change. In others, there may be a request that I not to attempt to publish the piece. Not now, anyway. Although I may sometimes wish they’d opine differently, having others “vet” my work this way helps avoid the sort of overshare whose impact may go beyond me to cause trouble or pain for those I care about most.
5. Confide in (trusted) others.
To an extent, this point overlaps with #3 and #4 above. So I’ll keep it brief:
Sometimes, we write to exorcise demons, large and small, acute or chronic, direct or intergenerational. But sometimes, sharing what’s obsessing us—over coffee with a close friend or in a 50-minute therapy hour—alleviates the pain sufficiently. Sometimes, when we hear ourselves articulate aloud what the problem is, we don’t need to take the story any further. We have shared it sufficiently—taking it further may indeed risk an overshare.
Ultimately, I can’t help suspecting that any tendencies I have to avoid oversharing may be due in part to some nature/nurture circumstances. In my case, for instance, having been born to parents who put a premium on privacy—you will never, ever find my parents on Facebook—likely has something to do with the lingering lure of discretion.
Then, I recall the cautionary lesson imprinted in my first after-college job, in which I worked for a government agency in Washington. We were routinely advised to think carefully before we spoke: “Imagine what you’re saying repeated on the front-page of the Washington Post.” That something dire might result was implicit.
Which raises a related point: I held that job during the presidency of George H.W. Bush. In other words, I’m a Gen Xer who came of age before email, before the Internet, before texting and blogging, and so on. Some Gen Xers have obviously embraced “viral” culture more freely than others; I’ve always been a bit of a “late adopter.”
Finally, there’s the fact that before I entered an MFA program, I’d already earned a PhD in history, which means that I’d spent a lot of time immersed in lives and worlds other than my own; I’d already learned how to read, think, and write beyond my own life and times.
But as the points above suggest, you don’t need nature, nurture, or six years of doctoral study in history to avoid oversharing in your writing. That capacity rests within every writer’s grasp. We all can reach for it. If we wish.
Erika Dreifus is the author of Quiet Americans: Stories (Last Light Studio) which was named an ALA/Sophie Brody Medal Honor Title for outstanding achievement in Jewish literature. She writes poetry and prose in New York, where she also works as Media Editor for Fig Tree Books. Visit her online at www.erikadreifus.com and follow her on Twitter (@ErikaDreifus), where she tweets on “matters bookish and/or Jewish.”
Stubbornly Submitting to a Literary Magazine is Good
By Michael Nye
Every Tuesday, the Missouri Review holds its weekly production meeting. This meeting keeps everyone up to date on all facets of the magazine’s production so that all, from editor-in-chief to the interns, know where we stand with the current and forthcoming issues of the magazine. After this production meeting, we break into genre groups – cleverly labeled “poetry” and “prose” – and discuss the manuscripts that will ultimately be passed for a second or third read.
Last week, a story was pitched that sparked a brief discussion on perseverance.
The author in question had sent us many stories over the years, dating back to before my time with TMR and, if I’m remembering the author’s biography correctly, dating back decades. The author has been sending work so frequently that our current intern staff, who only work for us for two semesters, recognized the author’s name. The stories are always good but have never been accepted for publication, and one of the interns wondered aloud about this writer’s constant effort to get into TMR. How does someone keep sending work to a magazine that keeps rejecting the work?
Assistant editor Evelyn Somers spoke up at this point, explaining that getting rejected by a magazine repeatedly and then, finally, getting work accepted is, actually, fairly normal. It’s a little frustrating for an editor, she said, when a writer submits to us five times and then just stops and we never hear get the chance to read the writer’s work again. She noted that TMR has published several writers who sent manuscripts to us for over a decade before we published their work.
But I’m familiar with this from the writer’s side, too. Since 2003, I have sent my fiction to One Story. According to their Submission Manager, way back on September 5, 2003, I sent them “The Third Child,” a story that they declined and which was never published anywhere (for, I assure you, good reason). Recently they turned down attempt number sixteen. That’s right: sixteen. I keep track of my stories on my laptop by number – I’m at story #83 now – and the majority of those stories are not good, or feel incomplete, or read like fragments of a fully realized story. Of those eighty three, sixteen of my stories have been sent to One Story. Every single one has been turned down. Sometimes, the editors say something encouraging. Other times, it’s a standard form rejection.
One Story is not alone: there are several fine journals that have been receiving my work since 2003, when I started graduate school, when I immediately decided that my fiction would be published everywhere, when I decided to send work out pretty much nonstop. Most of the stories I sent during graduate school were never published, but a few of them were. Of the stories I have sent One Story over the years, two were never published, and two are so new that they have yet to be picked up elsewhere. If publication is a measurement of the quality of your writing (arguable, to be sure), then I’ve only sent One Story my best (at that time) work. They always said, Thanks but we’re good.
I’m not picking on One Story: I could insert Tin House or New England Review in its place and the story would be exactly the same. No, no, no, no, nice try, thanks but no thanks, etc. I would love to tell you that back in 2003, I understood how the editorial decisions of a literary magazine were made, but, of course, I didn’t. I was just stubborn. And while being stubborn and egotistical and confident and (insert your own synonym here) may not be the best thing for a young writer unless those qualities are mixed with humility and a willingness to learn, I’m sure that being persistent with my story submissions has helped me to get my work published.
I submit my stories less often now; I write them slower, I’m more selective about where I send my work, and I’m not nearly as impatient to published as I used to be. But the persistent writer, the one who keeps trying us again and again, is a good thing. A new story to us once every six months, or year, or two years, whatever the pace might be that suits you, is good. Not just for us, but for other literary magazines as well. And, good for the writer.
You can quit anytime. Why quit now?
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye
Lessons in Failure and Writing a Novel
By Michael Nye
This week, I decided to (finally) start spring cleaning my house. I’m a fairly neat person, so my idea of “messy” is very different from your idea of messy. But there were a couple of spots in my house that definitely needed to be cleaned up. There is one room in particular in my house that could have been called an office, could have been called a spare bedroom, but instead has become The Room I Don’t Go Into That Has All These Extra Boxes of Who Knows What.
This particular room had all the trappings of unnecessary accumulation: cardboard boxes still taped from three or four moves ago; scattered piles of boxes that had never been read; stacks of papers with Post-It notes that read “To Keep”; Christmas wrapping paper; a spare mattress; still wrapped mementos from my grandfather’s house. There was a layer of dust over all of it, and the majority of these things ended up curbside for trash pickup.
In this room are several bookshelves (of course!) and on one of these shelves are the literary journals that my fiction has appeared in. These go back a few years now, way back to Sou’wester and Timber Creek Review. Along with my two contributor copies, I found something else. My graduate program gave us the option of having our thesis to not only be stored in its library archives, but also to have it bound so we could keep a copy of our work. It sorta looks likes a school textbooks from the 1950s. So among all these literary journals was my graduate thesis: “Oscillations: A Novel.”
Let’s set aside the fact that “Oscillations” is a terrible title for any novel. Here was the idea. The novel is about two men, a father and a son, and about their relationship over the course of, oh, fifteen years or so. The novel goes linearly backwards, beginning with the father’s death and ending with the son as a young boy. Writing this paragraph, I think “Oh, that doesn’t sound so horrible.”
But, from rereading it – or, at least, rereading as much as I could stand, and then starting to flip through the chapters (I made it through chapter 3) – I assure you, it is a really terrible novel. Maybe that’s harsh. Rereading my old work usually fills me with a sort of wry detachment, recognizing the guy who wrote these words, and thinking about how far removed (I hope) my writing now is from him.
In eleven years, I’ve written four books: three novels and one story collection. Only the story collection has ever seen the light of day; the first two novels, including my thesis, were never published and the third novel is making the rounds with agents right now. I’d like to believe I’ve learned a few things about how fiction works over this time, but perhaps it is more accurate to write that I have learned how my fiction does – or in many cases, does not – work. Here are four things I keep in my mind with my novel writing:
–Time Is The Enemy. All of my novels have struggled with the question of spatial and temporal distance. Or, in non-vocabulary words, time. Novel #1 was a terrible rip off of Charles Baxter’s novel “First, Light” and was a hard lesson that novels need forward momentum (even if it is nonlinear) in order to be compelling. My second novel focused on one summer. My third novel is told in two parts, with a fifteen year gap. All of these decisions about time were very conscious in order to eliminate questions I don’t want readers to think about and highlight elements I do want readers to think about. Whether or not it works that way, who knows?
–Skip the Boring Stuff. Seems obvious, right? But one of the things that I thought, incorrectly, that novels do was allow the writer to digress. Perhaps it is more accurate to say “expand” rather than digress, but even expansions are still written in benefit to the main narrative of a novel. And what might be interesting to me as a writer could be unnecessary or even dull to a reader. There are many writers who can digress or expand in a way that is compelling, but thus far, I’m not able to do that. I like there to be a little less conversation and a little more action.
Which leads rather directly to …
–Let’s Plot! Flannery O’Connor has an essay about writing short stories called, you guessed it, “Writing Short Stories.” Most of the advice on writing that she had read or heard was absurdly bad, and O’Connor cites an example of a friend of hers who was taking a correspondence course in writing, and the course had chapter headings such as “The Story Formula for Writers,” “How to Create Characters,” and my personal favorite, “Let’s Plot!” Many famous or influential (and so forth) contemporary writers who are classified as “literary” are dismissive of plot as being too restrictive of their work, arguing that plot gets in the way of what is really compelling to their writing. Graduate programs, with their focus on the short story, tend to shorten the writer’s attention span, and in fifteen to twenty pages, often a story does not need a plot, per se.
For me, though, that’s wrong. That leads to some really boring novels and stories, even one’s that are highly praised and win awards. Reading fifty to seventy five pages where nothing really happens leads me to chucking the book across the room (as you know, I’m serious about my book throwing). At the most basic level, we read or watch narratives to answer one question: What happens next? Oh, you can make it more complicated if you want to, and a good writer probably should, but I’ve written enough pages to know that you need something to happen, events that force decisions, characters in trouble, something to balance out all that interiority. And I argue this as a person who my friends and writers and students know has a bit of an elitist streak when it comes to fiction: yup, I need some good ol’ plot development. Hooray for good writing and style and all that, but I need to make sure Things Happen to keep my interest in my own work.
–On To The Next One. I can probably tinker with a story or novel until the end of days. However, there comes a point when the novel feels as complete or as finished as I’m going to make it. I certainly didn’t recognize the weaknesses in each novel when it was completed, but I see them now, and I see that I moved onto the next project at the right time. Or, at least, I’m pretty sure I did. It’s very difficult to go back to old stories or old novels and salvage the bones: the person who wrote those pieces is long gone, and the work feels haunted by him. There is a point where I just have to let go. Recognizing the difference between “move on” and “try again” is not an easy distinction, but I think I’m much better at clearly seeing my work than I used to be.
Besides, the worst that can happen? I’m just going to write the next thing. And, really, what’s so terrible about that?
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye
Death of a Mentor
By Angie Netro
A little over a year ago, my writing mentor – Lester Goran – passed away. I learned about his death by accident. While sifting through mail sent to my childhood home, I found an Arts and Sciences magazine from my alma mater, the University of Miami. Flipping through the magazine’s pages, I saw Professor Goran’s picture, then the year of this birth (1928), then the hyphen, then the year of his death (2014).
The last time I’d corresponded with Professor Goran was a year before, when I’d e-mailed him news of my Creative Writing PhD acceptance. The last time I’d heard his voice was via phone a few months before that: when I’d asked him for a recommendation letter. And the last time I’d seen him was ten years ago. Before my MFA graduation, I sat in his office, crying, thanking him for everything he’d done for me and promising him that, one day, I would make him proud.
When Professor Goran taught me, he was already in his seventies: a tall, sturdy man, but his soft shuffle through the English Department announced his age. I knew a sad truth; I might not have a lot of time to make him proud. And, back then, making Professor Goran proud meant one thing: publication. Making Professor Goran proud meant getting my stories out there in the world.
But then I graduated, moved home to Baltimore, began teaching composition full-time, disengaged from my first love, became engaged with someone else, nursed my grandmother through an aneurysm, stood alongside my mother while cancer took her life…and in all that time, about ten years, the only thing I published was a short piece of non-fiction, one featured in a now-defunct Baltimore magazine, a piece I didn’t even publish under my own name. The pen name I chose: a pairing of my first name with Professor Goran’s.
But Lester, too, was a pen name. I believe Professor Goran’s real first name was Sylvester. I’d told him once how much I wanted to shed my last name and start anew, but Professor Goran insisted I keep my name as is: Angie Netro. He never articulated his reasoning, but he often referred to me as a fusion of my first and last names: Angienetro. He’d begun this habit when, as a University of Miami undergraduate, I’d taken his autobiography course. Professor Goran had a reputation for being tough, for telling it like it is, for giving very little instruction. Our first assignment in that class consisted of a few words: Write about your secret self. And, after he’d read our pieces, he sat in front of the class, our essays in his hand. From what I remember, he went through the essays, commenting on each one out loud.
“This is not so good,” he might say.
“Eh,” he might say about another.
I remember feeling petrified, dreading the moment he’d announce his thoughts about my work. But then he fused my name for the first time: Angienetro. Then he read my essay out loud. Then he said something complimentary, something I wish I could remember, but everything he said in the years that followed I memorized as best I could:
Angienetro, you should keep writing.
Angienetro, you should take the next class I’m teaching.
Angienetro, you should apply to UM for your MFA.
There’s something magical that happens when someone believes in you. A buoyancy that sustains you even after hard truths are told: Angienetro, this story’s not working. Start over. A kind of persistent, unconditional love, a love you never doubt: Angienetro, even when you screw up, I’ll forgive you.
In the ten years between my graduation and his death, I may have spoken to Professor Goran only three or four times. One of those times was back in 2007, when my short non-fiction piece was published. Back then, I remember thinking: I’m so happy; I can talk to Professor Goran now. Where this mindset came from…that communication with my mentor could only happen if I’d achieved something…I’m still working that out. It certainly didn’t come from Professor Goran himself. I can’t remember a single conversation with him about publishing, about publication. This sentiment (success! then communication!) came from a place deep within myself, a place I still can barely explore. But I will try.
A few months before Professor Goran’s death, my mother died. On her last coherent day, she cupped my face with a bloated hand and said, “Angie, I will be so proud of you.” Then she corrected herself: “I am. I am so proud of you.” My beautiful mother, my tough mother: what she said was an unfortunate slip of the tongue. At that moment, her body was full of Zofran and Fentanyl and all other kinds of drugs, drugs that were helping her leave this life as peacefully as possible. I know my mother was proud of me. Of that I have no doubt. But her last words reminded me of a pressure I had put on myself long, long ago. A pressure that had come about because of my mother, but a pressure that had never come from her: as her only child, I wanted my life to somehow fix everything that had gone wrong with hers. She never got the chance to go to college; I did. She never really fell in love; I did. She worked for years in a corporate job that never truly made her happy…I worked at writing, but was I a writer? I’m still unsure about that. And I guess because Professor Goran was my writing teacher, he became associated with that particular aspect of my life, and because I felt unsuccessful in that area, I only talked to him a few times after I graduated. Back in 2007, when my short non-fiction piece was published, I thought Professor Goran would be proud of me and so I called. After an hour’s conversation, I told him I’d talk to him soon, and he said in a soft voice, “Yeah, yeah.” In other words: Angienetro, don’t say things you don’t mean.
On the phone in 2007, I imagined Professor Goran in his office. I called on a Monday because, for the four years I knew him at Miami, I spent almost every Monday afternoon in his office, listening. Only now do I realize: Professor Goran rarely talked about writing, about the craft of writing. Instead, he’d tell me anecdotes about his life, about growing up in the slums of Pittsburgh. He’d talk about things he’d seen on TV. He adored HBO’s Six Feet Under. He’d recount a scene from that show in precise detail, and then he’d end with a complimentary value judgment, one he’d never explain. Only now do I see the ways he made me participate – analytically – both about the world and about myself. When he bestowed compliments about me or about my writing, he never explained himself, letting me craft my own interpretation. When he criticized, he never explained himself then, either.
Once, Professor Goran said, Angienetro, for such a smart girl, you really are stupid. I honestly can’t remember the context in which he’d said this to me, but I do remember the comment was not intended to be mean; it was intended to instruct. It was an honest statement, one from a generous, kind man who cared about me, who wished me the best, who always was my champion, even when I didn’t deserve it. His comment did not reference intelligence, but character. He was trying to help me; he was trying to warn me. He saw in me something I’d yet to see in myself. He wanted me to figure it out: “stupid” yet another judgment bestowed but never explained.
And on the day I learned of his death, I finally knew how right he’d been, how stupid I’d been. How silly: to think that his friendship, his mentorship, depended on my publishing credits. All those years I could’ve had with him; all those empty hours in which I could’ve called, and I didn’t. All those things I could’ve said to him; all those things he could’ve said to me. One of the great friendships of my life: how easily I discarded it. Because of shame. Because of fear. Because I wasn’t writing. Because I wasn’t being published. How incredibly stupid.
Professor Goran, I get it now. Our friendship wasn’t really about writing at all, was it? The writing was the means through which we recognized each other.
Angienetro, you grew up in a blue collar, run-down neighborhood? Me too.
Angienetro, you love recklessly, completely, with everything you’ve got and then some? Me too.
I imagine my mentor in his office, with its huge Henry James portrait, its stuffed bookshelves. I imagine his voice, its soft tenor. I imagine him saying something he most likely never would’ve said if he were still here:
Angienetro, when I talked about stupidity I was talking about this: this pressure you’ve put on yourself. Stop it. Stop it right now. Do you see what it’s done? Do you? Do you finally see?
Yes, Professor Goran. I do.
How Assumedly White Characters are a Disservice to, well, Everyone
photo via natello-universe.tumblr.com
By Hannah Cuthbertson
I’ve convinced myself that if Buzzfeed was a real, living person, that person would be me. Their posts are funny, they put these sticker like things on their best articles that just say “YASS”, and there’s a plethora of cat memes. I am Buzzfeed. Buzzfeed is me.
But, all humor aside, I came across a post a few weeks ago called, “What a ‘racebent’ Hermione Granger Really Represents”. Quick disclaimer: I’ve never actually read the series (I know I know, shame on me. I’m getting around to it, don’t worry). But I am a fan of the movies, and of writing in general, and of Buzzfeed. In the article, biracial Buzzfeed community member Alanna Bennet pulls from Tumblr artistry in an effort to imagine Hermione as African American, and even goes on to say: “As I grew up I stopped comparing myself as much to Hollywood actors and tried to train myself out of seeing white as the default for fictional characters.”
At the time, I thought it was just an interesting take on a topic I hadn’t known much about. This was, afterall, my first exposure to “racebent” characterization, and it led me down a winding internet path of all sorts of things- Disney princesses as races other than what had been originally depicted, book characters, movie characters. It was fascinating, interesting, and just kind of neat to think about because, to be honest, I hadn’t thought of it at all before.
It should be known that I spent my childhood in a southern Alaskan suburb where racism and discrimination seemed virtually nonexistent. I was lucky enough to be raised in a safety net of equality, and those values will be with me for the entirety of my life. Of course, I noticed that the African American girl that lived across the street from me, whom I rode bikes with frequently, looked different than me. But do you know who else looked different than me? My tall friend. And my blonde friend. And my friend with blue eyes and my friend with brown eyes and basically every other friend that I’ve ever had because (shocker!) I don’t have a twin. My neighbors’ skin color, while yes, different than mine, was not a trait that differentiated them from me any more than any other physical trait, be it eye color or hair color, would differentiate me from anybody else. People are people. It really is that simple.
So imagine my surprise when we moved to a small(ish) town in Virginia which might as well have been the state’s very own Mason-Dixon line. Go to ten minutes south of my old house and there are cowboy hats and confederate flags. Go ten minutes north and everyone has an Obama-Biden bumper sticker on their car. Calling my experience in the lower-forty-eight a culture shock would be quite the understatement.
Then, at the ripe age of eighteen, I packed my bags and came out to Missouri. For the most part, I went my entire freshman year without discrimination ever really coming up. I was (falsely) under the impression that my generation was smarter, better, and kinder than that of our grandparents and great-grandparents; that the confederate flags waving from the truck beds of high-schoolers in my county had been an abnormality. The rest of the world couldn’t really be that bad, right?
Then, Ferguson happened. And, more recently, the infamous SAE video hit the internet. As a human being, I was appalled. As a member of the Greek community, I was ashamed.
Not long after, two officers were shot in Ferguson. Then, an African American student was arrested and beat outside a bar near UVA.
Suddenly, the Buzzfeed post about a “racebent” Hermione seemed less like a fun display of Tumblr art and more like a call to action. I re-read it again, and, as someone who wants to be a writer, I was empowered.
In her Buzzfeed post, Bennet, multiple times, includes quotes from Dominican American writer Junot Diaz. The most powerful, taken from a lengthy passage in her post, is this: “You guys know about vampires? … You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.”
So I did some digging, and I found out just how much that reflection is denied thanks to a phenomenon called whitewashing. Turns out, there are a plethora of Caucasian models on the covers of books that actually have racially ambiguous characters. Now, maybe there is a theoretical advantage to writing racially ambiguous characters- if the author never identifies a race, then, in theory, everyone should be able to see themselves as that character, right? But thanks to the cover art, media, film adaptations, and unfortunately, society, racially ambiguous characters are often assumedly white. Which is a problem for so many reasons.
More disturbingly, much of this whitewashing occurs in children’s and young-adult literature. Just last year, The New York Times published an article about this very issue, and cited research done by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center that found only 93 children’s books to be about African American characters out of the 3,200 children’s books published in 2013.
This got me thinking about my own characters. More often than not, the characters I write about are young and female. Is it because I am young and female? Probably. But I am also white. And while I can’t think of an instance where I’ve explicitly stated the race of one of my characters, it’s fair to say than anyone reading my work could make the assumption that they are Caucasian as well.
So then I asked myself- why don’t I state the race of my characters? And am I doing something wrong by not explicitly including a diverse cast of characters? Could I be doing something better?
The short answer is yes.
The longer answer is this: African Americans, along with every other race and demographic, shouldn’t have to turn to the internet to find “racebent” characters in order to identify with literature. The creators of such literature should be creating characters that are vivid not only in their emotional grit but in their representation of the world and of people. People, who are vivid and beautiful and inspiring no matter the color of the skin or their cultural identity.
So, moving forward, I am making it my mission to diversify my writing. I am saying goodbye to assumedly white and racially ambiguous characters. There will be characters who are vivid and real and who have stories that are vivid and real. Because I do want to be published. I do want to be an author, and it pains me to picture a little girl like Bennet once was, reading my book and not being able to see herself in a character that I created.
And, I hope, I’m not the only one.
How Learning to Write is Like Making Alfredo
By Hannah Cuthbertson
On my laptop, there are approximately one hundred and sixty three poems, three (sort of) finished drafts of manuscripts, six(ish) definitely unfinished manuscripts, and twelve document folders jam-picked with half finished scenes, assorted chapters, and hopeless outlines.
Oh, did I mention that I’m nineteen-going-on-twenty?
My passion for creative writing began as soon as I could read. I have a blue plastic bin in my bedroom closet filled with wide-ruled spiral notebooks full of very awful (but equally adorable, if I do say so myself) stories that I used to write in kindergarten while the other kids were coloring or stealing each others crayons or, much to the dismay of my even then germ-a-phobic self, picking their noses as all kindergartners seem to do. Creating characters and plotlines wasn’t a hobby that my peers seemed to share in.
Now, as I’ve matured (a little bit), persevered through high school, and have almost completed my first two years of college, I can say that writing isn’t a hobby frequently prized amongst most of the teenage demographic, either. Sure, in high school even the “cool kids” were up to date on their cult-fiction titles (mainly the ones that were turned into movies). Yet very few were interested in actually contributing to the content of the bookshelves they found themselves browsing. Then, there was me. I didn’t just read books while I should’ve been taking notes in class, I dreamt up books. The majority of my notebooks were filled halfway with actual notes and halfway with sporadic scenes that I couldn’t get out of my head. I was a regular attendee of my high-school’s creative writing club, and our attendance peaked at ten and bottomed out at three.
Writing, no matter how much people love to read, doesn’t seem to be the “hip” or “in” thing for teens to talk about doing. This may be due, in part, to the public education system (I’m talking k-12 here) and how it seems to place a great emphasis on reading creative works, but not much emphasis on the importance of fostering that creativity in its students. Walk into any high school English class and the first question the teacher will ask is, “Read anything good lately?” when really a more introspective question might be “Written anything good lately?”.
We’re taught English by reading literature, but very rarely taught it by learning how to write it. Whoever decided this was the best way to teach clearly wasn’t a “learn-by-doing” kind of pal. Then, of course, teachers are aggravated when their students’ essays come out all too mechanic and scripted, and claim they need to be more fluid and thoughtful in their writing. But if all they’re taught is to churn out topic sentences and five paragraph essays, what do we really expect them to turn in?
Only in my sophomore year of high school did my then-English teacher encourage us to write creatively and give us a forum on which to discuss our work with other students. This experience stands out to me as a highlight not only because I enjoyed it at the time, but because I can look back on it now and see its value. One of my favorite research papers I’ve ever written, I wrote in her class. I can say with fair certainty that it has to do with how she made writing more than just something we did for a grade. Granted, all good things must come to an end, and by the end of the term we all shuffled back into SOL-taking mode and gone were the days of writers-group-Fridays. But I’m distanced enough from my then-fifteen year old self to appreciate the method behind the madness.
Compare it to cooking. You can either give someone a box noodles and a jar of sauce and tell them to follow the instructions, or you can give them the ingredients and let them figure out how to make it all by themselves. Now, I’m a college student, and I love boxed food just as much as the next girl, but there’s nothing about boiling a pot of water and pouring in some dry noodles that makes me a better cook. What does make me a better cook is when I experiment with different seasonings and flavors and make it up as I go. For example, did you know you could make alfredo sauce with butter, cream cheese, and that grated parmesan that comes in the green tube? Neither did I, until I did it. Granted, I’ve made some pretty horrendous things. But have I made some pretty great things, too? Absolutely.
I was lucky enough in high school to have several teachers who helped foster my passion and creativity, who gave me the ingredients I needed and encouraged me to create, who applauded me when I succeeded and encouraged me when I was struggled. I consider myself to be a continuing beneficiary of such luck now that I am in college and am still surrounded by wonderful people and instructors who are doing the same. My writing is continually being pushed, poked, and prodded by people who see something worthwhile in me, and I’m grateful for those people. But it shouldn’t be up to a select few teachers who want to spice up their lesson plan by adding in some creative flare. I think that if we’re going to change the landscape, if we’re going to get more young people like myself writing quality work and openly talking about it, then we need to encourage not just the people who ask for encouragement but also the people who don’t even know they could use it. I think, also, that this starts with breaking down the barriers of what defines a good writer or reader.
There is no specific box you have to fit yourself into to be writer. You can love reading Cosmopolitan and the New Yorker with equal measure. You can love classic literature and young-adult fiction (Divergent, I’m lookin’ at you). Good writing comes in all shapes and sizes and styles, and the first step in overhauling the way writing is taught in public schools is by changing the perception of who should be encouraged to, well, write. Then, and only then, maybe writing will be a “hip” and “cool” thing for teens to do.
Or, maybe, I’m just too hopeful for my own good.