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On Pandering

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This essay, which is featured in our forthcoming Winter issue, was originally given as a lecture during the 2015 Tin House Summer Writers’ Workshop.

It was met with enthusiastic applause. 

Tiny-House

Some Exposition

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Until recently I was a professor at a private liberal arts university in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, a little town located at the exact point of overlap of a three-part Venn diagram. Draw one in your mind: label circle #1 Amish country, label circle #2 coal country, label circle #3 fracking country.

The towns near Lewisburg have names like Shamokin Dam, Frackville, Minersville, and Coal Township. You might have heard of a place called Centralia, a modern-day ghost town thanks to a vein of coal that has been burning beneath the ground since 1962, belching up smoke and carbon monoxide, forcing people to flee their homes and poisoning those who refuse. That vein, by the way, is expected to continue burning for another 250 years. So if you haven’t visited Centralia, there’s still time. Centralia is about forty miles from my old house, and people from the Buffalo Valley, where I lived, often took day trips there. So basically all you need to know about this particular region of central Pennsylvania is that we went to Centralia—a smoldering village of noxious fumes—on vacation.

The Buffalo Valley smells like pig shit, puppy mills, or burning garbage, depending on which way the wind blows. It is not uncommon, when hiking, to come across a tarry black field where old-growth forest has been recently clear-cut, the ground still soaked with diesel. This all sounds pretty bleak, and it was, even to me, a person with a high tolerance for bleakness and an affection for abused landscapes. Living there, I can admit now that I’ve fled, corroded a part of my soul. Driving to a neighboring town for a prenatal checkup felt like driving through Capote’s In Cold Blood. During the time I lived in central Pennsylvania the adjective I used most to describe the place to faraway friends was “murdersome.”

And yet the little town of Lewisburg, where this expensive private university is located, is actually quite pleasant. The houses are gingerbread Victorians and stately brick colonials, all turrets, stained glass, and sleeping porches. Market Street is lined with parks and bed and breakfasts and small local businesses from another era—a shoe repair shop, a butcher, a vacuum cleaner repairman, a chocolatier, an independent bookstore, a single-screen art deco movie theater where they put real melted butter on the popcorn. The town square boasts a Christmas tree in the winter, scarecrows in the autumn, and alfresco concerts and community theater in the summer. Every street is lit by old-fashioned globe lampposts, the proud town’s icon. It is a place, as residents often insist, that time forgot.

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In short, Lewisburg looks almost nothing like its neighbors in coal-Amish-fracking country, which time has remembered all too well. Obviously, this has everything to do with the university—one year spent at this college, located about three hours from New York City, costs $62,368. Generally speaking the campus can be fairly characterized by the setting of Frederick Busch’s wonderful short story “Ralph the Duck,” a “northeastern camp for the overindulged.” Money from the school, its faculty, its students and their parents props up the local economy. Simple enough.

But the true relationship between the town and the university did not occur to me until one of my students, from Youngstown, Ohio, described how much her mother loved coming to Lewisburg, how each time she visited her mother would say, “Look at that adorable chocolate shop, look at those gleaming lampposts. I just love Lewisburg!” My student, sharper than we give Millennials credit for, told her mother, “Of course you love it. It’s for you.”

What she meant, I think, is that Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, is a town in coal country the way Disney’s Celebration, Florida, is a suburb of Orlando. Lewisburg, and countless other so-called college towns like it, is Bedford Falls in loco parentis. It’s a country-mouse theme park for young people wanting the illusion of distance, wanting the sense of being away on a journey and all the self-discovery that promises. It’s for them, and it’s for their parents, who will tolerate this distance and this freaky looming self-discovery, so long as it comes with the quaintness of the country, the control of a company town, and all the safety that $62,368 can buy.

All to say that for the past four years, I lived in a landscape of pandering.

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Stephen Elliott Comes to Town

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Let’s segue into one of my favorite subgenres of literary gossip: writers behaving badly. What writers’ conference would be complete without it?

It is the fall of 2009 and I’m in the final year of my three-year MFA program. The program is hosting a reading by the writer and P. T. Barnum figure Stephen Elliott, who, in addition to being a novelist and memoirist, is editor in chief of the online literary magazine The Rumpus. The university does not provide him accommodations so our program director passes along his request that someone put him up for the night. I volunteer. Kyle Minor, another writer and an alumnus of the program, fetches Stephen from the airport. Stephen, Kyle, and I have lunch, where we talk about Denis Johnson, our works in progress, and our agents. I’d landed a hotshot agent six months earlier, am still freaked out by how, when I Google her, names like Junot Díaz and Jonathan Safran Foer appear. I have a story coming out in Granta, a collection in the homestretch, and I’m eager to talk about all this with writers who’ve been there. After lunch, Stephen takes a nap at my house while I go teach. I come back and take him to his reading, then to a bar with the other grad students, then to get donuts on our way home. Stephen flirts with me all night and back at my apartment he attempts, with what I’ll graciously term considerable persistence, to convince me to let him sleep in my bed rather than on the air mattress I’ve inflated for him in the other room. I decline several times before he relents, doing so only after I tell him I’m seeing someone. He sleeps on the air mattress, and in the morning we have breakfast and then I drive him to the airport.

Later that day, a friend forwards me the Daily Rumpus e-newsletter, which Stephen wrote in the airport and sent to his subscribers, allegedly a few thousand readers, writers, and fans of his site. Its subject line is “Overheard in Columbus.” Of the visit Stephen wrote:

It was really a great time, though I can’t put my finger on exactly why. It might have been the ride from the airport with Kyle Miner [sic] who’s living the post MFA life with a book of stories out, a couple of kids, teaching classes up in Toledo, finishing what sounds like a fantastic novel and contemplating law school. Or it might have been Claire, the student I stayed with. Or the walk for donuts at 10:30 on a Wednesday night, which felt late in that town, especially on the strip.

I tried to get in Claire’s bed. It was a big, comfortable bed. She said no, how would she explain it to the boy she was getting to know. I said there was nothing to explain to the boy, nothing’s going to happen. It’s like sleeping with your gay friend. But she wasn’t so sure. She had been drinking and I don’t drink. I slept on the air mattress in the other room.

Now, I realize I’m not a special snowflake, that every woman who writes has a handbag full of stories like this. There is probably an entire teeming sub-subgenre titled “Stephen Elliott Comes to Town.” I offer this here partly because it was my very first personal run-in with overtly misogynistic behavior from a male writer, and so perhaps my most instructive. I learned a lot from that Daily Rumpus e-mail (which is a sentence that has never before been uttered). I want to stress that I’m not presenting Stephen Elliott as a rogue figure, but as utterly emblematic. I want to show you how, via his compulsive stream-of-consciousness monologue e-mailed to a few thousand readers, I was given a glass-bottom-boat tour of a certain type of male writer’s mind.

I scrolled up and down, reading and rereading, and through that glass-bottom boat saw a world where Kyle Minor was Kyle Minor, a writer “with a book of stories out, a couple of kids, teaching classes up in Toledo, finishing what sounds like a fantastic novel and contemplating law school.” Whereas I was Claire, no last name, “the student,” owner of a big, comfortable bed. Until my friend forwarded that e-mail to me, I’d been under the impression that since I wrote, I was a writer, period. If I wrote bad I was a bad writer, if I wrote good I was a good writer. Simple as that. I was, I knew, every bit as ambitious as Kyle Minor and Stephen Elliott. I loved books just as much as Kyle and Stephen did, read as much as they did, and worked just as hard to get the right words in the right order. But now I was confronted with Google Groups listserv proof that, to Stephen, Kyle was a writer and I was a drunk girl.

But fuck ’em, right? What did Tina Fey say about sexists in the workplace: over, under, and through. The problem with responding to sexism with Sesame Street is that if you read that e-mail as I read that e-mail, as I was being trained to read—that is, carefully and curiously, over and over—you’ll see something more than the story Stephen told himself about me as a writer or, in this case, not a writer. I saw, in the form of paragraphs and sentences, my area of expertise, how it took only a few lines to go from professional dismissal to sexual entitlement to being treated as property to gaslighting.

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Now, I don’t know about you, but I tend to think professional sexism via artistic infantilization is a bummer, frustrating, disappointing, but distinct and apart from those violent expressions of misogyny widely agreed upon as horrific: domestic violence, sex slavery, rape. Stephen Elliott did not rape me, did not attempt to rape me. I am not anywhere close to implying that he did. I am saying a sexist negation, a refusal to acknowledge a female writer as a writer, as a peer, as a person, is of a piece with sexual entitlement. No, more than of a piece, it is practically a prerequisite. Humans are wide, open vessels, capable of almost anything—if you read you know this—but you cannot beat the mother of your children, or rape your childhood friend while she’s unconscious, or walk up to a sorority outside Santa Barbara and start shooting without first convincing yourself and allowing our culture to convince you that those women are less than human.

I know that’s an intense analogy. I intend it to be.

Here, Stephen Elliot handily provides a clear illustration of an idea most recently proposed by Rebecca Solnit in her important essay collection Men Explain Things to Me: these things exist on a continuum. Sexist dismissal of women as artists and the assumption of sexual entitlement over them that is necessary to make something like rape okay in our culture—and it very much is okay in our culture—are not separated by vast chasms of principles. Look here, they are two paragraphs of the same story, separated by only a keystroke.

When I said, I’m a writer, Stephen heard, I’m a girl. And, because I was a girl, when I said, No, you cannot sleep in my bed, he heard someone who “wasn’t so sure.” I continued, in his mind, to be unsure, and only the man I was dating—in Stephen’s infantilizing phrase “the boy she was getting to know”—could be sure for me. The story Stephen told himself went: “She had been drinking and I don’t drink.” Because I was not a writer, not a person, I was easily made into a drunk girl unable to tell her own story.

That is, until now.
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Watching Boys Do Stuff

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But you know all this, even if you haven’t heard it recently, even if you haven’t heard it out loud. I am not interested in why Stephen did what he did. I was a women’s studies minor, I get it. What I’m curious about is what I did with what he did.

For years, I thought this encounter was formative. I described it as I have above, a kind of revelation. These days I think, if only. After all, it’s so much gentler to be presented with an ugliness of which you’d been previously completely and honestly oblivious than one you were trying to pretend didn’t exist. The truth is, the fact that our culture considers male writers more serious than me was not a revelation. I’d been getting the messages of Stephen’s e-mail long before my friend forwarded it to me—all women do. We live in a culture that hates us. We get that. Misogyny is the water we swim in.

To wit:

As a young woman I had one and only one intense and ceaseless pastime, though that’s not the right word, though neither is hobby or passion. I have practiced this activity with religious devotion and for longer than I can remember. I have been trying to give it up recently, since moving away from Bedford Falls, since around the time my daughter was born. But nearly all of my life has been arranged around this activity. I’ve filled my days doing this, spent all my free time and a great amount of time that was not free doing it. That hobby, that interest, that passion was this: watching boys do stuff.

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I’ve watched boys play the drums, guitar, sing, watched them play football, baseball, soccer, pool, Dungeons and Dragons and Magic: The Gathering. I’ve watched them golf. Just the other day I watched them play a kind of sweaty, book-nerd version of basketball. I’ve watched them work on their trucks and work on their master’s theses. I’ve watched boys build things: half-pipes, bookshelves, screenplays, careers. I’ve watched boys skateboard, snowboard, act, bike, box, paint, fight, and drink. I could probably write my own series of six virtuosic autobiographical novels based solely on the years I spent watching boys play Resident Evil and Tony Hawk’s ProSkater. I watched boys in my leisure time, I watched boys in my love life, and I watched boys in my education. I watched Melville, I watched Salinger, watched Ford, Flaubert, Díaz, Dickens, watched even when I didn’t particularly like what I saw—especially then, because it proved there was something wrong with me, something I wanted to fix. So I watched Nabokov, watched Thomas Hardy, watched Raymond Carver. I read women (some, but not enough) but I didn’t watch them. I didn’t give them megaphones in my mind. The writers with megaphones in my mind were not Mary Austin, or Louise Erdrich, or Joan Didion, or Joy Williams, or Toni Morrison, though all have been as important to me as any of the male writers I mentioned, or more. Still, I watched the boys, watched to learn. I wanted to write something Cormac McCarthy would like, something Thomas Pynchon would come out of hiding to endorse, something David Foster Wallace would blurb from beyond the grave.

I have been reenacting in my artmaking the undying pastime of my girlhood: watching boys, emulating them, trying to catch the attention of the ones who have no idea I exist.

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On Invisibility

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Speaking of things that are invisible: picture me in New Mexico, where I’ve come to teach for a week. Marijuana’s just been legalized in Colorado and a friend from there gifts me a joint. I approach another writer, this one down from Alaska, who is standing alone beside the glowing hotel pool. I make small talk:

I say, So, how long have you lived in Alaska?

She says, Well, I’m an Eskimo, so . . .

I ask if she wants to share the joint. She looks circumspect, which is puzzling to me. I’ve heard her mention Mary Jane before and I’m pretty sure we’re of the same mind about it.

Right here? she asks.

Yeah, I say, looking around for what’s bothering her. It’s dark, only the pool lights glowing, and we’re the only ones outside. The stars overhead are staggering.

She says, But weed’s not legal here.

I note that it’s legal in Colorado, and that Colorado touches New Mexico.

What if someone calls the cops?

They won’t call the cops! Are you crazy? We’re guests of the hotel.

What if we get arrested?

At this point we’re both super puzzled, not understanding each other at all. I’m thinking, Lighten up. People smoke weed in city parks, at music festivals, on hiking trails. The last time I smoked was at a wedding in Maine.

I say, Come on, they’re not going to arrest us for one tiny joint. We’re professors for fuck’s sake!

Okay, she says finally, lighting up. But if they call the cops you better hide me under your invisible cloak of white privilege.

At moments like this, when my whiteness materializes in front of me and I can see it, I am so embarrassed of it and also so angry at myself for not being always as aware of it as I am there in that awkward, painful, absurd, essential moment. I want to unsee it, make it invisible again, and usually I do, because it feels better. I have that privilege.

Others don’t.

I have watched writers go brown right before my eyes. My husband, half Cuban but made much more so on a job interview, is told by a white male scholar specializing in African American literature that his inventing and imagining aspects of Cuba in his novel was “problematic” and that according to this white professor, he got things about Cuba “wrong.”

My best friend, a Basque American, publishes a book set in the Spanish Basque country and Publishers Weekly lauds it “just exotic enough.” My iBooks library categorizes Joshua Cohen as “Literary” and Toni Morrison as “African American.” Think about that for a second: it’s either/or. Meaning, according to iBooks, you cannot be African American and Literary. And it was only two years ago that, over on Wikipedia, American authors whom editors suspected of being in possession of a pussy were removed from the category “American novelists” and relocated to “American women novelists.” These categories—writer or student, writer or girl, woman novelist, Eskimo, Latino, Literary or African American—matter. As Sontag told Mailer, “Words matter, Norman.” They affect the way we live—whether we can smoke a joint beside a hotel pool in New Mexico without fear of being arrested; whether someone will hear no when we say it—and they affect the way we write.

The “little white man deep inside of all of us”

It was Toni Morrison who pointed out that Tolstoy was not writing for her, who said she was writing toward black women. It makes you wonder, Who am I writing for? Who am I writing toward?

Myself, I have been writing to impress old white men. Countless decisions I’ve made about what to write and how to write it have been in acquiescence to the opinions of the white male literati. Not only acquiescence but a beseeching, approval seeking, people pleasing.

But whom do I mean when I say white male literati? Sounds like a conspiracy theory, one of my favorite genres of American storytelling. I mean the people and voices real and imagined in the positions of power (or at least influence) in writing and publishing, but mostly I mean the man in my mind. James Baldwin wrote of the “little white man deep inside of all of us” but mine is tall. He’s a white-haired chain smoker from New Mexico, the short story writer called “Cheever’s true heir.” It is Lee K. Abbot I hear in my mind. This has little to do with Lee himself, a mentor I admire, a writer I adore, whose encouragement has helped land me before you, whose support I treasure. I am not talking about Lee K. Abbott who once turned to me in workshop when I was a first-year MFA with a dead mom, a desert rat without a proper winter coat and in bad need of a thumbs-up, and asked me, because I’d turned in a story he liked, “Claire, who are the great Nevada writers?” And when I sputtered something about Robert Laxalt and Mark Twain he stopped me and said, “No. You are.” I am speaking not of Lee Kitteridge Abbott the man but what he represents. Or rather I am talking about them both, about the representation and the man himself, for didn’t I know he would like that story, about an old prospector who finds a nubile young girl left for dead in the desert?

Glad you like it, Lee. It’s for you.

I am talking about this reading I gave in Montana in the fall when it was so beautiful I almost never went home, where a late-middle-aged white cowboy—let’s call him the Old Sumbitch—waited in my signing line, among the brown-haired girls with glasses, and when he got to me said, “I usually don’t read stuff like this but Tom McGuane said you were all right.” I am talking about being at once grateful for the friendship and encouragement offered me by Tom McGuane but also angry and exhausted by the fact that I need it. The Old Sumbitch would not have read me if Tom hadn’t said I was all right. I am hiding under Tom’s invisible cloak of male privilege. At issue is not Tom McGuane or Lee K. Abbott or Jeffrey Eugenides or Christopher Coake or Chang-Rae Lee, all of whom have offered me guidance and friendship for which I’m tremendously grateful. But why should their voices be louder in my head than that of Karen Russell, a beyond generous certified genius and, with any luck, my future sister-wife? Why should they be louder than Antonya Nelson, who wrote the most illuminating review of Battleborn I’ve ever read? Why should they be louder than Erin McGraw, who read Battleborn in its every incarnation, who taught me how to get a job and keep it, who’s written me about a hundred letters of recommendation and done everything short of hand me this microphone today?

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The stunning truth is that I am asking, deep down, as I write, What would Philip Roth think of this? What would Jonathan Franzen think of this? When the answer is probably: nothing. More staggering is the question of why I am trying to prove myself to writers whose work, in many cases, I don’t particularly admire? I recently finished Roth’s Indignation with nothing more lasting than a sincere curiosity as to whether Roth is aware that these days even nice girls give blow jobs.

I am trying to understand a phenomenon that happens in my head, and maybe in yours too, whereby the white supremacist patriarchy determines what I write.

I wrote Battleborn for white men, toward them. If you hold the book to a certain light, you’ll see it as an exercise in self-hazing, a product of working-class madness, the female strain. So, natural then that Battleborn was well-received by the white male lit establishment: it was written for them. The whole book’s a pander. Look, I said with my stories: I can write old men, I can write sex, I can write abortion. I can write hard, unflinching, unsentimental. I can write an old man getting a boner!

Here are the lampposts, here is the single-screen movie theater. It’s all an architecture of pandering. It’s for them.

She can write like a man, they said, by which they meant, She can write.

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A fellow on Twitter says:

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“A lot of young women (not to mention this WM) loved that book. Should I tell them to disregard their reading experience?”

If you like my book I’m grateful. But I remind you that people at the periphery will travel to accept and even love things not made for or toward them: we have been trained to do so our entire lives. I’m not trying to talk anyone out of their readerly response, only to confess to what went on in my mind when I made the book, to assemble an honest inventory of people I have not been writing toward (though I thought I was): women, young women, people of color, the rural poor, the American West, my dead mother.

This is frightening on its face, but manyfold scarier because I thought I was doing this for myself. I was under the impression that artmaking was apart from all the rottenness of our culture, when in fact it’s not apart from it. It is made of it.

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The preceding

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is either an aesthetic/artistic/personal epiphany or my ritualistic prepublication freak-out; perhaps a little of column A, a little of column B. I’ll tell you this: I have not written anything of consequence since my daughter was born. It’s easy to say, You had a baby, you’re busy, it gets better, and I’m really glad to hear from those of you who have said as much. But I wonder if part of the reason I have not been writing is because I have not been seeing. My gaze is no longer an artist’s gaze.

Why would that be? I think it has something to do with the fact that I don’t wander in the desert much anymore. I spend my days with a baby and that, patriarchy says, is not the stuff of art. Once again I am a girl and not a writer. No one said this. No one has to. I am saying it to myself. That’s the terrible efficiency of gaslighting.

After watching Girls for the first time my friend Annie McGreevy says, “That was my experience, too, but I didn’t know it was okay to make art about it.” And maybe it’s still not okay. After doing an event with Miranda July, Lena Dunham tweets this quote from Lorrie Moore, writing on July in the New York Review of Books, “When one googles ‘Wes Anderson’ and ‘fey’ one gets a lot of pictures of him and Tina Fey.”

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About a year ago I had a baby,

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and while my life was suddenly more intense, more frightening, more beautiful, more difficult, and more profound than it had ever been, I found myself with nothing to write about.

“Nothing’s happening to me,” I bemoan to Annie. “I need to go shoot an elephant.”

Annie replies, in her late-night Lebowskian cadence, “Dude, you’re a mother. You’ve had a child. You’re struggling to make your marriage work, man. You are trying, against your nature and circumstance, to be decent. That’s your elephant!” Yet when I write some version of this down it seems quaint or worse. I thought I had enough material for a novel but when it came out it was a short story, and one that felt unserious. I tried a story in the form of a postpartum-depression questionnaire and it felt quaint. Domestic. For women. Motherhood has softened me. I have a tighter valve on what I’ll read and what I’ll watch. I don’t want to write like a man anymore. I don’t want to be praised for being “unflinching.” I want to flinch. I want to be wide open.

I am trying to write something urgent, trying to be vulnerable and honest, trying to listen, trying to identify and articulate my innermost feelings, trying to make you feel them too, trying a kind of telepathy, all of which is really fucking hard in the first place and, in a culture wherein women are subject to infantilization and gaslighting, in a culture that says your “telepathic heart” (that’s Moore on July) is dumb and delicate and boring and frippery and for girls, I sometimes wonder if it’s even possible.

I have built a working miniature replica of the patriarchy in my mind. I would like very much to bust it up or burn it down. But I am afraid I don’t know how. Though I do have some ideas.

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Some ideas:

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Let’s punch up.

Let us not make people at the margins into scouts or spies for the mainstream. Let us stop asking people to speak for the entire cacophonic segment of humanity that shares their pigmentation, genitalia, or turn-ons.

Let us spend more time in those uncomfortable moments when our privilege is showing. Let us reflect there, let us linger, rather than recoil into the status quo.

Let us continue to count, and talk, and think about the numbers.

Let us name those things that are nameless, as Solnit describes, the way “mansplaining” or “rape culture” or “sexual harassment” were nameless before feminists named them. Let those names sing.

Let us hear the stories we are telling ourselves about ourselves. Let us remember that we become the stories we tell. An illustration: I was talking with the writer Elissa Schappell about how much we are both anticipating Carrie Brownstein’s new book. I asked Elissa what she made of this new trend of memoirs by badass women: Carrie Brownstein, Kim Gordon, Sally Mann, Amy Poehler. Was this trend the result of Patti Smith winning the National Book Award five years ago? Was the trend indicative of a new wave of feminism? Elissa interrupted me. “You keep using that word,” she said. “Trend. It’s not a trend. We are here now. We’re not going anywhere. We are here now.”

Let us embrace a do-it-yourself canon, wherein we each make our own canon filled with what we love to read, what speaks to us and challenges us and opens us up, wherein we can each determine our artistic lineages for ourselves, with curiosity and vigor, rather than trying to shoehorn ourselves into a canon ready made and gifted us by some white fucks at Oxford.

(I will start us off by spending no more of my living breath apologizing for the fact that no, actually, even though I write about the American West, Cormac McCarthy is not a major influence of mine.)

Let us use our words and our gazes to make the invisible visible. Let us tell the truth.

Let us, each of us, write things that are uncategorizable, rather than something that panders to and condones and codifies those categories.

Let us burn this motherfucking system to the ground and build something better.

Tiny-House

Claire Vaye Watkins is the author of Battleborn and Gold Fame Citrus. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan

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Posted in Essays, Writers' Workshops

Comments: 49

(2,587) Comments

  1. Eleanor T says:

    To adopt a phrase from my theatre school days, writing this took brass ovaries. Thank you and bravo! Or rather, brava!

  2. Katie says:

    I fucking love everything that you said. It is a truth that I have not been able to articulate and I am so glad you did that for me. And to all the men on here saying “It’s not because you’re a woman.” or “Not all men”…… Seriously go fuck yourselves. You are literally doing exactly everything that men ALWAYS do when a woman speaks her truth. Just shut the fuck up and LISTEN. It’s not your truth. it’s OURS. It’s not for YOU. It’s for US.

  3. abandoning eden says:

    I didn’t write anything big, only short little 1 or 2 page pieces, for about a year and a half after my kid was born. I was terrified that I had lost ‘it.’
    But now my kid is 2 and a half, and after working on them all year, I just had 2 major articles accepted for publication (I’m an academic in a field that writes articles).

    Anyway, it will come back. I’ve also been getting out of the house/away from my baby a lot more this year (leaving her with her dad), and getting better sleep, all of which helps.

  4. Dear Claire,
    I’m a writer, a wife, a mother, a desert rat. I’ve pandered to my colleagues, my clients, my children, my husbands, my horses and myself in my wandering to become visible. It’s too early for resolution. Thank you for your essay.

    Barbara March
    Founding Director, Surprise Valley Writers’ Conference

  5. Kelsey says:

    Hi there. This resonated very deep within me, so I thought I’d tell you so. I write, though not professionally, and I realized three or four years ago that I was also writing for straight white dudes. The realization came when I was doing NaNoWriMo and I realized I’d written the better part of a novella without mentioning ANY women. It was a typical “man stands against the elements while bad guys are chasing him” sort of thing, and I had the thought, “Why couldn’t this be a woman? None of the things this far are dependent on him being a man. You can’t even see his face for most of this.” I may yet return to it and make it better, though it would require fighting my own comfort zone, not only in the status quo, but also throwing out about 60,000 words and starting all the way over. Thanks to you lighting a fire in my heart again about it, I think I will.

    On motherhood and art, I have a two-year-old (who is happily demolishing a stuffed octopus as I type this), and I suffered from SEVERE postpartum depression for almost a year after he was born. I’ve finally come to terms with the fact that my brain chemistry has probably been permanently altered, though in some ways it’s for the better. I’ve never thought I was terribly maternal, but I find myself being Mama a lot more easily these days. It took me awhile to get writing again, but the last year has been the most productive I’ve ever had, by sheer volume as well as me being pleased with what I’m writing. I guess what I’m saying is that you will get back to writing things you’re happy with; it just might be different stuff than you originally thought you were going to write. Given what we’ve both said about the things we used to write, that can only be good, right?

    Oh, goodness. Look at that wall of text. THANK YOU for writing this. Clearly it made an impact. When you figure out how to burn this stupid, limiting system down, let me know and I’ll find my torch.

  6. h. rethmann says:

    Amen, awesome, and thank you, Claire.

  7. Kati says:

    This essay is making me want to write again. Thank you.

  8. Nuge says:

    I’m noticing a lot of generalizations and assumptions in this post.

    “Let’s punch up.”

    As opposed to the ridiculous claim of “punching down?” Everything depends on context and not every statement is drawn from some sort of highly influencing social structure.

  9. Louise Michel says:

    Hey, I just wanted to write to you quickly and let you know how much I liked your piece. A lot of what you’re describing happened in the Bay Area poetry scene two summers ago and escalated into the New York alt lit scene. Women and queer people were coming forward about the sexual violence and unrepentant sexism they had faced from men in their writing networks. One particularly relevant example is with Janey Smith (Steve Trull) who— while curating a popular reading series in SF— announced one of his readers as “This is X [woman], she slept with Y [man]” and the group of crony writermen there laughed. When he was called out as a rapist, a lot of his supporters— particularly in the alt lit and new narrative scene— doubled down, calling the call-out that was posted about Janey a “witch hunt” and asserting that the women who wrote it “should be thrown in jail” for defaming him. I guess I was only 20 at the time, new to the poetry scene, but I watched as people whom I considered literary heroes behave as reactionaries and it made me resolve to die before I ever became that toothless and misogynistic.

    Another thing I wanted to add is that ‘pandering’ comes from a Chaucer book, Troilus & Criseyde. The main character, Pandarus, coerces his niece into having sex with a prince. The multi-level action of pandering (etymologically, the selling of a woman to a man by another man) relates back to the form of the book itself: the narrator is *not* Chaucer, but someone who believes in courtly love and that everything Pandarus does is okay. The book also meta-fictively panders because it can be read at face value as a love story (a lot of 1960s editions refer to it as the first great love story) but if you’re reading it that way, you’re reading it wrong. Chaucer meant for it to be a critique of rape culture, and he masked it with a dumb narrator so that he wouldn’t get beheaded. Because of literacy rates then (ce. 14th century) he had to write for men, but the layers of irony and how it is this wonderful and crafty critique of paternalism only came to light really with feminist lit crit onward of the 70s. What he was doing at the time was pretty unprecedented; he manipulated the constraints of authority in a way that was unreadable, closer to modernism than to mid-English medieval lit.

    Which, I think, kind of brings me to the point of it all. I don’t know if women can reclaim poetry in the here and now through poems, because poetry is this longstanding edifice of patriarchy, capitalism, and the nation. For women to truly recuperate it, it would no longer look like what we consider poetry, with its fixed cordinates of schools, form, and methodology, because all are attached to the law of value and the shit it has begat (patriarchy, racism, police and prisons and $60,000 universities.) The undoing of capitalism would be the only way to truly change it. When I think of readership, I envision teen girls pouring over my manuscripts in malls they have seized and barricaded, and I try to write for that future militant girl communard maybe to somehow call her into existence.

  10. Gideon Endicott says:

    While I fully acknowledge Watkins’ ownership over her own story, and the validity of attacking real or perceived iniquities in literature and the business of literature — though, the utility of literature (or the business of it) as a proxy for society, or a force for social justice, is a worthwhile question — it’s amusing to see a very-well-publicized prize-winning Literary It Girl name and shame the editor of some who-the-fuck-cares past-its-prime internet zine and then call for people to “punch up.”

    Moreover, while Mr. Elliot’s decision to send that email was stupid and tasteless unto vapidity, it seems that Ms. Watkin’s understanding of the transgression is that he didn’t see (or acknowledge) her with the same gravitas that she saw (sees) herself. She had an agent! A good agent! Would that I could attach each bruising of my substantial ego to a larger, unassailable sociopolitical narrative.

  11. mark says:

    I look forward to the day when we can drop race and gender and talk about interesting stories that bring joy and hope to our lives. Besides, white men don’t read fiction, haven’t you heard?

  12. Jay says:

    Loved this! Retweeted this.

    You had me at “these days even nice girls give blow jobs.”

    Am changing my text-by-dead-white-male-author to one by a woman next quarter.

    Seriously, “Let us burn this motherfucking system to the ground and build something better.”

  13. harlo says:

    While I fully recognize Watkins’ ownership over her own story, and the validity of attacking real or perceived iniquities in literature and the business of literature — though, the utility of literature (or the business of it) as a proxy for society, or a force for social justice, is a worthwhile question — it’s pretty amusing to see a well-publicized Literary It Girl name and shame the editor of some who-the-fuck-cares past-its-prime internet zine and then call for people to “punch up.”

  14. wray cummings says:

    Well said. Thank you.

    The births of my children marked the birth of a different me too.

  15. MA Bowman says:

    Ms. Watkins: I never do this sort of commenting, but I was so absolutely floored by the truths you spoke in this exquisite piece that I had to speak. I’m an actor who dabbles as a writer and carry my own White Man Who Must Be Impressed in my head, too. Thank you a thousand times for speaking your truth. I will try to carry your message forward in making my own art and hopefully, one day, we’ll see stories women tell taking their rightful place alongside the ones men tell. Maybe one day, we will have stories about people, without the minimizing specifications of gender, race, orientation, ableism, age, etc. It will be people. Thank you, from my heart, for your words.

  16. telepathic words are a great goal. i long to write like smiley, atwood, leguin and kingsolver.. Cormac is good too.. but he doesn’t take me new places…the angry energy he taps into is accessible with my own testostronic dealings with reality… there is a school of thought that the real art is in creating life from your belly….maybe that reality makes words lose their magic..im stuck in magic word land though…that’s why women smile patiently at me when i mansplain, i do not know dick, but i’m cool with it, why would i want to know dick? …..you chicks have all the cards in reality and now you know it as manwords seem less real to you…you and your magic uteruses, or is it uteri? just don’t let it stick to you… good luck in your fight… i don’t fight anymore, i nap… anger clouds your thinking….

  17. What a powerful essay, thank you! I connect to so much of what you say here. At the end, though, all I could think of was Virginia Woolf, Virginia Woolf! She would love this essay, and your writing. And here we are still tackling the white males inside of us. She is my model, even though the DWM are there, too.

  18. Rumpus Fan says:

    Claire, Thank you for sharing your experience. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t defend Stephen Elliott’s character and that he’s one of the last men I’d use in an example for pandering. He’s published the voices of sex workers, LGBT in San Francisco, gender queer porn stars, broke-ass aspiring authors, and published a series by Roxane Gay: http://therumpus.net/author/roxane-gay/.

    Yes, the Daily Rumpus e-mail you’re mentioned in was insensitive, and he does tend to overshare from his life. Yes, sexism is rampant in publishing, but I don’t think Stephen Elliott should be the posterboy. There are many more more qualified targets to pick.

    I wish you and he would sit down for an episode of Rumpus Radio and discuss these issues. Would be an interesting podcast!

  19. Ivie says:

    I really enjoyed this piece. I recently started writing and while people have been encouraging, there are often comments like ‘I didn’t know you were funny’, or ‘wow, you’re so articulate!’ In their eyes, I can only be one thing; a woman who is demure, or quiet, or uninteresting.I just try to speak up about my version of reality, and so far people have been able to relate to it. There has been a shift in Nigerian literature in recent years to female voices (most notably Chimamanda Adichie) and this has made a lot of people uncomfortable. The truth often does.

  20. Richard Rowley says:

    Impressive. You packed a lot into one short article. Rather than dilute you narrative with any of my own words, I’ll simply say thanks and well written. You have given me much to consider.

  21. Hi, Claire (love your name):

    LOVED what you wrote…..I have written a poetry book, Sanctuary of the Soul and my memoir; Ghost Child to Triumph……looking for a literary agent….my life story won a scholarship at 60 and I am now a 69 year old Sophomore at Oakland University (live in Rochester, MI). I need to read “Battleborn”—I was born standin’ up and talkin’ back; if you would like to hear my story of standing up (literally) to a church who voted me out of a 31-year membership…name up on a big screen, followed by the words, “Conduct unbecoming a Child of God.”..you may contact me. I fought the good ole boys for 18 months; called to a meeting (18 men, not allowed to have a woman with me and asked, “Are you still having sex with your ex?” I enjoyed the fight. Kind Regards, Alice (overcomer, wounded healer, dancer, singer, author, poet, Vietnam era veteran and sophomore) :) P.S. Happy Thanksgiving!

  22. bm says:

    This was excellent. Thank you.

  23. Elizabeth F says:

    Thank you. I really enjoyed reading this piece. I recently started writing as a way to feel relevant in the dizzying world of mother to three young ones and I have to say, your post articulated so clearly the mansplaining I’ve been facing. I chose to write on topics that are important to me and I fully understand that that is very threatening to some people. I’ve been called a ‘mommy blogger’ in the most derogatory way (by a professional writer who is male, shocking, I know). But, I had started to take the comments to heart, so your piece is a good reminder to dust myself off and continue to tell my story. Thank you.

  24. Rich bray says:

    At the fine young age of 76, I’m just now coming to grips with my childhood. apparently it extended well beyond the physical time it should have. My childhood was filled to the brim with the belief, no it was even deeper than that, that I as a man was important while the woman I had married and had three children with, who finished college on her own, who raised those kids, who became an elementary school teacher, who designed and ran a dual language K thru 6 learning program, did not matter. I grew up watching women be mothers, girls, cheerleaders, girl friends, wives, and women I slept with but never competitors. How could they be, they didn’t matter.

  25. One of the most amazing things I’ve read in years. This is an important read for women in every art form, for music (my field) suffers from this malaise too. Congratulations on an important piece that will serve as a compass for many.

  26. Jen Agg says:

    A perfect articulation of everything that happens to us all the time. And of my own failings as a hyper privileged white woman and of what it’s like being married to a Haitian man. I teared up a few times (on the rag, BUT STILL). And read every word to my husband, knowing he’d get it, but still, wanting him to. Hope my book doesn’t overshoot the trend….

  27. Cathy Bryant says:

    So much of this resonates with me. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this honest and illuminating piece.

  28. Ed Geldens says:

    Enjoyed reading this essay. Glad to see that you have come to grips with who you are writing for. IMHO, we, men or woman, writers or just office workers, computer programmers and so on, all, whether we are aware of it or not, if we are interested in having our writing ability acknowledged or personal gratification or commercial success writer towards “the powers that be”. Reading you essay it appears to me that like us all, you were not aware you were doing it, but later came to realize it. Although you think it is because you are woman in the writing field, I don’t think that really matters that you are a woman. But don’t get me wrong, being a woman “in a man’s world” definitly is a factor, just like being a black in a “white man’s world” or as you mentioned “..being half Cuban” was a factor. All factors that at the point in our societal evolution must be taken into account in relation to acceptable of our work. In other words we all must bend and write towards whoever, what ever sex, to get what we really want.
    On the other hand, if we write because we like to write — period. Or you could say because we like to tell stories. Or because we like to write stories we like to read, then none of the above constraints apply. I am not professional, published or know writer of your statue. It’s really not my goal. I place my self in the categories mentioned above, I like to write (the act makes me feel good, like an occasional cool breeze on a hot summer day does), and I like to tell stores and so on. So I write what, I want the way I want. I would be less than honest if I did not admit that the thought of being able to make large amounts of money from my writing would not appeal to me in the event that somehow something I wrote caused that to happen. I would certainly take the money. But that, again is not why I write. And as I said earlier, if I did take the money I am sure I would have to adjust my view and write towards someone in order to keep it coming. So, in closing I just want to say glad you came to the awareness about why you write! As someone once said, “If you want to write, just write.”.

  29. Tony Bunn says:

    I don’t know whether your essay was written “for me” — old black man, that I am — but I found it a quite engaging read. Literary introspection is fascinating when it’s done with honesty.

  30. sara says:

    Amazing essay. Thank you so much for this.

  31. Daniel Fowles says:

    You’ve got a good style. Please don’t spend your whole life whining about men. They aren’t worth it, and half of them aren’t assholes, anyway. Try to hang out with the ones who aren’t, and write about people you love. You’ll be a better artist.

  32. Nicole Nelson says:

    Fantastic post. Just today, I wrestled with whether to further engage with a male media figure about his response (in a private email) to my message complimenting him sincerely and offering gentle constructive criticism. Specifically, I suggested that he feature more female authors on his show, which is very male author-heavy. He responded with anger, aggression, and defensiveness.

    You’re probably well aware of both, but Elisa Albert’s book AFTER BIRTH (about those early motherhood struggles) is a book I’d choose over Hemingway any day. And Lidia Yuknavich’s THE SMALL BACKS OF CHILDREN is a fierce examination of art and gender and privilege (among other things). Both in my DIY canon.

    Thanks again for this piece, which I will continue to think about.

  33. Edward Morrison says:

    what a dickhead move, both at night and the newsletter. man. what a douche

  34. Melissa Leavitt says:

    Consider this more of the enthusiastic applause. I’ve needed to read this since 2009, when I lived my own entry in the Stephen Elliott Comes to Town genre. There’s a kind of lexical sleight of hand done by those who deny their privilege that makes the most bottom-of-the-barrel misogyny feel like an probing critique of all the work I’ll be talked out of writing. Can we do an anthology? Really? My piece is ready to go.

  35. Iain says:

    I agree with Annie — being a new parent, being a mother, is an experience; a happening. Many experiences, in fact. Look at it with your artistic eye and explore where it takes you. Create and explore new categories along the way. The stories you mentioned that didn’t quite do what you wanted — those are explorations too — I think it takes writing something that doesn’t quite fit what you want to write the story you want to write. Take an existing category and combine it with something like those explorations — hopefully leading to the new spaces you want to write in.

    “I am trying to write something urgent, trying to be vulnerable and honest, trying to listen, trying to identify and articulate my innermost feelings, trying to make you feel them too…”

    Please do. I’m male, intellectually I know I have privilege, but without stories like you’re suggesting, I don’t really know what it feels like to not have that privilege. I can guess at it but I’ll be wrong most of the time. My most read categories are SF&F; which is a dry dry desert when it comes to finding stories that gives me the fantastic worlds/futures I love reading about while at the same time telling a story _being_ a woman (or any other gender), or non-white, or having a family, or … this list goes on. There are some rare exceptions…make it less rare, please? Provided, of course, it is a story you want to tell and read…

    That last is the important thing — don’t write to a category; just write the story you want to tell, write it your feelings and visions. Write it for yourself, your experiences. Whether it lands in a category or not — there’s someone out there that will enjoy the story, someone whom your feelings and ideas will speak to; possibly even give answers or new insight to. More than likely, many someones.

    Thank you for exploring,

    Iain

  36. Lily says:

    So beautifully said. Definitely one not just to read, but also to watch. Thank you.

  37. Amy k says:

    Fuck yeah

  38. sara says:

    thank you for this.

  39. Diane Gilbert-Snyder says:

    God, this is an awesome read. Thank you for it.

  40. Eliana says:

    Sometimes you read something and think, that was all in my head but not so organized or well said. And you realize you can’t forget it that now you have to write a whole different book than the one you were writing. And you realize that you already knew Claire was wise in that stark desert way but now you see that there is more.

  41. C. says:

    Very curious how/where the author’s new novel fits into this discussion. It surprised me not to see it even mentioned here!

  42. Sarah Madges says:

    Even though “the fact that our culture considers male writers more serious than me” is not a “revelation” to me, this piece is. I have been pandering in my artmaking for too long. Thank you for this.

  43. Klatsoot Nekry says:

    Hallelujah. Can’t wait to toast some marshmallows at the conflagration. If you can pardon some encouragement from a dead honkey man, here’s an excerpt from Louis Aragon’s “Adventures of Telemachus” that keeps me warm on cold days:

    “…bust everything, you flat-faced ninnies. You will be the masters of everything you break. They made laws, ethics, aesthetics to instill in you the respect of frail objects. Whatever is frail is fair game for breakage. Try your strength just once; after that I dare you not to continue. Whatever you cannot break will break you, will be your master. Shatter sacrosanct ideas, anything that brings tears to the eyes, shatter, shatter, I bring you without charge that opium more potent than any drug: shatter. Doubt is the darkest, the deepest well ever presented to you: falling into it means an endless descent that will provide you for eternity with the charming sensation of going down in an elevator.”

  44. Katie says:

    thank you for this. I will enjoy reading your writing when you are writing for who you want to write to. Don’t discount writing about motherhood as quaint. Parenting done with intention and attention is a fierce and powerful self excavation, just like writing. So writing about parenting can be double power, if you can get close enough to it.

  45. Rex Stock says:

    Great writing. And, as a white male with nearly 60 years above ground, I think this girl might be on to something (my spellcheck wants me to make on to into one word but I’m going to resist it in a manly manner)… If her cloak doesn’t work, I’m sure mine will… Congratulations, Claire, on some really good stuff!

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