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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.
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.
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.
Stephen Elliott Comes to Town
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.
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.
Watching Boys Do Stuff
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
A fellow on Twitter says:
“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.
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.”
About a year ago I had a baby,
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.
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.
Claire Vaye Watkins is the author of Battleborn and Gold Fame Citrus. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan