Margery Kempe: Medieval Pilgrim, Autobiographer

historical woman

I read about Margery Kempe, in the aptly titled The Book of Margery Kempe, in my senior year of college, for a class on medieval history. My first impression was: “Man, b**** be trippin’.”

Actually, I shouldn't use that word. It was more like, “This woman is really, really annoying.”

Of course, over the years, I’ve come to appreciate what Margery accomplished a tad more. In her self-penned Book, for example, she recounts that time she took a pilgrimage all the way from Britain to the Holy Land by herself. That was no small feat, especially for a non-noblewoman. Even today, if you did that people would be all like, “You’re a woman and you’re going by yourself?”

Margery was born sometime in the late fourteenth century in Norfolk, England, the daughter of a wool merchant and sometime Member of Parliament. In today’s world, she would have maybe been a suburban yuppie. She married a dude named John, had a bunch of kids, and was all set to have a regular medieval suburban yuppie life with him.

But Margery found a higher calling. Literally. (Okay, not literally. I don’t think.) She began to have visions sometime around the birth of her first child. This prompted her to rearrange her priorities and attempt to live more purely. Eventually she gave herself completely to a religious life, even getting her husband to agree to maintain a celibate marriage with her, which sounds like a rough deal.

Her religious adventures included visiting the Holy Land, where she thoroughly irritated all of her fellow pilgrims with her crying spells and general carryings on (can you imagine how crazy you have to be to piss off a bunch of religious pilgrims with your religious fervor?), making the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, and possibly visiting fellow devotional woman and more highly regarded mystic Julian of Norwich. Margery’s husband was actually from Norwich, so they probably had a lot to talk about.

A story to illustrate Margery's, er, extreme personality: When she returned from her Holy Land visit---in which she was almost stranded in Rome because she gave all her money to the poor and her fellow pilgrims had just about had it up to here---she continued to make pilgrimages around Europe, though she was constrained by her lack of resources and her gender. She often wore all white and tended to weep uncontrollably out of devotion to Christ. Her behavior was so odd that many locals accused her of being a heretic, and at one point, she was nearly burned at the stake. However, church authorities intervened, and Margery's knowledge of the Bible and non-heretical views bore her out. She just had really, really crazy ways of putting them into practice.

What really cemented Margery’s fame, however, was the fact that she put all of these wacky life experiences into a book (albeit one that she dictated to a male writer, being likely illiterate herself). This was actually remarkable. Very few people of her status (middle-class-ish), much less women, had their thoughts and feelings recorded for posterity in this way. Through her, historians are today able to understand the religious lives of laypeople and non-nobles.

And I have to hand it to Margery. Sure, she might have been annoying, and overdramatic, and slightly hysterical at times, but she also was pretty damn courageous. It takes courage, undoubtedly, to strike out on one's own, follow one's passions, and not be trapped by what others might think. On a minimally related personal note, I am starting my PhD this week. Which sounds pretty serious. As sometimes happens, I’ve been racked with insecurity and uncertainty—am I good enough? Am I smart enough? When I raise my hand to speak, will something clever come out, or will it be super lame and everyone will point and laugh and be like “ohmygod you guys how did she get in.”

But who cares? Make a fool of yourself. Dance like no one’s watching. Fall down and have sparkly visions of Jesus and alienate everyone around you. As long as you’re doing what you love, what the heck does it matter? You might still end up with a book that’s remembered five hundred years later, or at least that gets you on the “History” shelf at Barnes & Noble next to Doris Kearns Goodwin and Jared Diamond.

Margery gets it. She's there too.

"What Are You Writing, Alexis M. Smith?"

what are you writing alexis

Sometimes, on the rarest of rare occasions, a story just happens to you. You don’t expect it; you assume it will contain words similar to stories past. And then it shocks you, but a pleasant jolt akin to a dear, long lost friend tapping you on the shoulder. This is the only way to describe Alexis M. Smith’s delicate tale, Glaciers. I read it in one day, which was a struggle because I wanted it to last longer, but I intend to peruse my own copy from here on out. Ms. Smith is currently working on another book, and she lives in Portland, Oregon with her son.-Samantha Bohnert

It is strange to be a writer in the summertime. I don’t know if this is true for other writers (I have anecdotal evidence that I’m not alone), but I struggle to engage with my writing in the summer months. I might as well be trying to ice skate as I write a novel from June to September. I was born in the Pacific Northwest, so I assume that the heat is what’s doing me in, but it could just as easily be the world outside—berries to pick, mountains to hike, rivers to swim—calling me out of my head, making writing laborious.

Faced with a page of words I can’t seem to make sense of, all I really want to do is go to the beach. Sitting on the sand and listening to the waves should be a good way to reflect on the work at hand, to let my mind comb through snags in the story. But I usually find myself overwhelmed with my own smallness, my own inability to express anything that might come close to the world I envision. What I usually do, after vain attempts at conscious, constructive thought, is hunt for agates. I have the eye, it turns out. I see agates when others don’t, when others have walked right past them, scanning the ground, turning over larger rocks. I find them when others proclaim that there are none to be found, that they just don’t exist like they used to, since they built the jetty over there, or since this or that beach became popular with tourists.

I found a blue agate half the size of my palm one day in Oceanside, Oregon, while rock hounds all around me found nothing, poking their walking sticks glumly at the pebbles. I didn’t hold it up to the light for everyone to see. I didn’t want to feel their envy. I didn’t want to feel like the lucky one. I dropped it into my pocket so that I could examine it alone, later. I wanted to look at it carefully, to appraise its weight and colors, the way it filtered the late-day light. I wanted to see it fully before I shared it with anyone. What if it was not precious at all? Or what if it was the most beautiful specimen I’d ever find? What if it was both at the same time? The novel I’m writing has been in my head for almost five years now. It came to me in a dream, soon after my son was born, when the hormones were still strong and my dreams were wild and intricate and bright. I woke up and asked my son’s dad to take him for a while so I could go into another room and write it all down. I knew it was a book. I knew that I would write it. And I knew that it would be important to me, writing this book. But I had another novel to finish in the mean time, and a newborn, and a day job.

Years passed; my son grew; my first novel was greeted with (miraculous!) acclaim and goodwill. And all the while, in a pocket of my mind, this other book grew and grew. I scribbled notes and sources and inspiration in a notebook. Scenes came to me suddenly when I was doing the dishes or folding laundry. Character sketches fleshed out, the plot took on dimension, and symbolism crept in. I felt a charge of energy whenever I talked about it with friends, whenever I thought of what it could be.

Agates form in volcanic rock, where voids in the rock leave room for silica-rich water to seep. Over time, under great heat and pressure, the silica and other minerals crystalize in the spaces. Here in Oregon, we find the remnants of these agates on our beaches, where the Pacific washes them from our basalt coastal cliffs, breaking them apart, scouring them over other rocks with each wave and each tide, polishing them.

Agate hunting was a family past time; I learned young not to ignore what was underfoot at the beach. Over long hours of contemplating the waterline as a child, I developed a fanciful sense that each agate found me as much as I found it. We were destined to meet, there on that shore, at that ebb-tide, as if only I could appreciate the expanse of time it had taken this small wonder to find the light. No matter how many agates I find, that moment of discovery always takes my breath away.

Similarly, when I get the idea for a story, there’s also the uncanny feeling that I have nothing to do with its genesis. The story comes from somewhere outside me, and I am only the space in which it will expand, take on density and weight, color and luminosity; that it was meant for me, and me for it, at the bidding of something greater than both of us. Some days, this comes as a relief: I can give up my self-doubt to a higher power. Other days, the responsibility seems overwhelming: how will I ever be equal to this task?

A few days ago, summer on its last, burnished legs, I got in the car and headed out of town on a whim. I couldn’t face the computer all day in the city heat, construction hammering across the street from my apartment. I sat on the beach, thinking of the story that had been crystalizing in my mind, hoping the ocean would scour away whatever stood between me and the glorious, layered, dynamic thing I wanted it to be. The water retreated and I waited to see what would be there, on the pebbly stretch of beach. With the sun at that low angle, the small, wet gems gleam more like jellyfish than rock, but I didn’t catch the telltale glint. Finally, when I was ready to give up, I saw one. No one around, I plucked it from the sand and held it up to the light, admiring the glow.

This is the thing I come back to now: the luck of it all. Here I am, sun-drunk, on a deadline, with pages and pages ahead of me, wondering, What if it’s the most beautiful story I’ll ever write? What if, after all this fretting, it’s not precious at all? And what if I’m lucky either way?

Orange Is the New Black and Diverse Ensemble Casts

I’ve been binge-watching (is that what it’s called?) the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black for the last week, especially since I just moved to a small Midwestern town and my laptop is one of my only pieces of furniture. It’s great. It’s hilarious, the characters are super compelling, the actresses are beyond amazing. It’s an almost all-female cast. It has a great Regina Spektor opening which is NONSTOP IN MY HEAD (“Taking steps is easy / Standing still is ha-a-ard!”).

The series follows the trials and tribulations of protagonist Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), a Smith-educated wasp in her late twenties or early thirties who, while ostensibly living a stable yuppie life with her clean-cut Jewish writer fiancé (Jason Biggs), once had a serious relationship with a badass lesbian drug smuggler (Laura Prepon) which resulted in her transporting drug money across the ocean. Now, years later, she’s been convicted and is serving fifteen months in minimum security women’s prison. We see her voluntarily “surrender” to the prison, looking extremely out of place and comparing her new prison-issued slippers to Tom’s shoes.

Immediately, she’s thrown into a world of bizarre rules, barter systems, creative use of commissary resources, pronounced racial divides, and variously corrupt prison officials, and must learn to navigate it, to often humorous, sometimes tragic, effect. Plus—fun pre-prison flashbacks that spotlight a different character each week.

The thing about this series, and the reason that it’s been the subject of a lot of interesting conversations since it began, is that it has a lot of problems, but it has a lot of really good things. And all of it is worth discussing.

One of the biggest complaints: Despite the fact that nearly one in 100 adult Americans is incarcerated (!!), making it a huge part of the American landscape, we only hear or care about this experience when our protagonist is an upper middle class white lady who totally doesn’t belong there. It’s all a fluke! It’s like a prison ethnography for all of us on the outside!

There have also been complaints about the perpetuation of racial stereotypes. Piper discovers immediately that the prison population is essentially self-segregated along racial lines: the whites, the blacks, the “Spanish,” and the others (mostly represented by a mustachioed older Asian lady with poor English skills, one of the show’s more obvious stereotypes). “It’s tribes. It’s not racist,” says Morello (Yael Stone), a white inmate. And to be sure, the black and Latina inmates occasionally appear as racial caricatures. But the interesting thing about the show’s dynamic is that the very fact of the environment’s extremely racialized structure allows these caricature  moments to be “surface,” to be othered perception or extreme self-awareness (as with Tasty’s impassioned defense of fried chicken in her WAC campaign speech). Racial stereotypes show up on the show, but the story doesn’t stop with the stereotype—you keep learning about and fleshing out even those who may have seemed one dimensional, and you do it in a setting that is hyper aware of the social realities of race.

As for Piper’s privileged status: creator Jenji Kohan recently gave an interview with NPR in which she called Piper her “Trojan horse” into the more interesting, more diverse show setting of a women’s prison. Translation: she sold it with a white middle-class protagonist but doing so allows us to access to poor minority characters as well as issues specific to being in the prison system. I feel like this is both a sad acknowledgement of the reality of the television landscape (shows with minority leads, especially ones representing a lower-class background, have much more difficulty getting aired), and a canny way of working the system to still tell really great stories about minority women in prison. Some of the show’s best characters are the supporting ones: the aforementioned Tasty (Danielle Brooks), Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba), Miss Claudette (Michelle Hurst), and, notably, Sophia (Laverne Cox), a transgender black woman played by a transgender actress—still a rarity on any kind of TV.

In this, “Orange” reminds me a bit of the often terrific ensemble cast of “Lost”: a white romantic triangle at the forefront (Jack, Kate, Sawyer) but a giant diverse supporting cast who got significant screen time and complex parts to play (most notably, Daniel Dae Kim and Yunjin Kim as Korean couple Jin and Sun, and Naveen Andrews as former Iraqi Republican Guard officer Sayid; though, to be fair, Andrews is British of Indian background in real life, continuing a long tradition of Indians playing Arabs).

Perhaps an interesting counterexample to this white lead, diverse ensemble phenomenon can be found in Shonda Rimes’ “Scandal,” starring the amazing Kerry Washington. "Scandal" has been much touted as having the first black female lead on network drama since 1974. Washington’s character, Olivia Pope, is the epitome of power and grace, a major player in D.C. politics. The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum refers to the show as a “post-racial fantasy." Basically, in the “Scandal” universe, race is never an issue. As such, it’s groundbreaking, but it’s simultaneously status quo-reinforcing. In some ways, “Orange” is the opposite of that.

While it’s screwy that television and media still work this way, and while there’s plenty to criticize about a show like “Orange Is the New Black,” I think we should still celebrate its small victories. And hope that its good qualities are pointing our media landscape in new and ever-better directions.

Chilly Winter Books for Hot Summer Days

what are you reading randon

Randon Billings Noble is a creative nonfiction writer living in Washington, DC.  A graduate of NYU’s MFA program and a former teacher of writing at American University, her work has been published in the Modern Love column of The New York Times; The Massachusetts Review;  The Millions; Brain, Child and elsewhere. She has been a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Vermont Studio Center, and was named a 2013 Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation Creative Fellow to be a resident at the Millay Colony for the Arts. You can follow her on Twitter at @randonnoble and read more of her work at ww.randonbillingsnoble.com

During the dog days of summer it’s easy to get impatient with the weather and yearn for brisk October days and snowy December nights.  But reading these three wintery novels may help you keep your cool – and appreciate the warmth of August while it lasts.

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

Mabel and Jack have started over, moved to Alaska and tried to leave their past (their stillborn child, their family farmland) behind them.  But their longing for a child will not leave.  In a fit of fun they build a child from snow … who may come to life.  Mabel knows a version of this story – a fairy tale written in Russian, a language she can’t read – but even with her knowledge, can she keep the child she has grown to love?  Or is a springtime melting the child’s only fate?  Ivey’s novel is a retelling – of sorts – of the classic fairy tale but with twists and turns all its own.

Blankets by Craig Thompson

Mostly set during one Midwestern winter, Blankets, a graphic novel, is the extended coming of age story of a boy raised in a rural, highly religious household.  Craig suffers from a harrowing betrayal of his brother as a child and terrible ordeals at school and at church, where his drawing is misunderstood at best and seen as a sin at worst.  Enter Raina: a beautiful girl he meets at church camp, a girl with her own burdened past.  Their relationship grows and he goes to Wisconsin to visit her for two weeks over winter break.  Those two weeks will leave him changed forever …

The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett

Naturalist Erasmus Wells boards the Narwhal in search of botanical and animal specimens more than adventure.  But when the expedition’s commander – and Erasmus’s sister’s fiancé – forces them to winter over in a sea of Arctic ice, each crew member is tested in ways he could never predict.  Are they in search of Franklin’s lost crew?  Are they trying to find an open polar sea?  Or does Zeke have other ideas about what he means to accomplish so far from home?  And if they ever return, how will Erasmus reconcile what he has learned during his terrible ordeal with the happiness of those closest to him at home?

Reading about Alaskan winters, Midwestern blizzards and an ice-locked ship stranded in the Arctic will have you grateful for 95-degree days and 80-degree nights as well as eager to curl up with a cup of hot chocolate and another good book come winter.

Kösem Sultan: Ruler of the Ottoman Empire

historical woman

(Note: Be careful when you Google her name. Nothing bad, but there is a Kosen Sultan who appears to hold the Guinness record for being the world’s tallest man, so not to be confused.)

So the “harem” is one of my favorite not-favorite Orientalist tropes. (“Favorite not-favorite” is one of my favorite phrases.) It’s also a very misunderstood concept, heavily romanticized in Western art and literature and imagined as a sexually debauched space where scantily clad women lounge on divans smoking hookah and pleasuring, well, pretty much any dude who walks in the door. You can see why it’s been popular.

In reality, the harem was an enclosed space for the women of the royal household, etymologically derived from the Arabic haram—forbidden—which allowed elite women to live in seclusion and yet still have access to and even exert control over the seat of power. In the Ottoman Empire, the women of the harem could be very influential, even enjoying a period in the 16th and 17th centuries known as the “Sultanate of Women” when, through regencies and political strategizing, they were practically in charge. It’s worth noting that this partly coincided with the height of the Empire’s power.

Kösem Sultan is one of the most extraordinary of these women. Born on a small Greek island around 1585, she eventually made her way to Constantinople at age fifteen, sold into the harem of the Ottoman Sultan Ahmed I, where she became a favorite of his and then became one of his wives.

Ahmed died in 1617, and in 1623 Kösem’s son Murad IV became Sultan and Kösem became Valide Sultan, or Mother of the Sultan. Because Murad was a minor, Kösem was his official regent—the first woman to ever rule the Ottoman Empire and one of only two who ever would. She was regent for nine years.

Now, as I hinted at earlier, the Ottoman Empire in this period was nothing to sneeze at. Its subjects numbered around thirty million, and its reach extended across North Africa, Eastern Europe, and most of what we now know as the Middle East. Like many empires, it could have probably quit while it was ahead circa 1550, but continued to expand and was mostly still doing A-OK until 1683, when the Ottomans whiffed at the disastrous siege of Vienna, undertaken by Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa Pasha.

So Murad finally came of age, did alright, then died eight years later. Kösem’s other son, Ibrahim I, took the throne, but dude was kind of a mess (random headaches, bouts of physical weakness, mental instability) and Kösem was basically the power behind the throne. Then Ibrahim was deposed and Kösem craftily presented her seven-year-old grandson, Mehmed IV, as the new sultan, and thus became regent for Time No. 2.

This second bout of imperial power was only to last three years, however, before she was challenged by her daughter-in-law Turhan Hatice, mother of Mehmed and another major harem imperial power player. Turhan heard rumors that Kösem was plotting to remove Mehmed from the throne and replace him with another grandson—not one of Turhan’s—and it’s likely that it was Turhan who ordered Kösem’s assassination. Legend has it she was murdered by a eunuch, who strangled her with her own hair. Yikes.

Thus ended the tumultuous, Showtime miniseries-style life of Kösem Sultan. I would actually endorse the making of such a miniseries if I didn’t feel like it would be an Orientalist mess waiting to happen.

Kösem Sultan’s story is entertaining, and her bids for power are impressive, but not so great is the implication that women basically had two options in the Ottoman Empire: to be invisible, or to be a conniving power-hungry b-word. It’s a false dichotomy, but it’s how historical women tend to be remembered. She may very well have been these things, but let’s take into account the falsehoods of historical memory and the persistence of exaggerated feminine tropes, not to mention the potential Orientalization of otherwise straightforward political history (a eunuch? strangled with her own hair? it's almost too perfect), and instead celebrate(?) the awesome ambition of Kösem, the sultan-iest of Ottoman royal women.

How It Will Come Back to the Beginning

postcards from france

More than seven years after I first meet her, Madeleine has a baby girl named Cléa. On Facebook she looks like any other baby, small and pink and bundled in blankets, but I can tell that she’s different. And I get to meet her in less than a week.

I’ve been working on the lavender harvest outside of Aix for two weeks, followed by a week at Juliette’s house helping her to make cheesecakes and scones to sell at the market. I’m making my way up north, stopping to visit Alice in Paris, where she is living my adolescent dream with her small apartment, her French boyfriend, and her studies at the Sorbonne. Now I’m catching the train from Paris to Caen, where Clémence, Roger, Pauline, Fréd, and Madeleine are waiting. And now Cléa.

I imagine her seventeen years old and coming to stay with me in San Francisco late one summer. She’ll speak classroom English and will be surprised that the bathroom and les toilettes are the same room in the United States and she’ll discover a newfound love for bagels, like Clémence did. She can stay for as long she wants, I’ve decided. It’ll be the least I can do.

[you can read all of Liv's postcards here]

Lady Jane Grey: Nine Day Queen, Fabled Innocent

historical woman

 

I usually focus on historical women who have accomplished a whole lot, against all odds and expectations given their oppressive historical contexts. Today I wanted to spotlight a historical woman who didn’t really do much. She was only queen for nine days, and most of that time was spent inside a dungeon. Then she was killed. Before her seventeenth birthday.

What I think Jane Grey’s story represents is a necessary counterweight to the often triumphal stories of the women that grace our history books—those few exceptional ladies who managed to rule countries, win wars, write books, etc. and are given lots of retrospective pats on the back for it. (And sometimes a more subtle “hey if she could do it, what are y’all complaining about!” as well.) Jane Grey is instead a woman whose time in the spotlight was brief and whose fate was largely out of her own hands. In that, I think she better represents the plight of many women in her time, and lots of other times. But either way, we know very little about her.

What we do know: Jane Grey was an English noblewoman, born around 1537, whose father became the Duke of Suffolk (hereafter referred to as “Suffolk” because of wacky British landed title conventions). As a sixteenth-century teenage girl related to royalty, she was clearly ripe for some strategic marriage alliance-ing. For a time it looked like she’d be marrying her cousin, Edward VI, a son of Henry VIII who would become king. Instead, she was married to the son of the Duke of Northumberland (hereafter referred to as Northumberland—see above).

Remember that this was all in the midst of that Protestant Reformation thing. Note that Edward VI was kind of on Team Protestant. But there were others on Team Catholic. Important background.

Edward VI was king for a short time. Then, on his death bed at the age of fifteen (!!), Edward proclaimed that, rather than his half-sisters and fellow wacky Henry VIII brood members Mary or Elizabeth (IDEA: Muppet Babies-style animated show “Baby Tudors”), he should have his successor be Lady Jane Grey. Northumberland and his fellow pro-Protestant conspirators allegedly brought about Edward’s change of heart. Jane, as it is, was a devout Protestant. Hence, she and her husband Guildford (real name) ascended to the throne on July 10, 1553.

Nine days pass. And they’re kicked out.

The villainess in this little story is Mary, who became queen after Jane. Mary was Team Catholic all the way. When she made her claim to the throne, she had Jane, Guildford, and Jane’s dad Suffolk imprisoned in (where else) the Tower of London. Suffolk was set free shortly thereafter. It might have ended there—even though Jane and Guildford were found guilty of treason, it seems that even Bloody Mary realized that the two didn’t deserve to, you know, die or anything. That would just be messed up.

But then.

A dude named Thomas Wyatt started a rebellion in order to reinstate a Protestant ruler to the throne (his pick: Elizabeth instead of Jane). Wyatt’s Rebellion had many supporters, including Jane’s dad, Suffolk. Mary wasn’t having any of it. She quashed the rebellion, killed Wyatt, and, because Jane’s dad was involved, ordered Jane, Guildford, and Suffolk all beheaded.

There’s a famous painting that hangs in the National Gallery in London (see it, it’s gorgeous) by Paul Delaroche called The Execution of Lady Jane Grey. The incredibly lifelike figures on the wall-sized canvas include the Lieutenant of the Tower of London, who leads the blindfolded Jane to the execution block; two weeping ladies in waiting; and the executioner, leaning on his large axe. It’s an incredibly striking scene—Jane is all in white, practically glowing with innocence, literally being blindly led by a man to her gruesome fate. It made an impression on me to the extent that years later I felt compelled to write about her. Of course, as many scholars have pointed out, such representations of Lady Jane simply perpetuate her role as an abstraction of female helplessness and innocence, even a Protestant martyr. It’s important to remember that she was a real human being, a highly educated noblewoman with her own beliefs and ambitions (though these were likely largely overridden by those of the people around her). Maybe she would have made an excellent queen! Who knows? Her cousin Elizabeth certainly did. But you already know about her.

What Are You Writing?

what are you writing jenny hollowell?

In my last column, interlaced throughout was a yearning for second chances. For Jenny Hollowell, her focus lies on a second book, a project that hearkens back to the arduous task of completing her first novel Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe. All of the same fears, insecurities, and thoughts of isolation when writing come back with a fury, but Ms. Hollowell has taken this second leap, and fights right back. She currently resides in Los Angeles with husband, and two daughters. A more extensive write-up on her can be found here.

- Samantha Bohnert 

I am working on my second book. I’m two years into the process and suspect I have about two more years to go. The first book took about four years too. I’ve had some well-intentioned friends express surprise that a second novel could take as long as the first. They’ve said to me, “But you know what you’re doing now.” This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Since writing that first book, I possess exactly one new piece of relevant information: I’ve done this once before. But it isn’t easier. I am finding that my experience only makes me more aware of when a sentence isn’t working, or when a character feels thinly drawn, or when I’m settling for good enough instead of truly good. It is still a daily battle to dig deep, to be clear, and to grapple with meaning in a way that feels true and worth telling.

One of the many destructive trains of thought a writer can follow is that every other writer knows what they’re doing, and that you are alone in feeling lost, incapable some days of rendering even a simple sentence with clarity. This is the myth that too many of us believe: that to "normal" or "real" writers, writing comes easily. That it’s never a slog for them, that they never feel hopeless or come up empty.

Writing is isolating enough without feeding the illusion that we’re also alone in that sense of lostness. I suspect that writers at any stage of their writing lives—whether we have two years under our belts, or ten years, or thirty—are mostly doing the same thing. We’re sitting at our desks feeling not quite up to the task. But if we wait for the moment we feel truly ready for it, well, we would never write a word.

This is where belief comes in. Finding the faith, however irrational, that this will all amount to something in the end. The good sentences will add up, and the bad ones will get discarded, and eventually you will have written something great. Yes. This. Will. Happen.

Sometimes that belief originates from a person in a writing group, or a teacher, an agent, a friend. Maybe they read a few pages and see the promise. They write, “Keep going!” in the corner of the top page, and that’s reason enough to do as they say, to keep going and see where the going takes you.

Sometimes that belief comes from someplace more unexpected. From a painting, a dream, a stranger. While writing my first book I had a chance encounter with a swami in Los Angeles. He stopped me on a sidewalk in Los Feliz and told me he had just seen a vision of my future. This was outside of Skylight Books, and I had just been wandering the aisles, flipping through novels and daydreaming. His sudden appearance—in flowing orange robes, by my parking meter—felt magical, like turning a page and meeting a new character.

He wrote my initials down on a piece of paper to show that he could “see things about me.” Then he wrote my husband’s. “Was I right?” he asked. I nodded, rooted to the ground. Then he said what he wanted to tell me. That he could see that I was having difficulty with a very big project, but that the situation would improve and the project would be completed the following year. Then he gave me a talisman, a small wax seal, to carry for luck.

As he walked away, I remember experiencing two thoughts at the exact same time. That was insane. And oh, thank God! His prediction was mystical, irrational, and exactly what I needed. I needed to encounter the radical belief that I would finish my novel. I needed someone to say that it could be done and that it would be done, that it was a foreseen conclusion.

Now, as I work on this second book, I try to hold on to that sense of belief as the sentences pile up slowly and as my page count ebbs and flows. I’ve kept the talisman that the swami gave me. Sometimes I go entire months without thinking of it, and then suddenly I will. I will remember it because it has been a dry day, or a dry week, or I’ve battled with a difficult scene, or I’ve cut pages that weren’t working, pages that used to feel just fine. I’ll remember it because I need it.

Then I pull the seal from its hiding place and hold it in the palm of my hand. I make myself remember. It’s not finished yet, but it will be.

Male Authors, Female Authors, and Serious Literature

strong female characters

I just finished reading Jeffrey Eugenides’ most recent novel, The Marriage Plot, and having done so, felt more equipped to ponder a rather inflammatory statement he made last September regarding perceived difference in treatment of women authors’ work in relation to that of their male colleagues.

Jodi Picoult had tweeted the following: “NYT raved about Franzen's new book. Is anyone shocked? Would love to see the NYT rave about authors who aren't white male literary darlings.”

Ostensibly, she was criticizing the fact that while her books covered similar ground as Franzen’s, they were treated very differently by publishers and critics alike. Even the cover designs send out “chick lit” signals, while Franzen’s look more “serious author consider this for an award please.”

It could have been left at that. But Jeffrey Eugenides, himself an acclaimed male author, felt compelled to chime in. In an interview with Salon, he called Picoult’s complaints “belly-aching” and said, "I didn’t really know why Jodi Picoult is complaining. She’s a huge best-seller and everyone reads her books, and she doesn’t seem starved for attention."

Here’s where I’m like, hold up, Eugenides.

While it would be unseemly for Picoult to complain about any lack of commercial success, there is a difference between that and critical success, aka being taken seriously as a writer. I’m not super familiar with her work, so I don’t actually know how good of a writer she is. But—at the very least—she is Ivy League-educated, very prolific, and sells millions of novels, albeit ones that must single-handedly keep a lot of hand models specializing in soft lighting and tender gestures in business.

And therein can lie part of the problem. A book’s marketing goes a long way in determining its reception. If the publisher thinks a book will sell to a middle-aged, light-reading crowd, they’ll commission cover designs and blurbs that appeal to said crowd. While such marketing is often astute, it also precludes the possibility that those books will ever be Taken Seriously.

And as author Maureen Johnson recently wrote in the Huffington Post, “The simple fact of the matter is, if you are a female author, you are much more likely to get the package that suggests the book is of a lower perceived quality.”

Eugenides may or may not be right that Picoult herself has nothing to complain about. But his casual shrug-off of any kind of gender gap in the promotion and reception of modern literature seems at best naïve, at worst super male privilege-y.

I like Jeffrey Eugenides a lot. I’ve read all three of his novels, and interestingly all of them devote major page time to female characters in mostly sensitive and nuanced ways. The Virgin Suicides is told from the point of view of a chorus of neighborhood boys who are obsessed with the five sisters of the tragic Lisbon family. While the boys never truly understand the girls’ pain, there is a deep cosmic sympathy that courses through the narrative—even as the girls remain inscrutable, it is always understood that they are flawed breathing human beings.

Middlesex (which I reviewed on my book blog) is an epic chronicle of Cal Stephanides, born Calliope, a hermaphroditic boy who spends the first fourteen years of his life as a girl. Again, while hardly an LGBTQ anthem, the book deftly deals with the fluidity of gender and sexuality, as well as the persistent presence of “Cal” in both a female and male body.

It wasn’t until I read his most recent novel, The Marriage Plot, that I could see where Eugenides might go wrong. The narrative is told from three points of view, your classic love triangle between Madeleine, Mitchell, and Leonard. Mitchell, like Cal, has a lot in common with Eugenides himself and is fully fleshed out. Leonard suffers from bipolar disorder, and his passages are often gut-wrenching. But Madeleine? She’s kind of a privileged, boy-crazy twit. It’s not that she’s entirely unsympathetic—but she’s uninteresting, un-fleshed-out, and seems to exist (even with omniscient narration) as the cardboard fantasy of Mitchell’s ill-advised romantic desires.

Further, and here’s where the irony gets delicious: The Marriage Plot’s title and content could have lent themselves to the most chick lit-y of marketing campaigns. Madeleine is an English major obsessed with Austen, and though somewhat subversive Eugenides’ narration does self-consciously follow the old marriage plots within his modern (and postmodern) 1980s setting. Yet the cover for his book, the blurbs, and its placement in the bookstore are all miles away from Jodi Picoult’s stuff. Is this the proof he needs that male and female authors’ work are often given unequal treatments? Could a woman author have written something called The Marriage Plot about a college girl in love and been taken seriously as Literature? It’s debatable, but it's doubtful, and it’s definitely worth asking.

For more on this thought experiment, I highly recommend that you check out Maureen Johnson's May 2013 Huffington Post article, which showcases the results of her Twitter project to “gender-flip” famous novel covers—including The Marriage Plot.

Meet the Local: Accra, Ghana

mind the gap

Meet the Local is a series designed to uncover the differences (and similarities) in how we think and live in different parts of the world.  Over the upcoming months, I’ll ask locals from places all over the world the same set of getting-to-know-you questions.  This week, we travel to Ghana, where it's typical to have both a Christian name and a local name---so meet Jane, or Nana Ama Nyamekye.  She was born in Kumasi, and now lives in Accra, Ghana's capital, where she works at The Hunger Project, a NGO that focuses on empowering people to end their own hunger.  

Meet the Local, Ghana

What do you like about the place you live?

The people around are quite warm.  They show their communal spirits, and I communicate well with them.

What don’t you like so much?

The roads.  They are untarred, they are dusty.  When it rains, it becomes quite difficult to get anywhere, to even walk, because it’s muddy, and there are a lot of potholes so if someone is driving and someone passes by, you can get quite wet if the driver doesn’t avoid it.

What do you normally eat for breakfast?

I like local porridge, it’s made from millet and ginger and a little chili pepper.  We call it koose---it’s made from black eyed peas.  You can eat bread with it, but I feel like the bread is too heavy, so I mix it with the porridge.  Sometimes I have hot chocolate with it.

What do you do for a living?  How important is your job to your sense of self?

I’m into small scale banking, so to speak---I’m in micro finance.  I work with a NGO whose goals I really admire.  My job makes me feel fulfilled in that I grew up in an environment where people could be very intelligent but because they lacked the financial ability, they couldn’t reach whatever targets or goals they set for themselves.  My job looks at ensuring that people are economically self sufficient.  It aligns with myself, my personal feeling and hope for the world.  I expect people to be okay, I expect people to be looking out for a world that embraces people, that people will be given opportunities to make ends meet.  I believe that everybody has potential, and that, given the opportunity, they can meet the goals they set for themselves.  This job allows people to be uplifted.

What do you do for fun?

I like to be with kids---they’re adorable.  I like to admire their innocence.  But mostly, I unwind my day with a movie, or sometimes I end my day by listening to gospel preaching.

How often do you see your family?  Tell me what you did the last time you saw them.

The last time I saw my family was in the end of May, a little while ago, but I will see them this weekend.  With my cousins, they are a little older than me, but they are all involved in corporate institutions, so first I try to talk about how we can help women, and women in the workplace.  But sometimes we just talk about family.  Last time we met, they asked me to help plan my auntie’s birthday.

What’s your biggest dream for your life?

My dream is to be able to get a PhD, something that will be beneficial to other people. I want to do research, and maybe to lecture as time goes on, so that the experience that I’ve gathered can be combined with the academic world so that I can be efficient and effect change.

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?  Why?

I always want to be in Ghana, because the people are warm, and because I have the chance to improve upon the systems.  I want to make it so most people can go to school, and then most people can give back to society, especially in the rural areas.  So yeah, I would want to be in Ghana.

 What are you most proud of?

I’m proud of being a change agent.  In my line of work, I work with people who want to take a step forward in their economic adventures.  I get so happy and proud when people tell me how their lives have changed from nothing to economic self-sufficiency.  I have more than a hundred women who had nothing, no savings, but have saved now amounting to more than 500 Ghana cedis (approximately $250 USD).  They’ve been able to send their children to school, some to the tertiary levels.  I get so happy when I realize that people are not always just sitting down folding their arms but they are always trying to work, to change their lives.

 How happy would you say you are?  Why?

I would say I’m happy, I’m fulfilled, even though I haven’t gotten to my limit yet.  There is always room for improvement.  I know that I’m working in a good team, and my team members are all working together to achieve the same goals.  In my home, there is peace---with my husband, everything is okay.  When I go to the field, I meet my women who embrace me with huge smiles because of the changes they’re seeing in their lives.

Check out previous answers from locals in Lisbon, Sarajevo, Sydney, and London.  Want to participate in Meet the Local or know someone who does?  Email liz@thingsthatmakeus.com for more details.

xxxxiv. états-unis

postcards from france

In third grade, I find an old French textbook, dusty and used, buried in the stacks of books in the back of my classroom. It’s called something like Parlons! and has photos of 80s-styled people sipping coffees on the cover, the Notre Dame cathedral in the background. My 8-year-old self is enchanted. I’m too young to know when something is kitschy. I take the book home and that evening I make my first vocabulary list, folding a sheet of lined paper down the middle. French words and phrases go on one side, English translations on the other. I stick with the basics from the introductory chapter. Je m’appelle Olivia. Je suis américaine.

Introverts on the Internet

I was on my way to a first-time meet-up with some women I’d been admiring quietly online for a while. I loved their work and believed so much in what they were doing. And then, when the opportunity arose to meet in real life, well, it seemed too good to be true. Of course I would go. Except, the thought of meeting in person also set my already overactive worry machine spinning. I’m sure most anyone would get butterflies at the idea of meeting her idol. But it was deeper than that. It was the worry about kale in my teeth or saying something awkward, but it was also the worry about being disappointing or disappointed.

And so, I did what I always do when I don’t know what to do: I phoned a wise friend for advice. Here is what she said.

Arrive early, and pretend that you’re the hostess. Make it your job to make sure everyone else is having a good time.

At first, it seemed counterintuitive. What about being fashionably late? Isn’t it awkward being the first one to arrive?

I took her advice, though, and it worked like magic. I arrived at the hip (and rather intimidating) bar just as the door was being propped open. I gave the bartender a shrug—“I guess I’m early?”—and played musical chairs among all the empty stools until I found the one I liked. After perusing the menu for a long while, I knew just what to order and what to recommend.

By the time the others began trickling in, I felt at home, and I wanted to make sure everyone else felt that way too. I made a point of saying warm hellos and of staying late for the last warm goodbyes. For the whole middle of the event—the part with overlapping voices and jostling for attention—I was a quiet observer, taking note of social dynamics and the ebb and flow of conversation. Meaningful bookends to the evening were my first priority.

In Susan Cain’s book, Quiet, she recommends a similar approach to parents of introverted children. When it comes to large gatherings, she says, “It’s much easier to be one of the earlier guests, so your child feels as if other people are joining him in a space that he 'owns,' rather than having to break into a preexisting group.”

I’ve taken this advice to heart for in-person gatherings, but I’ve often wondered what to do about introversion online. Unless you’ve just started your very own community with yourself as the first member, it is nearly impossible to ever feel that you’ve joined an internet community or conversation early. How often have I come across a blog post that’s months old but feels as if it’s speaking directly to me, right now. Then, my excitement gives way to disappointment as the end of the article begets a “conversation” in the comments that’s 800-posts long. My initial impulse to respond and connect over the topic is shut down by the sense that the party was way too big, and more importantly, is long over. How could I possibly come up with anything interesting to contribute?

It happens too with online communities. An internet space you’d never heard of catches you off-guard, and you smile with anticipation while creating an account. But the process culminates in one of those inevitable “Who to Follow” pages, complete with an illustrious welcoming committee of celebrities and internet personalities. A rock lands in the pit of your stomach. Oh, no! I’m already late, and everyone else is already here.

I felt that way when I first joined Twitter. I remember remarking aloud that it felt like shouting in a crowded room. Why is everyone yelling? I thought. I couldn’t actually hear them, of course, but something about the fast-paced stream updating in real time seemed loud and overwhelming. It was as if I were standing on the sidelines of a chaotic race, looking hard for an opening to join in too.

It took some listening and observing, but before long, I caught the rhythm of the conversation. Fast forward to today, and Twitter is just another one of the many ways I communicate. It has its own rituals and idiosyncrasies, like any community, but by now, it feels familiar. I wonder, though, about my fellow introverts, especially those on the sidelines of internet conversations, waiting for an opening or an invitation to participate.

If the internet had a doorway, I’d love to stand at the entrance with a sign that says, “Welcome, quiet people.” We could gather at the entrance to stare at each others’ shoes and then work up the courage together to make our way toward all of the commotion. I’d want to make sure that every voice was valued, even (and especially) those who need some time for reflection before jumping into the fray.

The Chickens Wake At Five

diary of a filmmaker

Dear Diary, The chickens wake at five.

I swing open the creaky door of their coop and they dart out into the yard. They high-step through the garden, bobbing through basil, pecking at tomato plants. Sometimes they scratch up a cloud of dust then sink their bellies into the dirt.

The chickens are named Himalaya and Buddha. They are both thick and strong, but Buddha is a little smaller and more docile than Himalaya. Their glossy feathers are red and black and they shine like oil slicks in the sunlight.

I don’t know much about chickens. I assumed the eggs would come in the morning. But when I open the lid to the hay filled box where they sleep, all I find are two chicken shaped indentations. It’s not until late afternoon that they appear, those two pastel ovals in the yellow straw.

I collect the two eggs in the afternoon. Each egg is smooth, warm, and oblong. Holding them in my palm I’m reminded of the symbol for infinity. Like the symbol, the eggs are matched halves---shells containing, curves repeating.

I blame Alice Walker for thinking like this about chickens, for trying to see the universe in a bird, for trying to see poetry in poultry. Around this time last year I was reading Walker's  “The Chicken Chronicles: Sitting with the Angels Who Have Returned with My Memories.” I found myself enchanted with Walker’s meditative and philosophical writing, and entertained that her observations where drawn from contemplating the behavior and being of her flock of chickens.

I should probably explain how I came to have chickens in the first place. I’m housesitting in Brooklyn in exchange for chicken keeping, dehumidifier emptying, and acting as liaison to a visiting French family who will be staying in the upstairs portion of the house.

The place is stunning. A classic Brooklyn brownstone on a quiet tree lined block. I’m here with my dog and my computer and not much else. We’ve retreated here so I’ll have time and mental space to complete my documentary project and to apply to grants. At home my attention dissolved into chores, work, television, more chores, more television. Here I get up early for the chickens and the dog, work on editing and writing and transcribing, walk to get a coffee, loll in the park.

This is not my real life, I remind myself.

This is a single six-week escape. It’s a special time for working and writing.

It's time I’ve come to understand I need in order to actually make progress on creative projects. I hardly leave the apartment. I walk the same loop to the grocery store, the coffee shop, the park, the apartment. Oddly enough, if I were to trace my daily walking routines on a map they would take the shape of an ellipse. An oblong, egg-like trajectory. Contained, repeating.

Annie Oakley: Sharpshooter. Gunslinger.

historical woman

I don’t like guns. I don’t like the sound they make when they go off, and I don’t like what they tend to stand for politically. I also don’t like that a man who killed a teenager with a gun can be found innocent of manslaughter and then walk away with the same gun.

But before I digress. I do like Annie Oakley.

Maybe it’s because she kicked ass with guns, but there’s something empowering about Annie Oakley’s whole image. Poufy ‘80s (1880s, that is!) dark hair crammed under a cowboy hat, silk bandana, Old West petticoat, giant rifle. Spontaneous idea: let’s revive the Old West genre with her biopic! It would definitely be better than The Lone Ranger.

Annie Oakley was born Phoebe Ann Moses in Ohio in 1860, to Quakers from Pennsylvania. Her father died when she was very young, and then her stepfather died not long after, so she learned early on how to hunt, trap, and shoot to support her large family. In no time at all (here’s where I picture our new biopic’s training montage—maybe set to Mumford & Sons?) she was a sharpshooting expert.

When she was fifteen, Annie entered a shooting contest against Francis “Frank” Butler, a 25-year-old Irish immigrant and former dog trainer, and won. A year later, they were married, and then they began performing together as professional markspeople. So romantic!

In 1885, the gun-happy lovebirds joined Buffalo Bill’s famous traveling show, performing for adoring fans across the United States as well as European royalty (Queen Victoria, Kaiser Wilhelm, and the King of Italy, among others).

In 1898, Oakley wrote to President McKinley to suggest that women would make a great addition to the U.S. Army, should hostilities break out with Spain (they did): “a company of fifty female sharpshooters” was ready to be committed to the service, Oakley wrote. McKinley probably never wrote back, the jerk. Side note, women weren’t allowed in combat situations in the U.S. armed forces until this year.

Another interesting anecdote about Oakley (that might make it into our movie, and would definitely ensure that it passes the Bechdel Test): she had a rivalry going with another female sharpshooter in Buffalo Bill’s show named Lillian Smith. Lillian was younger than Oakley and may have attracted more attention because of this. Oakley even left the show for a short period over the tiff. You could write this all off as cattiness, but it was probably equally a function of tokenism; what, audiences couldn’t accept two female sharpshooters in one show?

Speaking of movies, Annie Oakley was in the eleventh movie of all time. Think about that: the eleventh. (After commercial showings began in 1894.) Thomas Edison shot a short film called “The Little Sure Shot of the Wild West,” starring Annie and Frank. In the film, they shoot various objects against a black background for about twenty seconds. Must have been pretty exciting, considering there, you know, weren’t movies yet. You can view it online.

Oakley continued to perform and shoot to the end of her life. She died in 1926 at the age of sixty-six. Her longtime husband and performing partner died just eighteen days later. Frank and Annie were then buried next to each other. So. Romantic.

If anyone wants to volunteer to write a script for Annie Oakley: The Movie (a reboot, if you will; there have definitely been Annie Oakley movies in the past), let me know. Just try not to make it anything the NRA could use.

xxxxiii. provence

postcards from france

Before I find the small side road that leads out to the vineyards and villas in the countryside, I run in the neighborhood to the west of Agnès’s apartment. Every day I head out in my shorts and tank top, which make me stick out among in the poor, mostly North African area. Maybe I should cover up more, but it is unbearably hot in Aix at the end of summer. Next to the women in full burkhas, I feel a kind of freedom that I’ve never before had to consider. As I pass by — me running, them herding their bands of overheated children — I can feel their dark, kohl-lined eyes following me, an indecent blur of sun-browned skin and dark tattoos.

What Are You Writing, Lisa Rubenson?

what are you writing lisa

Fitzgerald is remembered for his blockbuster-worthy works and the words within them, and while many are currently caught up in quoting (and misquoting) The Great Gatsby, one quote used among rhetoricians across this great nation is: “There are no second acts in American lives.” However you choose to interpret this, and there are many ways in which to do so, I believe at its most basic the quote implies that there are no second chances. Fortunately for the optimists of the world, this is not necessarily true. In Lisa Rubenson’s case, believing in second chances was the first step in good fortune, and good writing. Rubenson was recently the recipient of NPR’s “Three-Minute Fiction” contest award, where her theme focused on second chances, a theme that also seems to be a part of her own life. When she is not being called “Julie” accidentally at her favorite coffee shop in Charlotte, NC, she spends time with her husband and two daughters, all the while writing with intention. I invite you to read her words on chance and how it changed not only her, but also how it can change all of us. I believe in second chances, and third and fourth and eleventh—whatever it takes to get it right. “Do overs” make things like hope, redemption, and games of mini-golf possible. Why else would we have put erasers on the end of pencils and invented that whole “command Z” business? The thought that we might be able to undo at least some of our mistakes helps us get up in the morning. Otherwise, and I’m speaking for myself here, I would’ve given up after wearing a “Dynasty”-inspired jumpsuit to prom.

When I heard that the author Mona Simpson would be judging round 10 of NPR’s “Three-Minute Fiction” contest, and that the prompt was to tell a story in the form of a voicemail, I decided to submit something. I’m famous for leaving “rambly” voicemails, and I liked the idea of playing with the form. Voicemails, and that grace-filled asterisk on the lower left of our phone keypads, are all about second chances. You can record, re-record, and then record again whatever you want to say. It’s not unlike the writing process, with its many drafts and the never-ending cut-and-paste dance.

For the contest, I wanted to create a story that told itself by accident, wherein the main character struggles—like many of us—with what needs saying and what doesn’t. I also wanted readers/listeners to know more than the intended recipient of the voicemail could know. When the main character attempts to call her old boyfriend and simply say, “I’m sorry about the loss of your mother,” she unravels the thread of their whole history together.

I had never submitted anything to the 3MF contest before, so I was very surprised to win. The chance to talk to Mona Simpson and NPR’s Guy Raz about writing, then receiving Simpson’s novels and being published in The Paris Review, were exciting outcomes of the win. An actress heard the story and felt a connection with the main character, so we’re developing a screenplay for a short film. I love the idea that my little story can live on and be interpreted through the eyes and experiences of others. Talk about second chances. It was also nice to hear from so many people I did and didn’t know who could relate to the story. Apparently, there are a lot of other prolific voicemail leaver-deleters out there.

I’m entering the world of fiction writing late in the game, which is another reason why the idea of second chances appeals to me. I’ve spent my whole career writing for other people, channeling their voices and helping them shape messages. Although copywriting is a kind of storytelling, the distance between the writer and the material is too far. I want to write my own stories, and bring to life the characters that have been hanging around in my head for way too long with nothing to do.

The writers that inspire me the most are the ones that march me up to the edge of the figurative cliff and either force me to look down or show me how to live in the tension of standing there with the wind in my face. They can be hard living, whisky swillers (Hemingway and Raymond Carver are favorites), or highbrow British ladies—Virginia Woolf and those Brontës could sucker-punch you with their characters’ desires. I like to be terrified by the beauty of an image and made dizzy by the genius of a writer’s prose, which is why I spend time reading Cormac McCarthy, Flannery O’Connor, Toni Morrison, Junot Díaz, Karen Russell. Next up for me is a trip to the Tin House summer writer’s workshop, where I’ll soak up some “writerly” wisdom from the great Benjamin Percy. I’m also working on my first collection of stories, which will include flash and longer pieces that share a common theme.

My favorite part about writing fiction, and also about re-inventing myself as a fiction writer, is not knowing where I’ll end up. It’s like getting on a train in a familiar place, falling asleep, and waking up in a foreign country. I start off thinking I know who my characters are, what they will do and say, and then they haul off and take me somewhere else—a place I was either afraid to go or never knew existed.

 

 

The 88 Cent Tote Bag

process_header

I am getting married in a few weeks, and my partner and I are trying to find something to give to people as favors, their prize for coming to our wedding. Our budget is approximately one dollar per person, which rules out the fancy vegan chocolates, the tiny succulents in little tin pails, and pretty much most things I’d want to buy or they’d want to own.

I finally came up with the idea of buying cheap blank tote bags and block printing an image on them. I knew how we would present them, rolled up and tied with twine and a little tag that would say “Thank you for coming.” I could picture their future lives, like so many given-away kittens, hanging out in pantries, in the kitchen, at picnics.

I searched the internet, ruthlessly turning down totes that cost $1.86, or $2.35, and finally found some for under a dollar. I started the purchasing process and got to the part where it totalled the shipping costs: $26.45. “Well I bet I can find a coupon for that!” I thought, proud of my thrifty nature, and opened a new tab to search for coupon codes. I found a couple of dead links, and a few wedding boards featuring former brides complaining about the low quality of the tote bags from this particular site. I looked at one woman’s sad photo comparing the actual quality of the bag she received with the image on the website, and I started to freak out.

This tote bag was almost certainly made by someone working in a sweatshop, I realized. Which is obvious, given that it costs 88 cents, but which I’d been avoiding until that moment. If I’m not willing to pay a fair price, who do I expect to make up the difference? The employer? The government?

The cognitive dissonance between my vision of sweet, hand-printed gifts lovingly tied in twine and the reality of the product I was about to buy made me feel dizzy. I want to give people something I made, but who made this tote bag? And how many other tote bags did they make that day, and how were they paid for it, and what was the ventilation like? What is their name and what is their life like and what were they thinking when they made it? One thing is for sure, they were not thinking about me or the guests at my wedding. Suddenly this "personal" gift started to seem extremely impersonal, and probably immoral.

I realize that it is somewhat ridiculous to fixate on the tote bags, when I have no idea where most of the things I purchase, for the wedding or otherwise, were made—or rather, I do have an idea, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t in an intergenerational feminist craft collective made up of my friends and loved ones.

Sometimes I buy things that cost $1 because they’re a good deal even though they smell like plastic and sadness, and sometimes I buy locally-sourced, organic things for too much money. Either way I hate myself a little bit.

In my dream world, we would all make most of what we use, either buying or making the materials to do so. If we wanted to buy something, it would be for a fair price, and it would be because that thing was special or beautiful, not because we didn’t feel like taking the time to make it ourselves. Things wouldn’t be cheaper to throw away than to repair. We would value the time and labor it takes to make something.

I realize that I could make my life more like this if I tried. Instead, I live in a city and buy cheap crap quite regularly.  I am often extremely happy to walk down the street eating a 99 cent popsicle with 35 ingredients.

But aren’t weddings about trying to live out our romantic fantasies of how could be? Isn’t that the point of saying the nice words and wearing the special outfits and getting everyone you love together in one place? Some fantasies include riding in a limo and wearing a diamond ring. My fantasy includes not buying 88 cent tote bags. I know that I can figure something out that will be just as cheap but that won't make me freak out. For better or for worse, I'm going to live the tote-less dream.  

Strong LGBT Characters and the Potential of Media

strong female characters

Last week marked a historic turning point for the LGBT community in America, with the Supreme Court’s decisions on DOMA and California’s Prop 8 paving the way for greater equality in marriage, and possibly in general. It wasn’t entirely shocking, as polls have shown a steadily increasing support throughout the country for gay marriage over the last several years: over half of Americans now support it. At the same time, the sheer rapidity of this acceptance is noteworthy. Ten years ago, pro-equality Americans were in the minority, and gay marriage seemed like a distant dream. Now, as long as things continue as they have been going, it’s more a question of when than whether. To me, it seems like partial validation of my (and this column’s) underlying theory that media—particularly positive media portrayals—can go a long way in shaping our society’s understandings of minority groups. This is not to say 1) that the LGBT community has achieved all of its goals or “made it”, or 2) that LGBT representations in TV and movies are not often problematic. But familiarity, kind of, breeds acceptance. As one-dimensional or stereotype-y gay characters often are, their very presence banishes the alternative: the shadowy negative archetype that might otherwise persist in sheltered people’s minds.

When did the sea change begin? First: remember when Ellen Degeneres coming out was a huge deal? She was on the cover of Time magazine. Her sitcom struggled with this new plot twist, and was eventually canceled. Her burgeoning (?) movie career (including a romantic-ish comedy called Mr. Wrong) kind of stopped. Over the course of the 2000s, however, she’s made a major comeback and is now one of the absolute queens of daytime TV.

In the meantime, a whole crop of other “gay” shows has hit small-screen success. “Will & Grace” (which even Joe Biden noted as an influencer of American opinions on LGBT issues), “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” and everything on Bravo since, “Glee,” “Modern Family,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “The New Normal.” Also, the coming out of mainstream, broad-appeal celebrities like Neil Patrick Harris and Anderson Cooper. LGBT characters and people became, in a way, normative. What would have been shocking to middle American sensibilities in 1990 was required viewing by 2010.

Not to say there aren’t problems with the ways that many of these shows represent gay characters. The gay stereotype of the flamboyant, effeminate white male who loves Broadway, fashion and tiny dogs, and who has the bourgeois upper middle class budget to indulge such hobbies, is, maybe, overrepresented in media—any other “type” of gay character is underrepresented. There should be more gay characters of color. There should be more lesbians (that aren’t there just to generate ratings amongst hetero male viewers), as well as bisexual and transgender characters—you know, the L, B, and T that are usually overshadowed by the G. There should also be LGBT characters with a range of personalities and interests that don’t reinforce our gendered notions of how gay men and women “should” act.

That's the second part of my theory, I guess: first, representation. Then, range.

For now, though, here’s to Kurt, Blaine, and Santana from “Glee,” Cameron and Mitchell from “Modern Family,” Callie and Arizona from “Grey’s Anatomy,” Will and Jack from "Will & Grace," Willow and Tara from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," Xena and Gabrielle from "Xena: Warrior Princess," Lafayette, Jesus, and Tara from “True Blood,” and all the others who have, in their own, potentially small way, helped LGBT identities become mainstream.

In fact. Can I double thank Lafayette? Because he’s one of my favorite things on TV.

Who are some of your favorite LGBT characters and TV personalities? Have they changed the way you think about LGBT issues?

Ida B. Wells: Journalist, Activist, Civil Rights Pioneer

historical woman

Everyone knows that, in 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus and move to the back, and with this refusal became a major figure in the Montgomery bus boycott and the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. (Well, everyone should know that anyway.) But Parks was not the first to engage in an act of public transit civil disobedience—nor, I’m sure, will she be the last. For starters, in 1884, Ida B. Wells similarly refused to get up and move to a different train car when ordered to do so by a train conductor on the Chesapeake, Ohio and Southwestern Railroad. She was by force removed from the train by three men who, I think, really needed to stop and evaluate what they were doing with their lives.

Wells didn’t stop with train sit-ins, but we’ll get to that in a second. First, who was Ida B. Wells? Not to be confused with muckraking journalist Ida Tarbell (roughly contemporaneous), Ida B. Wells was an investigative journalist, tireless campaigner for African-American and women’s rights, anti-lynching activist, and influential public persona. She was born in 1862 in Mississippi to slave parents, emancipated three years later with Abe Lincoln’s Proclamation. She was educated first at Shaw U., then at Fisk University, both Southern black colleges. When she lost her parents, she took on a job as a teacher in order to support her siblings.

Sometime during her young life, Wells got into politics—not surprising considering the tumultuous, nasty times she grew up in. The War was over and slavery was done, but America’s attempts at Reconstructing™ and creating a just post-war, post-slavery society were, let’s face it, occasionally pathetic. The government, fearful of completely alienating the South, made too many concessions and took just as many steps backward as forward.

One of the most hideous evils to become common in this period, and for a bunch of otherwise perfectly nice people to get complacent and blind eye-y about (see also: segregation, imperialism, most wars) was lynching, specifically, the lynching of black men in the South. In 1892, three of Wells’ friends were lynched by a mob in Memphis. So she turned to investigative journalism as a means for change.

Wells begin to study similar murders across the South, and then published her findings in a pamphlet called “Southern Horrors: Lynch Laws in All its Phases.” She concludes that the “reasons” for lynching black men usually fell along the lines of: they failed to adequately accept their alleged inferiority as raced human beings. This could involve competing economically with white men, being disrespectful to white men, and so much as looking at a white woman. (Wells also found that most sexual encounters between black men and white women were consensual, despite popular myth to the contrary.)

Wells traveled and worked with famed abolitionist and writer Frederick Douglass, doing speaking tours of Europe and getting a bunch of British people on her side. But she continued to face an uphill battle at home, where the New York Times called her a “slanderous and nasty minded mulatress.” Oh, the liberal media!

In short, Ida Wells was no shrinking flower. She was one of the earliest women to not change her last name when she married. She wasn’t shy about getting into it with people she disagreed with, including white temperance activist Frances Willard and famed black intellectual W.E.B. DuBois (she said he excluded her from the list of NAACP founders). She fought for what she believed in and wasn’t afraid to face, head-on, one of the ugliest legacies of American slavery. Amidst headlines about affirmative action, George Zimmerman, and (yes) Paula Deen, it’s hard not to hope for similar take-no-s*** voices in our own time.

One Big Awesome Tide Pool.

diary of a filmmaker

Dear Diary, Last week I started working on my first podcast. It’s a new sub-project of my documentary film Stories From The Green Cabin. The podcast is a little silly, really. It asks people to talk about their work as if it were a wilderness. Say, for example, that someone is an essayist. The podcast asks them: What would essay writing look like as a physical place? Is it like a lush rain forrest, a freezing tundra, or a beautiful, peaceful field?

Then more questions along those lines: What is in an essayists backpack? Do you need a map, or is there a clearly marked path? Is it lonesome or are there lots of others like you?

What is the most dangerous animal to an essayist? (The Internet? An empty coffee cup? Self-doubt?)

What’s in your canteen? (Tea? Coffee? Whiskey?)

What’s your advice to a newly exploring essayist? How important is it to go to school or have a guide before venturing into this wilderness?

What would a Girl/Boy Scout style badge for your work look like?

I’ve had this podcast idea for a long time. I had been listening to shows online about writing, pop culture, science, international news, cooking , etc. Eventually I started using the Sticher app on my phone, which helped me burn through even more podcasts while walking my dog, sitting in traffic, or riding the train. Most of the shows were great. I loved them. Two of my favorites were The Dinner Party and Hash Hags. I liked the content and the hosting of Hash Hags, the theme and the structure of The Dinner Party. I wanted to listen to a show that combined the two, but couldn’t find one.

So I bought a bunch of audio equipment and told a few close friends about my idea.

Then I let the audio equipment sit unused on my bookshelf for almost six months.

Then I emailed Elisabeth and Miya and said “Hey, I have this idea for a podcast, can I share it on Equals?” They said yes.

Then the audio gear sat on my bookshelf for another month.

Something was wrong.

My desire to produce a podcast was there but wasn’t strong enough to justify a stand-alone project. The podcast didn’t have a home within Stories From the Green Cabin at that point. Would I really want to create a new website and media presence to support this podcast? I wondered. Would I really want to bother my friends about having them as guests on a silly little side project without knowing where it was all headed? There were so many people I wanted to talk to about their work but there was little reason for me to set aside the time in my schedule to record, edit, and promote this quirky program.  It seemed to me, at that point in time, that the podcast idea was just a distraction.

It wasn’t until recently, when I was halfway though an application for a summer media program*, that I realized how the film and podcast were linked. Applying for something always has this clarifying affect on my work. Regardless of whether or not I secure the grant or get accepted into the residency program, the structure of an application always demands a simple, straightforward explanation about the project in question.

The boundaries an application presents in format and word count always leave me with a better understanding of what I’m really up to. This time around I came to see how both the podcast and the film satisfy this intense curiosity I have about identity, creativity, and work. It seems so obvious now, but just months ago I couldn’t make that connection.

When I was little I was obsessed with tide pools. They felt like mini-oceans suddenly and perfectly contained for observation. Every once in a while a big wave would come and wash all of the little tide pools into one big awesome tide pool. I felt the same sense of wonder and excitement when connecting the film and podcast. For a long time I was just waiting for the next big idea wave, I guess, when all it really took was filling out that application to change the tide.

*The program I applied to (and have since enrolled in) is hosted by AIR (Association of Independents in Radio) and Uniondocs in Brooklyn. It’s called the Full Spectrum Storytelling Intensive. For any freelance radio or film producers out there, check it out---there are still a few spots available!