Words My Friends Hate

I have a friend who hates the word “feminism,” because she sees it as a certain kind of narrow view of white privilege where white women’s viewpoints are prioritized over all other struggles. She uses the “Say Her Name” test. If a person says she supports women’s rights, but does not consider police brutality against black women or the high rate of unsolved violent crimes against trans women her concern, then she is a feminist. (She and I both acknowledge that not all self-proclaimed feminists subscribe to this view.)

I have always called myself a feminist, because I believe in equal rights for all women regardless of race and how they define women for themselves. But I understand what my friend is saying. I remember reading Alice Walker’s essay about womanism, and how it is an inclusive version of feminism. I have seen many other people in many other places say that the word “feminism” does not feel inclusive to them.

My friend’s broader point is that you can’t fight for women’s rights without fighting for all people who are oppressed under our patriarchal system. I found the word “feminism” in college. I went to a majority white private college. I believe my original experience of feminism is white-centered. I learned some really positive things from my early forays into feminism, but I know more now. It is not enough.

So today, I revised the word feminism out of my MS. I make a joke about how nearly failing calculus made me feel like I betrayed feminism. Instead I wrote about how nearly failing calculus made me feel like I betrayed everyone who fought for women’s right to an education before me. Not only does this revision keep me from using a word that people find problematic, it gives me an opportunity to be more specific and informative.

Cliches, shortcuts, and stereotypes are an opportunity to go into more detail, to make your writing stronger and more specific. Tell me, would George Orwell shoot you like an elephant (for the words you use)?

 

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Reengaging with the Fucker

The first rule is that there are no rules that are not fit to be changed. A few days ago I bravely claimed on this public forum that I would write 2000 words a day. Well, almost every day. Well, maybe not really. Here’s what happened between then and today.

After working on Chapter 3 and writing my last blog post in a flush of new writing, I decided maybe I should go to Chapter 1. So I sat and my desk, opened a new document, opened the old document, and cut and pasted a few things. And it sucked. It began somewhere in the Depths of Boredom and then meandered through a deep grove of No Fucking Plot At All, wait have some Pretty Sentences!

I despaired. But because I am an optimist without a current paper to edit, I persevered. I checked out Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story. I have mostly stopped reading writing books, because I understand (at least intellectually) how to get to the page and how to get words down. I understand the basics of the craft of poetry. But something clearly is missing in my understanding of the craft of nonfiction.

Ms. Gornick does not disappoint. She talks about how you have the situation of the book. In H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald loses her father and adopts a goshawk. But that isn’t the story. The story is that Macdonald, in her grief, tries to rid herself of all humanity and live wild like a hawk. (This is a brutal simplification. Please don’t decide not to read this book based on my description. It is such a good book.) Then she finds her way back to being a feeling, hurt, complicated human. That is the wisdom.

This is why Julie Powell’s memoir Cleaving sucked so bad. The situation was amazing. She cheats on her husband in what appears to be a perfectly happy marriage. She goes gets an apprenticeship as a butcher. Excellent! But by the end of the book Powell still does not know why she originally cheated on her husband in what, according to her, was a happy marriage. There is no story. The narrator is not to be trusted because she doesn’t know what the fuck she’s doing. This is why you don’t write a memoir in a year even if you get a fancy contract after the sale of your first book (Julia and Julie). Maybe she fucked up her marriage in order to have something to write about.

Gornick insists that you have to know why you are telling the story and thus create a persona that is able to tell that story. The persona is not a lie, it is the character that is you. “In each case [of the books she mentions earlier in the chapter] the writer was possessed of an insight that organized the writing, and in each case a persona had been created to serve that insight.” Powell does not know her insight, so we don’t really arrive anywhere. We get that she likes rough and/or dangerous sex (thus the affair). We don’t know why or why at that moment of time did she begin on the affair. (For a good review, read this.)

Macdonald knows she is writing about her journey into wildness and back again. She does not mention details that are not closely related to that story, even if they are related to the situation (the author, her dead father, the hawk).

I am hoping I can take my story and tattoo it to my fucking forehead keep it in my brain long enough to fashion myself as a persona. I might come up with some key words. Maybe this is how the ADD memoirist figures out finally what is important to the story and what is not. Does this tidbit fit my key word? No? Delete. (The ADD memoirist can’t figure out what is not important to the story because the gaps in her executive function give her no ability to discriminate.)

What books do you hate and why?

In Which I Turn Into My Father

I am at a poetry reading. The woman standing on stage talks about tulips as yellow as the sun. The image bothers me. First, it is boring, a little cliche. But then I begin thinking more critically. (The reading was boring, what could I do?)

What color is the sun? We usually see it in infrared or maybe ultraviolet. The Hubble photos are color-enhanced.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to write about what color the sun actually is?

Color is reliable here on earth (if you’re not color blind or arguing with your second sister about the color of your third sister’s childhood bedroom). But not in space. There are colors that human eyes are not made to understand because we don’t process the right waves.

Isn’t that more interesting than tulips that are as yellow as the sun?

What do you overthink?

If Queries Were Honest

Dear Person I’ve Admired for Years and Years and Years,

My book is an accumulation of pain, broken relationships, heartache, and things I’d rather not talk about, but I cannot write poems about bunnies any longer. I couldn’t think of what else to do with this manuscript, so I mailed it to you. If I got published, maybe I could move out of my parents’ basement.

I have been published in three journals you’ve never heard of, and one—my best publication—that you might have heard of in grad school. I would be pathetically grateful if you took my manuscript, and thus would agree to all edits, even the ones that go strictly against what my novel is about. You have my word that I will only complain about it in quiet bars where no one knows how to read.

Here are the five books I read over and over while writing my book. I have them memorized. I stalk three of the authors on Facebook, and the fourth and fifth authors died in the last century by their own hand. I hope to avoid their fate.

Yours very sincerely,

Author

 

Anti-Books

I recently reread a memoir that had a subject pretty similar to mine. And I hated it. The premise was good. Some parts of it were super interesting. But the author couldn’t decide whether she wanted to be a journalist or a memoirist. To make things worse, she did something that some of my favorite journalists do (*ahem* Natalie Angier*ahem*), which is to show off their vocabulary until the sentences are hideously overwrought and E. B. White turns in his grave.

“I drank Scotch, my father’s favorite tipple in his sunset years”

Who fucking says “tipple” anymore? And his “sunset years”?? Please. What did he look like/smell like/sound like as he drank Scotch as an old man? Was he on a yacht in Florida or a shabby nursing home in Wyoming? Help me out here.

There’s another book that I read that was much lauded and about one of the topics I write about. And it was boring as fuck. The narrator was whiny, and she thought no one else had ever written about said subject. And she was published in the New Yorker. Feh.

But I think it is good to articulate why we hate books that try to do what we are trying to do but fail for one reason or another. Maybe it helps us avoid pitfalls. Maybe it helps us rethink structure. Maybe it challenges us to come up with criticisms outside our own inherent jealousies.

What’s your anti-book?

Biting the Bullet, Drinking the Bulleit: Attending AWP for Cranks and Poets

Are any of you folks going to AWP? I’m sucking it up and attending it this year. If anyone wants to meet for drinks, I’ll be the one in mask. No, kidding, I’d love to meet you. But you might have to sign a confidentiality statement first. Let me know.

In honor of the bazillion-page AWP catalog, I’d like to suggest a contest:

Your challenge, should you choose to accept it, is to come up with the name and description of a conference panel that describes your writing life or work in progress. This is your chance to be funny, pretentious, truthful, and/or chock full of lies.

Submit below or by email (which is independentclause at the gmail). My favorite academic will judge (right, Cougar?). The winner gets swag that I’ve been promised at the AWP bookfair.

Tawdry, bumptious, and madcap

In my cubicle days, I worked near the production staff. There was one assistant who drove everyone crazy. She spoke in cliche and didn’t understand basic aspects of production flow even after it was explained to her twenty-five times. One of my other colleagues and I would escape the cubicles and go out to get coffee. She had three kids and a writing studio that no one, including her husband, knew about. She was wry and smart, and perpetually harassed by the assistant.

“I swear, the next time [assistant] asks me how my weekend was, I will say to her ‘It was as tawdry as it was torrid’ and see what she has to say about that,” she told me one day, as we went out to get coffee. For the rest of the time we worked together one or other of us would ask how something was and the other would reply “It was as tawdry as it was torrid.”

I’m reading a memoir that is a tad overwritten, but this sentence just about did me in.

“It was a trip as bumptious as it was madcap.”

I don’t care who your father is, memoirist, you are not allowed to use the word bumptious in all seriousness. This is a story you’ve heard other people tell too many times. It could be more interesting and less name-droppy. Instead of using old-fashioned words to talk about intellectual life in Paris in the fifties, which is what this sentence refers to, tell me like it was. Make it your own.

Let me know how it felt to be there. Make your details interesting, not just your language. Tell it yourself, and make me feel as if I were there. And I’ll bet I’ll feel neither madcap nor bumptious.

How was your evening?