Writing

Paris

I thought tonight, like a lot of people, about the first time I was in Paris. This was in Shakespeare and Company, the English bookstore at Mile Zero on the Left Bank. I remember standing in the stacks eavesdropping on this American kid, maybe 20 years old, hitting on a cute blonde German girl. He was working in the shop, he’d arrived just two days before, and it’s safe to say the kid was totally Paris-drunk. Three days ago I was on a plane with no plan and no money, and now I’m living here, working here, he marveled to his new friend. He told her he wanted to do travel writing but was afraid it was “done”. It was like a bad regurgitation of Before Sunrise but it was also kind of insanely adorable in its earnestness and its purity.

I don’t for a moment pretend to know Paris for real, and it’s a little weird to talk about loving a city you’ve visited twice. But I’m telling this cheesy story because even as an American tourist who speaks maybe 30 words of French (20 of which are food), I think it shows how incredibly there’s still just something about Paris that allows it to be new and extraordinary for everyone. No matter how many times you’ve read A Moveable Feast or watched Charade, Paris is still there for you, letting you feel like you discovered it for yourself. I mean, here I am—watching the news and for some reason blogging about a time I was rudely listening to strangers in a bookstore. (And of course, I wrote it all down at the time, because it was Paris.)

People photograph the Eiffel Tower incessantly, as though there’s a single view of it that hasn’t been captured before. Even the professionals gather in front of Notre Dame by night, setting up their complicated time lapses and slow exposures to capture the beautifully lit façade and the light playing off the Seine, as though there were not a hundred postcards in a hundred souvenir shops of nearly the same image. What a delusional, gorgeous way to think.

It’s tempting to feel crabby and cool about people like this—photographing everything they see, mooning over Paris that doesn’t exist anymore and maybe never did. But really, what a beautiful thought: that you can still find something special and beautiful and truly yours in this city that already means so much to so many, a city on which so many people have already poured infinite ink and praise and blood. So let the American guys with literary dreams land on the doorstep of Shakespeare and Company. Let the Japanese retirees snap photos to their hearts’ content. It’s Paris, and somehow it’s new again.

Standard
Writing

TV rape scenes are for lazy writers

It’s become a very familiar feeling: watching a TV show I like a lot, even love, and suddenly there’s a narrative turn and I think, oh, come on, not this again, be better than this, try a little harder. But no. Sooner or later, one by one, every drama on TV has to include a rape.

Rape has become the quickest possible shorthand for showing “this guy is evil” or “this woman is damaged”.  A flashback shows a rape to lazily telegraph that this woman has had a really hard life. A scene with lots of women getting raped in the background–as “Game of Thrones” has shown repeatedly–is a quick sketch of a world where women are constantly under threat and violence permeates everything.

Elizabeth Jennings in FX’s “The Americans” grows up poor and fatherless in Soviet Russia, and gets recruited to the KGB when she’s 16. They train her as a spy, and from the show’s first moments we consistently see her using her sexuality to get information and then turn around and kill people–a lot of people–without blinking an eye. Did we need to see her raped by a superior to know that her life has been hard and traumatic and soul-deadening? I don’t think so.

Sansa Stark on “Game of Thrones” has had half of her family murdered, been dragged all over the country as a prisoner, and been married off twice against her will. Her rapist, Ramsay Bolton, peels people’s skin off for fun. Now, did we need to have a rape (that was apparently added to the show for effect) to communicate “Sansa is traumatized and desperate” and “Ramsay is a really bad guy”? I don’t think so.

In the first episode of this season of True Detective there’s a rape, off screen, in the first few minutes. I literally threw up my hands. Did we need that to communicate that True Detective is going to be really, really bleak and that Colin Farrell’s character is troubled? I don’t think so. Worse, the wife–the person who you know, actually got raped–barely appears in the show at all.

Rape happens in life, and it follows that it’s going to happen at times in fiction. What’s offensive is the gratuitousness we’re dealing with on TV today, the sheer volume of instances where women’s pain is nothing more than a narrative crutch. And when TV writers make the “well, rape happens” argument, I want to say, we fucking know. It’s happening all the time to us, to our friends, our sisters, our daughters, our mothers. We know.

As a woman you know practically your whole life that the possibility of rape is everywhere. Depending on your own experience, it may not be something you necessarily think about a lot, but it’s always fear-as-landscape, small things: always walking with a friend at night, or at least a set of keys, and certainly no headphones. Avoiding certain places after certain times, minding your drink at a crowded bar. It’s not full blown paranoia, just awareness, simmering away in a corner of your brain you try not to visit.

Here’s what bothers me, as a woman and as someone who cares about good storytelling: human pain is a practically endless palette for artists, yet somehow we’ve reached a point where any time the plot calls for a Really Bad Thing to happen to a woman, it’s going to be rape. Even lazier and more cringe-inducing is when something Really Bad has to happen to a man, and so a woman he cares about–who has spoken perhaps four words in the span of the series, if she is seen at all–gets raped. In real life, humans hurt each other in so many awful ways, both physical and otherwise, but somehow rapes on television amass, show after show, season after season, the hostility compounded by their sameness.

And why? Because it’s shocking? Is it some kind of Mount Everest thing, putting graphic rape on TV just because the show is on premium cable and it’s allowed? I’m really not sure. All I know is that it’s lazy, it’s wildly hostile, and I’m seriously over it.

P.S.: My title is only a little bit of an exaggeration, but I do want to call out this great essay on Vulture called “OINTB is the Only TV Show That Understands Rape“, which makes a compelling case and offers some excellent notes for the writers of… um, every other show.

Standard
Writing

Do not depend…

Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. You gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything. – Thomas Merton

Working on it 

Standard
Me, Writing

Search Engines Ate My Wedding

Weddings are following me everywhere. On The Atlantic’s website, I get served ads for ModCloth’s wedding page–an assortment of twee T-straps and flower crowns (I clicked). Facebook serves up wedding-specific ads for Crest White Strips and weight-loss products and stationary. I get sponsored GMail ads for something called  a “Mrs. Kit”, which supposedly facilitates changing your name after marriage. David’s Bridal and BHLDN chase me relentlessly though just about every corner of the Internet.

For months now I’ve been getting targeted ads that are running on an algorithm that assumes that if I’ve looked a wedding dress online, I am probably also interested in Crest White Strips. My fiance does not get ads reminding him that he needs a wedding-ready smile.

Of course it’s all just scripts running deep within the Internet, spitting back things on which a person with a particular browsing history is statistically likely to click. It’s nothing personal.  But it can really get a girl down to have every tab in her browser screaming about getting fit for the wedding.
Some of it is outright pre-feminist–ubiquitous “Mrs.” tanktops and bathrobes and nameplate necklaces, the renewed vogue for asking the father’s permission before proposing–but the modern wedding is distinctly post-feminist: I am woman, watch me consume.
The post-feminist wedding has no regard for what you want, it just demands that you rapaciously want anything and everything. That you want jewelry and shoes and chemical peels and spray on tans, that you want lame-ass doll-sized bottles of Veuve Cliquot, that you want a $10,000 Vera Wang gown and maybe another one, you know, for the reception. It’s a tentacled marketing machine that reminds you at every turn that this day, this one magical day of cake pops and “Bride” booty shorts, will be the thing that finally fulfills you.
Consumerism packaged as self-actualization is nothing new. Whatever copywriter came up with “Because we’re worth it” for L’Oreal and ‘You’ve come a long way, baby” for Virginia Slims could tell you that. The post-feminist wedding, though, skips the notion that women have you know, lives, and gets right down to it: here is what you need to purchase to make your wedding perfect.
The post-feminist wedding has a gigantic Google Ads budget.
You will get a softer sell elsewhere: the wedding blogosphere, of course, which gave us demented demands like this, and Pinterest, the capital of poorly managed expectations. But I promise you–start clicking through a few wedding blogs or browsing wedding shoes on Nordstrom, and you will unleash a deluge of targeted ads that just come right out and say it: get skinny, get a tan, get this doohickey that will emboss your initials on the napkins. Remember, you deserve it!
I think weddings are great–I wouldn’t be having one in two weeks if I didn’t think so.  But weddings are increasingly sold as fairy tales, basically a consolation prize for the fact you are not and will never be Kate Middleton (but you can have her dress and her ring). The song of the wedding marketing machine is enticing, of course: you may need to get up in the morning and commute to your shitty job and eat the same droopy salad with grilled chicken every day, but for one day you’re gonna be a princess, goddamnit–and we’re going to remind you of it on every single page of the Internet.
Standard
Writing

What We Talk About When We Report About Love

When I read coverage of the Supreme Court proceedings on same sex marriage, I’m constantly reminded of Calvin Trillin’s writing about the South at the height of the volatility and brutality of the civil rights movement.  The question in particular that I’ve been mulling is when will the media be allowed to stop talking about same sex marriage like it’s an issue with two legitimate sides, equally worthy of discussion and debate?

Eventually, the media got to stop talking about segregation as though it was even remotely ok to make American citizens use separate water fountains because of the color of their skin. How far are we from being able to stop pretending that it’s ok to tell certain American citizens that they can’t share health insurance or file a joint tax return with their spouse?  When do we get to stop acting like there are two sides to this issue?

In the July 25, 2011 issue of The New Yorker, Calvin Trillin looked back on his time spent reporting on the Freedom Riders for Time magazine and eventually his book, An Education in Georgia.  He talks about keeping journalistic distance while covering the Freedom Rides in the Deep South, and how he had to maintain some impartiality despite his own opinions. As a reporter for a national publication, he still had to consider the fact that the country “had not yet begun to see segregation as a moral wrong that had to be addressed rather than a regrettable regional peculiarity.”

At the time, Trillin didn’t believe that there were two sides to the issue of segregation. From the remove of the 50 year anniversary of the Freedom Rides, Trillin recalls:

“I didn’t pretend that we were covering a struggle in which all sides—the side that thought, for instance, that all American citizens had the right to vote and the side that thought people that acted on such a belief should have their houses burned down—had an equally compelling case to make.”

Of course, the way reporters vote and the way reporters report often differs—as it should. But clearly, somewhere in the last 50 years, journalists changed the way they talk about segregation. At some point, journalists stopped talking about institutionalized racism like an unpleasant regional quirk and started talking about it like it a hate crime.

At the time, however, it was Trillin’s professional responsibility to report the events just as they happened, and to be an impartial observer. In the article, Trillin remembered a conversation with fellow reporter from the New York Times, in which they debated how far they could go and what they could do without crossing into bias (emphasis mine).

As the first bus was about to pull out of Montgomery for Jackson, Claude Sitton, the Southern correspondent for the Times, and I were standing in the Trailways station discussing whether it was appropriate for reporters to be on it. In questions about when a reporter would be crossing the line from reporting on to participating in the civil-rights struggle, I tended to take my cues from Claude, whose sympathy was expressed in the fairness and scrupulousness of his reporting…[during a speech on board the bus] A Canadian reporter was so moved that he stood up and began shouting at [Colonel] Montgomery to stop the bus. Claude spoke sharply to the Canadian reporter. As I remember, he said, “Sit down and shut up. You’re a reporter.” 

This is usually pretty sound advice for reporters. Reporters are not supposed to be participants. At one of the events marking the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, Trillin found himself repeatedly asked whether he had been a  Freedom Rider, and always felt compelled to say:  “No, I was just a reporter who was on the bus.”

But things change. Or, more accurately—people die. I don’t believe that many people ever change their mind about issues like this, but rather generations shift and people teach subsequent generations new lessons. Of course black people and white people shouldn’t have to use separate bathrooms, pretty much any American kindergartner will tell you now.

The media doesn’t have to talk about the Ku Klux Klan as though it’s a legitimate political lobby with valid opinions—but there was a time, not even that long ago, when reporters who were just doing their job had to act as though the Klan was just another group with strong opinions that deserved a say in our national discourse. Will we see a day when the media will stop talking about the National Organization for Marriage like it’s anything other than a hate group?

Calvin Trillin got to experience the shift—in our national psyche and within himself—at the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides. Finally, he realized he could stop acting like he was impartial.

“When one of the sessions in Chicago ended with people linking arms and singing ‘We Shall Overcome,’ I made my usual quiet move toward the door. Suddenly, I felt someone lock arms with me. Instinctively, I started to pull away while looking around to see who it was. It was an older woman in a wheelchair. Was I really going to wrest my arm away from an older woman in a wheelchair? I stayed. Then I joined in. It turns out that I still know most of the verses.”

It is clear that the tide is turning on gay marriage—whatever the Supreme Court rules, the issue isn’t going away and the day is coming—doubtless sooner in some states than others—when all citizens can marry whomever they love.  My question is: when does the media get to stop talking about same sex marriage like it’s an issue with two sides?  When does the switch flip?

Tell me what you think in the comments.

P.S. That New Yorker article is paywall-protected, but if you want to read it and we’re friends IRL get at me and I’ll give you my login. Or just go find it at the library, I guess.

Standard
Writing

Real Artists Ship

A couple of months ago I made a resolution to write a little bit every single day, even when I really really didn’t want to, and even when what I wrote sucked and I ended up feeling more frustrated than I did before I sat down to write. I made up my mind that I was just going to do it, because I believe a.) people who whine about writers block are pussies and b.) if you are a writer, you write.

I didn’t blog about this resolution because I always break the first rule of resolutions, which is tell everyone so you have accountability. Anyways.

I allowed myself to count pretty much anything as writing: a few sentences scribbled in my purse notebook or tapped out on my iPhone or truly illegible 2 a.m. scrawlings in my bedside notebook. What doesn’t count: Facebook, Twitter, work. One of my sources of  #feelings is that I write hundreds, sometimes thousands of words every day and barely any of it is something I would count as writing-because that stuff doesn’t sharpen the saw, so to speak — and if anything it makes me worry that if I do it enough I’ll forget how to write the things I really love to write.

I used to be a upchucking writer, someone who got an idea at 3 in the morning and sat down and dumped an entire (very, very rough and poorly written) story onto the page.  I’d only do this occasionally and then edit for weeks.

That hasn’t happened in a long time. I have several things that I really like (probably too much, murder your darlings etc.) that I have been burnishing obsessively for too long, with an eye on starting to send them around. That’s mostly what I do when I sit down to write lately, that or work on one story I love/hate, or just writing down dreams that seem like they’re meaningful when I start writing and end up sounding like a fucking Smiths song once I have it on the page. Or writing down weird things people do, or things I saw during the day.  I know for a fact that this stuff is essential, because a lot of it works its way into my fiction eventually, but so much of it feels like bullshit poser Moleskine scribbling and not work. It feels really rare that I sit down and pour out pages of writing

But today I got a real idea, the way I used to, and I wrote the whole outline down immediately on my phone.  That note saved on my phone is feels like one of those chips they give people in AA: 2 months sober. 2 months of writing every single damn day whether you feel like it or not. Here’s the reward: it’s not a lot, but it’s better than what you started with.

(I’m not a big inspirational quotes person but Steve Jobs’ advice “Real artists ship” is important and lately I feel like I need to write this somewhere in giant letters and make myself see it every day.  Ideas are just ideas until you do the work.) 

Standard
Writing

Busy on the Brain

vintage bathingdame

“You can’t have everything, but you can have the things that are important to you.”   – Marissa Mayer

Driving home on Friday afternoon I was behind a minivan with a license plate that read “BUSYKID.” My first thought was poor kid.  Already has busy-brain–or parents who do. There’s nothing more boring to me that someone who responds to the social nicety “how’s it going?” with “busy!”

Because the thing is, we’re all busy. We all work hard. We all have families and friends and commitments we need to keep up with, jobs we care about (or jobs we’re hustling to find). We’ve all got bills to pay and one eye on goals for next month, next year, next decade.  But why fetishize busy? Why glorify running around like a chicken with its head cut off?

People aren’t even impressed by busy. Results are impressive, huffing and puffing is not. Yes, you need to hustle to get what you want. Welcome to life. But bragging about “busy” is a game of oneupsmanship where the only prize is burnout, and we don’t do each other any favors by engaging in it.

The reality is that everyone is going to have times when you’re kicking ass at life, and other times when life is kicking your ass. In both scenarios, it’s key to leave a little air, a little space. A little tiny bit of nothing.

That’s where the great stuff happens–in the air bubbles, the pockets of unscheduled time. As a writer, that’s where the magic happens. It’s getting an awesome idea in the shower. It’s waking up from a sound sleep to write down a description or bit of a dialogue. It’s writing in your head while you’re driving.

But those air bubbles are also when the real stuff happens in relationships–both your relationship with yourself and with others. A Friday night dinner with your significant other, where you skip “how was your day?” bullshitting and really talk.  A delicious meal and plenty of wine with good friends. A long bus ride with only music for company. A lazy Sunday morning spent on the couch while the snow falls outside.  

These bubbles are precious. To be wrapped up in busy 100 percent of the time is a recipe for burnout, and the perfect way to miss out on the real treasures in life. You’re busy, I’m busy, we’re all busy. Don’t let it define you.

(BTW, Precious Bubbles is totally the name of my new lifecoaching business so don’t even think about it.)

Standard