Playing Big

Playing Big: Find Your Voice, Your Mission, Your Message by Tara Mohr

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This women’s career self-help book is focused on women who have not quite reached their high potential. It’s a much more inclusive, less corporate version of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. Mohr strikes a delicate balance–asking women to take responsibility for their success while acknowledging the pervasiveness of discrimination, the double bind, and other factors that limit them. She explains the difficult situation we find ourselves in, and gives solid advice for motivation and confidence. She also includes a lot of examples of women diving into hobbies and activism as a way of “playing big,” decoupling women’s ambition from striving for prestige and money in the business world. Her advice is mostly focused on building confidence and on encouraging women to take bigger risks. She hopes to inspire women to stop constantly putting off focusing on their goals, to refuse to settle for mediocrity. Along with The Confidence Code, I’d say this is my new favorite self-help book targeting women and their careers.

Mohr does discuss parenting and the ways that family plans change and limit women’s careers. But she doesn’t talk about how for many women, getting married and/or having children is itself the way that they “play big” and reach for their dreams. Planning a family and making the decision to conceive a child or buy a house could be the thing that makes them excited, that gives them the feelings of awe and excitement that Mohr names pachad and yirah. Maybe that’s controversial to say, but it’s a feeling I have had and that many women share. It’s hard to talk about family-making as a dream without implying that all women will be totally content, with their ambitions completely satisfied and their talents fully utilized, by the work of raising children. Maybe Mohr believes that women don’t need as much encouragement to leap wholeheartedly into plans for family as they do for career and personal development. I’d agree with that, so or that reason I can understand why Mohr focused instead on career and creative pursuits. She wrote this book at an interesting moment in her life–as she was pregnant with her first child. I will be interested to see how motherhood influences Mohr’s later writing.

Classic Women’s Lit Rewritten

I think it’s fun and potentially instructive when authors rewrite or draw inspiration from classic literature. These two books offer new perspectives on two of my favorite 19th-century novels.

Reader, I Married Him: Stories Inspired by Jane Eyre edited by Tracy Chevalier

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This collection of short stories is inspired by Jane Eyre, in particular by the triumphant ending line quoted in the title. It’s really interesting to see how this wide variety of writers took that idea and ran with it in so many different directions. There are stories here that retell Jane Eyre from the perspectives of different characters, memorably Grace Poole and Rochester, some concentrating on her boarding school or her time with St. John Rivers, some changing the setting to contemporary or another country or even a sci-fi future. In some of them, the connection to Jane Eyre is small, but it’s fun to look for it. Chevalier’s opening essay is solid and fun, nostalgic in a way that many of us feel about Bronte. If you like short stories, Jane Eyre, and/or the authors included here, including Audrey Niffenegger, Elizabeth McCracken, and Emma Donogue, you’d enjoy this volume too.

Charlotte Collins: A Continuation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice by Jennifer Becton

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This book is a kind of fan fic sequel to Pride and Prejudice that concentrates on a minor character, Charlotte Lucas, Elizabeth Bennett’s friend who marries the obsequious minister Mr. Collins. I was disappointed that the book didn’t tell much about Charlotte’s marriage, instead beginning with her widowhood. Now, no one wants to read about Mr. Collins, one of the most annoying characters ever written, and everyone rejoices at his early demise and Charlotte’s freedom, but in a way this makes achieving happiness seem almost too easy for Charlotte. This book takes for granted that her marriage to Collins was a mistake, but I’m not sure Austen would agree. I was somewhat disappointed that Elizabeth and Darcy didn’t appear in the book much either.

The action of this novel begins when Charlotte’s younger sister Maria joins her in her widow cottage and starts husband-hunting, attracted by a young American. Each sister has two suitors, one good and initially disparaged, one bad and initially pursued. Maria is careless and boy-crazy at least for the first half of the book, while Charlotte is prim and proper in an exaggerated way, so much so that the central problem, when it finally comes up, is one that you can barely believe she would ever get herself into. The sentence-level writing is Austen-inspired and fun. I had mixed feelings about this one. Probably only a serious Austen fan would enjoy it.

Ready to March

The Women’s March is tomorrow, and I’m excited to attend in Nashville with my baby. When I took him with me to vote in November, I was excited to think that years from now I would be sharing with him that he helped me elect the first woman president. Maybe someday he still will. This protest is a historic moment, one that I’ll be proud to tell my child he was present for. I still would have preferred to tell the other story, but at least we’ll be on the right side of history, as active dissenters rather than passive consenters.

This march will be the fourth protest I’ve attended since the election. I went to the Marcha Contra el Odio de Trump (March Against Trump’s Hate) organized by Dignidad Obrera, among other Nashville organizations, the Sunday after the election. There was a small bilingual discussion beforehand among parents and teachers looking for ways to support children who may be encountering racist bullying triggered by the election. About 300 people marched.

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The other two protests were smaller. There was one on the day of the electoral college vote. It was cold, so I brought hot chocolate to share with the persistent protesters who stayed longer than I did. And then a couple weeks ago, I joined a couple dozen people protesting outside of the offices of our Republican senators, focused on the climate change deniers who are nominated to the Cabinet.

I understand that not everyone can protest–and in fact maybe the size of this weekend’s protests is getting out of hand and borderline unsafe. Protests like this are by their nature a one-time event, when what we need is ongoing commitment. That’s why I wanted to share some of the other things I’ve been doing since the election and hope to continue to do as long as necessary.

I went to a meeting, sent emails, passed out flyers, made phone calls, and talked to coworkers about the vote on collaborative conferencing for a teachers’ contract in our school district. This victory, coming just a week or so after the crushing defeat in the election, has been a definite bright spot. I’m looking forward to watching this process and hope for a contract that will improve teachers’ pay and working conditions, and thus students’ learning conditions as well.

Inspired by the Indivisible guide, I have been calling my two Republican senators at least weekly. I’ve made over 20 calls so far. I receive daily action alert texts that give me ideas about what issues to talk to them about, but usually I already have something I’m mad about. Since education is my pet issue, I’ve been focused on the Betsy DeVos nomination for Department of Education. So far the senators haven’t done much that I wanted them to do, except push back DeVos’s hearing a week and say in the media that they want to replace the ACA. I want to participate in a growing wave of angry calls, so that these senators start to feel like their seats are at risk if they don’t change the way they vote. Senator Bob Corker is up for re-election in 2018, and getting rid of him should be a #1 priority for all Tennesseans.

I’ve done a lot of small things online: signing petitions, tweeting, using an app called Countable, liking, commenting, and using the angry or sad reaction emoji on facebook (Why is there no ‘scared’ or ‘yikes!’ reaction emoji? We need that one now). It’s easy to feel like these are throwaway actions, but they’re also effortless and cost me nothing. Why not spend the miniscule extra energy of a click or two? I like to think that when I click ‘like,’ that means that my facebook friends are more likely to see a story, and that may influence them.

I’m not detailing my activities here in order to brag, and I don’t want to participate in some kind of ally theater. I don’t need to give myself a pat on the back because nothing I do can ever be enough until our world is just and free. But on the other hand, I made a commitment to do these things, and I want to hold myself accountable, and there’s nothing like publicity to do that. My hope is that hearing about what I’m doing can encourage others and give them some ideas about what they might do as well.

These protests are only the beginning of a resistance movement that will have to last for several years. Going forward, my goal is to do about four things every week: a call to each of my senators, one local or state-level action or phone call, and one in-person action, like attending a meeting. I probably won’t reach that goal every week, but it’s a dramatic uptick in my involvement compared to last year, and it’s close to my limit for the amount of time and energy I have to devote to these activities, considering I have a full-time job and two little kids. So far I’m finding these actions very doable and empowering. They’re a great outlet for the frustration and anger that would otherwise build up just from scrolling my newsfeed. Compared to helpless inaction, doing something, anything, is a relief.

Let’s march!

The Alchemist

The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho

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I had heard a lot of good things about this short little book, and was happy to finally pick it up. A lot of people, including Brene Brown, whose work I find persuasive and inspiring, call it wonderful. I was sorry to be disappointed with it.

The story works well if you think of it as a fairy tale and don’t try to derive any deeper significance from it. It’s a simple quest narrative about a boy who goes looking for a treasure. But what bothers me about the book is that it clearly seems to be trying to teach a life philosophy, and many of its readers like it for precisely that reason. I guess my problem is just that I don’t particularly like its philosophy. Here’s a quote that sums it up:

“When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

I guess I just don’t believe the world works like that. It would be nice if it did. This philosophy seems to say that if you don’t achieve your dreams it’s your own fault because you didn’t follow “your Personal Legend” with enough faithfulness and tenacity, regardless of circumstances. It’s a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” philosophy, exemplified by the boy’s quick success in the crystal shop, starting with nothing and earning back double the money he’d lost to a thief in less than a year. The boy is always reading omens to help him make decisions, and I don’t think omens happen in this world. Again, if you think of it as a fantasy world where the wind and desert talk to him through magic, it’s fine. But if it’s supposed to be a metaphor for real life (and I think it very clearly is), I don’t find it persuasive because I don’t think life is that easy. There are definitely nuggets of wisdom, like the part where the boy talks to his heart and finds that it is too scared to go forward, but he chooses to go forward anyway. This particular idea about fear is said better or at least equally well by Elizabeth Gilbert in the opening of Big Magic.

I also had a problem with the way the book treated love and the boy’s relationship with Fatima, a “woman of the desert” who is content to wait for him while he searches for his treasure. What about her “Personal Legend”? Apparently her role is just to sit at the oasis and wait for him to return. It seems pretty convenient for the boy that “love never keeps a man from pursuing his Personal Legend.” Exactly. He’s a man. For women in our unequal society, it is a common experience that love and family get in the way of, or, at best, delay the realization of professional and personal aspirations. Fatima is one of two female characters, and both are just love interests with no real personality. The story would have been about the same without either one of them in it. It seemed they were only there to give the boy something to sacrifice or a way to prove he can delay gratification, on his way to finding his treasure.

What Keeps a Mom from Writing

Does parenting–specifically, mothering–make writing impossible? Are writing and mothering inherently opposed activities that a single person cannot do in the same day, year, lifetime? A lot of people have a lot of opinions about these questions, as they are sure to do with anything that relates to mothers, and some of them even have relevant experiences.

While I was pregnant with my second child, I read an essay on the topic that I found most discouraging. It was called, “The Secret to Being Both a Successful Writer and a Mother: Have Just One Kid.” It’s full of examples of successful writer-moms who had a single child, and how that child fit nicely within their careers. I can see why it would be easier to have just one kid. My three-year-old requires so much less attention than when he was a baby. If he were my only kid and I could look forward to increasing independence and decreasing demands on my time and attention, it would indeed make it easier to write. But damn, that’s depressing.

Kim Brooks, in “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Mom,” theorizes that because art is about disturbing easy, complacent sensibilities, while parenting is about offering comfort, mothers find it hard to switch gears and their creative pursuits often suffer. I was interested in her view and found it kind of interesting and persuasive, but this is far from my personal experience. The problem Brooks describes is not my problem. The writing I do must not be literary enough, or avant garde enough, or whatever, for this to be an issue for me. Writing doesn’t unsettle me or make me a disturbing presence in the lives of my children. The habit of soothing my children might make my writing bland and boring–but hey, that might have been the case even if I’d been childless, and boring writing is better than no writing at all, which has been more my problem.

By far my favorite response to this question was “Mother, Writer, Monster, Maid” by Rufi Thorpe. This is one of those things I read and related to so hard that I wished I’d been the one to write it. I love that Thorpe finds hope in the idea that a lot of male writers who had children but neglected them were assholes, and they may have been still better writers had they been psychologically healthy adults, attentive parents renewed by their children. Thorpe locates the problem in the necessarily self-centered nature of an artist vs. a mother’s other-focused generosity. She makes her desire to be a mother who writes into something subversive and revolutionary:

“If Kim Brooks worries that the job of art is to unsettle and the job of a mother is to soothe, perhaps there is no more unsettling solution than to insist she can do both, that there is, in fact, no conflict there, that motherhood itself is dark and uncharted and frightening.”

One of the most exciting and reassuring things I’ve read recently is this excerpt from a biography of Shirley Jackson. Jackson, author of many creepy stories like “The Lottery” and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, seems to exemplify Thorpe’s assertion that motherhood can be fuel for profoundly unsettling literature. No one can deny that Jackson was a writer whose work is subversive and disturbing, and her biographer asserts that it was absolutely rooted in her role as a mother. Jackson viewed children honestly, unromantically, refusing to idealize them, and that’s what made her work so fascinating. What’s even more remarkable (and infuriating) is that she wrote her books in the 50’s and 60’s, with zero childcare support from her husband, whose expectations of her were typical of that period. Like Julianna Baggott, another prolific writer who has four children, Jackson would constantly think of her stories while doing the routine work of housekeeping. That’s a trick I need to learn.

When my first child was only a little older than my second is now, I wrote something about how I didn’t have any time to write, and how I resented the implication that my lack of time meant I wasn’t dedicated. It all still rings true. Another issue for me is still confidence–and whenever I step away from writing for a while, no matter the reason, my confidence takes another hit, and it’s that much harder to get back to it.

This is what keeps me from writing lately. It’s small practical things like the fact that the baby wants to nap on me, (he wakes up if I put him down), so I only have one hand free, if that, which is enough to scroll through facebook, but not enough to type anything longer than a tweet. It’s the way the easily bored baby fusses if I sit down while holding him; he wants me to either focus on him, talking and singing, or walk around and around the house, or put him in front of a screen. It’s the constant interruptions from the toddler, a terrible conversationalist who whines, “I want mommy talk to me.” It’s the tiredness that hits me so heavily and suddenly as soon as both boys are asleep, and I know I’ll have to wake up twice to nurse and make an early start to get myself ready for school in the morning. It’s the way the grocery list and the litany of chores left undone too long crowd my essay ideas out of my brain before they even make it to a Post-it note. It’s the free time that only comes in fifteen-minute chunks, while I keep an ear listening for a baby to wake and start crying.

As hard as it is to find the time and energy to write while pregnant or caring for a baby, I need to recommit myself to it once again because I know it’s important. I think something would be lost if mothers stopped writing while they’re in the thick of it, because memory changes things and softens the hard edges of these extraordinary years. Taking care of babies and toddlers is an intense experience, and it makes for a full, busy, tiring, wonderful life, but if that life doesn’t get recorded while it’s happening, then there can be no complete and truthful record of it.

How Should a Person Be?

How Should a Person Be? A Novel From Life by Shelia Heti

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When this book came out, there was a lot of talk about it, so I put it on my list. People were saying how it’s a book about female friendship and the struggle to produce art, topics which certainly appeal to me. A lot of people didn’t like it and called it navel-gazing, and others responded to that criticism with accusations of sexism: “You’d like it if it were a man doing the navel-gazing.” Because I know where I generally stand on those debates, I was fully prepared to like and enjoy this book, and was disappointed when I didn’t so much. It wasn’t because female friendship is boring or because a woman writing about her own life is objectionable to me (obviously), but just because I guess I didn’t like the particular things Heti had to say about her life, or the way she said them. Heti (or her character) divorces her husband for reasons I didn’t understand (I didn’t understand why she married him either), and has a relationship with a creepy guy who likes to make sex as degrading for his partners as possible. It takes her way too long to dump him. She moves from Toronto to New York because statistically it seems more likely she’ll make her way into the canon if she’s there. The story (not that there’s much plot) is framed by an “ugly painting” contest that Heti’s friends participate in. Heti’s friend Margeaux is a central figure, and the effect both have on each others’ art is a key question.

I’d compare Heti to Lena Dunham in that they’re both privileged white women making art and focusing on relationships between women. Both also explore relationships with men that are at least borderline exploitative or abusive. Dunham is a decade younger, a lot funnier, and has some important things to say about date rape, women’s bodies and representation, while Heti is more esoteric and existential, and less concerned with social justice. I’m between the two in age, but I think I prefer Dunham.