"What would an apologetic female narrator look like? Ordering a beer and then saying sorry?"

A few weeks ago, I had the excellent fortune to attend a panel at the Strand on Bad Women. As the event description put it, “This panel of novelists and essayists will talk about the onus of likeability placed on women and whether women are allowed to be flawed, in fiction and life.” I think we call all agree that 'onus of likeability' may be the phrase of the century.

I just finished up a writing class at Catapult with Chloe Caldwell, one of the panelists, a few weeks ago, and most of my colleagues from the class and I planned to meet up at the event. I generally attend events alone so it was a fun diversion to have someone to sit with and talk about the crowd instead of sitting alone and furtively scribbling in my notebook all the weird things I overhear.

Our main observation was that the room was packed with super fashionable ladies. To the point where there were maybe like, four men in the room. I'm going to look at this from the positive angle, it reinforces my theory that rooms of women have a unique powerful energy that some men have the unfortunate tendency to mess up.

Once the huge mass of humans had flocked into the room and gotten settled (I'm not exaggerating, rare books room at the Strand was practically overflowing) and some quick housekeeping notes from Kaylen, the girl who runs events at the Strand who I am obsessed with because she is fashionable and funny and has the best job, Isaac Fitzgerald, the event's moderator, opened the panel.

He started out with a moment of silence to Prince, le cry. “We're losing a lot of our artistic weirdo geniuses and that sucks.” It sucks a lot, pour one out. But in a purple lining, being at this event on the night Prince died served as a call to put ones nose to the proverbial grindstone about making weird boundary pushing art. Of course, it's crazy that women being themselves in writing is still weird and boundary pushing, but – that brings me to the panel!

“Let's have a kickass conversation about badass women,” Fitzgerald said, and then the badassery commenced.

Other than Chloe, the panelists were Anna North, Jenny Zhang, and Emily Schultz. The event was centered around the paperback release of Schultz latest book, The Blondes. Some of the reviews of her book treated it as though it was full of bad characters, out to terrorize the town. Her response opened the discussion:

“I didn't think it had a bad woman in it. I thought it had a woman who was in her twenties.” That one certainly resonated in the room, as it was primarily peopled with women in or near their twenties.

Chloe then discussed the reviews she received for her novella, Women. It's one of my recent most fabulous reads, by the way, and should be picked up by absolutely everyone.

“Many of them said the narrator lacks apology or was unapologetic – which seems like a backhanded compliment, what should I be apologizing for? What would an apologetic female narrator look like? Ordering a beer then saying sorry?” Of course we all laughed, but it's funny because it's true. We're at a very interesting moment for women and apology, no? There's a strong cultural impetus for women to stop saying sorry, but then women who ostensibly act this out are called unapologetic. What is this magic middle ground that we're supposed to be filling in to?

She continued, “The most disconcerting thing is when you think your character is totally normal, that's what life is like, that's what my friends are like, and then you read a review saying your characters are so fucked up.”

What all the panelists continually wrangled with is that the commentary on female work is so much more judgmental and amped to a higher degree of personal attacks than any commentary on male work. How often do people even use the phrase 'male work'? Never. It's always a woman who receives the designation of gender on something she creates.

Zhang went on to draw the connection between this commentary in writer's workshops and in the world at large, drawing out possibly my favorite comment of the night: “It's like the MFA vs NYC thing – ugh so inside baseball gross.” (I really can't resist a good MFA vs NYC joke) (Or any joke that only makes sense to people in a weird subculture)

Zhang continued, “People were telling me the immorality of what I was interested in.” Do we ever do that for men? Who with 'authority' tells gross dudes to shut up?

North brought up the challenge of choosing which comments are worthwhile - “What are valuable voices I should take in?”

This reminded me of a question I've consistently debated: does it matter if some people 'don't like' your work? Of course in terms of the capitalist market it's important for some people to find value in what you make, and I also do believe that there are elements of art that need to be present to constitute something strong – I'm thinking structure, form, innovation, energy, utilizing classic techniques in creative ways. But at the same time, in a world so immersed in the culture of opinion, 'liking' is a totally subjective idea. It doesn't necessarily have anything to do with a work's merit.

Unfortunately it's impossible to discuss the creative work of women without coming up on accusations of narcissism and egocentricity. Something I love in this moment we're having with women is that some people finally seem to be saying: so what if this is 'about me'? What is wrong with that? Why the implicit insult in being focused on the self? Why is the negative association only directed at women? Nobody is telling Knausgaard to stop writing about himself.

“Clearly Chloe Caldwell's favorite subject is Chloe Caldwell,” she said, quoting a review. She went on to say how people always categorize her writing as self topical, “The topic is always stated as myself versus female friendship or bisexuality.”

Zhang countered with how this has played out for her in terms of race, and how people reacted to her work with shock because she did not fit into their stereotypes.

“It's like they're encountering that person for the first time. People would call my work daring, but I was just born and have this brain and care about what I care about.”

She went on to aptly describe a cultural tendency, for people to deride women for fucking up but also relish in that moment:

“There's this blood thirst in our culture for women to fuck up publicly, not to be good but to be interesting.”

Shulz brought the discussion of the language around women's work to the broader realm of women’s accomplishments -

“People are always asking who did she fuck / who did she know what are her connections – versus acknowledging the woman's work.”

And of course the way that men refer to women based on their age could not be avoided.

“Men who are thirty or thirty five are not called ingenues," Shulz said.

Zhang continued this thread, “Young implies that you're sloppy / irresponsible / artless / just printed out your diary.”

Though the question session began, despite a loving warning from Fitzgerald - “Please make sure it's a question and not a story about yourself,” with an awkward possibly sexist question from one of the only males that made the entire room cringe, for the most part the questions were eloquent and led to great responses from the panelists -

“Women would write thoughtful reviews and men would say 'Oh! I didn't know this was going on!'” Caldwell said regarding the differences in her reviews from men and women.

“I used the first person so much I basically strangled it with desire and affection” Zhang on her past and future writing genres.

“People are offended by the fact that there's not an easy morality.” More of Shulz analyses of the reactions to her most recent novel.

I left the panel of badass women first and foremost wanting to attend more panels of badass women. A panel is really the perfect form – you get to see people whose thoughts you love form new theories together, the total dream. But I also left it thinking – in the eyes of the general public commenting on art, women are never doing the 'right' thing. But this idea is inherently flawed, because it's acting as if there is a right thing, as if there is a 'thing' that women are supposed to aspire to, rather than being free to aspire to whatever they desire.

Compilation Selves

Today I was on a run, and I was contemplating how life and I have been on great terms since I moved to New York. It's been a little over a month, but already so many things are happening, and so many opportunities are presenting themselves, that just make me excited to be involved in the world and to finally be in/at a place where I can actually take concrete action to create the type of life I want.

I've known for quite a while – since the end of college – that the primary thing I want in life is not in the realm of traditional measures of success or finances or weird domestic trappings. At the core, what I want is to consistently be interacting with interesting, intelligent humans, having fascinating conversations, while concurrently consistently producing good work that I am proud of. To always be thinking and engaging, alone and with company. To have an equally rich private life of making and consuming art in tandem with a thriving social life, talking about said art and the making and consumption of it.

Now, I can feel that I am relatively close (comparatively speaking) to achieving that. At least, I'm taking the steps I should be taking to make that happen, and the days are rich with possibility and joy. But then, of course I have to reflect on the time since college that was spent, somehow or other, not doing that, even though I have known this was my goal for quite some time.

The things that happened to me directly after college certainly aren't tragic, or dramatic enough to warrant a memoir, but they are good examples of Person Not Having a Great Time and Not Being in the Correct Location. You know, quitting the summer camp when half the horses coliced, being a sad human with no friends while traveling, lots of interaction with idiots, lots of anxiety and crying alone, whatever, dumb. (And some great things, like awesome friends and interesting jobs, but whatever life mixed bag)

I don't regret anything that I did in the past two and a half years, because it got me to where I am now. If there's any 'lesson,' it's that not all environments are fertile grounds for consistent dank conversations and art making, and that once you realize an environment isn't a fertile ground for what you want, you need to take the steps to get to a new environment. 

But now I think of how I'm finally at this place in my life where I feel close to the point of being able to be my best social self, which I haven't felt since college, and it's crazy to me that all the people I've met and gotten to know and love in the past two and a half years don't even know me at my best social self, the one where I'm making weird ass connections and applying social theory to parties and taking the steps toward building literary community. The friends I made at the summer camp, the people I met while traveling, the people I worked with at IHOP, and of course, my lovely amazing coworkers who I miss SO MUCH from Hash House – they never knew this version of me. And that made me sad!

But after two minutes of being sad about that, I also thought about all the strides I've made as a person in that time frame, and how the people who knew me at my best social self, in college, did not know me at my best taking care of myself self. I used to be well known for being late, and always rushing into things at the last minute. Now, I am generally early or on time. In my second month of work at Hash House, someone called me punctual! What! I exercise regularly, I take care of myself – I actually shower these days. One of my professors from school didn't recognize me the last time I went to visit – in her words, because I looked 'so polished'- the nice way to say thin, recently showered, wearing a nice dress instead of a bandeau and booty shorts. I have a skill (a meager one, but a skill nonetheless) that enables me to go to work every day and make money to pay my own rent and pretty much whatever else I want at any given time. These are all small things, but put together they make me into a person who can accomplish what I want to do without having to worry an excessive amount about if my lackadaisical habits are going to get in the way. These things were probably necessary in the process of becoming a functional adult person.

So perhaps it isn't that I lost my best self in the past two years, but that I had to spend some time concentrating on other aspects in order to be able to move forward and be a productive adult human. And a great thing about having all that time not spent socializing, was that I spent that time doing something else – being a huge nerd and researching on the internet about writers and writing and, eventually, New-Yorky things.

I went to a writing workshop last weekend with Chloe Caldwell and Emily Gould, two badass women essayists who I am obsessed with. Of course, that was a crazy invigorating and intense day and I left with so much inspiration but also so much hope for the future and all these overwhelming emotions, and of course I listened to Welcome to New York by T Swift and started crying on the sidewalk.

My immediate reaction to my own tears was – who do I thank for this? Do I thank my professors, or my writer friends, or my family? But then I thought about it, and I thought – who told you to read Emily Gould or Chloe Caldwell? Nobody. I sat alone in my bed in San Diego and went into internet wormholes looking for great current female writers, and I found them myself. Who gave you the money to take this workshop or to move to this crazy city? Nobody. You worked six days a week at Hash House and put that money into the bank. Who sat with you while you wrote words and blog posts and essays and emails? Nobody! You sat alone that whole time, and it was lonely at first but then it was good for you, and then it became necessary, because learning how to be alone was just as necessary as learning how to charm strangers or throw a kick ass party.

And of course I'm so fucking grateful to my professors and my writer friends and my family, for so many things. I absolutely know that I would not be the person I am today if it weren't for my parents and my friends and my professors, for giving me books when I was five and teaching me how to socialize appropriately and giving me the attention and creative spaces to hone my writing (respectively, but also overlapping.) And there are people who have directly helped me with my life here already – my friend Abby who invited me to the facebook group that connected me with a bunch of these things, my sister and uncle for living here and existing, the friends who have chilled with me, the people I've met who have been so kind and welcoming. I will always be looking for ways to thank the people who have been there for me, but I also acknowledge that I owe a lot to myself, to what I've done while sitting alone.

So what I hope now, is that this is not the end of a self (the self sufficient, clean, hard working Hash House self) but the compilation of many selves, my social self and my efficient self and my creative self. All I really want is for this to be the start of that process, of learning to balance all the different aspects of my life, and not having to pay so much damn attention to each one, so they can all serve the grand purpose of making good art while having great conversations. It takes longer than I'd have imagined, but I can certainly say now that I'm on the way.  

Just me interacting with some humans I admire

Today, I took a truly excellent one day writing workshop at Catapult with Emily Gould and Chloe Caldwell. Anyone who has listened to me nerd out on contemporary women writers over the past two years can guess that this was a v meaningful experience for me, that may or may not have involved a cup full of tears while walking down 6 Av listening to Welcome to New York afterwards. But I'm going to save that particular bit of emotional absurdity for another time.

We did a bunch of short generative exercises, which was actually perfect for me right now because I keep trying to work on these large expansive essays that say so much about my experience as a college educated service industry professional and gentrification or sexual dynamics in the 21st century, which are all important topics but really hard to focus in on. Thus writing these short really focused excercises really reminded me that I can just – write. And, coincidentally, my sister and I had a hilarious time last night which just happened to translate very well into one of the prompts.

I've decided to transcribe it here, because getting back into blogging and New York times and writer times and the things that happen.

So we were writing based on our horoscope from Friday, and mine was something along the lines of - “you're inspired to connect, have an intense evening, but you shouldn't start conversations that won't end well.”

Here she is -

“My sister and I stood outside Cowgirl, on the corner of Hudson and West 10th, debating over whether to go inside.

“I mean, I think it's fine,” I said, “There probably isn't a wait and you are impatient.”

“But it looks like they're serving the food out of baskets...” she said.

Suddenly, a distinguished older woman rushed past us, looked at the restaurant, blurted “Yes!” and ran inside.

My sister and I locked eyes and immediately followed her.

Rachel and I are not normally prone to making decisions based on the choices of elegant older women, but we'd immediately recognized this particular one as Sharon Olds, who we'd just seen read at the Pushcart Prize 40th Anniversary reading.

We put our name in and took a seat at the bar, ordering one strawberry margarita and one habanero.

“It's been a while for her to be in the bathroom,” I said. “Do you think she's actually eating here?!”

“I assume so,” my sister said, gesturing to a back room just out of sight.

“Wait...do you think they're ALL here?!” I said, quickly calculating that, if this were the case, I would be in the same breathing space as Zadie Smith and Ben Marcus for the second time in one night.”

“Dude, that's what I thought when we followed her in here!” my sister replied.

We began taking turns canvassing the restaurant – pretending to look for the bathroom or being on our cell phones. I recognized with my superior creeping skills that about half the people working the event appeared to be eating in an anterior dining room, and a few more trickled in, waiting for another table.

“I want to buy them a drink but they're probably already on an expense account, so it would be pointless.” I sighed. “And I don't want to be a total creep.”

'Total Creep' around distinguished people was, however, in my repertoire. I'd befreinded all my college professors by schmoozing with them at free wine events, eventually asking them out to fancy dinners with the generous help of my best friend. We'd ended our senior year with telling one of them the details of the keg race tournament we ran for the rest of the school and possibly revealing the names and relative transgressions of underclassmen we'd had certain relations with.

As it turned out, not everyone involved with the ceremony was at the after dinner – aka, Zadie and Ben never reappeared. I speculated:

“Zadie lives in SoHo so she probably went home, and Ben splits his time between here and Maine and I mean I'd probably want to get home too if I was married to Heidi Julavits...”

My sister replied: “Yeah...it's probably good that you didn't have the opportunity to talk to them again.”

Instead, we made a strategic plan for how I'll convince my new restaurant to host after event galas for authors in our private room, thus giving me a future excuse to speak to the people I admire with a good reason: I'll be serving them food.

And plus, Zadie Smith had already given me the most affirming line of the night: when she was signing my anthology, I told her:

“I sent my ex your essays, and you're the first woman writer he's ever loved.”

She gave me a quick look, and then said in her deep, posh accent: “Well it's good that you two broke up then.”