"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.

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.”

 

Modern Hate - Is Our Time our Own?

I am tentatively venturing back into the land of online dating after almost a year spent away; as one might re-approach a fascination with cars after a year spent tinkering with a quality but thoroughly unreliable bicycle. I'll preface by saying that despite the ridiculous habits that people have which make it a challenging terrain to navigate, I think that online dating is one of the most important social innovations of the modern era, in terms of giving people access points to finding the whatever type of intimacy they desire.

However, I am certainly glad that I have years left (really an unlimited number of years, if I stick to this not wanting kids thing) to experience it as a fun experiment rather than out of true necessity for finding a long term companion. But I guess it's also that way with any kind of dating – it's so much more fun when you don't have a set expectation in mind, and can relish the joy of the absurdity instead of being angry that every scrub you meet on the street isn't trying to spend 100% of their time obsessed with you.

In fact, percentage of time spent obsessed with another human is actually among the troubles I am running into with dipping my feet back into this sea of humans flailing about. (Gross but accurate image.) I spent so much time alone this past year in San Diego. I don't think of this as a 'good' or 'bad' thing (good and bad being paradigms I am trying to escape in all areas of my life) but rather as a natural occurrence that now other natural occurrences flow from – I got used to spending so much time alone, and now I have a steady barn of horses in that area of my life who need consistent food and exercise, and though it can be hard to give them all the attention they require, it is a necessary and vital part of my life.

I have activities that I already plan to do alone, I am used to thinking about a certain amount of topics per day and if I neglect them or am too distracted, I get really overwhelmed and panicky because I feel behind and like I haven't properly processed things. Add to that the fact that I have an actual laundry list of things I do need to accomplish completely alone by virtue of being in a new city – job training apartment whatever job job literary shit job shit meeting old friends understanding the subway job job – that whereas the average person might (the average person does) look at my life and see a wide swath of free time, ready for them to grab and use at their leisure, I do not see it as such. I see pockets of time that I can devote to strangers and friends alike, and try to dole them out in a way that is fair and healthy.

I'm going to venture a guess that humans have not considered this, given the way they treat my time. Keep in mind that the following have all occurred prior to meeting someone in person, because once someone exhibits these behaviors I react like an animal who senses a harness nearby and scampers in the other direction, making sure they have no way to entrap me.

First, in the online medium itself. Multiple times – honestly multiple times a day – people will message me, wait a few hours, then message me again saying something like 'guess I wasn't cool enough for you' or 'people probably don't like you because you're a bitch' or any variation of getting pouty that I haven't replied as soon as I saw their message.

Yeah, a lot of these messages I probably wouldn't have replied to in the first place, but the funny thing is usually when people do this it's within a time frame where I just haven't SEEN the message. I usually only check the messages once a day, or at least do one bulk session of responding in a day, because if I kept the app active on my phone it would just be this constant obnoxious barrage of messages. So – these guys apparently think I'm just sitting by the app, waiting for them to message me so I can be ever so impressed with their man-ness and become obsessed with them.

Then, you know, there's the people that I do message back, and we talk a bit, and you know, it's hard to say if they're cool or not because I don't know them, but they seem possibly decent so we say 'hey, let's grab a drink sometime, here's my number' and we start texting, and maybe -

Maybe someone I already know from one of my previous lives calls me up to go to an event or dinner or coffee. Maybe I go to hang out with my sister. Or maybe, oh my god, maybe – I have a plan to do something by myself. See the Steve Job movie. Walk the high line. Get up early for something writer-ly. Actually write something writer-ly. I'm trying to develop a schedule for writing and hold myself to it, because if I don't take myself seriously, who will? But anyway, as I am doing things, with other humans or with myself, one of these guys texts me and says do you want to grab a drink tonight? What are you doing now? When can we meet up?

And maybe I don't see it for a while – I don't keep my phone on the table if I'm catching up with an old friend. I go on runs that can run (heh) up to 2 hours, during which I am also not checking my phone. I do check my phone when I'm working on things, but I'm trying to break the habit or at least not get engaged in conversations because it's v distracting and a bad work habit. Maybe I do see it and I think 'I'll reply to this later, when I figure out what's up.'

And I would like to insert here that I am not, by definition, a not-responder. I am a responder. I have a general timeline in my head of when I should get back to someone by, even if I'm busy. If I take a long time I'm very apologetic and explain my current in flux life situation.

In the preferable scenario, I see the message eventually, I reply, words are exchanged, it's understood that we're all in a weird place in life and plans are hard to make, we make a plan or we estimate a time when we will know our schedules better.

OR -

“Hey I became unexpectedly free today what are you up to?” (I am asleep, do not see message)

“Hoping to hear from you soon!” (I wake up to both, am annoyed)

“I guess today's a no go...” (Is it now?!)

“Hey can you let me know what time tomorrow you might be free I'm just trying to figure out my schedule...”

If those were four separate messages from four separate people, great. All normal. Even two of them would be like, fine, whatever. But nope, all four were from the same person within the same five hour period. Dude, come on. If someone doesn't respond to me and I haven't met them, I just throw it out the window. If I've met them once and they don't respond to me, I am chagrined that they don't realize I'm the best person in the world, but I still throw it out the window. If I've known them for several months, I might send them a second text after like, three days.

(And I should throw in the caveat here - I'm not trying to apply any of this to people that you have actual consistent relationships with. This is purely about strangers.) FOUR TEXTS IN FIVE HOURS TO SOMEONE YOU'VE NEVER MET?! What do you think my job is, sit in room with cell phone and do nothing to distract myself from important messages from strangers?

OR -

Guy keeps texting me with times he could meet up, random questions about my life, all the changes in his schedule that flit about moment by moment, but then when I eventually reply a decently lengthy apologetic text that I'm having trouble penciling people in because of again, the job the training the weird life of having moved here less than a month ago, they respond with something frosty and/or salty, pick your food based adjective, and I'm like alright, bye felicia, if you can't handle me being busy before I've met you, you sure as hell wouldn't like it later.

Can we just dwell on the absurdity of that for a moment? How can someone believe before they've even met me that they are so entitled to my time that they can get indignant or angry or have the right to know exactly what I'm doing to not respond or see them? Is it that hard to imagine that I might just be off doing things alone that I think are important, because I have a life of value? I assume it is a mixture of

A. I am a woman, so what better things can I have to do than pay attention to men who deign to speak to me?

B. Cell phones – if we're always plugged in how can we not be communicating, etc

It just confuses me, because it's not like I'm some princess trying to hit away my armies of suitors with a flail made of horse hair. I spent the majority of my teens and early twenties with no male attention to speak of, and the attention that I did have was generally fraught and creepy. There are scores of men who I've paid attention to who have either completely ignored or backed away from me, and although I complained to my friends about it, it's not like I sought retaliation unless they did something you know, evil, which I think is fine. If I were actually doing anything malicious to these internet strangers they'd have every right to be pissed at me – but in the aforementioned cases, I was just being a normal human who doesn't have her shit figured out because she moved to a city less than a month ago and doesn't have a set schedule. You wanna text me this morning that your day suddenly became free? Well my day isn't, and for you to expect that I'm just sitting around waiting for some guy to text me is ridiculous.

It seems that somewhere along the line of being a woman with an iPhone, people forgot that I have the right to my own time. I'm not going to say I lost the right, because that right is still 100% mine and any random dude (or any human's) opinion of that is irrelevant. I can give it out in select increments, but it's not yours to take because you think I have a hot picture on okCupid and you like how I phrase things in my profile. My days are not just swaths of time up for the taking. You're not doing me any favors by deigning me with your presence. If any deigning of presence to be done, it is going to be understood that it's a two way street – I am lucky to get a chunk of your time, and you are lucky to get a chunk of mine. We're all busy humans, but one gender's busyness is not more important than the others.

Lest I sound like a harangue of online dating, I would like to clarify that I am not – both thinking it's a necessary and important medium, and for those who know my recent non-online dating narrative, not exactly a peach grove either. Somewhere on the scale of 'less weird and unpleasant than my roommate stabbing himself but more weird and unpleasant than moving across the country.' And, cannot forget, there are lots of guys speaking to me who are NORMAL and who seem perfectly willing to accept that my time is just as valuable as theirs, and that I might want to spend a lot of it alone (Since I say that. In my profile. You've been warned.)

Note: sometimes I write things on my blog or online that people decide to apply to my entire past and then go on a rant about me, to me, about how I'm a hypocrite or whatever. If you have this in mind, spare yourself the time. I'm a growing girl, half the point of this time in life is maturing and figuring things out and revising earlier held opinions. If me at 22 was the authoritative version of Becca, for how I'd be for the rest of my life, you'd all be in for an obnoxious time.