Showing You Mine: How I Fund My Writing Life

25 Jan

In response to Ann Bauer’s Salon article, ” ‘Sponsored’ by my husband: Why it’s a problem that writers never talk about where their money comes from,” for which I am deeply grateful, what follows is a loose accounting of my life as a writer, with all the editorializing you’d expect.

The short answer is, I don’t. Writing, when I find time to do it, is auxiliary to the rest of my life. That’s to be expected, you might think, considering my (lack of) publication history. You’re right, generally, but I think you’ve got the horse before the cart. Were I able to afford more writing time and to have been born with more connections, publication might not have eluded me to date.

I started the novel I’m shopping now on a yellow pad on a clipboard in an armchair in a Starbucks in the lobby of a hotel in the fall of 2002. I had moved (back) across the country to take a job in arts admin that sounded fabulous, but, arts admin being what it is, was actually nightmarishly terrible. (I’m not kidding: the first pay period of my employment we were told that our checks might be a couple of days late because the company didn’t have the cash to make payroll.) The job required evenings and weekends with little to no comp time, and came with the expectation that you’ll martyr yourself to the cause that’s common in nonprofit work. So I took my clipboard to the nearest coffee shop on my lunch hour and wrote my ass off.

You’ve perhaps noticed that I’m not linking to the book’s Amazon listing or whatever. That’s because, despite writing my ass off, it’s not published. Some lunch hours I would just walk around the city and cry, feeling hopelessly trapped in a dead-end life. When I finally quit, I hustled to freelance to the best of my ability, working even longer hours to pay my rent. That summer, I moved in with my then-boyfriend-now-husband, cramming all my shit into a garage we rented at his apartment complex, to get by. In August, I started teaching full-time.

I started teaching full-time for less than $30K/year. The job entailed teaching at least 100 freshmen a semester how to write; because the institution where I teach has neither the most nor the least demanding admission standards, many of these students cannot complete a proper sentence, yet we’re expected to indoctrinate them into the fundamentals of rhetorical theory and teach them best research and research-writing practices. Including rough and final drafts, I read and respond in writing to around 3,000-5,000 pages of student writing per semester. Once, when I kept track of the word count of my responses, I cried all day, knowing how much that many words could accomplish in my foundering novel draft, and knowing that far fewer than half of my students would even read what I’d written to them. Universities being what they are, eleven years later, I still make less than $37K to do the same job, and do it very, very well. Combine that with the fact that our insurance coverage has doubled in premium cost and increased by a factor of 6.5 in deductible, and the salary starts to look pretty bad in the face of increased costs of living.

Unlike Bauer, I have a husband who’s neither a drag on my resources nor a wealthy sponsor. He has the same job as me. We’ve set ourselves up with a basic household budget that’s totally manageable if we didn’t have a lot of debt.

We have a lot of debt. It’s certainly true that I could have skipped the student loans for grad school and found a way to live on my incredibly meager stipend ($11K before tuition and insurance costs, which were not covered; partway through we got a raise. To $13K/year). This is the kind of shit decision you make when you were raised poor by a single parent who still, at nearly 70, doesn’t know how to manage money and you never learned the basics of financial literacy. You see a source of funds, you take it. I’ve made some less-than-ideal choices about credit cards, as well, though I’ve also used them to supplement that unincreasing salary on many, many occasions—for gas, groceries, you name it at the end of the month when the money runs out.

But the loans for undergrad weren’t avoidable unless I wanted to skip an education all together. As the first in my family to go to college, with no meaningful preparation or realistic expectations about how to live on my own or finance a college life, the student loans are substantial. (And yes, I’m too old for any of the student loan relief packages that have become available in recent years.)

Still, I wouldn’t trade my education, which cannot be valued in dollars and cents, no matter what the politicians say, for all the debt relief in the world. Without those loans for undergrad, I’d likely still be waiting tables sixty hours a week with no prospects of any kind. And yet, some days, I don’t think that would be so bad. I think about quitting teaching to find some supposedly less prestigious job all the time, since my demanding and unpleasant work load pays about the same as any number of supposedly less prestigious jobs without much by the way of additional benefit except that I get to do a good bit of my work from home.

The space I imagined I’d use for my writing life is devoted, during an active semester, to prep and grading. The brain space, too. I don’t spend a tremendous amount of time in the classroom at present, but the amount of time I devote to student work and communication outside the classroom dwarfs that waitressing schedule. To be honest, I’m not sure I’m going to be able to do all of it with this baby on my lap once my maternity leave ends.

You may have noticed I haven’t mentioned Engine Books yet. Thus far, Engine Books is funded in part by income generated from book sales and in part by personal investments from our family accounts, which, as you see above, aren’t exactly bottomless—the editors don’t get paid for our work. My current goal for Engine Books is simply for it to fund itself. Any kind of salary or profit for that editing work is far in the future. I’m taking certain steps to make that easier: shopping around for a new printer, getting better as time passes at predicting print runs, etc. But Engine Books certainly isn’t going to sponsor even the work I do for Engine Books, much less my writing life, any time soon.

What’s left, then? What’s left is that I could probably work 8-5, year-round, for a better salary than the one I make now, but I “buy” my summers off teaching with that insufficient salary. I don’t take those summers off from Engine Books, but without the teaching, I can grab a few hours on the porch every day with a notepad and some good ideas. I don’t have the kind of background or connections that pave an easy path to publication for those ideas, though, so I’m slogging along through the slushpiles.

With no debt, we could come close to being a single-income family; one of us could, at minimum, reduce our teaching load to half-time. I seem to know so many writers who’ve never needed to accrue mountains of debt to get educated, or to get by in the world. I’ll admit it plainly: I resent those people. They make the writing life look so simple, so straightforward. They give shitty advice like what Bauer reported witnessing in her article, or they condescend to you by saying things like “If you were more committed you’d make the time to write.” (Note to anyone who’s ever said that to another writer, especially if you’re a man and you were talking to a woman: please fuck off into eternity. You are a clueless idiot.)

At the same time, I know that my life has never been simple or easy, and that if it was, I probably wouldn’t be compelled to write, or worse, I would be writing boring fiction about vapid people spending money on stupid shit. I keep seeing books of that kind, or that don’t deal in any meaningful way with how people acquire the money they use to get by, on the primary displays at Barnes & Noble, reviewed in the Times, celebrated all over the place. This represents an impoverishment of our literature and, by extension, of our culture. This is a New York problem. As it becomes increasingly impossible to work in publishing without a trust fund to pay your rent, more and more of the books selected for publication by those trust funders either seem to avoid dealing with those ugly, proletariat issues of living expenses, or they grossly fetishize lives unlike their own (Midwestern, addicted, for example). I’m sad about that, and I keep hoping that it’s going to change, but it seems that the only site of change here is going to be the small press world, where people are paying out of their own pockets to publish books that mean something to them. It’s awfully hard to pay for plum shelf space for another writer’s book on a teaching salary, you know?


Calling Out to the Universe

9 Oct

I never pray.

Sometimes I’ll speak to someone I call God, someone who is and isn’t present, and I’ll ask for help. In my desperation, there is no praise. Instead, I beg. Nothing I say in these moments rises to the level of prayer, none of it evinces belief or belonging. I simply cry out to the unknowable and indifferent universe for relief or release from pain.

This happened two nights before the abortion. That afternoon, a medical student had clumsily inserted something called laminaria japonica into my cervix. His supervising surgeon told me I should be fine if I took enough Advil and sent me home.*

There is not enough Advil in the world for what I felt.

Laminaria japonica is a seaweed product slightly larger than a bobby pin. Once inserted into the cervix, it is expanded by the body’s moisture, forcing the cervix to dilate as though the body is beginning labor. Nobody told me that the first centimeter of dilation is as traumatic to the body as the remaining nine combined. Nobody told me it was absurd to think that Advil could blunt the wrenching sensation. Nobody told me about vasovagal responses, or that I would feel like I might be going into shock.

The surgeon had been concerned that it wouldn’t be possible to dilate my cervix sufficiently to remove a 15-week gestated fetus because I had never delivered a child. He wanted to be sure to use as much laminaria as possible, which turned out to be five sticks. I laid on the table, stoic, angry, as long as I could before I cried. The pain, already, before the seaweed began its work, radiated from the core of my being. It felt like nothing I had ever imagined.

On the way home, the body’s revolt began. My husband had to pull over so that I could throw up out the side of the car. I couldn’t sit straight in the seat—my hips and abdomen hurt too much.

That afternoon and evening, I lay on the couch and wailed. I did not bargain. I did not insist. I simply begged. I thought, is this some kind of punishment for the choice we had to make? But a moral universe would function much differently than the one we live in, would look different than life looks here on Earth. Though it would be two more days before the final procedure was over, it was now irreversible. It had begun. I couldn’t go back, change my mind. I told myself that it didn’t matter, that what came later would hurt even worse if we didn’t do it then. And that was true, it would have.

Over the course of the next several hours, there was nothing to do but cry out to anyone who might be listening to take the pain away. I scared the dog. I wept. Andrew went to every Walgreens and CVS in our general area to try to find a heating pad, and came up empty. Finally, I wrapped a heated blanket around my torso and fell into a shallow, useless sleep.

The next day, back at the hospital, the same med student, supervised by the same surgeon, removed the five spent laminaria and inserted seven more. As I bled on the table, they tried again and again for eight. Eventually, the surgeon said, “She’s been through enough,” and they stopped. I laid on the table and cried. Having passed through the worst of it, though, I didn’t suffer as much that night. Against the surgeon’s wishes, I took a hot bath and found a few minutes of total relief.

The rest of the week went about as you might imagine: by morning I was fully dilated; we waited for five hours at the understaffed hospital before the 20-minute procedure began; a nurse insisted, on my behalf, on conscious sedation at a minimum. I walked into the operating room, was provided a stepping stool to get myself onto the sterile table under the blinding, hot lights, like stage lights. It seemed so odd that the operating room had a panoramic view of the city out enormous windows. The actual termination was over in a blink, painless, mostly a relief. And then our daughter was gone.

After my head cleared, for about an hour I felt a strange bodily elation, as though I could turn cartwheels right then and there. When the surgeon finally arrived to talk before we checked out, he asked, “Can you already tell you’re not pregnant?” I could.

It had been an incredibly unpleasant pregnancy. Low blood sugar caused constant headaches and a vague brand of nausea that couldn’t quite be relieved with vomiting. I ate protein all day, every day, and for maybe one day out of nine straight weeks felt functional. To be able to tell that I wasn’t pregnant was a curious relief. I had wanted to be pregnant. I wanted that child. I wanted her to be fine, and growing, and whole, which she never had been, never could have been.

For five weeks, I waited, desperate for the healing of my body and return of my cycle. All day, every day, I thought, What if it doesn’t come back? I was convinced I wouldn’t become pregnant again. I didn’t know how to grieve a half-formed human I had never met, and I felt like a tremendous failure. The voices in my mind alternated between berating myself for that failure and wishing, hoping. Not praying. I don’t believe there is a god who would give some people who want them healthy children, others irreparably damaged ones, others none.

I should be clear: I did not stop believing in a benevolent deity when my daughter died. As a Catholic teenager who’d gone to mass all her life, I tried as hard as possible to believe. I said the prayers, I sang the songs, I stood up, sat down, kneeled, started over. Before confirmation, I had to complete a fat workbook that required me to read the actual Bible, something I’m told by other Catholics they’ve never done, or been asked to do. I went to catechism. I sat in the pews during mass, longing to be filled with some kind of knowledge or understanding or feeling—to feel anything. I prayed hard, but never once did anyone or anything come to me in the spirit. Eventually, I gave up.

Of course, I did get pregnant again, in short order, as it turned out, once the body was ready. There is nobody for me to pray to for his safe delivery into my arms. I will have to do my best with what I have. Here on Earth, we’re on our own.


*I’ve learned since that it’s this particular surgeon’s standard procedure to undermedicate, and to recommend that the actual abortion be performed without any anesthesia. Combined with the “she’s been through enough” comment, I do wonder whether the doctors were punishing me, though I don’t believe that the universe was. 

The Lost Girl, Part One*

27 Sep
* How many parts will there be? Three? Thirty? All of them? Just this one? I have no idea. 


A little over a year ago, when I started to picture myself as a mother, I pictured myself mothering a girl. Not even a baby so much, but a little girl. She would have Andrew’s wavy auburn hair, hair that’s in my lineage, too, but skipped me, and a pert nose and my brown freckles. She would wear ribbons and braids and dresses, but also play with trucks and be rangy and athletic like we both were.

And this is where my ability to say much of anything coherent ends. These are the confounding facts:

A year ago this week I was on a NJ Transit train from my friend Claudia’s house into NYC in a backward-facing seat and became, for the first time in my life, motion sick.** I do not get motion sick. I love trains, taxis, planes, all forms of mass transit. I love both roller coasters and rides that spin. Motion sickness doesn’t happen for the first time when you’re thirty-nine years old. Unless you’re pregnant.

We had begun trying haphazardly in August—no thermometers, no dates circled on calendars, just doing what we did and crossing our fingers. I had spent a lifetime desperate to avoid this condition, had sex for twenty-one years without so much as a scare. I didn’t entirely believe it could happen. And then, a month later, it did. The motion sickness came back that night, on the train back to Claudia’s house, and again on the plane home a few days later.

The daughter I had imagined had come to me. But also not.

We read the books we’d already checked out from the library, changed our diets, made our plans. We tracked our progress. I was sick—so, so sick—unable to keep my blood sugar up, like all the worst parts of a hangover, all day, every day. We submitted blood for the tests that accompanied my diagnosis of Advanced Maternal Age. The tests were inconclusive, so we gave more blood and we waited. And then they weren’t.

I’ve tried a dozen times to make some kind of coherent narrative order of the events that followed: appointments, frantic and rushed as Christmas neared, so we could get everything done before the hospital cut to half-staff; a surprisingly painful amniocentesis and detailed ultrasound; trips to the strange, new public hospital, since our regular doctors wouldn’t perform an abortion, even with a diagnosis considered “incompatible with life”; two days of excruciating, soul-erasing pain while the laminaria forced my unwilling cervix open; a full day at an understaffed hospital for a 20-minute procedure. Trips back and forth past the Emergency entrance vestibule where a fully-uniformed cop manned a metal detector. A humiliating, infuriating review of text mandated by the old white men in our state’s legislature. A full hour of bodily elation after the procedure, followed by the deepest sleep of my life.

What was wrong with the baby? Well, everything. A chromosomal anomaly called Trisomy 13 had disordered every part of her development. Three heart valves. Open abdominal wall. Hydrocephaly. Cleft lip and palate on both sides. Club feet. Almost certainly no intellectual capacity at all. Advanced Maternal Age not all that much of a factor after all, since the average maternal age for Trisomy 13 cases is 31. Unpredictable. Unpreventable. An accident of cell division that may have happened in my egg when it was first formed or in my husband’s sperm right then and there. 1/16,000 live births have T13, though the vast majority of T13 babies are miscarried in the first trimester rather than born alive, making the statistical occurrence somewhat higher. In every case that does endure until birth, they die within hours, or at most a day or two.

I can list these biological details for you. I learned them by rote, to explain. To understand.

But as understanding goes, they have done me no good. We had a choice to make. We chose to end our daughter’s suffering before her nerve endings completed their development, before they had a chance to relay to her malformed brain what was happening to her body. The nurses offered us footprints, burial. We declined. We did not commemorate. We will not.

What I can’t figure out is where she’s gone to, my daughter, whose impossible, broken life happened entirely inside my own. I thought, if we can just get pregnant again, she’ll come back to us.

We did. Her (thus far) healthy, whole brother is due to be born on the anniversary of the abortion. Our doctors, kind, smart, write on our charts the day before or the day after. I hope fervently that this baby will have the accidental grace to honor their hopeful predictions.

She isn’t coming back to us. She never will. There is no way of ordering language that can make me understand or believe this fact.


**apart from a bad spell with some Vicodin, which I do not think counts

Raising Myself Up

25 Sep

I’m hurtling toward parenthood at a pretty rapid pace, though the path to get there has been longer and less foretold than most. As it happens, I’m struggling hard in the space between where I’ve been and where I’m going. At play in this space: I will have spent 55 of the prior 68 weeks pregnant when my son is born in December. I will have spent all of those weeks fluctuating in and out of near-debilitating grief over the death of my daughter after the first 15 of those 68 weeks. I have been told, again and again, by men who are strangers or near-strangers, that I’m too angry, too bitter, that I need to tone it down, even by men who know what I’ve been through. Also: I have to learn the technicalities of taking care of my child, while understanding that I was not well-cared-for myself, and while the book I’m reading keeps referring to the hypothetical child in its text as “she,” so I keep imagining myself caring for my lost daughter, rather than the son on the way.

Then we have the misbehavior of the body. I haven’t slept a full night, uninterrupted, in weeks. Even with the Ambien my doctor prescribed, I get 4-5 hours, tops, before I wake up, toss and turn. The baby kicks all day, hard enough to hurt. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve peed my pants while coughing or sneezing, even when I didn’t have to go. Nothing fits. It seems quite possible that nothing ever will again. My ankles are killing me; my knees ache all day. I fantasize at length about some imaginary respite, just a half an hour I could spend outside my body, free of pain.

All this is to say that I am suffering. Not in a tragic, newsworthy way, but in a deeply personal, mentally and emotionally debilitating way. Ordinarily, I would bitch as goodnaturedly as possible on Facebook about some (though not all) of it, but between the men who think I should be cheerfully seen and not really heard and the number of people who seem to think it’s fine to delegitimize every post by boiling me down to nothing but a womb, I’ve significantly reduced my participation in that forum.

Which leads me here. In an attempt to focus, to think constructively and critically about what I’m going through, I’m going to start posting here on my little blog again. It’s public, and I’m happy if you want to come read it, but if you do, you must adhere to one ironclad rule: DO NOT PROVIDE UNSOLICITED ADVICE. I’m pretty adept at asking for advice when I need it. When I don’t, and you provide it anyway, you’re assuming that your experience and knowledge trumps mine, that whatever you think is best is more important than my own tactics to learn, grow, and cope. Moreover, unsolicited advice is not ever welcome.

Some Thoughts on Your Resistance to “Trigger Warnings”

20 May

UPDATED: A sensitive reader suggested I’m violating my own wishes by using such strong language—vitriol, even—to discuss this issue. I would suggest said reader revisit point #10. But sure, here you go: TRIGGER WARNING: If you somehow might have a post-traumatic stress response because a lady yells at you on the internet, you might want to be careful reading below. It’s hard to tell what trauma you would be in recovery from to make this happen, but sure, why not. Also, at the end I describe, very briefly and without any detail at all, having been held captive one night in college. Please be advised that if you are triggered by angry women or vague descriptions of padlocks, this post might upset you.

Everyone else, carry on.

Probably I don’t need to say any of this. Probably you should just go read this fabulous piece by Jacqui Shine on XO Jane and think a bit harder about your bullshit, since you clearly have no idea what it is to suffer trauma or be triggered. But I’ll go ahead and say it anyway, just to get it off my chest.

1. Poor you and your imaginary academic freedom. If you teach at a university in the US, particularly a public/state school, you’ve struck a bargain that requires you to actively ignore said bargain in order to maintain your dignity. Your employer institution allows you to think that you have something called “academic freedom” so that it can pay you less money than it would generally be required to pay someone of your education and experience on an open market. You accept “academic freedom” and a certain illusion of autonomy in lieu of payment for services rendered. You agree to pretend you don’t have a “real” boss, that you’re in charge. And look, I understand that you have to kid yourself about this to go on pretending that your job is something noble and empowering, and that if you didn’t believe those things, you’d have a really hard time getting out of bed in the morning. But “academic freedom” is not a real thing. It hasn’t been for a very long time. Meanwhile, the more you whine about a hypothetical concept infringing on your “academic freedom,” the more you sound like a right-winger who thinks he’s being persecuted every time someone disagrees with his preposterous, loud, boorish assertions.

2. You do not work for a venerable institution of higher learning.* You work for a large corporation. If you teach at a state school, your bosses are everyone in the entire administration, plus your state legislature and the governor. Take a look up that chain of command. When’s the last time it failed to get anything it really wanted? Right: never. And the students and their parents are your customers. You don’t have to like that, but it’s true. That horse has been out of the barn for ten years. I mean, have you seen what public school boards do to reading lists? Your syllabus is next.

*With some notable exceptions. But if you’re at a state school, even a selective, rigorous one, you’re not one of the exceptions.

2.5. Let me put this another way: Performance enhancing drugs. Had each of the major sports leagues resisted self-regulating with testing and suspension systems, more and more government time and media attention would have been devoted to ‘roids and all their glory. (See also: film ratings, the Comics Code, every single voluntary concession any corporate or organizational entity has ever made.) Resistance is futile. You can add a mild statement to your syllabus inviting students to speak with you personally about material that might trigger severe anxiety responses for those who’ve survived serious trauma, or you can add the statement that your bosses will eventually force you to add. Or worse, you can persist in your childish resistance and end up in a system where everything you include in your syllabus—every single reading or viewing assignment—must be pre-approved by those bosses. Sounds fun, no? Just grow up and add a fucking trigger warning. It’s not that hard.

3. You must be fucking kidding me about this “sanctity of literature” bullshit. Explain to me how adding a simple statement like the one described above and then—God forbid!—having an actual conversation with a student impacts the sanctity of literature in any way. Never mind. You don’t have an answer to that question. The answer is that you’re too narcissistic to think that anyone’s perspective on that highfalutin art form but yours is valid or useful. You were, evidently, born in the ivory tower. But again, the only real threat to literature here is if you end up prohibited from teaching it because you couldn’t do so responsibly. Keep in mind that you don’t get to decide what “responsibly” means. Your bosses and customers do.

4. Great literature doesn’t necessarily have to contain elements that trigger trauma responses. The idea that literature and trauma are somehow linked is the same ignorant classist sexist bullshit that asserts that you have to go on safari to write a decent story. It directly devalues books that are domestic in nature, books about work, books about family life. You know, the stuff that a really wide variety of people who are not Hemingway write about.

5. Even great literature that does contain potentially triggering material does not have to be a trigger. Look, I’m glad I read Beloved. The haunting scenes alone changed something of the shape of my imagination. But I still throw up in my mouth a little bit every time I think about mossy teeth—even just the words “mossy teeth.” As someone who had been subject to a pretty miserable sexual trauma, Beloved was never a triggering text. The fact that I knew that I could talk to my professor about the text before class discussion if I needed to made an enormous difference to my ability to engage the text in the first place. There were plenty of classes I simply dropped because I could clearly see that texts would not be discussed in a supportive learning environment. I probably missed out on some great books. Your students will too if you continue to be an arrogant ass.

6. Refusing kindness to others makes you a smaller person. Let’s put this another way. One that strips away the feminization that lets you dismiss the trauma response. Let’s say you have a student who was captured in combat and tortured. Perhaps his PTSD has gone untreated because he’s been socialized to believe that it’s sissy shit (see the linked article in the first paragraph). Meanwhile, you’re hell-bent on teaching A Constellation of Vital Phenomena in your contemporary lit class or novel writing class or whatever fucking course it’s your great privilege to be assigned to teach. Do you really expect that soldier to read the Landfill scenes without the potential for serious psychological damage? Do you really expect him to sit through a class discussion of them? If you do, you’re a bigger douchebag than I could possibly have imagined, one whose self-importance and commitment to his tiny miniature narrow-minded worldview are the only infallible things about him. Meanwhile, how the fuck would it degrade the value of that book to say, in your syllabus or accompanying materials, “This is a book about war. It depicts war graphically in some cases. Please see me in office hours if you expect to be unable to encounter that material thoughtfully and critically,” and to have an actual conversation with your student in your office hours (which, face it, you probably blow off on a regular basis which is probably why you don’t want to deal with it in the first place) to help guide that student safely through the text? It would not degrade the text. The book would still be a fantastic book. It would only allow access to it for someone who otherwise may not feel able to read it.

7. What the hell is this macho bullshit about toughening students up, anyway? What do you think you are, a boxing trainer? How did some mythological masculine toughness become the standard of good education? It’s a half-assed justification if there ever was one.

8. Unless you’re totally a rebel, you add required statements about disabilities of all kinds to your syllabus, anyway. How is this any different? Unless you don’t believe that PTSD is real or disabling, in which case, fuck off with your mid-twentieth-century ignorance.

9. You’re being a melodramatic drama queen. I keep seeing posts and comments where people are essentially telling survivors of rape, war, and abuse to “grow up.” Are you fucking serious? While we’re at it, why don’t we just lock them all out of the academy, and only let in perfect people whose upbringings have been spotless and flawless and charming. They’re so much more mature than the rest of us, right? Never mind that the GI Bill built the modern university system, and without it you and your callous friends probably wouldn’t have jobs. (We don’t even need to talk about the fact that you’d likewise exclude 1/4 of all female college students by this same metric, because if you’re telling rape survivors to grow up, you’re probably Todd Akin anyway, and probably think that girls should be at home in the kitchen barefoot popping out babies.)

10. If you think that PTSD and discomfort are the same thing, you’re a smug privileged fucking idiot. Go stand in the corner and rethink your whole life. While you’re at it, find a way to develop a capacity for empathy. It’s what separates some of us from lower life forms. And it is, as we all like to point out when it’s convenient, the central lesson of reading fucking books in the first place.

Let me tell you a story. My first semester of college I went to a party with a group of trusted friends. A friend of a friend, someone I’d been told I could trust, offered me a drink. A heavily roofied drink, it turned out. I don’t remember very much of what happened after.

I read a lot of books in the following years, most of which had your desired intellectual impact. I naïvely prided myself on my intellectual and emotional toughness, buying into the same gender-stereotyped bullshit that has been driving this entire discussion. I managed to complete bachelor’s degrees in technical writing, creative writing, and literature, plus an MFA in fiction, without being pitched backward into the blackness of that experience.

Then three women were found chained up in a basement in Cleveland. And I remembered a moment in the middle of a night when I pounded with all my strength on the inside of a padlocked door while a friend of a friend who I was supposed to be able to trust sat on the other side of the room and laughed. I remembered a moment of desperate thirst with no water, of scratching at my hands in some bodily manifestation of desperation. I remembered the bruises I found all over me the next day, some of them the indentations of a man’s teeth.

I remembered my tremendous guilt when a friend told me years later that he’d done the same thing to her. I remember thinking that if I’d told anyone, maybe it wouldn’t have happened to her.

But you are happy to endorse a world so hostile to mature conversations about such trauma that you scoff at the notion of including one unobtrusive sentence in your precious inviolable syllabus. Bully for you. Grow the fuck up.

A Birthday Post

23 May

Today I am 39. By any child’s estimation, at 39 I should have accomplished the things I wanted to accomplish, attained the things I wanted to attain. When I was a child, I had serious doubts that I would live this long. But I am just starting out.

I was born on a Thursday, eleven days late. My assigned due date, May 12, was both Mother’s Day and my parents’ first anniversary. I was stubborn even then—I showed up when I was good and ready. My mother used to recite that “Thursday’s Child” rhyme about how doomed we are. Did I feel doomed? Sometimes. I’m not even sure I know anymore what “doomed” might mean.

What I thought as a child that I don’t think anymore: You should be celebrated for overcoming hardship. Now I think too many of us wittingly create our own adversity and want a cookie for transcending it. Everybody gets a break, and nobody else ought to be judging. We should help each other when we can. But no. You don’t get to be a hero for dodging a bullet that you fired. The drama isn’t what makes a story good. This probably sounds like one of those cryptic, compliment-fishing status updates. I’m talking about the people around me when I was growing up, and about the tendencies I had to figure out on my own about twenty years ago. How you accept an inheritance or you don’t.

Despite my occasional panic about my own mortality, my life is still a project.* I still think I’m going to lose the 30 pounds I’ve gained since college this year, that I’m going to get better at various aspects of life, that I’m going—someday—to get my shit together. It should go without saying that as a child, I would have expected to have my shit together by now. Except that I’m pretty sure I never expected to lose it. When my mother’s friend called me “stringbean,” because I was such a skinny kid, I’d think (maybe even say), “I’m never going to be fat.” But come on. We ate chips and salsa for dinner on a relatively regular basis. Or popcorn.

It doesn’t matter if you know better, what to eat, how to behave. Sometimes you default to a habit. One of mine is binge eating. There is almost no circumstance under which a bag of Chili-Cheese Fritos survives more than a day in my house. It’s been a long time since I could crash diet for a few weeks and feel restored, back to some prior self. I am almost 40; peak physical condition without intense devotion of time and pain is a thing of the past. Yet I can still imagine it. I spend too much time imagining it, imagining other ways in which life is a project to accomplish instead of a series of days to experience. My angst over my schlumping past-peak body isn’t so much a central feature of that series of days as it is a really terrific example of an attitude, a way of being. And not a particularly helpful way of being, either.**

At what point is a habit—good or bad—a part of who you are? Or any feature you carry forward, willingly or resentfully? When do you stop looking for what you can change? Where is the balance between acceptance and being a better person? It’s a cliché, but I tell myself that what I want in life is peace, on a day-to-day basis. I get better at that—at peace—over time. I get more willing and able to say what I want with accuracy and precision.

But it’s taken a really long time. I get mad about how long. I feel like I know so many people who hatched from adolescence right at this point, ready to name who they are and demand what they want and write big, juicy novels and ferment their own small-batch whiskey or whatever. How many of the last 39 years have I wasted on bullshit—other people’s and my own?

This is probably a pretty unoriginal lament. Not breaking new ground here. But I happen to be the kind of person who needs to understand how things work. I’m sort of incapable of just agreeing that things work and leaving it at that. So how—I’m asking far too late, I know—does this adult life thing work?

Except for the aching knees every morning, I don’t feel old. For a long time now, I’ve kind of looked forward to my forties. I have an image of myself, my hair tied up in a knot, wearing good shoes. Doing what? I don’t know yet. Before long, I suppose I’ll find out.


*With much gratitude to Patricia Henley, who told me that the mortality-panic is a feature of being 40-ish, and will pass.

**Another useful example: Spending entire semesters doing nothing but wishing for them to end.

Trying to Make Sense of Steubenville

17 Mar

Like most people I know, and most people you probably know, I’ve been to some boozy parties where instances of bad judgment outnumbered good. In my case, those parties were all in college, because I didn’t go to parties in high school. Except for a matter of degree, I have some doubt that the parties were substantially different, especially those I attended as a freshman with other freshmen. We were all pretty young, even by the time we weren’t teens any longer. By the time I was old enough to set legal foot in a bar, I’d done enough heavy drinking to find the whole thing kind of passé.

And like at least 25% of the women you know who attended college, I experienced sexual assault. On one of these occasions I was roofied by a frat boy who became, in later years, well known for drugging women and locking them, via enormous keyed padlock, in his frat house room. This wasn’t one of the countless nights I engaged in binge drinking. Neither were any of the other nights when incidents that fall on a spectrum between coercion and assault took place. On the nights when I was truly out of control, somebody always took me home and put me to bed.

And yes, we all knew the rules: Don’t go out alone. Use the buddy system. Whatever other bullshit you’ve been told that makes you responsible for keeping another person’s appendages out of your body. This was the heyday of the Take Back the Night march. We played along. Dismal things still happened, because whether or not we followed the rules, we got hurt—the guy with the padlock was a trusted friend of a trusted friend; on the night when he locked me in, he physically shoved my friends out the door; he was able to hurt us again and again because, in our shame, in our habit of seeking our own responsibility for the things that happened to us, we didn’t tell each other. The rules we give girls to “avoid rape” are simple lies of social control. They have nothing to do with rape; they’re about telling girls and women how they’re supposed to behave. Their only meaningful outcome is the collective silence, born of self-blame, that lets a young man with a padlock on his door and a healthy supply of hallucination-inducing chemicals with which to spike drinks do what he does over and over again.


The Steubenville trial hinged on just how drunk that poor girl was. Just a little drunk, and she must have consented, despite the fact that she distinctly recalls, during the one chance she had, saying no. Blackout drunk and it was an undeniable rape. It’s pretty clear here that in the usual he-said/she-said circumstances of a rape trial, these boys wouldn’t have even been charged. Lots of attention has been paid to the use of texts and tweets in the trial—and I’ll concede that I find their delivery, the actual testimony, endlessly interesting—but it seems to me that the focus on level of intoxication, on the possibility that her status as blackout drunk insured conviction—is a remarkable factor. Hasn’t it been the case, always, that the more drunk a woman was, the less able she was to call what happened to her a crime?

I’m also struggling with these words, accuser and victim. (You can probably tell by some of the awkward diction in that last paragraph.) Accuser, of course, is a nice men’s-rights dog whistle implying that the woman* in question has any choice about what happened to her and about the narrative that unfolds afterward, that she had agency in the events at hand far beyond what is actually the case, and that her primary identity is as someone who makes an accusation, not as someone who pursues legal recourse for herself and for her attacker’s future targets. Victim, while more accurate, implies that a woman has no agency whatsoever—which is generally true during the course of a rape or sexual assault—and that her lack of agency will follow her indefinitely, will define who she is. Probably people better educated on this point than I am, who’ve seriously studied this stuff, have a better word for this. But if they do, it hasn’t entered the public lexicon yet. We need a new word.

A few years ago, when two boys attempted to argue in almost identical research essays that 98% of all rape accusations are false**, I had an out: The papers were so dismal that I didn’t exactly have to take on the content to deal with the problems. When I did challenge the assertion, their explanation was that women who report rapes are looking for attention. I said, “Do you know what comes with that attention? Social ostracism, a public and accusatory airing of her full sexual and social history, accusations of lying and manipulation? Would you seek out that particular variety of attention?” One of the students, the one with some potential, looked at his feet, ashamed, and said, “I guess not.” The other kept smirking the same smirk he’d smirked all semester. So 50/50 on the making an impact? More importantly, this is the legacy of socially conservative anti-woman rhetoric: a sense among boys and men—the ones who believe it, anyway—that they can and will take what they want from women when they want it, that women are mere functionaries in a world that should cater to them. And in the case of the believers of the men’s rights bullshit, a sense that, because they perceive that world as catering a little bit less to them than it used to, they should take things from women, that it’s their responsibility to do so, to teach the women and the rest of the world a lesson.

This, of course, is not what sex is for. The thing about Steubenville that I can’t figure out—that I’ll never figure out—and therefore that scares me the most is how these boys see this as a context for sex. To be completely crude: How does this circumstance result in sexual arousal? I understand the dynamic of teen boy groupthink, of the ways they one-up each other to establish dominance, and the roles deviance and pranksterism play in that dynamic. I also understand that rape is power-fueled, that it is a function of one human exercising power over another; I understand how that power can beget arousal. I even understand, to an extent, the need to document and disseminate evidence of behavior that breaks the social rules. And I’ve read again and again about how the widespread availability of any kind of porn you might want to see has impacted the way people think about sex, especially those who’ve grown up in an era when they’re likely*** to encounter degrading sexual imagery long before they find themselves in actual sexual situations. But I can’t figure out what makes boys like these think that this is what their sexuality is for, and to believe it so fully that their bodies participate.

I’m obviously not going to make sense of anything here. And I’m sure somebody will poo-poo that last paragraph in some suggestion that it’s naive to think that boys can’t get aroused anytime they like, but hello, I know a few men. I knew some boys once upon a time. Those generalizations, like all generalizations, are for idiots who aren’t interested in thinking. This is a complex and difficult thing, and it’s nowhere near an isolated incident. It’s not about them not knowing it’s wrong—it wouldn’t have happened if they didn’t know it was wrong. Its wrongness is part of the appeal. So what do we do? Really, I have no idea. What do we do?

I have felt for a few years now that our culture and our politics are beginning to swing around to something more closely resembling sanity. I think we’re headed back into another era when it’s reasonable to publicly stand up for women, when those who shout us down when we do so are pretty widely recognized as fringe idiots. I think we’re headed back toward Take Back the Night marches. It was during an era like this, in the early and mid 90s, when I was introduced to feminism, and when feminism became a driving force in my life. I’ve seen more student essays about women’s rights, about rape and sex trafficking and gender roles, than I have since I started my current teaching position nine years ago. I think that the anti-woman forces have finally pushed their rhetoric too far. So I have just a little hope that we’ll be okay. But I also know that before long, our beliefs and behavior will swing back in this direction, and we’ll be asking the same questions and fighting the same fights all over again.


*I’m using woman as a default here in acknowledgment of the overwhelming statistical likelihood that if you have been raped, you are female, and also because the dynamics of our mainstream socialized genders are pretty important here. If you have been raped and you are not a straight, cisgender, cissexual female, the circumstances of your situation/case are even more difficult to discuss in anything less than a 10,000 word treatise.

**The FBI’s own statistics on this count consider up to 8% of reports to be false; only 24% of reports result in arrest and prosecution. That leaves 68% of reported rapes completely unresolved in the justice system, alongside the 75% or so that are never reported because, well, see above.

***Obviously, such material has existed for practically ever, and those who wished to seek it out have had the chance to do so for practically ever, but if the internet fear machines are accurate at all, both boys and girls are now likely to encounter such material before they’ve even hit puberty.

The Next Big Thing: Bryan Furuness

4 Mar
Photo by Miriam Berkley

Photo by Miriam Berkley

Hey, everybody. Great to be here. Thanks to Victoria Barrett for not only tagging me in this game, but letting me hop on her blog. You can read VB’s take on the Next Big Thing questions here. Or you can, you know, scroll down about eight inches. Tickle your touchpad twice. But can I tell you something that isn’t in her post? Can I offer you some bonus material, reader? Last summer I got a chance to read a draft of her novel, Four Points Gin, and let me tell you: it is amazing. It’s my favorite kind of book—smart and suspenseful, with beautiful lines and a taut plot. I can’t wait to see it in the world.

My other privilege here is to tag a couple of writers to pick up the Next Big Thing banner. I’ll hit up Edward Porter and the poet Doug Manuel. If I were drafting for the writerly NBA, I’d trade up to take both these guys. High ceilings, y’all.

Okay, enough preamble. Onto the questions, which I answered about my novel that comes out this spring

What is your working title of your book (or story)?

The Lost Episodes of Revie Bryson

Where did the idea come from for the book?/Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I know that I’m combining two questions here, but really, they both have the same answer.

The first thing that came to me was the mother’s voice. I got obsessed with this story (“The Sears and Roebucks Catalog Game” by Lewis Nordan) about a mother with a big imagination who flips through the catalog with her son and makes up wild stories about the models. Her voice is loopy and seductive, and you find yourself getting sucked into her world, just like her son who can’t get enough of her stories.

I read that story over and over. I typed it out. Then one day, when I was driving home from work, a woman’s voice came into my head. I heard her say, “Growing up, Jesus and Lucifer were best friends. They went to the same school, where they both ran track. They made mostly B’s. Lucifer could wing a ball so fast only Jesus could catch it. Their mustaches came in looking good, not all feathery and wispy like the other boys. They had that brooding look down cold. People called them two peas in a pod, brothers separated at birth, you know.”

I whipped the car off the interstate to write those lines down on the back of a receipt. That became the voice of Rosalyn Bryson, a mother who makes up Bible stories to tell her son at bedtime. Though the lines didn’t make it into the final version of the book, that was the start of the The Lost Episodes.

What genre does your book fall under?

Erotic Superhero Horror. Literary fiction.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Tyler Perry, playing everybody. Or maybe the robots from Transformers. Those guys have more range than you might think.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

After years of listening to his mother make up Bible stories, twelve-year-old Revie becomes convinced he is the second coming of Christ; but when his mother runs away to Hollywood, his faith is shaken.

(Okay, that semi-colon was totally a cheat, but it was the only way I could get the essence of the book into a sentence. Otherwise I’d have to write, “It’s like the Bible meets TV!”)

It's got a motorbike, so you know it's badass.

It’s got a motorbike, so you know it’s badass.

Do you have a publisher for your book yet? Who? Was the book agented?

Black Lawrence Press, an imprint of Dzanc Books, is the publisher. Erin Harris of Folio Literary Management is the agent.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Ah, geez…It depends on what you would call the first draft. I don’t mean to be evasive; it’s just that this project was so squirmy for so long.

I wrote a bunch of Revie stories when I was thinking about this as a story collection. Then I thought it would be better as a novel-in-stories, so I threw about half of those stories away and wrote new ones. After that was done, I saw a major flaw that couldn’t be band-aided, so I burned it all down and started over as a novel-novel.

How long did it take me to write the first draft as a novel-novel? About six or eight months, I think. Which might seem short until you consider that I’d been working with the material for several years already. And would continue working with it for another several years and enough drafts to make you cry.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Thumbsucker by Walter Kirn was one of my models. It’s a funny, episodic, coming-of-age book. Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bible! by Jonathan Goldstein has a lot of smart and hilarious takes on Bible stories. And then there’s The Book of Ralph by John McNally, which is also funny (see the pattern?) with a kid character and a Chicagoland kind of sensibility.

Blue II, Butler's mascot, loves him some lit-ra-chuh

Blue II, Butler’s mascot, loves him some lit-ra-chuh

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Oh, if only I knew, dear reader! I would pique it all the live-long day. Pique, pique, pique, right up until you slapped my hand and told me to stop piquing at it, or it would never heal. Then I’d cover my face with my hands and you’d apologize for making me feel so ashamed, at which point I’d open my hands and say: Pique-a-boo.

Here’s a more serious attempt at an answer from Julianna Baggott, author of Pure, who had this to say about the book: “Years ago I read a short story that burrowed in so deeply I had to track down the author—one Bryan Furuness—and proceed to beg and bully him to write a novel. At last, here it is—as beautiful and hilarious, as crushingly tender and brutally hopeful as I’d ever hoped for. I cannot recall the last time I read a novel that made me bark with laughter and then break into tears. What can I say? I love these characters, this world, this wonderful, wonderful, wonderful (breathlessly awaited) debut!”

The first few chapters are up at Goodreads, if you’d like to take a pique.



The Next Big Thing: My Turn!

25 Feb

Thanks so much to Sybil Baker for inviting me to participate! Sybil’s work means a lot to me, since she’s given me such great material to edit in her novel Into This World, so I’m always excited to see (and share) more about her process.  Read her answers here:

Next week, you can read answers from Bryan Furuness right here, from Barbara Shoup at her blog, and from Jill Stukenberg (link coming soooon!).

If you know me on the internet, you probably know me more as an editor than as a writer. But of course I came to everything that Engine Books does and stands for through my own growth and practice as a writer. I’m torn about what to write about here, since I have a completed novel that’s floating around some offices, waving its hand in the air, begging to be picked, but I also have this new thing that I’m a little bit giddy about.

Hmmm. New thing? Finished thing (that’ll probably end up getting revised again before it heads out into the world)?

New thing. Let’s do the new thing. Answers below are ridiculously tentative and squishy. This thing is just barely a zygote.

What is your working title of your book (or story)?

Ghost Road

Where did the idea come from for the book?

Unlike most of the work I’ve done since college (which is to say, the work that has the remotest chance of being any good), this book is really personal for me. A few years ago, my mother went on this weird divesting binge–she pulled the old photographs out of the ancient, wax-bound albums (does anybody else still have those?), sometimes peeling the backing. These were pictures from the years she spent married to my father. That marriage ended in 1980. The photos were those fabulous 70’s prints with the rounded corners, all faded to a perfect sepia.

She was going to throw them away. Which: no.

So I took the photos. In the earliest ones, both my parents were much younger than I am now. At several points, I didn’t exactly recognize them. Who are these people in these photographs tending to this ugly, giant-headed baby? (Truly, I was a hideous child until I was at least 3.) The point of Ghost Road isn’t so much to find out as it is to create a new story about a family living in the same place and time, in some of the same situations as my family did then. Some of the episodes I’m exploring are lodged in my memory–I believe they took place–but these memories are unreliable at best. As I child, I could never distinguish my memories from my dreams. Others are invented wholesale. Most importantly, though, the points of view the novel’s exploring are entirely products of my imagination, and I don’t think, when I’m done, that this family will likely end up resembling the one I came from much at all.

What genre does your book fall under?

Literary fiction/realistic fiction/novel.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Oh, gosh. I have no idea. I don’t usually picture things like book covers or movie adaptations any more. Besides, I doubt they cast babies quite that unappealing.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

During the summer of the US bicentennial celebration, Diane, Jack, and their children move to a farm in rural Boone County, Indiana; over the next five years, their lives will change in ways they cannot predict or prevent.

Do you have a publisher for your book yet? Who? Was the book agented?

It’s really just an icky cluster of cells at this point. I do have editor crushes and agent crushes. But I’m keeping those to myself. My first novel, Four Points Gin, is in the process of meeting people who I hope will fall in love with it and represent it. Should that happen, I hope they’ll fall in love with this one, too, and stick with me.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

In the past, I’ve been sllloooooowwwww. I took ten years, off and on, to write and rewrite and re-rewrite Four Points Gin.  This material has come faster for me, because it’s image-driven and the characters’ voices are deeply embedded in me, as they’re the voices of the place I came from. I don’t write straight through, and it’s hard to predict how long it will take me to stitch all these moments I’ve been drafting together. But I wouldn’t say ten more years. Maybe one or two, if I really get on it.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Oh, I think that’s a crappy trap of a question. Do I have the hubris to compare myself to some literary great? Do I pick one of my sort-of-peers? The truth is, I can’t think of another book I’ve read that this resembles for me. Not because it’s the most original thing ever written, but because whatever books it resembles I haven’t read yet.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Well, that’s mostly the same answer as where the idea came from, except to add that I think we have a very unhealthy relationship with nostalgia, culturally speaking. The glorification of the past that saturates our political and media discourse makes me a little bit queasy. I know that the years from 1976 to 1980 are not the years they’re holding up as ideals, but I wanted to explore the past in a way that feels more honest to me. So far, this is a dark book. It’s been dark enough, at a couple of junctures, that I had to stop writing and step away from the manuscript to regain my perspective.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

The manuscript will be image-driven and lyrical. I’m doing everything I can, including lots of research, to keep those images accurate to the lived experience of that time. For example, did you know that a Dust-Bowl level cloud enveloped the Southeast at one point in the late 70’s? Me, either. Our TV and movie depictions of the late 70s don’t much resemble people’s lived experiences of those years, I think, though I know there’s wonderful literature already that does. I hope, by the time it’s done, that this project will be able to join that literature’s ranks.

“It has nothing to do with men.”

5 Dec

I wrote that sentence in a recent comment thread on a Facebook post, one wherein I had the bad taste to complain (indirectly, but still) about my weight. I should probably say, for further context, that my weight is actually pretty damn average–even on the stupid BMI calculations, I’m at the top end of the “healthy” portion of the chart.

I wrote, “it has nothing to do with men,” in response to a comment by someone I love who attempted to console me by asserting that men would just have to deal with the fact that women’s bodies change and fluctuate, etc. When the idea of men being a factor worth considering was introduced to the conversation, I may have actually tipped my head, perplexed, and stared at the screen.

I shouldn’t be perplexed, of course. One less kind and supportive version of this line of thinking manifests as “What the fuck are you doing in a bar if you’re married?” The implication of either comment, and all the comments in between, is that women make decisions about what to wear and where to go based on the anticipated reactions of men–usually strangers–and based, further, on the (deeply flawed) assumption that men are going to notice the outcomes of those decisions.

Specifically, on the FB post, I was bemoaning the fact that all my swimwear was ill-fitting. We’re going to Mexico in a week and a half. Nobody wants to lay on a beach in ill-fitting swimwear. This particular crisis has been resolved by Andrew, as most of them are. He bought me a spectacular new suit. Part of what perplexed me about the introduction of men to the conversation was the idea that I would give a single fuck whatsoever what anyone except Andrew thought I looked like in a swimsuit, much less anyone in a particular part of Mexico I’ll probably visit this once and never again. Will I be trolling the beach for sex while my husband naps nearby on a towel? And if not sex, why specify men?

I don’t mean to beat up the loved one who made the comment. I think her comment expressed a far more common perspective on this stuff than my own–the dominant perspective, in fact, in the culture I grew up in here in the Midwest, if not US culture in general.

For much of my life, I haven’t had an answer to the obvious question this raises: If it has nothing to do with men, what does it have anything to do with?* Until now.

Why do I want to be thin? Unless he’s an atrocious liar (he’s not), Andrew doesn’t particularly prefer me at the weight I carried when we met sixteen-ish years ago. And as for extra-curricular attractions, I feel at this point in my life that even if I somehow lost Andrew, the last thing on earth I’d be interested in doing is re-entering the dating scene, which sounds like the worst nightmare I could conjure. So why the expensive haircut, the self-loathing over a few pounds that usually go unnoticed by anyone but me anyway? Why would I mind ill-fitting swimwear?

Probably this is obvious to people with better emotional foundations than mine. But it was a bit of a eureka when I figured it out. Almost every change I would make in my appearance and lifestyle, given the resources to do so, has to do with a disjoint between the person I am and the person I had imagined that I would become.

The person I had imagined I would become has a little bit more dignity and class than I have. She can wear whatever style of clothing she prefers, but chooses elegance over T&A every single time. Her clothes may be slim-fitting, but are never tight. There’s never, ever any flesh oozing out or straining seams. She appears, always, to be composed, self-contained. Her nails are done, her hair brushed, her skin free of scrapes and scabs. She never, ever wears cheap shoes. She feels comfortable in just about any setting that doesn’t involve gratuitous vulgarity. She is basically never embarrassed or ashamed.

This is probably not a person I’m capable of becoming. Shame and embarrassment, in one form or another, are pretty deeply embedded in me. And those twenty pounds I’d like to lose? On me, they look sloppy. This isn’t something I think about other people, at any weight, that their bodies look sloppy. But the extra twenty pounds I’m carrying around make me too, well, round. A little too voluptuous, too sexualized. A little bit, if I’m honest, vulgar.

We all know, of course, that judgments about self-control make up the heart of fat-shaming. Without any consideration of individual lives, proponents of fat-shaming discourse assert that if people who are overweight just had a little more self-control, they wouldn’t have to be fat.** That being fat isn’t necessarily a problem for everyone, and that not being fat isn’t an option for everyone, whatever you mean when you say “fat,” just hasn’t occurred to a lot of people. At my most generous, I think this perspective represents a serious failure of imagination. At my least, I think it’s ignorant and deliberately cruel.

All that said, by even our most deeply flawed “objective” measure, I’m not fat. And yet: I’m not that graceful, composed woman I’d imagined, either. In order to become her, I’d have to reduce my calorie intake to about 1,000/day, maintain that for several months, and never let it rise above 1,500 or so again. I know these numbers from experience, just as I know from experience that they are entirely unreasonable.

Is it worth noting that I haven’t mentioned any men (particular or in general) in the last five paragraphs? Maybe it’s not. But for years–nearly twenty of them (there’s that number, twenty, again)–I’ve been trying to name this thing, to answer that question, what does it have to do with? The answer has existed for me, always, in images and impressions, but not in words. It makes me a little sad to name it, to subject it to the control of language, but I don’t know why. You would think that doing so might help me counter it with something more manageable, more real of my own, but I know that it won’t, that it will push against me, now, from both realms. 

*If you’ve ever been a very young woman with very short hair living in a medium-sized town in the Midwest, the fact that decisions about your appearance aren’t designed to attract men is a given. So, no. Nothing to do with men.

**It may be worth noting that I spend much of my professional life surrounded by teenagers, and that this perspective is widely held among people whose metabolism has not achieved its adult patterns yet. When I was 19, I lost 12 pounds in a week once, prepping for a formal dance. This is not a realistic expectation of any full-grown adult human being.