It feels as though writers spend too much time defending what they write.
The tendency is hard to escape, no matter what genre you’re writing in. The questions creep in like shadows, stoked by The New York Times Review of Books or Salon. Isn’t the novel dying? You can’t sell a short story collection, can you? Do memoirists just have lazy imaginations? Who’s going to read your poetry? There are op-ed back-and-forths and whole craft books written about similar subjects. So many characters are spent defending or discrediting art in place of creating it.
As a creative nonfiction writer and essayist, I’ve been prodded a few times to defend the source and style of my natural expression. The most stinging and public was last summer, when a reviewer described a collaboration project I’d worked on as “suburban.” I wasn’t sure what I could do with that feedback. I grew up in small towns and suburbs. If I tried to be more urban, I would be fake. Does my background discredit my right to write about what I see and know? It stung to read, and I felt embarrassed, as if my voice or perspective was inherently flawed. But after a couple weeks of sulking, I realized that there is only so much you can do when someone calls you out for being who you are. You can’t stop being too feminine, too young, too Portland, too American. You can be wise and truthful and fair and self-aware, but you can only be the best version of you.
If you don’t like being prodded like this, follow a simple rule. “Don’t read reviews or comments.” It’s a good rule if you want to avoid second-guessing yourself and becoming a hypocrite on defending your writing, as I am now. But I can’t help it. I get curious. And I need to procrastinate. Which is how I happened upon a comment attached to a friend’s post, where she linked to one of my recent PDXX Collective essays. I normally write about entertainment topics, but attempt to do so with an inquisitive, personal slant. I like to think it’s smarter than your typical Us Weekly or People feature, but that’s subjective. As it was to the commenter, who wanted to know, “Oh my god. Who the fuck cares?”
I could feel myself blushing as I quickly closed my Facebook app. If I couldn’t see it anymore, maybe the question would go away. How could I honestly argue that one should fucking care about the likes of Beyonce or Miley or Lindsay when we’re on the brink of war, and the Pacific Ocean is throbbing with radioactivity, and the economy is collapsing?
I kept re-living the scene in Girls where Lena Dunham’s Hannah has been invited to do a reading. When describing the essay she’s planning to share to her new coffeeshop boss (the epitome of millennial cynicism, Ray), he calls her personal essay trivial and asks, “is there anything real you can write about?” He spouts off an entire list of topics more “real” than Hannah’s funny piece on hoarders and intimacy: the plight of the giant panda bear, acid rain, urban sprawl, divorce, death. Rattled into submission, she tries to write a real essay on the train, which fails miserably. By trying to conform to what someone else deems worthy of her attention, Hannah fails to shine with the piece that actually meant something to her. She couldn’t fake authenticity; none of us can. It’s why there are so many genres and styles and subjects, because there is no right way to interpret the world.
To me, celebrities are barometers for larger issues in our culture. The way the public and media react to, say, Amanda Bynes descending into deeper and deeper mental illness issues, sheds a light on how such disorders are regarded in our country. When a famous person speaks, people listen. It’s recorded, broadcast, written about. When Taylor Swift dismisses feminism, it’s reflective and influential on young girls who buy her music and dress, walk, and talk like she does. The obsession over Jennifer Aniston’s nonexistent baby pooch or Britney Spears’ weight gains and losses demonstrates the systemic fat-shaming we face from all directions. I don’t read and write about these stories because I want to escape, or I don’t want to think. I do so because I am fascinated by what they say about us, and if what it’s saying is undesirable, I want to help change it. I want our next generation to inherit less shame, less fear, less guilt about who they are.
I fucking care for the same reason I pick up the pen to write anything else, whether it’s an essay about 21st century unemployment or selling corsets in college. I have something I want to say and explore, and a story is how I get there. Whether the road winds through Hollywood or suburbia, the destination is still the same: the heart of the matter.
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