Omit Needless Words

I'm off, in a few hours, to a celebration of Strunk & White's The Elements of Style at the Museum of the City of New York. I am so excited! One of the panelists is Barbara Walraff, who was interviewed about the book's continuing relevance on NPR this morning. Also, Roger Rosenblatt, Roy Blount... It should be interesting and festive.

In middle school, I found and took over my father's copy. We passed it around amongst ourselves and marched around the playground declaiming the rules: "Omit needless words! Omit needless words!"

I don't know what I learned from that book, but it's just about everything. It's a style book that I've read again and again and something about it resonated deeply in me.

So I was puzzled and bewildered by the Geoffry K. Pullum's Strunk-bashing in the Chronicle of Higher Education this week. Pullum writes patent nonsense. His main claim is as follows:
The Elements of Style does not deserve the enormous esteem in which it is held by American college graduates. Its advice ranges from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense. Its enormous influence has not improved American students' grasp of English grammar; it has significantly degraded it.
A claim he goes on to "prove" with a long list of grammatical pedantry, of citations of exceptions to their principles, etc. Utterly missing the point of a book on style: that it is not a grammar guide or a handbook, but a style book. White has a very specific style: elegant, clear, and journalistic. That is not the goal of every writer, nor should it be. But for me, and for many others, his suggestions--which I embraced as rules as a girl--helped me find my voice and convey my ideas with more grace than I ever would have found without them.

Pullum can sit this one out. I'll be raising my glass to my hero, E B White, and his great teacher and collaborator, William Strunk.

A Happy Story from Publishing 100 Years Ago

I’m attending bits and pieces of the Society for Textual Scholarship Conference at NYU this week (and giving a paper there tomorrow). Today’s plenary panel was terrific. Bob Scholes gave an engaging paper on advertising in modernist magazines. He compared Pound's injunctions for writing imagist poetry with advice for admen written at the same time: it would be hard to tell them apart. Full of lovely irony. My old friend Cliff Wulfman gave a really smart paper about all the technological challenges of digitizing literature.

But, in light of the dire news about publishing that’s been floating around these past months, I thought you might be especially interested in George Bornstein’s “The Colors of Modernism: Publishing Blacks, Jews, and Irish.” (Shouldn’t it be “the Irish?”) He offered a history of New York publishing houses in the early 20th century.

While we think of Viking and Knopf as powerhouses of publishing, these houses were founded by Jews who’d hit the glass ceiling in WASP-dominated Boston. These editors, according to Bornstein, moved to New York, but couldn’t afford to acquire the established texts. So, while Houghton Mifflin up in Boston was publishing new multi-volume sets of Longfellow and Emerson (this made me laugh out loud, but I was the only one), Ginsburg and Oppenheimer of Viking and the Knopfs set out to find avant-garde texts, texts by other Jews, by immigrants, and by African-Americans. Harcourt Brace was the only Gentile-run house to join this trend. They did so because they hired Joel Spingarn, a Jew, an early supporter of the NAACP and colleague there of DuBois, and a former professor of comp lit at Columbia. Professor Spingarn had been dismissed from his job at Columbia for defending a colleague’s dismissal (ah! academic freedom!) so, his former students hired him at Harcourt, eventually making him a full editorial partner.

First among these was B. W. Huebsch, the first American publisher of James Joyce. Bornstein showed us Huebsch’s device, a seven-branched menorah (it looked like a fancy Georgian candlestick to me, but I trust him), on the title page of Joyce's Exiles.

This paper was a really lovely cultural history. A rich celebration of how a group of artists, exiled from the mainstream, became the mainstream by banding together.

Harcourt’s big moneymaker was Keynes’ Economic Consequences of the Peace and it’s through Keynes that they got their entrée to Bloomsbury. Harcourt remains Woolf’s American publisher to this day.

Bornstein’s story emerges, I think, out of a desire to counter a narrative, common in the 1990s, of high modernism as politically right wing, elitist, and narrow.

But it’s too easy to turn the cosmopolitan story into a dream sequence that overlooks the broader truths of anti-Semitism, race riots, lynchings, and anti-immigration legislation of the time. Or the facts of rifts within even the cosmopolitan circles of artists. I would like to have heard more nuance there, but it mostly flickered behind the paper. He told us that Harcourt is to be commended for publishing Sandburg’s essay on the Chicago race riots without pausing long enough over the fact of that unrest. He saluted Knopf’s courage in publishing Van Vechten’s Nigger Heaven without pausing long enough (though pause he did) over the opportunism of that white promoter of Harlem.

He ended with T. S. Eliot, whose politics I don't admire (duh!) but whose "The Waste Land" I adore. Boni and Liveright, the house that made their name with Toomer's Cane were Eliot's American publishers. And, Bornstein argues, that Eliot's appearance on the Boni and Liveright list emphasizes the polyglot nature of the poem: something that was supported by the list itself. That is, every title on their list was jazz-influenced, so the jazz and pop elements of the poem, the parts of the poem that celebrate immigration and cosmpolitanism, and cultural hybridity, are all familiar to anyone who's familiar with that house. This, he argues, helps account for Ralph Ellison's somewhat surprising over-praise of Eliot. There is a lot more to say about that: about Eliot's racism, about whether or not people know books in the context of their publisher, about Ellison's snobbery, and about the greatness of both Ellison and Eliot.

I do think this is, in the main, a really really good story for us to know. As we think about Kindle and digital rights management (DRM to you) and the death of the newspaper, it’s really thrilling, I think, to remember, too, that 100 years ago, there were people in New York who loved great writing and didn’t pause over creed or race or ethnicity to publish it and, in so doing, were able to serve both art and commerce. So, though I have my questions about the emphasis of this paper, I mostly found it very, very interesting and inspiring. And though I've ignored the women here, Bornstein did not: he continually referenced Lilian Hellman, Nella Larsen, and more as crucial players in this story.

As we sit here, trying to earn a living with our tweets and our blogs, shaking our heads at the ginormous advances offered to another idiotic memoir by a celebrity, it’s moving and encouraging, I think, to imagine Knopf, Huebsch, Ginsburg & Oppenheimer, Boni & Liveright, gutting it out, making money, and bringing us great, great art.

Bornstein’s paper is part of a forthcoming book from Yale University Press. A chapter of it appeared in the September 2005 issue of Modernism/modernity (which may be behind a firewall for you). He has a very sweet pro-Obama op-ed here.

War and Fate

All the work I do on Mrs. Dalloway has had me thinking a lot about war, soldiers, and war writing. I have become convinced that the very minor character in that novel, Miss Isabel Pole, is a character of bad faith, urging Septimus to read Antony and Cleopatra and comparing him to Keats. No wonder he volunteered to fight; no wonder he returns traumatized.

I have been thinking a lot about returning soldiers. Worrying about them and listening intently whenever Paul Rieckoff is on t.v. talking about IAVA and veteran’s issues. He was the guest on one of the WNYC podcasts on my iPhone, so I listened on the plane out to San Francisco. I also checked my email, and there was a message from the academic vice president announcing the creation of a task force on welcoming returning veteran’s back to Fordham.

Then, just to continue the theme, once at the conference, I saw that San Franciscan Dave Eggers was speaking on a panel on war writing. I loved Heartbreaking Work, advised a thesis on McSweeneys. Though I know it’s fashionable to turn up my nose at Eggers, I actually think he’s amazingly cool. I’d love to be the one to have founded 826 Valencia, to have resisted all that rampant snark. At the panel, the moderator interviewed Eggers about What is the What and then six veterans read from the work they had done in Maxine Hong Kingston’s writing group. They spoke about their book, Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace. It was deeply moving.

They spoke about listening to difficult stories, telling them, and not asking stories to turn out to be inspirational or moving or redemptive. They read a wonderful Tim O’Brien quote to the effect that if you feel redeemed at the end of a war story, you have been lied to.

At the book exhibit, then, I bought A Soldier’s Heart, Elizabeth Samet’s account of teaching at West Point. So far, I find that she capitulates too much to the military perspective for my taste. But she is smart and I’m learning about military culture from it.

All of which to say that I think I’ve found my way in. Maybe nothing will come of it; maybe something will. But I’m going to write to my university’s committee and see if they will think about writing and reading as a piece of the veteran’s program. I don’t know what will come of this, but perhaps this can be a way for me to contribute… We’ll see.

Metaphor: Bad prose and inspiration

I'm growing weary of the abundance of post-its on my computer monitor, so I'm trying to take them down today. (Don't worry, it doesn't take long the for the clutter to reaccumulate...) And, while I don't often blog about my students or my teaching, two of the little scraps I'm tossing seem worthy of sharing.

First, from a textbook, for the BLOCK THAT METAPHOR file:
"In reality personal and professional ethics share some common ground and this makes the perceived clash between the two easier to digest."
All last year, I worked one-on-one with an ESL student. Mostly, we marched through readings from class. The textbooks were so badly written and so abstract that I could see where the struggles came. This sentence was so difficult to parse and it yielded so little meaning (ethical behavior at work overlaps with individual ethics? really? stop the presses!), that I couldn't stop laughing and I copied it down just to remind myself how not to write, how much were were asking of our students.

Then, from an application, a wonderful moment of heroic rhetoric right here in the 21st century: "Like Leonidas at Thermopylae, my grandfather did not stop fighting..."

Happy New Year!

So many things I meant to blog about in 2008 fell by the wayside.

Last week, Erika tagged me and I haven’t had a moment to even fill in the blanks.

But today, I vowed, would be different: we are back from a lovely visit upstate where grandma lavished gifts on the children and we went cross-country skiing three days in a row. Now, the children were going to daycare and I could collect my thoughts….until...the dear toddler woke up with the ominous moaning and ear-tugging of one with an ear infection.

“How do you know she has an ear infection?” asked the pediatrician, reasonably enough. I am not a doctor. I don’t own an otoscope. I described the moaning, the ear-tugging, the begging for lotion for my ear. (She has great faith in the power of lotion.)

Moments later, she looked in. “The left one is pretty bad. And this one, too. Yes. I’ll give you two prescriptions.”

I won’t bore you with the vagaries of our broken health care system. I hope Barack is on the case and soon, but suffice it to say that 2009 has begun as 2008 carried on: happy, busy, and already full of the little nuisances and distractions that keep a woman from her desk, even to update a little blog.


This year, again, I’m trying to reset my priorities, to think about how I can achieve my goals by setting aside the time to do what matters: writing without neglecting the children. That’s a big and continuing challenge.

In graduate school, two of my very best friends and I went to New Orleans and got obsessed with Mardi Gras beads. We all noticed the pleasure we took in the pretty little things and, in them, we saw some parallels to the intense detailed work we were doing on our dissertations. My friends have gone on to storied careers and academe.

As for me, I’m doing fine, but I still think that little beads are a good metaphor for my magpie mind.

So, as I think about resetting my priorities, I can see all these little beads and seeds, scattered through my life, randomly, with more hope and enthusiasm than actual forethought. I have sewn so many seeds, scattered so many beads, promised so many small pieces of writing, set in motion so many arguments, so many relationships, so many promises, that when they come back to me, I am sometimes surprised to see them.

Sometimes, I step on a bead and it hurts like that last tiny Lego, invisible on the patterned carpet.

Sometimes, for days (no great housekeeper I), I notice the bead’s presence without ever actually thinking about it, without ever really letting it enter my mind in a way that would let me nourish it into growth. Then, it’s like the little toy or barrette, forgotten in some forlorn corner of the apartment, a tiny gamepiece that I notice for days without ever being able to muster the focus to pick up and take to the toy chest because to put it away properly just feels too hard and to throw it into the dark chaos of the toy chest feels like a worse kind of giving up.

Sometimes, after weeks or months of real forgetfulness, I turn to find that the little seed has grown up like one of the more primitive and terrifying weeds in our backyard, sprung up overnight, leafy, rangy, wild and demanding: the deadline was a week ago, the email says, can you deliver? A shudder goes through me and gradually, with a hollow and panicked feeling, I remember that yes, I did promise to write that review, send in that recommendation, apply for that grant, organize that meeting.

So, what to do?

Well, here is the current plan: I’m good at exercising 3 days a week. What if I got up at the same time on the other two and spent that time writing? It worked yesterday. That’s one.

I’ll let you know how it goes.


Like Dorothy, I'm finding myself back in the city and a bit out of shape for work and the semester to come. I have lots and lots of things to tell you about--cheese and Robert Louis Stevenson, Cowper!, books in Van Vorst Park, Tayari's amazing book, Roxana Robinson, poetry...

But after six weeks upstate, I'm in great physical shape (for me) and terrible bureaucratic shape. I come home exhausted and bleary. It took me an hour to make a dinner that ought rightly to have taken half that: I kept standing in front of open cabinets, open fridges, staring... Each thing I had to throw away took two tries: I tried to put paper in the garbage, garbage in the recycling, missed the bin for recyclable glass. You get the idea.

So I'm back but not back... More to come...

Dagmar Mohne Hansen Lahlum

Were I a novelist, were I really going to write an espionage bestseller—as my mother-in-law announced to relatives at dinner the other night (mostly to cover up a lull in the conversation), I would write a novel based on the life of Dagmar Lahlum.

Lahlum was Agent Zigzag’s lover during his 11-month stay in occupied Norway. He picked her up at the Ritz and, neither knowing the other was a spy for the allies, they became lovers: Dagmar, fond of Chapman but also working for the Norwegian resistance; Chapman, well, being Chapman, a sentimental womanizer, finding his port in the storm.

Still, they bought a skiff and together sailed up the coast to the estate that Quisling had taken over. When Chapman returned to England in 1944 he was able to provide MI5 with a precise map of the Quisling compound, should the Allies want to bomb the Nazi government in Norway.

That’s a great scene to imagine from her point of view, isn’t it? Sailing with your lover, who has just confessed that he’s spying for England, and then picnicking on Quisling’s grounds together…

She never had children and lived a long life, always beautiful, in leopardskin and red lipstick to the end. At her death, her niece burned a drawerful on unsent letters to Chapman.

Oh, you can hear, it’s practically a movie already, isn’t it?

Reading Jenny’s account of traveling to Copenhagen to get the flavor of the place for the Explosionist, I had my own momentary fantasy of a Norwegian visit for background material for my novel.

Unwritten novels are always the best..


In the fall of 1922, Woolf was working on the very first bit of Mrs. Dalloway. She was also reading Ulysses and spending time talking about it with T. S. Eliot. Twice in her diaries that season, she offers accounts of conversations with Eliot about how Joyce is a genius, but Ulysses, in Eliot’s opinion, does not capture life as fully or richly as War and Peace. (Woolf herself was ambivalent about Ulysses, ultimately finding it inadequate.)

There is a lot to think about in this constellation of Woolf, Eliot, Joyce, and Tolstoi (as Woolf spelt it). Of most immediate interest for me is how it might build on our understanding of Mrs. Dalloway. This, as much as any small literary allusion or biographical note, is the big challenge of creating an edition, it seems to me. How to get that intellectual context and texture into my introduction?

Here, then is a tiny start. I read Bob Kiely’s riff on the title, Mrs. Dalloway with great admiration: how, in titling her novel after a married woman’s public name, Woolf announces her departure from the tradition of the novel which tends to use either women’s first names only (Clarissa, Pamela, Amelia, Emma) or men’s whole names (Tom Jones, Joseph Andrews, Tristram Shandy). Such a practice reinscribes marriage as the end of women’s lives by showing the assumption that the woman’s surname will change. Building on that, then, and returning to Tolstoy, I am reminded of Anna Karenina as well as of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, two novels about adultery which break the English title tradition and end with the heroine’s death. Mrs. Dalloway is every bit as big a novel, but its events, insofar as Mrs. Dalloway is concerned, are thoughts: thoughts about romantic possibilities passed by and death, not adultery and suicide.

In that, I think Woolf shows how she tried to navigate the channel between the raw meat of Tolstoi (her expression, her sense that really only the anemic Eliot could rate Tolstoi so highly) and the empty undergraduate genius of Joyce (again, as she saw it). That is, Mrs. Dalloway is an attempt to write a psychological novel that matters, to use stream-of-consciousness not as an end in itself but to give an account of real consequence all the while avoiding the simplistic equation of consequence with event.


I am reading for the footnotes for my edition of Mrs. Dalloway. Meanwhile, my husband is reading Levinas and drafting a new chapter of a book down the hall. The problem? Woolf is always reading Apuleius or Thackeray or The Princess of Cleves and my spouse reads, as I said, Levinas, while, for my part, I am combing over the dregs of Woolf.

For the first time in ages, I tire of her. I tire of being so much in her head. I grow bored of having only her rattling about in my head. I spent an hour reading Ovid last night: that is certainly a welcome change. And then, when insomnia struck at midnight, another hour with the thrilling Agent Zigzag. I begin to feel less mad, less claustrophobic.


I’ve been reading Tayari and Lauren’s accounts of their retreats with interest and pleasure. I love reading stories of isolation, productivity, and renewal. That is one of the pleasures, too, of reading Woolf’s letters and diaries as I have been: reading the accounts of her youthful jaunts to Cornwall to work for a week or two on The Voyage Out, of her middle aged weeks at her and Leonard’s country house in Rodmell.

We are just over halfway done with our time up on the St. Lawrence. I have only finished one book since my arrival: volume one of Woolf’s letters. On that score, and by most other measures, this has not been as immensely productive as I might have hoped it to be. Still, we have a lovely routine and I know that I feel less jangled than I would were I down in the Jersey City swamps for the whole summer.

Three mornings a week, I start the morning off with exercise: I had been running but now that the races (2—one 15K and one 10K!) are over, I have gone kayaking twice.

Our babysitter, recommended by the high school guidance counselor, is a gem: a farmer’s daughter and honor student, swimmer and equestrian, she has all the coltish confidence of one of Emerson’s boys sure of his supper. She arrives each morning at 8:30 and plays with the girls at my mother-in-law’s camp, four houses down this sleepy gravel road, until 1:00. There is a state park at the end of the road, accessible through a gap in the fence. Most early mornings, the girls all walk down there and go to the playground.

The children nap at 1:00, when one of us drives the sitter home. We work a bit more and then, at 3:30, I wake the children. We swim in the River until dinnertime and we all eat together: our little family, my mother-in-law, and her mom, great-grandma.

After dinner, the little one and I head home. She checks the little plants behind the garage for wild strawberries. If there is one, she feeds it to me; if two, she eats the second. My husband does dishes. The big girl walks down the road with grandma and the dog to check in on Great Aunt Mary and check the tomatoes and squash in the back garden. I read a few pages of Treasure Island to the big girl and she goes to bed. We pour one last glass of wine and read a few pages before bed.

I must say that the routine is pretty ideal. It certainly sounds like a person would return to New York weighing less, having written more…

More on Nana’s Books

When Nana’s books came, my father was very kind and clear: I was only to keep what I wanted and needed. There was no need to preserve her library intact or to keep books of little value for sentimental reason. Her library was good in its contents, but most of the paperbacks had come unglued from neglect and bad weather. His kindness and my studio apartment helped me winnow the boxes down to a more reasonable bounty (though you would never know that from the mammoth library that burdens us in our little apartment today).

One book that I kept, then got rid of, and now regret giving away was my Nana’s Milton in one volume.

It was the Bobbs-Merrill Milton, the same one I had used in college. And disliking Milton as I think I do (I suspect that he intimidates me more than I dislike him) and having my own college notes in the margin of my copy, it seemed strange to keep another copy of the very same book simply for sentimental reasons.

Except for one thing: it was all marked up with my Nana’s notes. The notes she made as she was losing her sight.

And the one note that made the book radioactive to me at twenty-four is the note that makes me now curious to see what else was there: Randomly, in the margins of Paradise Lost, Nana wrote “Why doesn’t Graham [my father] make Anne learn Latin?”

Somehow, back then, my mother and I pieced together that this had to have been written when I was seven or eight, around the time that my Nana pronounced, to my young mind, my failure as a writer. For, visiting her down in Florida, I showed her a short story I had written, heavily indebted to Hans Christian Andersen, about a little mermaid. She took out that Bobbs-Merrill Milton and turned it to Milton’s juvenilia: “Here’s a poem Milton wrote in Greek when he was six. Well, this is the Latin translation he made a few years later…”

I threw in the towel.

And, at 24, I threw the Milton in the recycling.

After all, a girl has to live.

A Useful Life

Not sure how I feel about this diary entry from August 1920:
“I raise my head from making a patchwork quilt. This is the day of month when I dispatch darning & other needle work, & do in truth more useful work than on days of free intelligence. How shifting & vacillating one’s mind is! Yesterday broody & drowsy all day long, writing easily, & yet without strict consciousness, as though fluent under drugs: today apparently clear headed, yet unable to put one sentence after another—sat for an hour, scratching out, putting in, scratching out; & then read [Sophocles’] Trachiniae with comparative ease—always comparative—oh dear me! (D 2.59; 19 August 1920)
That Woolf sometimes felt her household chores mattered more than her writing is disorienting. It’s kind of comforting, but it’s also unnerving. Does no one ever settle in to satisfaction? Besides, I’ve never heard of Trachiniae, let alone attempted to read it in Greek—with ease or difficulty. I have trouble feeling confident of the letters on those stupid sorority sweatshirts.

Do you always look for the longest day of the year...

...and then miss it? I always look for the longest day of the year and then miss it.--misquoting Daisy Buchanan.

Like Cam, I have been happy, busy (tenure, a conference in Seattle--where I saw my family & played with my daughters & their cousins, a summer school course on Woolf, another conference in Denver) and wholly unmotivated to blog.

On Saturday, we head to upstate New York for the annual five weeks of messing about in boats. Will there be writing? Yes! Blogging? I think so!

In the meantime, well, I am still here, hale and hearty, training for the Boilermaker (15K!), using all my "points" on Weightwatchers for white wine...

"Transcending" Race: Op-eds, 2

This is my response to the Obama speech: it's not really a blog entry, more of a crack at an Op-ed, so it's more polished, for better and worse, than what you're used to reading around these parts...

You used the word ‘transcend.’ Do you have any idea what that word means to us?”

I looked up from my papers at three beautiful and angry young black women. I had just given a talk on how Virginia Woolf influenced Alice Walker. I was a twenty-six year old graduate student, nervous and excited to have had the privilege to speak on a featured panel at an academic conference. I was not prepared for a confrontation from three self-assured undergraduates from Spelman. I sputtered something, asked them to explain their objections, and left feeling confused, sorry, and disoriented. It was a deeply disappointing moment of failed communication across a racial divide.

That was back in 1993. The memory still distresses me and I have thought of this moment often when commentators on Barack Obama’s presidential campaign mention how he transcends race.

In retrospect, I think the Spelman students’ objections are clear: the notion of transcendence, with its celebration of a freedom so complete as to be almost bodiless, slides far too easily into a failure to recognize race and racism. When the women from Spelman asked me if I knew what transcend means to us, they were pleading with me to acknowledge the weight of race in American life. To them, this was a weight that was not only impossible to transcend but also undesirable to transcend. When white liberals applaud Obama’s ability to transcend race, I hear the anger, frustration, and fear of those women from Spelman. Are those who invoke transcendence celebrating Obama’s abilities or just relieved not to have to think about race?

T. S. Eliot famously defined poetry as an “escape from personality,” a statement that has contributed to a sense of him as a poet of clever words but not emotions. This criticism of Eliot’s poetry resonates with a common criticism of Obama’s speeches. Few remember the next sentence in Eliot’s 1919 essay: “But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.” Eliot asks poets to know their emotions and personality, to inhabit them, but then to transcend them when creating art, to escape from the personal into something greater, something that communicates beyond the self. Can we not ask the same of our politicians? Not that they forget their own stories, but that they see their stories within the larger American story.

Obama’s desire to run a campaign that is not only about his race is different from the desire of fatigued whites not to think about race anymore. As a black man in America, Obama’s life is marked by race: he cannot avoid it nor has he shown any signs of wanting to. However, in appearing to want to transcend race, Obama had, until yesterday, given his critics the chance to see his rhetoric as untethered to reality.

Obama’s speech last week in Philadelphia changed that. For in that speech, Obama showed us all how richly and deeply he understands the bitterness, justified or not, on all sides of the racial divides. More than that, he reminded us why the notion of hope is so powerful. For hope, when tethered to a deeply nuanced understanding of the challenges we face, will be the key to emerging into a better future.

Virginia Woolf used metaphors of tethered flight, of granite and rainbow, to describe the artist’s task: an artist must dream, but she must remain linked to the world. The politician’s task is even more fettered than the artist’s, but too many politicians remain stuck in the granite, forgetting to look up to the skies. Obama has had the opposite problem.

In his speech yesterday, Obama showed us the granite, the anchor of his vision for our future, and that is precisely what he needed to do to make the future soar. If we are to transcend race, we need to acknowledge it; Senator Obama has begun a new chapter in our ongoing national conversation on race. It is up to us to continue it.

“Transcending” Race: op-eds

Last year, I read an article in the New York Times about Katie Orenstein’s class on writing op-eds. She trains women to write editorials as a strategy to redress the gross gender imbalance on newspaper op-ed pages (it’s about 85-15). I was intrigued and excited. I blogged about it.

Katie wrote me and put me on her list for the next time the course was taught. That was February 23rd and I took the day-long seminar in the Spartan offices of the Woodhull Institute in Lower Manhattan. I was one of 16 women, ranging in age from 25 to 65 or so, mostly working in the nonprofit sector (Code Pink, the peace activist group; Girls Inc., the girls empowerment group that got in trouble with the right-wing home-schooling crowd for their affiliation with American Girl dolls, etc.) [Lots of mommies, left and right, like the American Girl dolls as an alternative to Barbie: American Girl dolls are expensive but they teach history, come in many hues, and are built like little girls: no breasts or hips. Girls Inc.’s website includes links for older girls who might want to learn about sexuality--it’s about ten clicks in and it’s vital information for girls but some folks don’t want their daughters to have any access to anything about wondering about lesbianism…)

I took the class. It was amazing and fascinating. I recommend it to anyone who’d like to polish her voice and present herself in public with confidence and command.

She began with an astonishingly simple and challenging exercise. We went around the table: “My name is ___ and I am in expert in ___ because ____ .” It took fully two hours for this roomful of accomplished women, most of whom work for social in the nonprofit sector, to fill in those blanks.

Her point was made: if we cannot own our own expertise, why should anyone listen to us? If we do own it, then we can say what we know so others will hear it.

It was strange, too, from my perspective as a writing teacher to hear her teaching us to write what are basically 5-paragraph essays (intro, 3 points, conclusion), the very form I’m working to train my freshmen to move beyond. But she’s absolutely right, of course: the problem with the 5-paragraph form is not the form itself but its formulaic application. Editorials should begin with intros, they should make a couple points (and three is a kind of magic number for proving a point), and they should conclude.

Now I’m on fire with the desire to get an op-ed published. My ambitions are less noble than those of some of my classmates: I’m less on fire with a single issue than with several (education, the election, ethics, work-family balance, feminism, the role of literature in all of this) and, above all, I’m on fire with the ambition to join the cultural conversation in an even bigger way than this blog lets me do.

So, last week when we got back from Vermont, I listened to Obama’s speech on race and took a crack at an editorial on that. I knew I had no chance, realistically, of publication, but I wanted to try.

It didn’t reach the New York Times, surprise, surprise, so I’ll give it to you in my next post…

More E. B. White: Writers’ Rooms

Can E. B. White do no wrong? My daughter and I have read Stuart Little (hilarious and delightful) and The Trumpet of the Swan (less good, for a slightly older child, but still wonderfully imaginative). Charlotte’s Web, beloved on DVD (we have an old cartoon version with Paul Lynde as the rat!), awaits reading.

And then there are The Elements of Style, of course. But what about this month’s find: an amazing little tidbit from his Harper’s column on the dangers of progress and change. The whole thing is great, but this observation about the dangers of renovating one’s writing room amused me most:
Yet for all that, there is always a subtle danger in life’s refinements, a dim degeneracy in progress. I have just been refining the room in which I sit, yet I sometimes doubt that a writer should refine or improve his workroom by so much as a dictionary: one thing leads to another and the first thing you know he has a stuffed chair and is fast asleep in it.

So, I’m thinking about that wonderful wit and versatility and, in doing so, remembered a recent conversation with Garth, who recommended White’s Here is New York, which I’ve not read. It awaits me on the coffee table now.

If you want to contemplate writer’s rooms, it’s hard to beat the Guardian. And if you want to read a funny essay by Garth Risk Hallberg, pop over to Slate where he has some amusing things to say about the corruption inherent in Amazon’s “reviews.” This piece could so easily have become a breast-beating screed: oh! where is the honor of the reviewer! how far have we fallen! Instead, he tells us more about something that anyone can see smacks of corruption: yep, those “top 10 reviewers” are not really reviewers in any traditional sense, neither amateurs nor professionals, they’re “a curious hybrid: part customer, part employee” and, as he notes wryly, “this feels like a loss.” It does indeed.

Stress and Procrastination

Sometime last week a friend poked her head into my little cubicle: “How’s it going?”

I looked at my desk with its various piles of urgent, semi-urgent, neglected, and soon-t0-be-forgotten papers. Over on the out-of-commission scanner sat two pieces of paper, out of reach but fairly radioactive in their import.

How was I? Those two sheets summed it up: “I’ve got a tenure application here and a summons to call for a follow-up mammogram. That’s what’s going on.”

So, yes, I’ve been a little stressed. But the drama is of my own making, of my own desiring. The mammogram last June wasn’t worrying: it was just a bad photograph and they want a new one. I should get tenure in May. I’m not genuinely worried about either potential bad outcome. In my heart I expect that sometime in the next few months, I’ll have good news for now on both fronts.

And yet.

I’ve indulged myself in the ritual of getting stressed. Of becoming neurotic. Of getting tension headaches at the least mention of promotion or someone else’s book or the job market.

I think, to be honest, that I needed the attention. Not really from anyone (except, perhaps my husband, who’s been remarkably patient through this whole thing) as from myself: I needed to be the star, the neediest one, the one who was a little fragile, a little rocky.


I’m done. It’s a dull role and I prefer others to it. The application is in and with matters out of my hands, much of my stress has lifted. I made the appointment. Back to work.