Experimenting, On Manny, On Writing

Have Lots Going On: In Defense of Distraction

The New York Times’ Opinionator blog once again proves why it’s quickly becoming one of my favorite things on the internet. First time novelist and writing professor Benjamin Nugent writes in their “Draft” section (one that’s devoted entirely to writing) that the Luddite lifestyle he adapted when starting his MFA program in the rural midwest turned out to harm, not help, his writing. The whole piece, appropriately titled “Upside of Distraction” is sweet, sweet salve for a procrastinator’s guilt.

Writing a book consists largely of avoiding distractions. If you can forget your real circumstances and submerge yourself in your subject for hours every day, characters become more human, sentences become clearer and prettier. But utter devotion to the principle that distraction is Satan and writing is paramount can be just as poisonous as an excess of diversion. I tried to make writing my only god, and it sickened my work, for a while. The condition endemic to my generation, attention deficit disorder, gave way to its insidious Victorian foil: monomania.

He’s got a reassuring message for us writers with real world day jobs, too:

When good writing was my only goal, I made the quality of my work the measure of my worth. For this reason, I wasn’t able to read my own writing well. I couldn’t tell whether something I had just written was good or bad, because I needed it to be good in order to feel sane. I lost the ability to cheerfully interrogate how much I liked what I had written, to see what was actually on the page rather than what I wanted to see or what I feared to see.

Recently, I’ve noticed that my work in my nonfiction writing class and efforts as a newbie blogger have made me better at my real job. Maybe not substantively better, since it involves a very, very different kind of writing than what I do here or in class. But it’s made me better in terms of perspective, mindset and sanity. It’s like a friend once said to me when I was single and dating: “Have lots going on.” In other words, don’t hang your hopes and self-esteem on one pursuit (a creative or romantic one). Having lots going on outside my day job, real work I can see going somewhere and that I enjoy, helps ease the frustrations that come with any desk job. And when I feel as though I’m failing as a writer, or (most often) am beating myself up for not getting as much outside stuff done as I’d like — this blog post or that story pitch or that interview that would have made an assignment for class so much stronger — having a day job that’s often interesting and stimulating can be a cold, necessary reminder of what matters: it’s what’s affording me the luxury to do these things in this city in the first place. When you have lots going on, no one thing can be the measure of your worth.

Sidenote: Benjamin Nugent’s debut novel looks really good. Based on reviews, it’s family and character driven…probably the kind of thing they’d call “chick lit” if he weren’t a dude.

Chick-Lit, On Women, On Writing

Beyond Beauty Mags: Chick Lit Is Bad For Your Self-Esteem

So, psychology has moved on from targeting Cosmopolitan as the place where a young woman’s self-esteem goes to die and found a new culprit: chick-lit novels.
Not only is chick-lit divisive in  the literary community — it’s also hazardous to your health, according to a new Virginia Tech study. The researchers had 159 girls in their early 20s answer questions about how they perceived their own weight and attractiveness after reading doctored-up passages from a chick-lit novel (we don’t know which novels. Well, OK, we might if I wanted to purchase a PDF of the actual study. Which I don’t. Sorry!)
Some of the study’s participants read a narrative with a skinny protagonist (this article calls it “underweight” but let’s call a spade a spade, m’kay?). Some read a narrative featuring an “average-weight or overweight” central female character, and others read a passage where the female protagonist had some body image issues. Surprise, surprise, the study participants in the latter group “were significantly more concerned about their weight than participants in the control condition.”

“In other words, readers had a stronger, more personal reaction to the character’s internal dialogue than to the novelist’s description of her body,” as Pacific Standard’s Tom Jacobs put it.

Well, duh. Of course a character’s inner monologue leaves a bigger imprint on the reader’s psyche than the author’s physical description. Why else does a writer even mention her character’s appearance unless she wants to let readers know that this, in some way, informs who that character is? In many cases in women’s fiction (or chick lit, whichever you prefer), a female protagonist’s appearance does inform who they are, or how they think about themselves — for better or for worse (and I’d argue that says more about where we’re at as a society than it does about women’s literature). It’s not difficult to imagine feeling more empathy for a character who tells us how she feels about her body in her own words. An inner monologue, even in a novel written largely in the third person, ups the intimacy quotient between character and reader.

I do wonder what would have happened to the study’s participants if they’d read anything by Jennifer Weiner. Weiner, patron saint of women’s fiction, tends to write confident but relatable female protagonists. In “Good in Bed,” Weiner’s debut novel, our heroine Cannie Shapiro neither starts nor ends the novel as a skinny girl. In a Q&A with Weiner printed in the back of my paperback copy of the book, Weiner says this is no accident:

“Like Cannie, I’ve suffered with the culture that never shows women who look like me unless they’re desperately trying to look some other way, or when they’re there for comic relief…It’s true that being big can give you all kinds of unhappiness, but it doesn’t mean that you’re destined for a life of misery and/or comic relief.”

Cannie struggles with body image issues, to be sure. The book opens, hilariously, with Cannie reading a first-person account about loving a plus-sized woman…written by her ex-boyfriend. But the novel isn’t defined by Cannie’s quest to become thin, nor is the narrative consumed by her body image neuroses. I’d be shocked if anyone would report finishing the book and feeling worse about her body.

I also wonder about selection bias in this study: who are these 159 women? Is it possible they could be the sorts of young women who read Cosmo, watch “The Bachelor” unironically and pin wedding gowns to Pinterest before they are even engaged?  I’m being flip here, but what I mean to say is, were the women in the study more apt to buy into the beauty myth to begin with? And are these really the only women reading chick lit?