First One's Free

If all goes well, by this time next month, I will be Dr. Harding. I started working on my Ph.D. in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University in the fall of 2014, and my viva voce is scheduled for May 14. As I work through what I want to do next—having failed, as so many do, to secure academic employment in my first year on the market—I’m thinking a lot about shame, which just happens to be the subject of my dissertation. An excerpt from that, an essay collection called My Wretchedly Defective Nature, seems like a good place to start this newsletter project.

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“Every work of literature” says Vivian Gornick, “has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.” The story of this essay collection, the thing that I have come to say, again and again, has to do with who in this culture is deemed worthy—of time, attention, affection, love, power, personhood—and the ways we dehumanize those who fall short. 

The situation is that I live in a particular body—female, fat, absent-minded, now infertile, aging, and once the site of a life-altering act of violence—in a particular society that yokes all of those characteristics to deep shame. To resist that shame is to feel anger at the situation on a nearly constant basis; when your society keeps telling you to hate who you are, you can either obey and gradually rot of it or spend a great deal of emotional energy telling your society to get bent. I spent my teens and twenties doing the former, and my thirties doing the latter. 

From 2008 through 2015, I was a cog in what Laura Bennett calls “The First-Person Industrial Complex”: an explosion of intimate, accessible nonfiction written by and for women, which left (female) bodies all over the internet. At one extreme, women confessed to foreign objects doctors found in their vaginas (a tangle of cat hair and a very old tampon, in the two most scarringly memorable examples) with no greater apparent purpose than getting the grotesque memories off their chests. At the other end, my end, feminist activists offered up our rapes, our abusive relationships, our abortions, our miscarriages, our eating disorders, our worst parenting fears—all the things we were meant to be ashamed of—recast as as “hooks” for essays that aimed to explain structural oppression in general, patriarchy in particular, to a mainstream audience. In between were a whole lot of nicely written personal anecdotes with some vague connection to larger cultural themes. 

Most of the work, all along that continuum, was bad. That’s not a slam on women’s confessional nonfiction as a genre; it seems obvious to me that most of everything is bad. Most writing, movies, music, fashion, art. In any given year, a load of new content is hurled at the walls of our culture, and it will be decades before we really know what stuck, what continues to resonate across generations. We make our pronouncements about genius and universality; we make our “Best of the Year” lists; we dole out our awards, but we do so with the knowledge that our children may find our at-the-time impressions risible. We know, in fact, that we might laugh at ourselves in ten or twenty years.

Still, there are conditions more likely to predispose an essay to lasting philosophical value, deep emotional impact, and/or exceptional lyricism. These do not include: Same-day deadlines, staggeringly poor pay, laissez-faire or wholly absent editors, click-based advertising, unmoderated comments published immediately below the work, sexist male owners of putatively feminist publications, or a general sense that it just doesn’t matter if the piece is any good, as long as there are words on the screen by deadline. Most, if not all of those conditions were the ones under which we workers in the First-Person Industrial Complex wrote our so-called personal essays, until the market was so saturated with our bodily fluids and artfully arranged traumas that readers finally stopped asking for more.

When Jia Tolentino published “The Personal Essay Boom Is Over” in The New Yorker in 2017, it was only the latest in a long line of eulogies for the genre. Agnes Repplier published “The Passing of the Essay” in Lippincott’s Magazine in June 1894, and eleven years later came Virginia Woolf’s “The Decay of Essay Writing.” Hilaire Belloc wrote of “a quarrel between those who write essays and those who have written an essay or two to show that the writing of essays is futile.” Edward Hoagland wrote, “We sometimes hear that essays are an old-fashioned form, that so-and-so is the ‘last essayist,’” forty years before Tolentino declared the personal essay trend passé. 

As far as I can tell, the essay “dies” every time a generation becomes sick of listening to itself. In “The Modern Essay,” written in 1925, Woolf famously describes the deleterious effects of mediocre first-person nonfiction on the reading public: “We are nauseated by the sight of trivial personalities decomposing in the eternity of print.”

But in nearly the same breath, she prescribes the cure: write better. “Literature is stern; it is no use being charming, virtuous, or even learned and brilliant into the bargain, unless… you fulfil her first condition—to know how to write.” 

Becoming a nonfiction writer after a lifetime of fancying myself a soon-to-be-discovered novelist was a small blow to my identity. Becoming a consistently bad writer was an enormous one. Back when I could barely see the point in surviving my shame-filled, depressed adolescence, the lodestar that kept me pointed toward the future was writing. Motivated by the dramatically generous praise we offer children who exhibit any particular skill, I kept practicing until eventually, I had fulfilled literature’s first condition. I was no Virginia Woolf, but I knew how to write.

Allowing myself to write badly, then, was a genuine reason for shame. Between 2008 and 2015, I allowed rambling first drafts, full of shallow analysis and irrelevant tangents, to decompose in the eternity of the internet. Sometimes more than once a day. I did it to see my name in print, to get a contract for a book I didn’t especially want to write, to hear echoes of that childhood praise from harried young editors pleased with my page views, and from strangers who glommed onto a performance of righteous anger that made them feel less alone. 

I did it because I lacked courage. A half-assed blog post would elicit immediate approbation, and a non-fiction book proposal only required a few weeks’ work before it could be sent off to an agent for cheerleading, then a publisher for money. A novel—what I supposedly wanted most to write, and write well—demands continuous confidence and an abundance of internal motivation just to get the thing done. Releasing it into the world for judgment involves a whole other level of bravery. 

So instead, I wrote badly. 

I mean, look, I’m exaggerating somewhat, which is a literary choice to convey the gulf between what I wanted to do and what I was actually doing in those years. I wasn’t (as far as I know) the kind of shitty, needy writer that made colleagues whisper about the cruelty of editors who let me expose myself to humiliation. I wasn’t even a trivial personality, per se; my First-Person Industrial Complex persona was, if anything, far more serious than my real character. Real Kate, unlike Professionally Outraged Feminist Kate, enjoys action movies, pedicures, fart jokes, and Philip Roth. Real Kate binge watches mysteries about salaciously murdered women and listens to problematic podcasts through noise-canceling headphones, hissing at anyone who tries to interrupt. Real Kate has a deep, pure, barely even complicated love for Las Vegas.

But every work of literature has a situation and a story, and at the heart of every good story is a pattern of desire and resistance. The protagonist wants a thing, and circumstances stand in the way.

What I want is to be a beautiful writer, an artist, not a workhorse best known for my hot temper and foul mouth.

What stands in the way is my own goddamn brain, every time.

That is my story. The situation is shame. 

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My Wretchedly Defective Nature was conceived as a cure—at least, a palliative—for that shame. It was a sincere effort to write as thoughtfully, vulnerably, and artistically as I’m ever gonna. If it earns me a Ph.D. next month, I will have succeeded by at least one key measure. But the struggle between my brain and my ambition continues apace.

This newsletter will be an attempt to deliver the kind of essays I would prefer to be known for. With a weekly deadline and no editor, let’s be clear, I will not be publishing my very best work. But neither will I be publishing hot takes, formulaic op-eds, or rambling blog posts. In the nearly 500-year-old tradition of the not-dead-yet essai, I’ll be inviting you to watch me think some shit through at length: our current political climate, which Democratic presidential candidate I support most heartily, what I’m reading, what I’m watching, and what I intend to do with my wild and precious life now that I can’t go back to school anymore. (I mean, I can, and don’t think I haven’t considered law and library science. But I won’t. Probably.) If that’s worth five bucks a month to you, I’d sure appreciate it. If you can’t swing that, I’ll be dropping something like this for free every 4-6 weeks, so I hope you’ll still subscribe.

Yours,

Kate