Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Workshop Hell & How to Get Out of It: The Second Circle

Have gotten some good feedback already from my first post on this subject, how to write yourself out of a bad romance. If you missed that post, you can read it here. Meantime, I proceed below with another popular theme: the divorce or death of parents.

The Divorce or Death of Parents Story

It’s no surprise that along with love, the other popular beginner’s subject is death. After all, it seems to carry its own drama, and anything ready-made is particularly appealing to the beginner, who doesn’t quite know how to create her own drama. Of all the deaths one can write about, the death of a parent or other similar figure (a grandparent, mentor, etc.) seems to be a favorite, and not necessarily because the writer has experienced such a loss, although that is sometimes the sad case, adding even more pressure to the workshop.

This kind of story is very similar to the divorce story, another drama-from-the-shelf. What they both have in common is that they are usually told from the point of view of the child or very young person, who is always surprised, then devastated (of course). Both stories usually begin with something like “My life changed forever the day that . . . .”

At the root of the appeal of both these stories is the same theme: the loss of childhood security. It’s a coming-of-age theme like the break-up story, but more frightening, because the ability to adjust to the dramatic event is not usually as easily visible to the writer as in the break-up story, leaving us with stories that seem to have little to no purpose but to vent some vague anxieties the writer has had. At the end of the break-up story, there is usually some kind of epiphany, however cliché. The protagonist learns the reality of love or whatever, and adjusts accordingly: becomes bitter, or savvier, or a homicidal-suicidal maniac. At the end of the divorce or death story, however, the protagonist is left adrift; the story ends at the divorce or death, usually with the same thought with which it begins: “And that was the day my life changed forever.” It’s a story in which nothing has happened.

So, why write such stories? Well, the key is the first and last sentence: “the day my life changed forever.” Though unable to successfully execute it, the writer of such a story understands that life trajectories are interesting, and that a change in a person’s circumstances, especially an important change like the loss of a parent (whether through divorce or death), can be a proving ground for character and a means of exploring the human condition. This is good! The writer should hold on to that theme, and pretty much discard everything else.

For one, children make horrible narrators/protagonists. It’s a really cheap way of making otherwise predictable material seem surprising, mysterious, or momentous. Listen: everyone divorces, everyone dies. Get that through your head. They are neither special nor interesting events. Furthermore, the smaller the child, the stupider. A very small child is equally upset by the loss of an ice-cream cone as by a divorce. It’s only your adult perspective looking back on the events of your childhood that imbues meaning in them. If it seems incredible that the day you heard about your parents’ divorce when you were four you went about your day anyway (napping, watching cartoons, whatnot) and survived it, it’s because it didn’t register on you as a life-altering event at the time. Notice that amazing stories told from the point of view of children or young adultslike “Araby” and “A&P”are told by the adult looking back, with all the vocabulary, storytelling, and moral/ethical/philosophical abilities of an adult. The beginning writer too often confuses a story about a child with a story that seems to be written by one, and even goes so far as to try to write in some kind of childspeak, like “Mama and Daddy were screaming and I didn’t know why.” Well, we know why, and would like some more insight, please. If children could write stories, they would.

Second, the events leading up to the divorce or death are usually predictable and uninteresting. The proving ground is after, that shady place no beginning writer dares to go. The event changed your life, you say. Prove it! Show the life after.

Three dead parents.
One great story.
I’ve got two more 80’s flicks for you to study (see my apologies in earlier post). The first is The Boy Who Could Fly. It is an excellent case study: the protagonists are Milly, a girl who has lost her terminally ill father to suicide, and Eric, a boy who has lost both parents in a plane crash! My goodness. What’s so great about this film? It starts after both of these events. Milly is a wonderful protagonist. At fifteen, she is young enough to be vulnerable, but old enough to be able to cope with her life on her own. Her mother freaks out as she attempts to work to keep the family afloat, and Milly helps by keeping house and taking care of her little brother. There is a wonderful dinner scene where Milly blows up at her mother and rants about all the things she does for the family. It showsmore than any hospital or funeral scene ever couldexactly what happens when a child is forced to take on adult responsibilities.
Two deadbeat parents.
One great dress.
Another great 80’s flick on this theme is Pretty in Pink. Forget the abysmal star-crossed lovers plot. Focus on the main character, Andie, and her relationship to her father, Jack. Four years before we meet these characters, Andie’s mom has left her family. Jack is devastated, still. He spends his days in his pajamas, and lies to Andie about his efforts at looking for work. That explains Andie’s compelling character, her job at Trax, her quirky fashion sense that makes the best of the cheap things she can afford, her relationship to her boss, even, yes, her desire to become Cinderella and date her way into the fabulous lifestyle of the richies. For years she has been trying to live not just without a mother, but without a father who acts like an adult, or the money to compensate for either. It has made her into the person she is when the film begins, and her testhere represented by our old friend, the love storyis whether to compromise her independent self in a relationship that would provide an instant class upgrade, or to continue being the person that abandonment set her up to be. When she chooses to go to her stupid prom by herself, in her dress made essentially of discards, it’s a choice that has nothing to do with the idiotic rich boyfriend; it’s a delayed reaction to her mother’s abandonment. Her mother left her behind like an old dress, and by golly she’s going to make the best of it and not just survive, but look good doing it.

What would this story have been like if we had seen Andie at five, or at fourteen? It’s clear the mother left because she wanted something better than the ramshackle house unfortunately literally on the wrong side of the tracks. It’s also clear the event was pretty traumatizing for both Andie and her father. There’s no mystery there that deserves our attention. On the other hand, this moment four years after is full of question marks. How long can Andie hang on to this competent little persona she has created to deal with that traumatizing event? Can she hang onto it in the face of economic hardship? Of disdain? Ofgulp!—graduation? That’s the story, baby!

Go write it.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Workshop Hell & How to Get Out of It

At this point, I’ve spent nearly half my life in workshopfirst as a student, and now as a teacher. By far the most surprising thing I’ve learned is how repetitive workshops are. Especially when one is stuck teaching at the introductory level, it becomes obvious that human beingsat least those drawn to creative writing workshopshave a lot fewer than seven stories to tell. Though you might expect each workshop to be different, an assumption based on the expected creativity of the different people involved in each one, the truth is that you often see just a small handful of themes and plots over and over. How do you avoid falling in with the same old, same old? How do you attempt, for the umpteenth time, to address these tired opening moves? That is the subject I intend to tackle in a series of posts, one tired piece at a time.

The trick, I propose, is understanding the roots of the appeal these typical pieces have. I say pieces consciously, because whether prose (fiction or not) or poetry, these themes and plots have a way of dominating the beginner’s efforts. But, why? Why do beginners gravitate toward these typical pieces? Understanding their appeal is the first step in becoming a fresher writer.

Next, the beginner needs to attempt to transcend the typical in some way. One way of doing this is to turn the typical on its headonce you understand what it is that you’re trying to get at, where the appeal is, you can twist the typical around and approach the piece in a fresher way. I will try to offer examples of these twists on the typical as much as possible, but, for now, abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

The First Circle: The Break-up Story

Alas, one of the first stories every student attempts to write is The Great Love Story. Knowing full well that such stories are hackneyed, the beginner thinks it would be a fine idea to avoid the happy ending and provide us with a sad one, showing us how the protagonist lost his or her innocence.

Yikes. Ending in a break-up instead of a wedding is hardly that twist I was referring towe are still deeply entrenched in the realm of cliché here. Ah, the relationship didn’t turn out the way the protagonist expected. The beloved turned out to be shallow, or betrayed you, or perhaps you had to choose the uglier girl or boy instead, or move to Australia at the end of the summer. Whatever. Bo-rrring!

We all know love ain’t what it’s cracked up to be, so why persist in writing the break-up story? Well, at its root such a story taps into a universal coming-of-age experience, and the beginning writer wants to partake of the eternal theme. It can be done welltwo stories I teach consistently on this theme are “Araby” by James Joyce and “A&P” by John Updike. Both stories have the same crush-meets-disappointment coming-of-age theme, but the way these master writers approach it makes all the difference. For one thing, both stories are more than love storiesthey are both biting social commentary. “Araby” is an extended meditation on the narrator’s bleak existence on dead-end North Richmond Street, with his old books and his drunken uncle, and the specter of British rule adding a political dimension to the story. “A&P” is an equally bleak look at a suburban beach town and its petit bourgeois values. The number one problem with the beginner’s love story is that there is usually little to no setting or context outside the personal. The setting is usually Generic High School X, and the lovers are suspended from contact with the outside world. Minor characters might include the Best Friend or The Ex, but other than that the theme lacks complexity. You can’t tell a “coming of age” story like that. One doesn’t come of age in a vacuumon the contrary, the true coming-of-age story is really about the child becoming part of the world such as it is in all its harsh reality, be it a go-nowhere Irish town or a suburban supermarket where the people have all the uniqueness of sheep. The beloved is just a vehicle concentrating all the shit that’s about to hit the fan.

So what’s the beginning writer to do? Well, you can try to provide that context for your love story. Realize that the love story is symbolicnot the main show. The main show is something elsethe world and its discontents that the protagonist is about to deal with. Avoid the star-crossed lovers context, however. Been there, so done that. Whether set in Verona, the West Side, LA, or Hawaii, the opposite-tracks theme is so overdone that it will actually make your love story even more hackneyed. Keep both lovers from the same side.

Another, maybe easier way is to put an embarrassing sex scene in the middle of your story. Another problem with the bare-bones love story is how little recognition sex receives as a factor. Of course all love stories are ultimately about sex. Yet, the badly written coming-of-age story is so invested in romance that it often bypasses the question of sex altogether. The realization or epiphany involved in the resolution is something emotional, like realizing the ultimate boyfriend is also ultimately a cheat. We can pick up this kind of entry-level wisdom from watching Lifetime, howeverhardly a coming-of-age. Sex, on the other hand, is rarely accurately depicted in art, and can really push the coming-of-age story to the next level if done well. The uninitiated rarely understand how catastrophic sex can be, and a great sexual catastrophe in the middle of your love story can inject realism and even a little bit of humoralways welcomeinto an otherwise vapid story. One of my favorites is in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Protagonist Esther Greenwood hemorrhages violently after her first sexual experience. Great! Another favorite is Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Protagonist Connie is all about the fuzzy romance she hears in songs, leading to a truly frightening encounter with Arnold Friend, a Big-Bad-Wolf type who blows her little romantic house in.

Another great example of this theme is Little Darlings. Fifteen-year-olds at summer camp take bets to see which of the two protagonists loses her virginity first. As their targets, one girl picks a sexy, older counselor, and the other a boy from the camp across the lake. Of course, the girl who picks the counselor has no shot at winning, yet she pretends to have sex with him and wins the bet when the other girlwho, of course, did have sexpretends not to. It’s a wonderful, wonderful coming-of-age story, because both girls start out equally innocent and the one who actually loses her virginity also loses her ability to talk about it.


From more or less the same time period comes The Last American Virgin, a schizo little teen sex flick that nevertheless presents a really interesting look at teen boy sexuality. It’s schizo because it’s trying really hard to be Porky’s, but the heart of the plot is solid. Gary and his friends are all dying to have sex, but Gary is the only one interested in love, particularly Karen’s love. He also wants to fit in, however, and winds up losing his virginity to a streetwalker he and his friends pool funds to hire. The scene is so disgusting, however, that it really shocks you into the realization that all these sexcapades are crass and horrible, and have nothing to do with the kind of feelings Gary has for Karen, who winds up preferring his best friend anyway, even after he knocks her up and refuses to help her deal with it. It’s a brutal awakening, which is the best kind.

Recognize the role of sex in the coming-of-age love story, and it’ll at least take it out of the romance rut. Make it graphic. Lose the erection, ejaculate prematurely on her thigh, fart accidentally. Anything bodily will doanything that goes against the moonlight and roses garbage. Anything except the broken condom, which is also a cliché. Condom drama is not very good a) because it’s overdone and b) because then we can always blame the condom for screwing things up, when what you really want is the people screwing up, showing their humanity in its full bodily horror.

My apologies, by the way, for all the dated examples. I was pretty innocent myself when I read and watched the stories I’ve mentioned here, and one thing that happens after you actually come of age is that you’re not really drawn to this type of story anymore. I need a lot of convincing at this point before I can be talked into giving my precious time to a novel or a film that I think is going to be predictable. What’s the point? Last time I caved it was to No Strings Attached, a Natalie Portman, Ashton Kutcher abomination. Hm. Yes, these sex-starved youths agree it’s best to get together just to have the good sex they crave, and nothing more. Lo and behold, they wind up falling in love! Like, duh. Man, I saw that whole movie in the second it took to read the title. What was the point of devoting two whole hours to seeing it play out? Kutcher’s not that cute. Apparently there’s another one called Friends with Benefits, and surely 1,000 more. Maybe one of these is a more current example of an old story told with a good twist, but I’m not willing to sit through the other 999 just to be able to provide fresher examples for you people. I was ten when I first saw The Last American Virgin. I was titillated by the title; being a virgin myself, I was curious to see anything that could inform me about this great mystery. Lucky for me, I wound up seeing a great film that I couldn’t really understand at the time. The first time I saw it as an adult I thought, wow. Were it in the theaters now, however, I would probably dismiss it as another stupid sex comedy.

See where I’m going with this? You don’t want that to happen to your story. You want to stand out from the pack. I hope I’ve given you two good ways to do that with your love story: create a strong social setting for which the love story becomes a frontispiece, and recognize the role of sex, in all its gross bodily reality, in the romance plot. And tune in next post for the next circle of Hell.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Scene vs. Summary

To get the most out of this post, you might want to read Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” here first.

One of the most difficult aspects of writing for beginners to master is the art of balancing scene and summary. At its most basic, the distinction between these is not that complicated. Summary, by definition, encompasses a large amount of information in a condensed form. A scene, on the other hand, is a place or a vista, something we experience in its fullness, first-hand. Thus, it should be pretty easy to distinguish these in a narrative. A scene would be a discrete event retold in the fullness of time and place, and a summary or exposition would be a condensed narrative covering perhaps many events in just a few sentences using sparse details. Simple? Not quite. What are we to make of a paragraph such as this, for example:
Her name was Connie. She was fifteen and she had a quick, nervous giggling habit of craning her neck to glance into mirrors or checking other people's faces to make sure her own was all right. Her mother, who noticed everything and knew everything and who hadn't much reason any longer to look at her own face, always scolded Connie about it. "Stop gawking at yourself. Who are you? You think you're so pretty?" she would say. Connie would raise her eyebrows at these familiar old complaints and look right through her mother, into a shadowy vision of herself as she was right at that moment: she knew she was pretty and that was everything. Her mother had been pretty once too, if you could believe those old snapshots in the album, but now her looks were gone and that was why she was always after Connie.
Is this a “scene”? Or is this summary? This opening paragraph of Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” has some of the markings of a scene. We seem to have specific action and detail: “she had a quick, nervous giggling habit of craning her neck to glance into mirrors or checking other people's faces to make sure her own was all right.” We even have dialogue. But we do not have a scene. This is summary.

A scene is a single, specific setting. What Oates writes above is representative of several scenes: many times in her life, Connie cranes her neck to glance into mirrors, perhaps at the mall, walking by the open bathroom door, or in the rearview mirror of the car. Oates is not telling us, in this paragraph, about any one of these moments; she is telling us about all of them, summarizing them into what she calls Connie’s habit. Notice also the many uses of “always” and “would.” The dialogue that we have is not being said at one particular moment, it is something Connie’s mother “always would” say. She may have said it several times, and Oates is summarizing all those times into this one representative comment. Notice how Oates shifts into a scene in the paragraph below:
Sometimes they did go shopping or to a movie, but sometimes they went across the highway, ducking fast across the busy road, to a drive-in restaurant where older kids hung out. The restaurant was shaped like a big bottle, though squatter than a real bottle, and on its cap was a revolving figure of a grinning boy holding a hamburger aloft. One night in midsummer they ran across, breathless with daring, and right away someone leaned out a car window and invited them over, but it was just a boy from high school they didn't like. It made them feel good to be able to ignore him. . . .
The beginning of this paragraph is still summary: “Sometimes they did go shopping or to a movie, but sometimes they went across the highway . . . .” Sometimes. These are representative, recurring actions. Connie and her friend go to these places several times, and, at first, Oates is telling us about the habit, not any one particular moment. She shifts to scene, however, when she says “one night.” Suddenly, we are not hearing about many nights together; we are watching one particular night in midsummer. Only on this night, and no other, did a boy from high school lean out the car window and invite them over right away. Oates goes on to tell us of the first time Connie meets Arnold Friend in this short scene, and goes back to summary mode in just four paragraphs. Three more paragraphs of summary and she begins the last scene of the story, the climax in which Arnold Friend comes over to Connie’s house. She sustains this scene to the end of the story, turning what amounts to maybe less than half an hour of action into the longest chunk of the story: 5,364 words out of 6,925. Excluding the first, shorter scene at the drive-in, the remaining 1008 words of summary encompass that entire summer of Connie’s life.

A scene, in other words, slows down the pace of story to real time or slower. Notice how slow the pace of the following scene is, from the climax of the story, when Connie realizes Arnold Friend has her trapped and she has nowhere to turn to for help:
She turned and bumped against a chair or something, hurting her leg, but she ran into the back room and picked up the telephone. Something roared in her ear, a tiny roaring, and she was so sick with fear that she could do nothing but listen to it—the telephone was clammy and very heavy and her fingers groped down to the dial but were too weak to touch it. She began to scream into the phone, into the roaring. She cried out, she cried for her mother, she felt her breath start jerking back and forth in her lungs as if it were something Arnold Friend was stabbing her with again and again with no tenderness. A noisy sorrowful wailing rose all about her and she was locked inside it the way she was locked inside this house.
This is slower than real time. In real time, this action might not take more than a minute, maybe two. But Oates slows the pace down deliberately, telling us not only what Connie does or what she hears, but what she’s thinking and feeling. It’s a wonderful way of heightening the tension of the momentwe must wait to find out what she’s going to do next, what’s going to happen to her. We are with her in this moment, watching her ourselves rather than being told, second-hand, what she is like.

That’s the value of a scene, and why you should avoid summary as much as possible. Summary is functional, and the more plot you are trying to cram into a story, the more necessary it might become. It is also useful for going over information that we need to know but is not interesting, such as the ten years Character X spent in prison. If all he did while he was there was read crime novels and avoid dropping the soap, perhaps it’s best to skip quickly to the part where he gets out and seeks his revenge or whatever. Most times, however, the beginning writer overuses summary, tries to cram too much story into too little space. And while you can have a great story that is all scene and no summary, the reverse is not true. I can tell you all of “Where Are You Going” in just a few words: “There once was a girl named Connie who was really pretty and knew it and loved the feeling of being admired by boys and thought nothing was wrong with that. She failed to see the danger of adult sexuality and was easily manipulated by a grown man who didn’t see a single special thing about her.” There you go. 56 words to Oates’s 6,925.

We’re not just talking word count, however. Look at all that’s lost in summary: specific detail, action, setting, dialogue. All the drama is gone. Think of scenes as those cheesy commercial dramatizations: it’s one thing to tell you that this alarm system can save your family from a burglar, and a whole ‘nother to hire some actors to run from a guy in a ski mask. You see the family being threatened by the burglar, you fear the same thing happening to yours. You go get an alarm. It’s the difference between being told about the horrible car accident and watching it happen before your own eyes. You may be able to imagine how horrible it was if someone tells you about it, but when you see it first-hand you never forget it. Scenes are the ultimate way to “show, don’t tell.”

So, how do you create a scene? For one thing, slow down! Don’t cram ten years into one paragraph. Pick a single moment in your story to tell at a time, and relegate whatever information we need to know that happens before or after to the background. The story about the day the house got broken into does not begin in the morning, eighteen hours before the burglar got there, with sentences such as “Daisy went to work that day just like any other day.” No; the story begins with “Daisy heard the creak of the front door opening and put her book down. There was no one else in the house.” Spend two pages on the four minutes it takes Daisy to sneak down her dark hallway and peek around the potted fern at the front door. Describe the feel of the cold floor under her bare feet. Tell me that she’s wishing she had bought that alarm system. Real time, or slower.

It helps to think of your writing cinematically. Pretend someone has bought the rights to turn your story into a film, and asked for your help. Where is your opening scene? Where is Daisy reading when she hears the creak of the front door? In bed? There’s your location. It might help to study how scriptwriters make this conversion. Oates’s story has been filmed a couple of times, but the most widely available version is the 1985 adaptation starring Laura Dern as Connie, Smooth Talk. Tom Cole did a really good job of turning a two-scene story into a ninety-two minute film. He took some of Oates’s “representative” moments and turned them into full scenes, such as when Connie and her pals romp through the mall. All Oates gives us in the story is a quick symbolic impression of what the girls “must have been” like, but in the film the scene has them walking in and out of stores, talking, and generally making teens of themselves for a good chunk of time. Conversely, the final scene goes by much faster: that paragraph where Connie grabs the phone I quoted above is just a brief moment, the fullness of Connie’s horror more quickly conveyed by the simultaneity of visual, auditory, and spatial detail possible in film.

Ultimately, however, the case may be that beginning writers think too cinematically. Many of the excessively summarized stories I read from students feel a lot like being told about a movie: “ . . . and then Connie stayed home one day and the guy from the drive-in comes by and . . . .” All the details of the scene are in the writer’s head, but she is unable to put them on the page. If that’s the case with you, just remember that it’s not just the plot that makes the film good. A quick overview of the action is not able to convey the awesomeness of all that surrounds it: the looks on the actors’ faces, the exact tone of their voices, the incredible sets on which they are standing. These are what create a scene in both print and film, not just actions and dialogue. Take the time to notice these in film as well as print: the sets, the costumes, the background noises. If you want to write about your yearly trip to the beach, isolate just one morning of one year you took that trip, and bring us with you.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Teaching “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Thinking about the Susan G. Komen Controversy

It’s been another busy week, and I just finished preparing tomorrow’s lecture on Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s mostly autobiographical 1892 short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper.” It’s a story I’ve taught many times, but now it seems more relevant than ever.

This time, I’m not teaching it as a creative writing model; I’m teaching it as part of a unit on motherhood and depression in my introduction to literature course. The course is populated almost exclusively by nursing majors, whose tight schedules demand that a special section of this universally required course be reserved for them. Not coincidentally at all, all but one of the nursing students are women. Thus, I not only design the course to try to appeal to their scientific sensibilities, combining texts that deal with illness, such as Gilman’s story, with articles in the sciences that serve to contextualize the literature, but also I try to squeeze in something about women’s social history. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is the centerpiece of a unit that will go through Brooke Shield’s defense of her right to take medication for her post-partum depression against Tom Cruise’s public condemnation and wind up discussing how the women of Sex and the City 2 deal with marriage, motherhood, and menopause. I am hoping my students will come to understand how controversial the relationship of women is to the medical establishment, how inextricable sexual politics are from their mental and physical health issues.

Little did I know, as I was preparing the syllabus over the summer, how insanely relevant this discussion would become. The recent Susan G. Komen Foundation’s decision to pull support from Planned Parenthood in order to avoid funding abortions exploded into a controversy the likes of which I had not seen for a long time. The consensus was largely that the much-beloved, wildly successful “pink ribbon” organization had cruelly betrayed women. So vast was the outcry, that the Komen Foundation promptly reversed its decision, and many top officials resigned.

By far my favorite analysis of the controversy so far has been Amy Schiller’s wonderful article for The Nation.  In it, Schiller argues that the controversy should serve to remind us of the impossibility of depoliticizing women’s issues. She writes:

The past decades have seen the rise of a nominally apolitical marketing campaign masquerading as feminism, with Komen merely the most visible symbol. Komen aligns perfectly with what Linda Hirshman labeled “choice feminism”—a moral-relativist approach to feminism that tries to scrub the movement of politics and value judgments in favor of uncritical affirmation of all women’s choices.

The innocuous pink ribbon has done much to bring much-needed attention to the fight against breast cancer, but it is emblematic of the kind of feminist politics we have preferred since the turn of the century, what Schiller calls “’you go girl’ sloganeering.” In other words, let’s not fight over issues like abortion anymore, or nasty problems like the wage gap, child care, sexual harassment, or sexual exploitation. Let’s not focus on how our women politicians are reduced to fashion statements, let’s just rejoice that they exist. Let’s turn a blind eye to poverty, rape, and unemployment, and rally behind something we all can agree on, like fighting cancer.

And so, I have a classroom full of young women, born after the Third Wave, who have never questioned why all the nursing majors seem to be girls, or why they’ve been advised by teachers and parents to choose nursing instead of medicine because “it’s a good career for women,” while their brothers and boyfriends have not received similar advice.

Not much has changed since the last turn of the century, when Gilman went to the doctor:

What motivated the famous Dr. Mitchell to come up with such a treatment? Was it science? Or politics? The answer, of course, is both, and Gilman knew this fact we have forgotten since. She wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper” deliberately to voice her protest against a misguided and prejudiced practice:

Being naturally moved to rejoicing by this narrow escape, I wrote The Yellow Wallpaper, with its embellishments and additions, to carry out the ideal (I never had hallucinations or objections to my mural decorations) and sent a copy to the physician who so nearly drove me mad. He never acknowledged it.
The little book is valued by alienists and as a good specimen of one kind of literature. It has, to my knowledge, saved one woman from a similar fate--so terrifying her family that they let her out into normal activity and she recovered.
But the best result is this. Many years later I was told that the great specialist had admitted to friends of his that he had altered his treatment of neurasthenia since reading The Yellow Wallpaper.
It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked.

And that, my dears, is the value of literature, and in particular of literature by women. My nursing students often chafe against this requirement to pass even a cursory introductory course in literature. Many new schools, in the race to provide fast, specialized degrees, bypass any kind of liberal arts conventions and do away with requirements in the humanities for science students. That is just as ignorant, however, as walking around pretending that fighting breast cancer is an apolitical endeavor. When we crank out doctors, nurses, lawyers, politicians, scientists, and economists who live in the delusion that science is abstract from the subjective, messy world of politics, we risk creating a society just as narrow-minded as Columbus’s or Copernicus’s, in which “scientific truth” had become so unquestioned that to contradict it was heresy. My nursing students are not likely to take another course in which they question the sociopolitical implications of the standard practices of their chosen field.

Too racy?
Does no one remember that “the personal is political”? Apparently not, and one reason why we might have forgotten is how little we look to the past for the answers to the present, and future. Not only are we constantly called upon to defend the continued teaching of the arts, to explain their “usefulness,” but also when we do teach them, we often teach feel-good, uplifting works devoid of politics and conflict. “No one seems to even have read The Great Gatsby in high school anymore,” my husband, my fellow crusader, was complaining the other day. “Too much booze and sex and cars,” I kidded. But I wasn’t really kidding. How often do we back down from teaching something that could potentially be objectionable?

The result is that we have produced a couple of generations now of extremely naïve young people, people who have never seriously thought about sexism, racism, violence, or similar subjects on adult terms. People to whom activism is defined as choosing what color ribbon to wear or brand of yogurt to eat.

The Komen controversy proves that not only can we not keep politics out of activism, but also that taking a political stand has officially become suicidal. Right after they reversed the decision to split with Planned Parenthood, rumors surfaced that the Komen Foundation planned to produce a pink handgun for a new campaign. They denied the rumors, but the fact that they cropped up in the first place is an indication of how serious a blow they have taken to their image. The fact that they went back on their decision hardly seems to matter. The next time some public organization is confronted with the option of taking a stand on either side of an issue, the Komen controversy will serve as an example of how foolish that is.

It’s a pity. Issues don’t go away just because we ignore them. Silencing of any sort is wrong; that’s what’s killed feminism, this pressure to shut up on all but the most banal of you-go-girl statements. Meantime, I’m teaching “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Maybe, when one of my students has a baby, and someone tells her that her inability to sleep and her paralyzing anxiety are “all in her head,” she might remember that stupid class she was forced to take, and question where this advice is coming from.
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