This review first appeared at the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog in December of 2012. Since Twilight turned 10 this week, I thought it might be time to direct you all to Tanya Erzen’s excellent ethnography of Twilight fans.

In 2008, I picked up the Twilight series because my youngest sister, then a teenager, happened to be reading them. I had just sent my dissertation to my advisor for final edits, and I wanted to read something that was not related to the Klan, hate groups, or American religions more generally. I wanted to read fluff. A series of novels about an ordinary human girl, a vegetarian vampire “mainstreaming,” and a handsome teen werewolf embroiled in a tortured love triangle seemed to fit the bill. Thus, I turned to Stephenie Meyer’s increasingly popular Twilight novels for casual reading. After finishing Twilight, I rushed to (now defunct) Borders to buy Eclipse.

Much like other women, teenagers or adults, I consumed these books, and so did both of my sisters and my mother. We read them, we talked about them, we criticized them, and we reread them. Despite the bad prose and melodramatic storyline, something about the books managed to appeal to all of us. What was it about the series that drew us in? What kept us reading? Why did we all hate Breaking Dawn? What vision of the world did we consume by embracing this fantasy? What did fandom suggest about us and the series? (more…)

Making An Essay

I just sent an essay on bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress off to my lovely editors at Chronicle Vitae. This essay was one I had to wrangle because there were so many things that I wanted to say alongside all the things I needed to say. Or maybe, this essay wrangled me because it refused to let me go until I had it in the necessary form for publication. Plus, there was the added pressure that I was writing about the work of bell hooks, who I admire and adore, on teaching, of which I have serious and complicated feelings. hooks is a force to be reckoned with; reckoning takes time. Her writing makes me pause and think about how the world works (and how writing works). There was much, much wrangling. I spent much time.

What I’ve learned as an essayist is that I cannot predict how long an essay will take me to conjure, to think about, and then write. Some essays surprise me by how quick they seem, and others are long, drawn-out affairs, which take months (or occasionally years) to complete. Some essays require my complete attention for days and weeks. Others linger in the back of my mind until I’m ready to write them. They bounce around as I work on other topics. They catch me unaware as I rock my toddler to sleep. They appear when I wake up in the morning or as I pour a cup of coffee. Some linger waiting for me to commit. Other ideas dissipate leaving me with a faint impression that I should write about something. Ideas don’t always become essays, yet the ideas that refuse to go away often do.

The labor of making an essay is solitary and not-quite-visible. I started snapping photos of my process in part to make my efforts visible. Inspired by Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work, I thought it might be cool to show folks a glimpse of what I was writing, editing, or researching for my essays. For me, to show, and for you, to see. For this essay in particular, I’ve been trying to capture each stage. I created photographic evidence, if you will, of what I do, but not all work is visible. I can only document that which materializes. Please keep this in mind. (more…)

Cold Takes: A Sort of Manifesto

I am over the hot take. You know what I’m talking about: the type of takes that offer a quick and often dirty view of an event, a moment, or a person. They moralize. They require little reporting. And most distressingly, they like to pretend that one’s opinion can stand in for analysis (That’s a tall glass of nope). It is a take so hot that it scorches our brains with its ineptitude and shallowness. In our saturated 24/7 media culture, hot takes dominate. Outlets seek to have the first piece up, and the quickest opinion somehow emerges as the only one necessary. Writers react rather than pause. Provocative opinions prevail. Pundits stake their claims, no matter how cynical, silly, or stupid. Everyone wants to be the first one to say something, anything really, before the news cycle moves on. The story of the moment appears and disappears as all the takes on it.

In the rush and the heat, I fear we all lose. Yes, experts, journalists, and analysts can respond in fast and smart ways. Quick commentary does not equal bad commentary, but it can be. It often is. Hot takes feel sloppy and contrived. (Hot take appears too closely related to one of my favorite descriptors, the hot mess). They lack the information we gain as an event unfolds. They cling to tired narratives of how the world works. They plug stories into well-worn cliches whether the stories belong there or not. They offer judgment, but are often light on facts. They don’t dig deep enough. They don’t question the rush, but feed it. People clamor to have a say, but no one wants to listen. Days later, italicized corrections appear at the bottom of the page. Facts emerge as rumors. Apologies are issued. But, who’s paying attention by then? (more…)

It’s Personal

Over the next few months, the glorious Liana Silva (@lianamsilva) and I are writing to each other about personal essays. We’ll pivot from her site to mine. It is a conversation in letter form. We hope you’ll read along with us. Here’s my response to her inaugural post.

Dear Liana,

I first read your post as I was making dinner, after I had picked up the Legos strewn across the floor for the third time, after I found an Olivia book tucked in a pile of research in my office, and after I tripped over a cat and then a toddler. Both kids were home from preschool and school, and I’d already warned them both about squabbling over toys and assigned 3.5 time outs. This day, like many others, is one, in which writing feels like it is only occasionally in my grasp. I’m a mother who writes, a writer who mothers.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how in the world I ended up as a writer. This appears a strange twist of fate. As my beloved Chris enjoys pointing out, I am an intensely private introvert and yet I write for audiences of strangers (and friends) about topics so personal to me: grief, motherhood, quitting, and my body.

The question is not how did I come to write essays. I think and dream in essays, but rather how did I ever come to write personal essays? I’m the person who actively avoids conversations on the topics that I write about. I smile and nod and look for an exit. I offer up a shallow example of my own or speak in monosyllables. I try to redirect attention back to the speaker away from me. I don’t talk openly. I don’t share.

How in the hell did I come to write personal essays at all? I lay bare my experiences of the world. I dwell in my heartbreaks. I try to find joy. I write openly. Or do I? (more…)

Writing and Waiting: Essays I Love

This week and last, I’ve been caught up in writing. Deadlines come and go. I started articles, essays, and posts, and I diligently send them off. What generally happens when I zero in on writing assignments is that I write and write and write and revise and revise and rewrite. I focus only on what must get done to finish whatever piece I’m writing. I stop reading. I tell myself that I’m too busy to linger on the essays that I want to read and then I feel guilty when I do take the time to read the current issue of Creative Nonfiction or pick up one of the many essay collections stacked in my office within easy reach.

Yet, I must read to become a better writer, so I’ve tried to give myself a little time each day to read, usually before I rush to pick up children from preschool and afterschool.

Here are the essays that have stuck with me in these last two weeks:

  1. Shirley Jackson, “Memory and Delusion,” The New Yorker

This essay is from the new collection of Jackson’s short stories and essays, Let Me Tell You, which I purchased as soon as I read this essay. My familiarity with Jackson’s writing was limited to a memory of how terrifying it was to read “The Lottery” in high school. Yet, her story has stuck with me for years and years since I first read it. In “Memory and Delusion,” Jackson wrote about being a writer who is also a mother. She carved out time at the typewriter after household chores were done and her family was fed. Like her, I’m a writer who writes from home. Her essay depicted the struggle to find time and space to write, the way in which home presses upon us with all that must be done.

Writers, she explained to us, are always writing. We don’t just write when we put pen to page (or now type away on keyboards). Writing is something we do all day long, especially when we fold laundry, wash dishes or prepare meals. She provided encouragement too, but here are the lines that I keep scribbling on post-it notes and placing around my office: “All you have to do—and watch this carefully, please—is keep writing. As long as you write it away regularly, nothing can really hurt you.”