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Posts Tagged ‘narrative’

The Men Who Email Me

As I was driving home today from dropping off children at school and preschool, my mind drifted to the men who email me about my writing. I’m not quite sure why I decided to think about these men, who I’ve never met but who chose to contact me anyway. Perhaps, I thought about these men because of the discussions surrounding the #MoreThanMean video, in which men read the harassing tweets that other men send to women sports writers. The catch is that they read the tweets out loud to the writers. Some of the men can’t say what was tweeted aloud. The campaign hopes to bring attention to the online harassment of women in sports. Of course, online harassment of women writers is not just a problem for women who write about sports, but women who write about anything (and women on the internet more generally). I know this factually as well as intimately because it has happened to me.

In 2007, I started blogging at Religion in American History. When I began writing more about racial violence and white supremacy, commenters were not nice. When I wrote about the murder of George Tiller, a commenter threatened my life. I shrugged off the threat; my partner did not. After my book was published in 2011, I started receiving emails from men who read my work and expected me to respond to their criticisms. A Son of the Confederacy emailed to let me know how wrong I was about Nathan Bedford Forrest being a Klansman. He accused me of harming Forrest’s legacy. A man claiming to be the Second Coming of Jesus wrote me a letter, in which he called me “honey” and told me that I was wrong about the Klan, race, religion, and well, everything. If I only would visit him at his home, he would explain what was really happening in the world. I declined his invite. I laughed off the letter; a member of my department told me to contact the FBI.

On the Facebook page I created for Gospel According to the Klan, men have called me a racist, threatened to beat my ass, and promised to hunt me down and show me how wrong my racism is. None of these men seemed to recognize that I’m a historian that studies the Klan, not a member of the order. I took screenshots of their messages and reported them to Facebook. I tried to find humor in the situation.

These emails and messages were anomalies in my life that I tried to make into funny stories about the weirdness of being a scholar in the internet age. When freelance writing became my career, these were no longer anomalies but realities. I’m a woman who writes on the Internet, which means men email me to tell me what they think of what I’ve written whether I want to know or not. My attempts at humor are long gone.

This morning, I found myself thinking about all these men, who are strangers to me, and the routine similarity of their emails in tone, style, and content. 

The men who email me tell me that I’m wrong. I’ve made the wrong argument. I’ve missed the essential issue or the salient details. I’ve made errors and mistakes. I didn’t use data. I used too much data. They assert that gender is not as big of an issue as I make it out to be or that I don’t realize how hard it is to be a man. They assert that I can never be anything but wrong. (more…)

Reading Essays

Some days, I want to read essays rather than make them. I yearn to linger in the words, sentences, paragraphs, and pages of other essayists. To lean in close and let their words wash over me. To listen carefully for the patterns of their language, their idiosyncrasies, flourishes, and routines, rather than the familiar sound of my own. To step into the worlds their essays create for a little while. To feel what they want me to feel. To learn something I didn’t quite know. To see how they build a narrative or resist one. To hear how they tell a particular story in a particular moment on a particular page. To experience the conjuring of a world rather than being responsible for it.

Reading essays allows me to stop thinking about mine. I ride along the currents of their essays for hundreds or thousands of words. I savor the beginning and the end of the ride. I start and finish another essay and another. I’m seeking knowledge of our shared craft of essay-making. I’m looking for secrets or possibly hidden wisdom. I’m reading their collections and searching for community. For a few minutes, I feel like I belong.

I’m an essayist too, I want to say to the printed pages. I write essays too. I know that it can be a solitary existence that consumes waking and sleeping hours. Being an essayist means always looking for essays and often finding them. The day starts with essays percolating in my head. The day ends that way too. I rifle through topics picking some and discarding others. While walking the dog, I can hear the opening line. I repeat it again and again to remember it, to remember that this can be an essay. I write essays in my head and sometimes, they make it to the page.

Being an essayist colors my existence. Daily events appear to me as essays. I test out their resonance on me before I test them out on other people. Parts of my life offered up as fodder for my craft while other parts remain protected from my writing. I interiorize the world to recreate it on the page. I seek a narrative, a story arc, the meaning or lack thereof to guide the essay. Mostly, I resist the urge for familiar narratives because I want to see how a story unfolds rather than direct it. (more…)

Missed Turn

I woke up on Sunday convinced that I have no words left. That I had nothing to say, and perhaps, I was done as a writer. That I had already written my best essays. That I had no good sentences left in me. I was out of words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and pages. I was done.

Sundays are rarely writing days for me. Weekends are family time, so I let my partner and kids distract me from the angst chasing me. They are always my favorite distractions.

On Monday morning, my alarm on my watch buzzed me at 4:45. There was a plane to catch to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I had been invited to Elizabethtown College, where my friend Richard teaches, to give a reading at Bowers Writers House. My reading was from an essay on Dozier School and my hometown, one of the most personal essays I’ve ever written. (A story that is still unfolding and that I am chasing as hard as I can.) The day before I was to be a visiting writer, I was convinced that I might no longer be able to write. The irony was not lost on me. My angst was fitting, and truth be told, somewhat expected. My writing life can be narrated as story of doubt, angst, and anxiety. I keep trying to tell another story, but this is the narrative that continues to emerge.

As I pulled out of my drive way, I probed this fresh (and melodramatic) concern about writing. Out of the neighborhood, take a left, pass construction and new development, take a right, drive past big churches and small churches, other neighborhoods, stop at red lights, and take a right onto I10 to get the airport. The interstate snaked in front of me, but the darkness of the early morning meant I could only see what the headlights made visible.

Why, I thought, did I feel like I had nothing left to say? Was I not nourishing my creativity? Were there no more stories for me to tell? Was I actually running out of words? This seemed improbable, impossible even. Of course, there are still things I want to write. At any given moment, there’s a revolving set of essays stored in my head, on to-do lists and post-it notes, and in my journals and planner. Perhaps, what I really meant was that there are topics on which I have nothing left to say. Topics that no longer interest me. This could account for some of my fatalism, but not for all of it.

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Fairy Tales

Once upon a time, there was a girl who loved fairy tales. Her skin was freckled and unevenly tanned. Her legs always had bruises because she was easily distracted and clumsy. Her hair was not golden like the sun, but that shade of blonde-almost-brown that the adults around her described as dirty or dishwater blonde. When she started squinting at things far in the distance, she had to get glasses. She was a reader with her nose perpetually stuck in a book. She was a daydreamer who imagined different possible worlds than the one she inhabited. Worlds, in which parents didn’t divorce, fathers loved their children unconditionally, people were kinder, she was a princess, and anything was possible with magic.

She imagined a world of enchantment and predictable narratives. She called on these worlds when life around her became too much. If she was being unflinchingly honest with herself, she would have to admit that she was more comfortable inside her head than out. Her imaginings followed certain storylines, the characters were reliable and trustworthy, and evil never triumphed over good. The real world made little sense. People, adults and other children, were mercurial and unpredictable. There were no clear storylines to follow, no patterns that made engaging with others easy or manageable. Kindness quickly transformed into cruelty with little warning. Some days, reality was too much to decipher, so instead of playing with her friends on the playground, she would turn inward to the safe confines of her imagination and create her own fairy tales. Princes rescued princesses. Evil witches were defeated. And often, the heroine would figure out how to save herself. All while, she swung higher and higher on the swing. Her body tethered by reality and gravity, but her mind was gloriously free.

Moreover, fantasy offered up endless happy endings. Real life, on the other hand, had few happy endings. And when the endings were happy, the happiness was conditional and fleeting. Happiness never tried to linger. She often wondered why.

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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…)