Plot

OK, here is a quick post about how to make a magic book appear in someone’s hands. As I may have mentioned, I write in a sometimes unstructured and intuitive way, and I tend to hear the words I write; I don’t think it all out ahead of time. So I end up with events that happen in the novel but without explaining how and why they happened. For instance, I imagined a book, a fake book, a book not actually written by Mesopotamians five-thousand years ago but purporting to be such a book and believed to be such a book by certain gullible, vulnerable people. This was a funny joke for me. But what about what they call in some circles the “chain of custody”? How did this fake book get into the hands of this gullible person such that she actually believed it was written by Mesopotamians five thousand years ago and explained how her little town in the Sacramento River delta came to be? Ridiculous, I know. But that’s the conceit, in a satirical novel. She appears with the book at a certain time. How did she end up with the book?

This is where plot thinking is necessary. I got much out of reading Patricia Highsmith’s book about writing suspense fiction. Thinking about such things is not my strong suit. As I said, I tend to hear voices, write down what they say, and figure out later where they are coming from: Are these two people talking in a bar, or on a long car ride, or in bed, side by side? Is this one person talking to herself? Where is she while she’s talking to herself? What is the visible setting?  So, as regards this fake book, I had to come up with an elaborate and initially innocent situation in which the protagonist’s business partners created it as a practical joke. But then the situation changed. They create it and plant it in the local library, and this alone requires considerable resources and skill, which they do have, as powerful and wealthy practitioners of the arts of illusion, i.e. television sitcoms and movies. So the book is planted in the library where the protagonist will find it and believe that it is real. But then the situation drastically changes–as will happen in novels. The situation changes in such a way that the book is no longer just an innocent prank but sets off a series of events with big consequences. Still, how does she end up with the book in her hands?  When does she have the opportunity to go to the library and why? Why does she go to the library? She’s not a library-going person. All these are storytelling things. Plus: How to tell it? Show the scene or summarize it, or tell it in a jaunty, ironic, faintly superior third-person authorial voice? Decisions, decisions.

Plus: It turns out in my intuitive, don’t know why I’m writing this scene sort of way, I had already written a scene where the protagonist goes to the library and checks out this book. But where is that scene? I can’t find it. I’m searching text files with the world “library” and can’t find it. Oh, well. I can write it again.

It is annoying to me that stuff has to happen for a reason, but readers, myself included, do seem to require at least a modicum of cause-and-effect. So I neatly arrange things so that when all the magic happens, one can look back and see how the situation developed. That is one of the chief pleasures of reading a novel, appreciating how it unfolds, appreciating the little bits of handiwork.

That’s it for today. Except for the fact that, due to circumstances beyond my control, I don’t really get to write that part yet. I have to drive somewhere with someone do to something with someone plus six dogs.

I wish all I had to do was write.

Taking it down to the sentence level

I have rewritten a certain scene several times. As a result, I now have several overlapping texts, texts that repeat other texts or portray the same events in different colors.

Luckily, using Scrivener, I can go through this 3,000-word morass of visionary … OK, that’s the other problem: This scene combined the visible world, i.e. a woman who is sleepwalking, with the interior world, the things she is dreaming while she is sleepwalking, and then the things she is saying out loud, audibly, as a result of what she is dreaming as she is sleepwalking. It would be easier if she were on stage. We would see her and she would act out the sleepwalking part. But this is a character in a novel and I must indicate what is going on. So I had all these texts, which were basically, to be honest, failed attempts to get it right. Each text had some interesting language and some useful information. But they didn’t work as a scene. Luckily, with Scrivener, I can use the Split at Selection and the Split With Selection as Title tools. Most people probably only split longer things but sometimes, like today, if I am in a hurricane of compelling but confusing text and I am trying to make several things work at the same time, i.e. tone, scene, interior monologue, external description, alternating poetic interior with forward movement toward a sudden moment of awareness, i.e. she is awakened by someone’s voice, then I might use these tools to take it down to the sentence level, summarizing each sentence to really understand what’s going on.

It’s slow, painstaking work but that’s why writing, for me, takes a long time. I worked on it yesterday, I worked on it last night after dinner, and I am working on it again this morning. Norma and I went to Bar Maro for pastries and coffee and then strolled through the little Sunday market on the streets of Castiglion Fiorentino and I came across

the most achingly beautiful mandolino from the 1800s and I had to leave it in its case and return to the apartment and start in on this again because time it the medium in which one works. Plus I was out of sorts because of the following: I was working on it last night in my study and then I thought, gee, I’m kinda tired now, and I lay down and next thing you know it’s 5am and I’ve slept in my clothes on top of the daybed. Then crawl into actual bed with actual wife to try and attain a few more hours sleep only to find that … I haven’t paid the TIM bill and our Internet is cut off! Not pretty scene with wife. Then off to COOP store where we pay the TIM bill and, miraculously, we did not expect this at all, but the Internet went back on in about an hour.

Anyway, if you’re lost, if it isn’t working, take it down to the sentence level. Slow, painstaking work.

Or throw it out! You could, you know. If it isn’t essential. But this thing, I really want it in there. I want it to work. That is my wish. And what is a novel but a collection of cherished wishes, worked over and worked over until they are shining, luminous prayers, good enough to fool the gods.

Trying not to have any new ideas

One of the contrarian aspects of finishing a novel turns out to be the desperate struggle not to have any new ideas. Or only new ideas in the service of problem-solving. Finishing is a closing-down, a limiting effort, bent on discarding, not on expanding. Yet sometimes, to finish a scene or section, one can be helped by a new idea.

So here is an example of how the problem-solving aspect of finishing the novel interacts with the need for research and the presence of a fertile imagination. I have to write this scene where the eccentric actress who has disappeared for two weeks after a bizarre solo performance makes her reappearance in her home town. Telling it from inside the car she is riding in felt boring and claustrophobic. It seemed better to tell it from the viewpoint of all the reality TV crews and news crews perched in trees and apartment buildings watching the few roads by which her car could re-enter the town. But then what happened? I started thinking about what kind of symbol this town would come up with, what experience-brand object or theme would arise from the fertile collective consciousness of AmeriBrain, the marketing amygdala of the American OverPsyche, and I thought perhaps a burning Valentine, as her performance happened on Valentines Day and involved lighting a fire on stage, burning her clothes and many items from her past on stage, and then disappearing. I pictured suburban lawns with Flaming Valentines; I imagined young women imitating Lydia’s behavior, which had been reported in the press though no journalists had been allowed into the theater where her performance took place. Then I imagined young women imitating her act of defiance, having their own fashion bonfires. I saw a thousand points of light–piles of cheap, boring, overpriced women’s fashion burning on suburban lawns all across America. So I thought I ought to do a little Internet research on current fashion brands, just to get ideas and a little grounding. I read a BusinessInsider article about the top 10 fashion brands and was amazed to find that Zara was number 1! This novel is all about NumBer One (numb-er) … so I happened on an article about Zara written by … none other than our former colleague at Salon.com, Suzy Hansen. So that was interesting, that Zara does no advertising, that its strategy is to change its offerings so frequently, and price them so low, that if you see something there you have to buy it or it will be gone next week. So then I become interested in Suzy Hansen and what she has been up to and notice that she lives in Istanbul, which is interesting … and find she’s writing a book for FSG about observing America in decline from abroad. And so I thought I would send Suzy an email just to get in touch and ask how the election of Donald Trump might be affecting the publisher’s interest in a book about America’s decline … How Fascinating! How absorbing! How utterly Distracting!

So back to the novel. Now I have an idea. I didn’t really want an idea. I am trying to finish up, limit. But: I did need something vivid with which to make an emblem of Lydia’s return. Now I have this image of all these copy-cat clothes bonfires all across America. And then I think, OK, how to do that? I like news-item pieces and this seemed ideal: AP: A rash of house fires as young women imitate Lydia Favors by making bonfires of unwanted clothes and other items.

The finishing process is necessarily both subtractive and creative. But I have to limit my creative notions to those that actually solve problems. It might be tempting to follow this thread into a whole other subplot. That would be disastrous and might take me off schedule. That will be for another novel. For now, just something quick I can cook up to make her return to town more vivid. And funny. And maybe get Wolf Blitzer in there somehow. Because, to me, Wolf Blitzer is always funny, and seeing him ponder the phenomenon of women creating bonfires of their clothes and burning their houses down just seems amusing.

But fast, see. That’s the thing. I’m trying to get this done. It’s tricky, having new ideas. They must be contained; they must be harnessed to purpose; they can’t drag me off into whole new subplots. That’s my weakness. That’s why this novel has grown like a giant tumor on my laptop. Too many subplots.

OK, everybody, back to work!

Ha ha I make myself laugh!

I was having so much fun reading over my fictional interview with Wolf Blitzer about how we don’t really know for certain that Phoenicians and Mesopotamians didn’t settle the Sacramento Delta, do we, Wolf? I dunno, it might sound stupid, but my character uses all those specious arguments you see idiots use on other idiots on political talk shows and for me it was really funny. So that tempered my concern when, thinking I was at the halfway point in the editing job,  I did a word count on the “second half” and found there are  127,000 words in the supposed second half, but I can fix that. The final product will be much shorter. I think there are some notes and archival material in there, as well as long tangential things that will have to find their way into a different novel.  It’ll be fine. Just a lot of editing work.

It has been good, actually, to read the material I have written over the last few years and find that I actually quite a lot of it. And the rest, hey, good days, bad days. It goes. I’m too busy cutting and reshaping and making decisions to worry about my own talent or lack thereof, my intentions, my ambition, my moral fitness for novelhood, etc. Besides, it’s a social and political satire about the entertainment business, so … nothing is sacred.

That’s it for day 4 or day 5 or whatever it is. I keep working. Will keep you informed.

cary t.

Working on the novel in Italy on Thanksgiving Day

Hi. So here it is Day 3 of my 49-day project to finish this novel using the Finishing School method and talk about it as I do so. Today, what I am editing is a long solo performance by the main character in which she gives a rambling monologue that makes her sound faintly deranged, and then dumps the contents of two bags on stage, one an expensive Gucci bag and the other a cheap Safeway bag, and uses the objects to fuel her monologue, as she disrobes and throws her clothes on the pile, and then squirts her father’s Ronson lighter fluid on the pile and lights it on fire and disappears, as in the title of the novel, Famous Actress Disappears.

Then there is a big fire onstage and all the audience members are locked into the theater.  It is challenging and complicated to write and I have been working on it a long time but I am now pretty close to having it done. The entire scene is about 10,000 words.

I am trying to give the narration of the performance the same intensity as the performance itself yet also must draw back to describe situations outside the scene to maintain narrative sense for the reader.

It’s hella tricky, dude! But another day and I think I will have this scene good enough, so that it does not break down or fall apart or lose readers.

The plan here is to finish the novel and have it be good enough to send to agents. For a while I thought of hiring a professional editor but I really don’t want to do that. I want to do it myself. I’m in that old tradition of the writer as lone hero, figuring it all out for himself. Though I advise against that in my work with others, I seem to be stuck with it for myself, at least for this novel. I want all the glory.

So I put in a good day of work, on this Thanksgiving Day, in Italy, and we ate pasta with cinghiale, or wild boar, and apple cake from the alimentari, and assam tea from Henry’s on Noriega in San Francisco (Thank you, Margaret McCue, for bringing it!), and I have 47 more days to get this thing done.

Also, which is the whole point here, I am using the Finishing School method, i.e. figuring out how much time it’s going to take, finding the time, enumerating the tasks, psyching myself up (that’s not actually in the method, I just do it), and checking in with my creative buddy before and after each work session. So I’m on track. It’s really pretty simple. One of those things that’s really simple but really effective if you do it.

I have to finish my novel by Jan. 10, 2017 or something really bad will happen

I’m not going to go into why. I’m just going to share the day-by-day problem-solving of a guy who’s been working on the same novel since 1995 and is going to finish it, absolutely, using the techniques in the book Finishing School: The Happy Ending to That Writing Project You Can’t Seem to Get Done. Danelle Morton and I wrote the book on finishing. Now we have to prove that it works.
ranter-rand-cary-headsalon_cary-tennis-col-artSo I am a literary artist at heart. Ahem. No, really. And I am a punk. That’s where I live, emotionally, aesthetically: A hippie jazz-loving punk music loving literary artist who has done a lot of journalism but always in his heart is and was a literary artist.
With problems. Like fears, addictions, neurotic behaviors, self-defeating behaviors, all that. Not your classic “winner.” More like a talented loser who doesn’t know how the world works but watches really carefully to try to understand it and pass as normal.
Anyway, since we’re down to the wire here, I am going to be very much about the mechanical aspects. As of yesterday, I had exactly 7 weeks, 49 days, to accomplish this.
Starting in tomorrow, I will tell my tale, day by day, missing a day here and there but basically I will share with you my story of finishing  a novel as it happens.–Cary T.
p.s. Tell your friends. It’s going to be interesting. It might get dirty. It might get weird. But it will surely be interesting.

Will our words ever be heard again?

 

Write for Advice

We write and we write and we write on the Net, dispensing thoughts and advice. For what?

 Cary’s classic column from  WEDNESDAY, FEB 4, 2009

Dear Cary,

My problem is that we have a one-day cycle in our writing, in our lives. You read our problems; then people read our problems in your column. Then people read our responses, but then the sun comes up again, and all our writing goes down on the cycle, to oblivion.

I go nuts trying to give good advice to your letter writers, and also trying to provide wisdom and info in other Salon topics. But it all washes away after a single day. Smart, thoughtful posters get their say, but raging ding-dong posters get away with their silliness, because it all starts over again every day.

I always have imagined that future historians and archaeologists will read Salon, and gain insight on our society. But, Lord Almighty, we have so many words on our World Wide Web, and so many people!

Classical civilization had fewer writers than we have now, and even fewer whose work has survived. It is possible for a person to read every single surviving written work from all of Greek and Roman literature. Now, though, yikes! Overall, we generate as many words in a day as all those surviving classical works.

So! My question: Will anybody ever read what we write here, after today? I am sure our writing will persist in the World Wide Web, but will anybody ever read it again? Will our best, well-meant advice ever help anybody else in the future? Will our detailed knowledge ever help anybody in the future? Or do we just get filed, permanently?

And, does it matter?

Frequent Wise Man

FranceAd2015

Dear Frequent Wise Man,

We do not know what will be left of our culture.

I do imagine that in oral cultures a great deal of brilliant talk was made and all of it is lost. I imagine that Homer composed poems more brilliant than any that were written down, and they are lost. I imagine that throughout time seers and sages have solved the mysteries of the universe while drunk on wine or high on hallucinogens, have seen it all and tried to convey it but had no tools with which to do so, and therefore countless moments of wisdom and genius, perhaps the very keys to the universe itself, have been glimpsed and they are lost.

If you have ever had the sensation of comprehending for an instant the totality of the universe and thinking, I’ve got it! I see it! I understand! and then slinking sheepishly into the house an hour later with only the fuzziest recollection of what you have witnessed, then you can imagine how many times this has happened throughout history, how many solutions to the world’s ills, how many poems of crystalline brilliance, how many mathematical proofs, how many perfect melodies and glistening poems and fantastic, indescribable visions of universal harmony have come to our ancestors and our brothers and sisters throughout time meditating high on mountaintops or walking along dirt paths from village to village or sitting in forest shacks and caves, or journeying in ships across vast oceans or contemplating the enormous desert sky, and you can imagine the tragedy or humor implicit in this: that it all has been lost. I imagine that many who have taken psychedelics have seen, in an instant, the very core of existence, but have not had the mathematics or the physics or the poetry to convey it, and so those visions are lost. I imagine that in the pubs of Ireland poems are composed daily by farmers in their cups and they are lost by the morning. I imagine that in New Guinea seers know with utter certainty the secrets of the universe but do not trust us or do not know us or figure we wouldn’t understand anyway, and so these secrets of the universe will die with them and be lost.

At the same time, as we prattle on endlessly in our way, I imagine that software of ever-increasing subtlety will be devised to ferret out important truths from the staggering mass of words that now pile up like a digital landfill, clogging the servers of the world. I imagine that everything we have written on the Net will eventually be retrieved, sorted and priced, valued according to its originality and wit.

But does what I imagine bear any relationship to the actual future we race into as though sliding down an icy mountain? Will what we say here ever really be unearthed and used? Will there be a need for it? Are we just playing out the old fantasy of immortality, dreaming that our words will live on? And, as you say, does it matter?

I do not know, but you and I and all the rest of us go on dreaming, trying to see the order in chaos, to glimpse the perfection at the edge of madness, look for the souls of trees and hear the voices of clouds and see in each occluded heart some echo of divinity. I know that we keep on talking and writing and it goes somewhere. Perhaps in that universe that even now is spinning backward from our own, our words are coming back out of the spring air and into our mouths and back into our brains where they will lie dormant, as if never spoken, until the pre-universe universe contracts sufficiently to cause another Big Bang, and it will start all over again, and after millions of years fish will climb the rocks and grow lungs again and apes will pick up tools and invent language all over again, and again as they speak and speak they will begin to wonder, Will this ever be heard again? Will future generations benefit from all our thoughts and visions? Does any of this really matter? And again the apes will go to psychiatrists and lie on couches and fill the air with doubt and uncertainty.

So it goes. Our uncertainty and doubt extend to the infinite sky and throughout time, shrouding perfection, blurring truth, undermining what feeble faith we can muster, reminding us that we are both divine and mortal, that we live both inside time and outside time, that we are creatures of many worlds, and that we will always wonder, and always try to cheat death, and always listen for the echoes of our words in every strange town, on every strange mountain, in every strange dream that comes to us in the night.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

Advice for Writers: 10 Fun Things to do with that nasty inner critic that is trying to murder you

10) Rudely talk over her.

9) Ignore her and when she doesn’t go away keep ignoring her until nightfall.

8) Listen to her and look for possible kernels of truth in what she says.

7) Regard her with mute compassion as a split-off part of the self.

6) Get used to what she’s saying and tune her out like a bad radio.

5) Pause in your writing until she has had her full say and then continue like nothing happened.

4) Tell her to go fuck herself and remember that she can’t hit you.

3) Write down everything she says and give it to your most evil character.

2) Find the strength in her vitriol and turn it on an enemy.

1) Make writing in spite of it your sweetest revenge.

Letter to a friend, with a poem at the end

Dear …

I thought of you just now. I am sitting in this renovated 13th-century Italian convent between Rome and Florence, a short walk up from the train station, and your face  drifted into view. There were a lot of people here for ten days but they all left on the train today. I suppose suddenly being alone was one reason I thought of you. There had been little time to really think. Now I am alone.

I wanted to tell you some things, just being truthful, not wanting anything specific or immediate from you, but not wanting to offend you either with my bald frankness, which I realize has sometimes seemed uncivilized or cruel. As you may know, I was raised by people who spoke sharply to each other as a rule, and to us kids, with the understanding that sharp words were intellectual love and honesty. We spoke to each other with such words and it was not seen as cruelty or even bad manners. It was a point of pride. We knew what we meant.

But my wife has taught me many things in the 20-odd years we have been married. I have come to see how being too honest too quickly can seem cruel. In the spirit of that honesty, though, I will say up front that I do want something from you. Of course we all want things from each other all the time. But sometimes wanting something can cast doubt on the sincerity of what we are saying: Why are you telling me this now? You must want something from me.

Let me do this in my way. I just want to be honest, more honest than I would be if we were face to face. I want to say that I thought of you and believe it or not I felt gratitude. The word “gratitude” is in trouble these days from reckless overuse. It hardly means anything. There is even a restaurant near where I live called “Cafe Gratitude.” But I do want to say I am grateful, meaning conscious of having received much from you.

It is hot here in Castiglion Fiorentino today, hotter than we expected it to be in June. Another workshop starts in two days. People will begin arriving tomorrow. So I have only a little time. This lack of time may be one reason I got to thinking about all the people, like you, whom I’ve been able to meet and write with over the last eight years. You know, we always say in these workshops, “Let’s reflect back what we remember, what sticks with us.” I remember many things about you but some of those things have blended into a composite picture.

Here is something I wrote in the workshop yesterday, on the last day, which I thought I would send to you, which in a personal way sums up where I’m at, what it’s like to be me today. I share this because I have seen, over the years, what happens when people keep coming to these workshops. We go deeper and we get better at being able to capture a moment, where we’re at.

We’re not all big amazing genius type writers and I don’t give a damn about that, frankly. I feel that writing in this way, in a group, has given my writing something else, a home separate from the world of publication. Writing that is published has one kind of home, a big, public home where many shoppers come and go, and people can pick it up and make judgments about it, or dismiss it or do whatever they want with it. Here, though, in the group, it is like we are writing in someone’s home, and everyone is more attuned to the personal implications of each piece, and how we are affected by what is said and not said.

So I have the world that I write for publicly, and this world, where I write things and share them immediately, like just-baked biscuits. They get consumed fresh and that is that and we move on. That’s what I give a damn about: the feeling of having a home for my creative practice.

There are probably reasons that I am more comfortable sharing in a group than publishing, or at least as comfortable, and maybe we will talk about them at another time. But for now, I wanted to share with you this, a just-written piece, not agonized over, not polished but fresh and perhaps revealing in ways that I am not aware of, but which I don’t mind … while I have a moment, before the next nine-day workshop begins:

 

Is this a turning point?
Am I at a turning point?
How the hell would I know?
I know my history.

I remember running as a kind of change.
The only way I knew to change was to run.
Every word seems full of other meanings.
Are we in the dark or have we found a fertile garden?
Everything is ripe with more meaning than is wanted.

I know that in the past I turned and ran. Rant.
Plots have turning points. Plots are also graves.
The turning point. Remember that movie? It was
About ballet. Oh well. A plot is a grave and a
Turn is a spin and a point is an infinitesimal idea.

I learned that in geometry. Are we getting off the subject?
Welcome to the stream I dip my toe in.

Wood smoke. Bird cries. This endless thing.
Looking for a turning point, a radius. I wish I
could be witty. Is this a turning point? I have always
run. Now I try to pivot.

So I say to the therapist that I later fired,
I hate my house. He says, you hate your house?
He didn’t say anything about the house as metaphor.

Can I take a different road? Can I live in Italy?
What I came to San Francisco for now is gone.

I’m thinking about a wire transfer. Is that part of the turning?
I love the words that things are made of: wire, and transfer,
The things that money are made of, the keystrokes, the clatter,
the random number generator and who tracks, who sees, the
random numbers generated? This intrigues me as I wonder
If I am turning.

Could I simplify? Wood smoke like visiting Grandma Ann.

Now all these feelings start to come up. Why do we say come up
And not arrive, or fall down? Why do they come up? Are they
Being held down? I guess so. Duh. That’s how we do it, that’s our
Metier, our special Nordic genius for drinking and shutting up.

Shutting up and shutting down the
things that would come up or out; ever
think of that? We shut up but there is an object too that is then imprisoned.
=================

And then I’m sure there is more. But what I wanted to share with you was that. And I said I wanted something and yes, I do. I want these workshops, when we come back to San Francisco, to be big and full of joy. I want you to come. I want you to make time in your life for these workshops, so you will share these things with me. I want them to be big, like celebrations. I want you to feel free to dig deep and be respected. I want the house to be full of your spirit once again.

My boyfriend is my boss

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, NOV 23, 2009

I’m getting sick of being “the editor’s girlfriend”


Dear Cary,

I’m a college student and a reporter for my university’s paper. I’m a good writer — my work has shown up in publications beyond the university, and since arriving here I’ve established myself as “one to watch” in the English department. I really don’t intend to sound cocky, but I’m not affected with false modesty. I have a lot to learn, but I know I have a knack for this.

I’m in a fairly new relationship of about three months, with a boyfriend who so far has been entirely wonderful. We’re both ambitious types with busy schedules and social lives, but we make the time. I think it has been a revelation to both of us just how extraordinary it is to have another person who is truly in your corner.

Here’s the problem — he’s my boss. He’s two years older and is the editor of the school newspaper, while I’m a staff writer. We met outside of the newspaper, and other people are in charge of how much I get paid and where my articles run. We’ve had several serious discussions about ethics, during which we emphasized that I’d never, ever ask him to do me any professional favors, and he would never give me any sort of special treatment. The relationship is more public than I’d like at such an early stage — we’ve both gotten long personal lectures on ethics from the head of the journalism department, and how he heard about us is anyone’s guess.

The thing that bothers me is not the ethical question — I feel like we’re managing that. It’s that I’m entirely fed up with being “the editor’s girlfriend” and not defined as a reporter in my own right. I have never, ever been the kind of woman who would be defined by a relationship — it is extremely important to me that I be defined by my own actions and my own work.

I’ve been doing good work at the paper, and I’m likely to be getting a promotion in the next couple of semesters. But I’m so, so sick of having to hear jokes about my sex life every time one of my stories runs in a prominent place in the paper or I pick up a particularly coveted assignment.

These aren’t serious allegations — the newspaper staff knows that it is not my boyfriend who makes these decisions, and people from outside the staff are only kidding. My friends say to laugh it off, but the fact is that those small successes are things that I earned through a lot of hard work, and the suggestion that I’m somehow trading sexual favors for good assignments truly offends me. I worry that the staff will take me less seriously and that this could endanger my future at the paper.

I know that having a happy relationship and a successful career are not mutually exclusive, but I feel like I’m too young to be dealing with such a minefield. I don’t even know whom to talk to about this — my boyfriend and I are handling it as best we can, but I don’t know how to tell him that although I’m pretty attached to being his girlfriend, I’m getting damn tired of being “the editor’s girlfriend.” I’m not giving up on my work, or on my relationship, I just need to figure out how to reconcile the two.

Her Own Girl Friday

Dear Girl Friday,

I suggest you try to be a little lighthearted about this. Imagine strutting around campus wearing a T-shirt that says, “I’m sleeping with my boss and enjoying it. You got a problem with that?”
Picture yourself walking amid these yahoos with your head held high. Imagine striking them down with wit and glamour and sophistication. Imagine shutting them up and putting them in their place.

Do you feel better?

Keep going with this. Conjure up an image that makes you feel powerful and proud. Make it vivid and real. Draw some cartoons or make a collage. Create the image of the superhero you are. Inhabit her skin. Name this woman. Give her special powers. Keep her image close to you. Appeal to her for strength and guidance.

And know this: Sexism pervades our culture. The assumption that a woman’s achievements stem from her value as a domestic, sexual and romantic companion rather than as a skilled worker is evidence of that sexism.

You know what else exists in our society? Morons. The world beyond your college gates is a nightmare of hulking, mouth-breathing morons. Morons even run newspapers. So be ready. You’re going to be encountering a lot of sexist morons.

So that’s the sociological part of this.

The other part is psychological: By mixing creativity, sexuality and power, you run the risk of incurring deep psychological wounds if things go wrong. By hooking up with your boss, however much you trust him, you have placed your fate in the hands of someone who may damage you, even if he doesn’t mean to.

That is my opinion, but I assume that it is also a fear of yours. If you sense that you are in dangerous territory emotionally, I would agree that you are.

Stuff can happen in such a relationship to shape the rest of your life. Sometimes people make decisions in such circumstances that last for decades. “Oh, he told me I’d be happier if I wasn’t writing, so I quit.” You know, crazy stuff.

How power, sexuality and creativity combine to damage the psyche is complicated. Let’s assume that our emotional responses are rooted in invisible structures formed very early. As a baby, you must be loved unconditionally. You are helpless. You have no vocational skills. You are just a cute, wiggling bundle that eats and shits and throws up and makes noise. You are not a cowboy or a princess. You must be loved and cared for unconditionally. We get older and develop skills, but underneath, our need to be loved unconditionally persists even after we develop great skills and charm and form adult relationships. One area where this need for unconditional acceptance seems to persist most deeply is in the area of creativity. Why is this so?

Could it be because creativity is our one way back to that primal state?

That would be my guess. Betrayal of this creative self reaches beyond personality self into some realm of existential pain and fear that is difficult to find access to. So if you are exposing this fragile, unprotected, raw creative pre-verbal self — the one that cannot protect itself but must be cared for unconditionally — to the upheavals of romantic and sexual relationship, you are in frightening territory. If for instance you were to break up you might feel unconsciously it was because you were not a good reporter. That may sound stupid. But these decisions, we do not make consciously. They are made by this pre-verbal, emotional self that reacts to rejection as if it were an existential threat. So I assume you feel concerned and confused for good reason. You are exposing your psyche to risks that you might not consciously understand.

What can you do? For one thing, you can begin getting assignments outside the school. You can strike out on your own so that there is no question in anyone’s mind how you did it. And  I would suggest, if possible, that you find some ally, a therapist or counselor or older friend, and go through this with that person, checking in frequently, discussing this, asking for protection, watching for ways that you have placed your fragile creativity in danger. If you are in self-doubt, ask yourself why. If you feel like quitting, interrogate your feelings. Honor them but interrogate them. It might be this frightened child who wants to quit. Beware. It’s complex. Keep moving forward.

p.s. You know that Yeats poems that ends, “I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams”? What a lovely and moving poem that is.