They were responsible for, perhaps, my proudest moment as a writer.
In 2009, fresh after completing my MFA at Virginia Tech, I was awarded a MacDowell Fellowship for work on a debut novel. Several of my stories had already been published and such was my professors’ encouragement that I believed I might be embarking on a successful career. Still, like any newly-minted MFA grad, doubts lingered. My father died earlier in the year following a five-year bout with cancer. The week before he died, I drove from Blacksburg to my parents’ lakeside Arkansas home and had my final face-to-face conversation with him. Gaunt and stricken, he was a diminished man seated on his favorite armchair quizzing me about my novel, my plans, my chances for success. After he died, my mother told me how grateful he was for our conversation. Between my brother and me, I was the one he worried about, the one he figured would end up an abject failure, yet after our talk, his spirits soared. He, too, believed I was on the right path, and it is with the benefit of hindsight that I now see he used this belief to grant himself permission to die. He thought I was going to be all right, even without him.
Virginia Tech’s MFA program, founded in 2005, ranks within the nation’s top 25 programs. The topmost reasons for this ranking are its exceptional faculty (which includes Fred D’Aguiar, Ed Falco, Nikki Giovanni, Bob Hicok, Jeff Mann, Erika Meitner, and Lucinda Roy) and its financial support for grad students. I was in our program’s second graduating class and, even back then, we were aware each succeeding class seemed brighter, more talented. The program admitted only six new candidates each year, and competition for those spots was growing fiercer. By the time of my third (and graduating) year, the differences between classes was striking. The running joke among people of my year was that, given the program’s rising standards, none of us would be admitted for a spot in these newer classes.
Shortly after seeing my father that last time, I attended an end-of-semester reading at a local restaurant hosted by Jeff Mann, my faculty advisor. A big burly man with a goatee, shaved head, and a gracious manner, Mann had a great eye for sentences and their construction, which was the weakest part of my game. Luckily for me, we spent many hours in his office over the previous year going over my work, tightening it, making it stronger on the sentence level.
By then, I was working on the novel I would take to the MacDowell Colony but was hesitant to read aloud from such a fledgling project just yet. Instead, I listened to readings by undergrads and our other MFA candidates. Of those, one reading in particular stood out: Gregory Sherl’s.
Sherl’s vibe was one of gentle yet intense sensitivity. Having enrolled in our program the previous August, he was whispered to be the most talented of all of us. I first met him at the tail end of a party Erika Meitner hosted in her house. As people began to leave, we struck up a conversation and quickly discovered a mutual affinity for two novelists: Michael Chabon and Bret Easton Ellis. I found this oddly comforting. Sherl was twenty years younger than me and spoke with such slangy verve that I thought he would have harbored hipper allegiances than a pair of white dudes from my generation.
The entirety of our conversation took place in the Meitner’s foyer. People were grabbing their coats, pushing past us to go out to their cars, and we were talking about the novels and short stories we wanted to write. I remember his avowed determination. He seemed single-minded, hungry in a way that I could not be because I had a wife and three children to care for. He was the man I wanted to be if I had picked up the writing bug earlier. Though we both espoused vigorous writing schedules, I sensed he was more serious, more driven than I could ever be.
The other thing one picks up on quickly when meeting Sherl is that he affects a persona of being—what is the euphemism?—different. Within minutes of meeting me, he let drop casual references to the prescription medications and mood stabilizers he took, the therapists he’s seen. He wore vulnerability openly, almost flaunting it. He was a wounded puppy dripping with emotion and sincerity, and sometimes excessively so.
Please don’t get me wrong. I empathize with those dealing with mental health issues and know, intimately, how these concerns can wreck havoc with daily life. One or more persons within my household deal with these issues on a daily basis. Most people though, such is my experience, are a bit more guarded than to reveal their medication history to new acquaintances. With him, not so much. Mental health was an ingrained part of his shtick, a performative aspect to his personality he let fly to get laughs or, when the need arose, gain sympathy. He went to classes in his pajamas. It was like he was letting us know he was too precious, too fragile to exist without the kindness of strangers. Some people gravitated towards him, gleefully trying to nurture him, mother him, protect him from that big bad world outside his doors.
Me? Alarm bells rang in my head. Instinctually, I pulled away from him, told myself not to get too close. This may sound harsh, but many others had the same reaction.
But to go back to that reading Jeff Mann hosted.
Sherl read a flash fiction piece so good it was not to be believed. Fun. Inventive. Serious. Poignant. It was about a man, in the wake of romantic disappointment, selling hearts out of the trunk of his car. Deliciously queasy, it made my mind race. The man stored his hearts in Ziploc bags. In one scene, Sherl described the veins still connected to the heart. Would-be customers asked how they could disinfect the hearts, but try as the man did, he could not give them away.
No one truly knows what genius looks like, but when you attend an MFA program, inevitably comes the moment when you look at the dork sitting across from you at the workshop conference table and realize he or she might be the real deal. We weren’t in a conference room—we never took a workshop together—and Sherl was far from being a dork, but I was blindsided and deeply impressed.
After the reading, I stole away with a handful of the brownies given away at the restaurant and wrote my own heart story. It wasn’t plagiarism. In my story, an artisan sausage maker hand-crafted heart-shaped salamis to sell for the Mothers Day trade. Alone, lonely, and emotionally damaged from divorce, he feels a connection with a woman who’s been browsing his wares at his shopping mall kiosk. When she lifts a salami heart from its straw-lined cask, it begins to beat as if it were alive. “Is it real?” she asks. “Is this really a baby heart?” The man is astonished. She embraces the heart, yet despite his growing fascination for her, he denies he has created something so miraculous; he denies his heart has come to life.
The stories are very different, but without Sherl’s example, I wouldn’t have arrived at mine. Because of this inspiration I still feel connected to him, simpatico-like.
The MacDowell Colony, located in Peterborough, NH, is our nation’s oldest artists’ colony and is spoken of reverently within writing circles and thanked in the acknowledgement notes of the books I prize most. Years beforehand, at an informal talk at the Sewanee Writers Conference, someone suggested the Colony was unusually supportive of writers coming out of MFA programs, and so on a sleepless night just after formally submitting my thesis to Virginia Tech’s Graduate School, I filled out an online MacDowell application, typed in the credit card information to cover the application fee, attached the first chapter of the novel I was reticent to read from at Jeff Mann’s reading, said a prayer, and pressed send.
A few months later, during summer, an email with a generic-sounding subject line arrived from the Colony. The actual note began with a recitation of the screening process. Hundreds, or maybe thousands, of applications were reviewed and… blah blah blah… the selection committee made many difficult decisions… blah blah blah… and yet, in the second or third paragraph, the letter’s tone changed. Instructions were given on how to formally accept the Colony’s Fellowship offer, but it wasn’t until the second or third reading that I truly understood they were accepting me into the Colony for the three-week October residency I requested.
The most blessed thing about the Colony, the thing that won’t be understood until you’re lucky enough to attend it yourself, is the tremendous respect shown for the creative act. In a world that largely devalues artistic engagement in favor of commercial transaction, the MacDowell Colony, spread out over 450 largely wooded acres, is an oasis. Everything is geared toward creating a comfortable, worry-free environment, freeing residents, or Fellows, to create. I wasn’t expected to pay for any of this—not the food or the studio space, not the comfy four-poster bed I slept in each night, nor the idyllic trails I hiked in the hour before dinner. It was pure unalloyed generosity I had stepped into. The meals were of a quality I’d never be able to afford on my own, and when I began to calculate the cost and the care the Colony invested to help me finish my novel, it staggered me, driving me to work harder to show their faith in me was not misguided.
Each morning, I entered my spacious, light-filled studio and churned out pages. All told, I wrote 25,000 words in the first two weeks of my residency and finished the novel’s first draft. Never had I been so productive. During my residency’s last week, I re-read the novel and plotted revision strategies. A few structural changes, I realized, were needed, but, all told, I left the Colony feeling as if I had arrived.
MacDowell was like a fairy tale, in all the best ways. Gourmet lunches made mainly from organic, locally grown ingredients were delivered to our studios each day in picnic baskets. The man who delivered them, Blake Tewksbury, is a legend among Colonists, a trim Santa Claus who noiselessly slipped our picnic baskets in front of our studio doors. Tall, with an easy manner and affable charm, he had been working at the Colony for almost 30 years. It was mid-October and the New Hampshire weather already turned cold. We met while he gathered wood from a shed for Fellows to burn in their studio fireplaces. We talked about our backgrounds and how my novel was going. His duties, I gathered, extended beyond lunchtime deliveries, and he impressed me as incredibly observant, both in the day-to-day way one needs to effectively oversee a property as vast as the MacDowell Colony, but also in a generous Zen-like, cosmic way.
One of MacDowell’s rituals is for Fellows to present their work to the other residents at some point during their stay. These were moments of communal celebration. Visual artists would throw open their studio for an afternoon. Writers would read after dinner in Colony Hall.
I chose to read my “Salami Heart” story, which I tinkered with during the moments I needed a time-out from my novel. Perhaps fifteen other residents were in attendance. Blake was also there, sitting on one of the couches as he did during many such presentations. The reading, I thought, went well. At bare minimum, I hadn’t embarrassed myself. Several Fellows seemed genuinely taken by it, which was heartening.
The next afternoon, I opened my lunchtime picnic basket. Packed inside among the goodies, between two sheets of waxed paper, was a salami slice through which the shape of a heart had been cut, probably with a cookie cutter. At dinner, I learned salami hearts had been part of the lunch all colonists received that day—until then, I thought it was just an in-joke delivered specifically to me. For a moment, my story, or at least the salami heart, was the talk of the Colony, a nod of recognition that touched me.
And there it is: my proudest writerly moment: a salami heart made real.
Blake had been the only MacDowell employee at my reading, and though he didn’t work directly in the kitchen, he was so closely associated with lunch that I’ve long thought him the source of this act of kindness.
But others were also responsible. My father, for one. I wouldn’t have applied to the Colony had I not been trying to prove to his memory that I could succeed. Jeff Mann and the many, many other writers who’ve coached and mentored me over the years were also responsible. As were my wife and family, who’ve let me toil away on my manuscripts when I could (should?) have been with them, having fun or helping more around the house. As were the editors (many writers themselves) of the university-based literary journals and small indie magazines who took the time to respond with encouraging notes to the stories I submitted for their consideration. They were all responsible.
As was Gregory Sherl, whose work inspired me to write that story.
“It takes a village to raise a child,” Hillary Clinton once wrote, echoing an African proverb. Sometimes, I wonder how many villages, how many random acts of generosity are needed to sustain a writer. Especially a struggling writer. If my life is any example, the answer is many.
An agent at a reputable firm offered to represent my novel shortly after I began querying. We went through two rounds of revisions. She was insanely confident of placing it with a large publisher, and when my manuscript went on submission to six different editors, I couldn’t restrain from checking my email every other minute. I imagined New York editors propositioning me with outrageous six-figure advances and the promise of protean promotional muscle to support my novel’s publication and distribution. I had bought into the myth of success. I put in my hard work, crafted an ambitious and linguistically deranged novel, climbed the proper stepping stones and earned the support of the industry’s gatekeepers. Anyone could be forgiven for mistaking my efforts as the prelude to a success narrative. And, yes, though I knew, at some level, the likelihood of a debut literary novelist receiving insane money was slight, I still gave into the fantasies of imagining the small luxuries we could afford with a more-likely five- or ten-thousand dollar advance: a new set of bath towels, a new mattress to replace the one my wife and I shared for nearly twenty years.
Towels, a firm mattress, perhaps a few thousand readers, and some thoughtful reviews. That, and a huge sense of validation, was what I hoped to achieve.
The first rejections, all so incredibly kind, trickled in within a week of the novel going on submission. My agent was ecstatic, telling me rejections usually arrived earlier than the serious offers, which had to clear multiple readings and internal hurdles before they could be extended. That my rejections were as nice as they were meant good things lay down the road for me.
Writing this essay, I’m tempted to pull a Didion-esque turn and say goodbye to all that.
Suffice it to say that novel remains unpublished. A couple editors thought well enough of it to provide detailed rationales for their rejection and, according to my agent, were open to giving the manuscript another gander should I revise it. After that first round of submissions, I went back to the drawing board, devoted a summer to making the novel work. Or work better.
Unbeknownst to me, my agent made the apparently abrupt decision to get out of the agenting game. She didn’t notify me or her other clients of this decision. I emailed her a few times asking for advice, asking for her thoughts of the revised manuscript, and rationalized her lack of response as owing to vacation pressures, or flakiness, or plain exhaustion on her part. Three months later, upon learning second-hand of her retirement, I flailed my arms and gnashed my teeth like the tragic hero of an ancient Greek drama. There is no easy way to describe the depths of that despair and the rash counter-productive impulses that ran through my mind. Another agent offered to represent my novel, but I politely declined; stick a fork in me; I was done.
One views success on a sliding scale. Shortly after marrying, I discovered my wife’s father published 16 short stories in small literary magazines during the late 1960s and early 1970s. I had barely started to send out my own work and years would pass before I’d get my first acceptance but from where I sat, talking to him across a dinner table one night, this seemed like a good measure of success. However, I sensed bitterness on his part, whether at the publishing industry for never fully recognizing his talents, or whether at himself for not pressing on with his literary aspirations, I was not sure.
After one of my first Virginia Tech fiction workshops, a bunch of us gathered at a smoke-filled dingy basement watering hole. So early into that first semester, we felt slightly euphoric. I mentioned my father-in-law, admitting how insufferably boastful I’d become if I ever amassed 16 publication credits. A waitress brought us a pitcher, probably something cheap like Yuengling. We were in a good mood. We filled our glasses. I told them about his bitterness. Conversation around our table turned quieter, more reflective. Someone said they understood that. Another person nodded, agreeing, and slowly I understood what they had understood from the beginning: the leap between small magazine publication and a trade publisher book deal was depressingly huge.
As an emerging writer—god, how I hate that term—you hear it said that perseverance is the greatest indicator of success. Once you start submitting your stories, your poems, your little darlings out for publication, you learn why: rejections always vastly outnumber acceptances. The emotional toll of rejection can be devastating; at times, you can’t imagine how you can endure any more heartbreak.
Remembering again that dimly-lit basement bar, in some sense we were on a race against time, hoping to make the leap to “success”—however one defines that loaded term—before the fires that burned inside withered.
A friend published a novel this year that earned a glowing full-page review in The New York Times. I had just ordered a copy when he emailed me asking to get together. I hadn’t seen him for a while and forgot how comforting and serene his softly lit office, with its Billie Holiday poster and warm bookshelves, always struck me. He was ecstatic about the reviews and the publicity drummed up for his novel, and I was upbeat myself. A new novel was in the works and I had recent success placing a few stories. Grad students at the University of Memphis’s MFA program had invited me to give a reading at an issue launch party for their literary journal, The Pinch, which would be my first reading since MacDowell four-plus years earlier.
We were both in a good place. He knew enough about the failure of my first novel to sense I was now, finally, lifting myself out of my funk.
“You know, Nick, we don’t talk enough about failure.”
As members of the larger literary community, he said, we need to talk more about what we do when it’s just not happening. Failed stories, failed novels, failed hopes are the dark secrets in our closets. If we just focus on the success stories, we build unrealistic expectations that ultimately harm many who enter into our community.
Pick up any issue of Poets & Writers and you’ll find laudatory articles about those who, after lightning-quick bursts of inspiration or long struggles at the keyboard, deservedly reap the emotionally-rich reward of seeing their work in print. Fiction writers however know that a story is dictated by its timeframe. Instead of looking at a writer’s life from the happy vantage of their successes, a more telling and helpful portrait would be formed by investigating their lives during those long stretches when they’re making no progress whatsoever. How do they push through the doubt when publication seems impossible? Is it more than just wishful thinking? Is it a fortitude we can instill in our emerging writers during their course of study in an MFA program or summer workshop?
My friend, normally quick to offer an observant quip, became shy, embarrassed, and I could see his shame when he said, “You should have seen the failed drafts I had of this novel.”
Even then, I sensed the pain of those failed drafts. Likely, he sent them to his agent, and perhaps even to editors, and wallowed in disappointment like I had. Perhaps his agent, unwilling to admit she couldn’t sell his manuscript in its current form, dodged his phone calls, his emails. Perhaps, like me, he had moments when he just didn’t know what was so wrong with him that he couldn’t write a draft someone would want to publish.
Judy Budnitz, whose Nice Big American Baby remains one of my favorite short story collections, visited our program during my last semester. I valued her work not only for its quirky social commentary, but also for her realistic touches. Unlike the quickly-sketched characters populating most present-day American Absurdist short stories, her characters are refreshingly human.
In person, Budnitz is elfin, and totally charming. Driving her back to the airport on the day following her reading, we got to talking about our children. Budnitz had, I believe, a young son, and I had three children. When I mentioned my youngest was a girl, she asked, “What’s that like? Raising a girl?”
“It’s different,” I said. “Until Ellie was born, I never really thought about what it must be like to be a girl.”
Budnitz gave me a sly, sidelong glance that made me feel entirely ridiculous. At that speechless moment, I could see exactly what she was thinking. What she was thinking was, God! Men are so stupid! So close-minded and dismissive of women’s experiences!
Sadly, it’s true. Or, at least, it was true for me. I had grown up as a nice big American male and never really thought how radically different the world and its power structures must be perceived by those of the other sex.
More than the insights into story structure and narrative arcs that occupied the majority of my attention during the previous years, this moment stuck with me. As most parents do, I worry about the world we’ve created for our children. I worry for Ellie, my daughter. I worry about how she will navigate the hurdles and expectations we place on women. It’s these Budnitz-inspired thoughts, along with questions provoked by Regarding Beauty: A View of the Late 20th Century, a long-ago Hirshhorn Museum exhibit I viewed many times, that propel my new novel.
My friend’s right: we don’t talk enough about failure. Instead, we talk about the successes. One of the successes was Gregory Sherl.
After taking a poetry workshop with Bob Hicok, Sherl seemed to discover his true voice. He switched genres and published several volumes of poetry in rapid succession. His rise within alt-lit poetry circles was meteoric. The Oregon Trail is the Oregon Trail, his 2012 collection themed around the seminal Oregon Trail video game, was short-listed for the prestigious The Believer Poetry Award. His work was everywhere, or at least in the online magazines hundreds of MFAers (me included) admired most. Sherl’s poetry oozes sex—and who doesn’t want to read a good sex poem?—but it’s not just sex that draws readers to his work. There’s his masterful use of language and rifle-quick turns of thought. His poetic persona remains that of a wounded puppy, but it’s a puppy searching for affection, for love, for honest emotion and a good cuddle.
Earlier this year, online allegations emerged against Sherl. He was, according to these allegations, a serial abuser of women, a rapist, a monster of inhuman proportions. When I first heard about this, I was shocked. The wounded puppy dog I knew seemed incapable of violence, incapable of aggression, yet the allegations snowballed. Women shared tales of the emotional, physical, and psychological abuse they suffered at his hands. Publishers of his poetry collections issued apologies for bringing his work to the public, for publicizing him, for urging people to read him. Books were withdrawn from their catalogues. More women stepped forth, all of them telling essentially the same story of abuse.
Amazingly, during all this, Sherl’s career gathered steam. Two months ago, Algonquin Books published his debut novel, The Future for Curious People. This month, that book is one of Oprah.com’s recommended reads.
I’ve wracked my memory for weeks trying to locate the tell-tale signs that should have clued me into the fact he was a monster. Did he ever break down, abuse, or proposition a woman in my presence? No. He spoke openly, sometimes uncomfortably so, about sex but, in my opinion, never crossed that iffy demarcation between acceptable and unacceptable conversation.
Yet, two moments haunt me.
Once, a bunch of us met at Abby’s, a restaurant/bar off the beaten track that was not as smoky and crowded as our usual cellar hang-out. He was among the first to leave that night, and when he left, one of the guys bitched about how Sherl never contributed money toward the pitchers we drank. Which sucked, we agreed, a moochy pooch being no one’s friend. So we talked about him. At a certain point, the women in the conversation became quiet. They glanced at each other as if working out through coded glances whether to reveal some shared secret. I picked up on this, and asked, but again they went quiet. One woman eventually shrugged her shoulders and laughed and said something about him being “weird,” a charge which, frankly, could have been accurately leveled against any of us. But, in retrospect, that silence among the women his name provoked takes on in my mind the significance of a red flag moment.
The other moment that comes back is sketchier. I ran into him once in the English department hallway shortly after he had a fight with a girlfriend. He didn’t even look like himself. His whole manner of being, even his gait and the way he craned his shoulders, was different. He was no longer a happy, bouncy Sherl. It was as if his whole character had been re-drawn by one of those German Expressionist painters of the 1920s. I tried to calm him down, yet I couldn’t understand what triggered the fight, couldn’t figure out if the fight was of the face-to-face variety or had been conducted at the remove of a long-distance telephone line. “Fuck it,” he said, his cheeks still red with anger, “If that’s the way she wants to be with me, so be it. If she doesn’t love me, so be it. If she doesn’t want to make me happy, so be it.”
Both of us had places we needed to be, and I couldn’t talk more with him about it. Lots of people, men and women, have arguments with their partners, I figured. Yet there was just something so different in his appearance that afternoon that has preyed on my mind these last few weeks.
Do these recollections provide unimpeachable evidence about the allegations that hover over Sherl? No.
To be clear: Sherl has not been charged, as of this writing, with a crime.
To be clear: five women, including at least one former fiancée, allege some form of abuse. Taken together, their online statements and essays paint a seemingly convincing pattern of abuse. Whether these “abuses” rises to a legally prosecutable offense is an open question. Yesterday, Sherl filed suit for libel and defamation against one of the women who’ve come out against him. It’s what might be called an ongoing situation. We’ve all heard stories of people being falsely accused of heinous crimes. And we’ve heard stories about the injustice that occurs when the victims of real crimes are brushed aside or silenced.
Because Oprah has long symbolized progressive values and social responsibility, an online petition now exists asking her to remove Sherl’s book from her recommended reads. One senses where this is going through the examples of similar stories. Jian Ghomeshi. Now Bill Cosby. A new ostracism is taking hold. If a large media outlet chooses to run an article about these allegations, Sherl’s career could be over within a fortnight or two, but even should it remain intact, his reputation may be irreparably damaged among a good segment of our community.
Mostly, I’m angry at Sherl. I’m angry because he was so close to achieving the kind of success all of us want for ourselves. I mean, Oprah?!? And what did he throw it away for? Some aesthetic ideal or highfalutin statement of artistic conscience?
For too long, we’ve given license to our successful artists to be monsters. One hears about the example of Picasso. Should we have denied the world his genius because he was, apparently, a miserable human being? To me, the question is besides the point. Somehow we’ve bought into the notion that artists are allowed to be monsters, that their art gives them a Get Out Of Jail card. If their end-product rocks, who cares about the rest of their life? If the stanzas dance, the paragraphs swing, we’ve traditionally looked the other way when an artist does something nasty.
You shouldn’t have to tell a man that a woman is something more than a slit between two thighs through which, even without her consent, you are entitled to stick your dick.
Is that what success, ultimately, is about? The right to shrug off the obligation to be respectful of others and dick-over women?
My “Salami Heart” story nearly always comes back with encouraging notes of rejection when I send it out. Which is another way of saying it remains unpublished. I’ve revised and re-written it countless times. Last night, I looked at it again and realized it needs more work. The competition for publication grows fiercer and fiercer. We are all chasing the same dream. Someday my salami heart will pulse they way it needs to pulse, but it’s not there yet.
Sometimes things happen, and sometimes they don’t.
Being unable to write a manuscript that grabs the attention of an agent or editor is not a moral failing. Sometimes I have to remind myself of this.
I’m not the abject failure my father feared I would become. Sometimes, I have to remind myself of this, too. I’ve published almost three dozen short stories. Earlier this year, I published a story I had been working on since 1986. In the intervening years, I’ve probably spent hundreds of hours working on it. And the novel. Always the novel. These things take time. What is it they say? Art is long, life is short?
Note: Because this essay touches, in part, on a currently ongoing event within the community that has spiraled to out-of-control proportions in other online environments, editors suggested I address these issues below in an addendum.
Addendum Concerning Black Lawrence Press, Elizabeth Ellen, and a Boatload of Odious Allegations
Hours after finishing “My Salami Heart” essay and sending it to Janice Lee, my editor here at Entropy, a post emerged on Facebook protesting Black Lawrence Press’s (BLP) decision to pull an Elizabeth Ellen novella from their upcoming The Lineup: 25 Provocative Women Writers anthology because they didn’t “support the content of what Ellen had written” in a previous essayistic defense against the rape allegations that swirl around novelist/poet Tao Lin and Pop Serial editor Stephen Tully Dierks. Although Ellen never mentioned Gregory Sherl in that essay, other articles lump him together with them to form some kind of unholy alt-lit creep triumvirate; Sherl’s victims have been among the most vociferous in support of BLP’s actions.
To date (11/23/2014, 3:57 AM EDT), that Facebook post has received 416 comments. Until I saw that message, I wasn’t aware of what BLP had done. Other threads have since emerged. Mostly, I’ve been sickened by it. Allegations of censorship and counter-censorship fly in every direction.
I read Ellen’s essay shortly after it appeared on the Hobart website and concurred with what everyone else was saying about it: it was horrendous. She seemingly blamed the victims for their fate and argued statutory rape laws were of so questionable legitimacy that men should not be held accountable for breaking them.
For the record, I was among the first to comment on that Facebook thread. What I said was,
“As much as I can’t bring myself to support some of the writers who Ellen defended, pulling her work from publication is an outrage. Tomorrow morning, any one of us might say something, um, controversial. Will that subject us to a new censorship? Is this some deranged attempt to lure us all into silence?”
People who are either too young or blessed with poor memories can be forgiven for not recalling the “Silence = Death” posters that blanketed metropolitan landscapes in the 1980s when the AIDS crisis was at its worst. In that thankfully distant era when gay rights and the gay community itself was still very marginalized, the posters prompted a national discussion of safe sex practices and the urgent health concerns of the gay community, which was desperately needed to arrest the epidemic’s progress. Luckily, with advancements in gay rights and HIV/AIDS treatments, “Silence” no longer needs to be a death sentence.
Now, however, one could very easily make a case that “Silence = Rape.”
When I first read Ellen’s essay last month, I did so in a state of hyperventilation. The interwebs had been in meltdown mode for an eternity—maybe even hours—by the time I pressed the link all my Facebook buds had already clicked, and because I already had an inkling of what was coming, I raced to the essay’s juicy parts. Which weren’t that juicy. But it didn’t matter, because OMG I had allowed myself to tap into the outrage others freely expressed. Which is to say, that first time I read searching only for signs of nastiness.
I just finished reading it again, and the difference in experiences is stark. I still can’t support her end conclusions, but this time I was struck by the humility, and the fear, Ellen expressed. If I may quote,
People who care about me have urged me not to write this.
“People already have their opinions formed.”
“It’s too soon.”
“People will hate you.”
Everyone is scared. But not everyone is of one mind. I’m not even of one mind. My thoughts are scattered and varying and there is so much grey area. I don’t know if anything I am about to say is “right.” But something needs to be said. And I can’t allow my fear to guide me any longer. I have written an essay each of the previous two evenings and chickened out on posting them each of the following mornings.
[I am thinking right now of the studies that show that female students raise their hands in class with the same frequency as male students until they enter puberty and then females begin second-guessing themselves, only raising their hands if they are a hundred percent certain they have the right answer…]
Ellen’s aware that she’s of the minority opinion on this issue. But haven’t we, as a community, been urging minority voices and minority opinions to speak up?
Ellen also knows that, from adolescence onwards, women second-guess themselves into silence. Rather than risk giving a wrong answer, many women choose or have been taught to say nothing at all. Last summer, I read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. The book’s core message is that you stand a better chance of rising up an organizational ladder and making a name for yourself if you put yourself out there, take extra responsibilities for yourself, take on whatever leadership roles you can, and take chances. Although Sandberg’s ideal reader might be a twenty-something female MBA candidate, I had my 13-year-old son read her book this summer as well. The message is that good. For what it’s worth, I also had him read an address former Secretary of State Madeline Albright delivered last year to celebrate Women’s History Month at the CIA. Many lines from that speech jump out to me, especially this: “In our era, it’s better to risk being thought rude than to give the impression that you have nothing to say.”
Ellen wrote an essay honestly exploring her conflicted feelings—isn’t that what we want from an essayist? Thoughts, feelings, and emotions are messy things. We’ve all, as a community, groped for answers to the questions these issues provoke. I get why Diane Goettel, BLP’s Executive Editor, took issue with the essay, but pulling out of a publication agreement as punishment is not the answer, for the received message of this act will inevitably be, Girl, if you’ve got something *controversial* to say about sex and gender issues, just keep it to yourself—‘kay?—unless you want to be Elizabeth Ellened.
Which is precisely the WRONG message we should be giving women.
Elizabeth Ellen stands accused of exercising her right to free speech. No doubt, some young woman right now is debating whether she should risk doing the same. Perhaps she wants to write an essay or poem or short story dealing with victimhood, yet because she realizes this is a politically touchy subject, and because this young woman may harbor greater literary aspirations than just publishing that one essay or poem or short story, the received message is that she’d be wise to put that essay or poem or short story aside. So she’ll write something safe, say, about her cat or about the strawberry ice cream cone her grandma once gave her. It’ll be innocuous and safe, something that will put her at zero risk of being thought rude.
But is that what we want from our literature? Meek, inoffensive shit?
As writers, we talk about process a lot. Most of us operate with the understanding that what we write today will likely be revised tomorrow, revised next week, revised ad infinitum until eventually it is transformed into something only vaguely similar to how it appeared on our first draft. Those who’ve been writing for more than, say, six months, have learned to trust this process, knowing it will lead to something we will eventually be happy with.
We must learn to also trust process in our public debates.
Ellen’s essay was, if you will, our community’s first draft of this particular debate. The most ironic of the many obvious ironies embedded in this controversy is that it backfired to such a ridiculous degree that fair-minded readers cringed at its perceived victim-shaming. The many conversations it provoked should be seen second drafts. Until then, I’m not sure most people were on the same page about why the common media practice of victim-shaming is so odious. These discussions wouldn’t have happened had not Ellen bravely published her essay. Label it an unintended consequence, but we needed that essay to jump-start our conversations. Until then, many of us never interrogated our thoughts on the subject.
Silence wouldn’t have gotten us to this point. Sorry.
I worry about the those who seek to impose lockstep orthodoxy into any conversation. I’m worried about overreach. Both are counter-productive, leading to divisions rather than coalitions. Just when we seemed to be nearing a greater consensus that sexual abuse should not be tolerated under ANY conditions, we’ve become distracted by censorship and first amendment issues. Read some of the threads. This conversation is rapidly devolving into a free speech vs. intolerance-for- sexual-abuse binary. If it continues that way, whatever agreement we had been nearing on sexual abuse and perhaps even victim-shaming is going to erode.
Which is horrible, because the question need not be framed this way. If silence is ever the preferred answer we seek in this literary community, we’re asking the wrong questions.
More vocal members of our community may misconstrue what I’m saying. There’s nothing here, nor in my “My Salami Heart” essay, nor in my actual heart, that supports rape culture. Silence is what supports rape culture. Trust the process. Keeping rape and other forms of sexual abuse in our public discussions will eventually destroy it.