Thursday, May 15, 2008

A Writer's Afterworld

Gisela Telis is the Kore Press office manager, and an award-winning freelance writer and photographer whose work centers around science, the environment and sustainable living. She has reported for
Audubon, Science, High Country News and National Public Radio, among others.

On an April afternoon I sat talking to a prominent scientist, a woman who’d overcome tremendous odds to become a tenured professor, a leader in her field and a mentor to many younger researchers. She confessed she’d noticed a pattern over the years: her female students were usually more capable than they thought, and her male students were almost never as capable as they believed. It wasn’t that one bested the other, she said—she’d worked with equal numbers of brilliant men and women—but that the women doubted themselves more.

This didn’t surprise her, as it likely won’t surprise any of you. A stranger on a plane asks Tayari Jones if she has a problem with men and she will walk away kicking herself for reassuring him. He will forget the exchange, and she will mull it, write an essay about it. Robin Black has won awards that other writers covet, but still questions whether she has something to say. My friend hears, “Why are you always like this?” from her lover and instead of saying there is no “always” in how I live my life, she wonders if it’s really true, because he was so convincing when he said it.

I think of Persephone and her annual reemergence from the afterworld. For the purposes of living, it doesn’t matter that society’s to blame, that prizing independence and decisive action in boys while teaching girls to be “good sports” conditions us to need permission and approval, to think too much and too long, to more often say, “I don’t care – whatever you want, dear.” We didn’t choose our world; therefore we often absolve ourselves of the requirement to be truthful, to act and speak honestly in spite of our “what if … ?” We live in another sort of afterworld, where we are stymied in the present by anticipating the after. What matters is that every time we give in anew, every time we silence and dismiss ourselves, we give others permission to silence and dismiss us.

Let’s just talk about writing. I was going to start this paragraph with “Although writers of both genders struggle with self-doubt, and despite the real need for precision—the appropriate tone, the exact word—in our craft …” But there I go, qualifying again, thinking I have to say perfectly what I mean and will always mean, even in a necessarily wild and undisciplined first draft, putting precision before impact when I needn’t, at least not yet, putting the audience before my own voice when the likes of Wallace Stegner have insisted no writer ever should.

Instead I’ll tell you this: I have the start of a story sitting on my computer somewhere. In it, a woman walks along a coast, between a string of dunes and the ocean, and though a storm is coming she doesn’t take shelter. I knew what I was seeing when the image first came to me: the Big Sur coast in California, footprints in sand, a woman willing to die. But when I put my voice to it, I put my doubts to it too—where is the storm coming from, who do I want her to be, can I write her and who am I to try? If I’d taken a page from the men’s rulebook and felt entitled to whatever comes out of my head, if I’d followed my voice with conviction, I might already have finished something beautiful, and not abandoned something promising.

Let’s take up arms against our conditioning, our self-defeat. Let’s promise that the next time we write about the wind that crests the coastal dune, we will not stop ourselves with what color the dune, and from where the wind, and am I really a writer in the first place, but will fly with it instead, because that’s what will let us write as we wish to—the trust and courage it takes to speak your mind even if you change it five minutes from now. Let’s consider that despite our every doubt, our voices deserve to be heard and that they will, like Persephone’s, emerge intact and essential from the afterworld.