The Punctuation of Life: On Chloe Caldwell’s ‘The Red Zone’

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I was 15, sitting with friends in the schoolyard, having lunch and trading stories—as teenage girls do—about our periods. We griped, we commiserated: Swimming with a tampon in? So annoying! Getting your pubes stuck to a pad’s adhesive? The absolute worst! And what really ground my gears, I said, joining the chorus, was the immobilizing pain, shooting down your legs, radiating up your back, ripping through your abdomen, and then you become a receptacle for all that pain, and no thoughts could form because everything was pain. The other girls fell silent. Finally one spoke: “I don’t think I’ve ever had that.” The rest shook their heads. “Yeah, that doesn’t sound super normal,” another said.

Early in The Red Zone: A Love Story, author Chloe Caldwell has a similar experience. She is 31 and on a beach trip when she gets her period and is beset by severe cramps and diarrhea (both of which, I learned as a 12-year-old, are caused by the hormone prostaglandin’s indiscriminate approach to muscle contraction). “Back at the picnic table, I burst into tears telling my friends how sick I was,” she recalls. “They softened. I asked them if they got this sick on their periods. Not really, they said.” Four years later, her friends still remember the trip: “Something was really wrong,” one says. “I felt bad for you. You were really sick.”

The Red Zone is Caldwell’s attempt to grapple with her disruptive menstrual symptoms and find community through them. From debilitating cramps to premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), Caldwell’s existence is governed—often tyrannically—by her cycle. Early in the book, she learns she is nowhere near alone. In a series of interviews with loved ones and strangers, she creates a compendium of menstrual experiences. Her interview subjects often say “I wish I’d known” and “If only someone had told me.” “My periods had such pain I didn’t tell anyone about,” her own mother tells her. “I would cry in bed holding my stomach, trying not to let anyone know, even your dad. I thought it was normal ’cause no one talked about it.”

So Caldwell talks about it—all of it. The clotting, the shitting, the crying on the bathroom floor and meltdowns in public places. Asking friends, as a teen, to “check my butt” for blood stains. Taking photos of her blood in the toilet, diffused across the water in the shape of a lotus flower. The night her cramps were so bad that she, delirious, gave each one a name as it passed through her. The prayers to a period god that she “wasn’t sure existed to make it stop, to please make it stop.” The darkness, the dread, the helplessness.

As she reflects on her past, Caldwell also investigates her still-changing body. Her thirties brought with them more painful periods, as well as the onset of PMDD, the more severe form of PMS. As many as eight percent of those who menstruate experience PMDD, yet its symptoms—bouts of extreme irritability, depression, or anxiety in the week leading up to your period—are often characterized as run-of-the-mill mood swings that accompany PMS. After years of struggling to articulate the difference between the two conditions, she finally finds an explanatory image, “a photograph with a split screen: one side reads PMS with a photo of a woman pulling her hair out, and the other side reads PMDD with a woman on the edge of a rooftop.” Online, she discovers a vast community of women with PMDD, who live like she does, in perpetual fear of what they call their “werewolf week.”

She eventually attends a conference centered around PMDD and its treatment. Recommendations from conferencegoers include: yoga, acupuncture, a tryptophan-heavy diet, calcium supplements, vitamin D supplements, vitamin B6 supplements, chasteberry supplements, aromatherapy lamps, light diffusers, weighted blankets, jumping jacks, and Prozac. She is conflicted about going on medication, having been “conditioned to think antidepressants were for weaker people.” She had felt “superior” for not having to take them and suspects even her mother “doesn’t want to have a daughter on Prozac.” But after many conversations—with her doctor, with writer and friend Sheila Heti—she starts taking Prozac and finds it an indispensable addition to the arsenal in her battle against PMDD. “I decided to think of it as a really good vitamin,” she writes.

When I finally sought medication to treat my periods, I felt like I’d failed, like I couldn’t handle one of the most basic aspects of womanhood. (Of menstrual pain, Caldwell’s mother-in-law recalls she simply “sucked it up and carried on.”) At the same time, I could see no way to live a full life while menstruating like I did, incapacitated seven days a month. When my doctor agreed that medication was the best shot at treating my symptoms, I was stunned. “Women are infamously ignored, degraded, and condescended to in doctors offices,” Caldwell writes, “so even when someone believes you, it is hard to believe they believe you.” How many others were experiencing the kind of pain I was but weren’t seeking help for fear they would be exposed as failures or be disbelieved entirely?

On the whole, The Red Zone is an uneven work that never quite lives up to its potential. Caldwell’s prose is unremarkable and often prosaic. Her inquiry into women’s menstrual lives fails to culminate in a meaningful way, as she compiles primary texts (interviews, online forums, advertisements, etc.) without performing any analysis. The book’s subtitular love story, between the author and a mystifyingly tolerant man named Tony, never feels fully integrated into the story. That said, the project of the book—to make literary the body horror and psychological turmoil that are part of so many women’s lives—is an exciting one that, in the hands of a more inquisitive writer, could be culture-shifting.

By the end of The Red Zone, Caldwell finds that Prozac combined with diet, exercise, supplements, and therapy largely “shrunk and healed” the symptoms of her PMDD. But she remains vigilant, constantly monitoring her cycle. Caldwell calls her period “the punctuation of my life” (pun intended?), an apt metaphor for a biological force that imposes temporal structure on our otherwise amorphous existence. It’s an idyllic thought— promulgated by tampon commercials and authors behind self-help books with titles like In the Flo, Period Power, and Beyond the Pill—that women can live in harmony with their periods, but Caldwell recognizes that many women struggle to simply to live with their periods, period.

The medication I went on to manage my menstrual pain had an unexpected side effect: It eliminated my period, and therefore my pain, altogether. I remember some of my friends saying getting rid of my period was unnatural, an affront to physiology; recall Caldwell’s mother bristled at the use of Prozac to manage moods that she saw as the natural product of hormones. “Over time,” Caldwell writes, “you realize you cannot control most of your life, so you do the things you can control.” Just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s hospitable to life, and the natural functions—and dysfunctions—of our bodies are largely out of our control. 

The Red Zone tells a story about looking for and finally claiming some control, meager as it may be, over a part of women’s lives that has been historically obscured, devalued, and stigmatized. It’s is an entry in a contemporary canon of menstrual literature that I hope, in the future, will be shaped by more depth, style, and rigor. I am grateful for Caldwell’s book nonetheless.

Put Down Your Phone: The Millions Interviews Sammy Nickalls

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“I look forward to the day that I don’t have to be on Twitter anymore,” I told a friend recently. I imagined a future in which I had achieved some level of professional success at which I no longer needed to monitor social media for opportunities to seize and connections to make. Any young literary aspirant knows what I mean. Many emerging writers and editors feel they have little say in the matter of time spent on social media—on top of actually putting pen to paper, combing through Twitter is just another part of the job.

Sammy Nickalls is experienced in the occupational hazards of social media. She’s written for outlets including Vulture, Teen Vogue, and Vice and previously worked in New York as an editor at Esquire and Adweek. After spending most of her 20s behind a screen, Nickalls decided to shut down all of her social media accounts for six months and emerged from the reset with a new perspective. Now, she proselytizes digital minimalism, a philosophy developed by Georgetown professor of computer science Cal Newport, to the tech-weary masses.

In her new book, Log Off: Self-Help for the Extremely Online, out May 10, Nickalls offers practical advice for those who want to limit their screen time but for whom logging off completely just isn’t an option. Taking cues from Jenny Offill, Jia Tolentino, and Sherry Turkle, Nickalls provides a road map to a more deliberate online existence and a more mindful offline one. She and I spoke about Log Off, literary Twitter, self-discipline, and much more.

The Millions: I want to start off by using myself as a case study that I think will sound familiar to a lot of readers. I’m a writer who by necessity is Very Online. Being online, and specifically on what we might call literary Twitter, feels like a requirement to be a successful writer—to cultivate a presence and a following, to scope out publication opportunities, to network. Some publishers even base book deals off of Twitter followings! How can someone who is actively trying to build a writing career also practice digital minimalism?

Sammy Nickalls: I absolutely can relate to this, and this exact situation is what led me to develop a wildly unhealthy relationship with Twitter in my early-to-mid 20s. I felt like I needed to be online 24/7 to avoid missing the next great opportunity that will launch my career.

Granted, there’s a grain of truth in this. In a flattering light, Twitter is an excellent tool for young creatives to find opportunities from the comfort of their couch. But the Next Big Thing mentality is exactly what platforms like Twitter use to keep their users scrolling. When you boil those vibes down, they have nothing to do with talent, or work ethic, or any of the inspiration one needs to create—they’re based in fear. And for those with the same kind of tendencies toward workaholism, perfectionism, and codependency as me, it’s a slippery slope into a dark, twisty place where you feel like your entire worth depends on faves, or followers, or whether you tweet an opinion on that long stressful article everyone’s talking about. There will be a new long stressful article tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day. It’s just not sustainable.

This is exactly why digital minimalism is so important, and even more so for folks who need these platforms for their livelihoods. It’s not about scrubbing yourself off the Internet, as tempting as that may be sometimes. It’s about noticing your Internet stressors, then actively creating and maintaining boundaries around your screen time so that you don’t let these platforms and stressors eclipse your entire life.

TM: If you are a writer who prefers to write on a laptop, you’re going to be on the computer, and probably online, a lot. What is your advice for approaching a writing session—or any online work session—in digitally minimalist way to eliminate distractions?

SN: I love [the debate over] writing on a computer versus writing on paper. I do the latter more than the former these days, but I still think typing is so much more satisfying than writing on paper, because you can get your thoughts down so much faster. And I will never tire of the clickety-clacks!

If you choose to write on a laptop, start by identifying what you like most about writing that way, then shaping your rules around that. Is it the aforementioned clickety-clacks? Consider whether a typewriter would give the same kind of creative satisfaction. (Editor’s note: Freewrite also sells Internet-free, keyboard-equipped writing tools.) If that feels too extreme, or if your writing must be done online due to the nature of your work, I highly recommend trying out different digital minimalism tools and apps that will help you stay focused. I list a bunch in my book, but for this situation in particular, I recommend Freedom, which lets you block any number of distractions. You can block literally every website other than what you’re working on, or you can just block a single platform like Twitter—it’s up to you. When you try to go to the platform or website you blocked, your device will instead display a green screen with a butterfly reminding you to take a deep breath. So, you can either take said deep breath, or you can go, “Dang, foiled again by me.” Both are fairly satisfying.

TM: I deleted Instagram in college because I recognized, to borrow your terminology, that it was my primary “digital stressor.” It felt fundamentally incompatible with my brain, and I could tell it was actively detracting from it. At the same time, when I tell people I no longer have Instagram, they sometimes say things like, “I don’t like it either, but it’s really helpful for keeping up with friends, getting in touch with people, networking, finding inspiration, etc.” How would you respond to this big “but”? When does the risk outweigh the reward?

SN: Firstly, props to you for deleting Instagram. It’s one of my top problem apps too. Secondly, I gotta pull out my favorite version of the Serenity Prayer for this one: Grant me the serenity to accept the people I cannot change, the courage to change the one I can, and the wisdom to know that one is me. People might directly or indirectly insist that you’re missing out, but that’s on them. You know your own brain, and you know what feels good to you. Maybe for them, Instagram is helpful for all those things, and that’s great, but there’s no point in trying to change their mind, because odds are they don’t want to change their mind. Personally, I believe that the rewards a) don’t really hold their own upon further scrutiny—for example, is liking your friend’s photo every couple of weeks really “keeping in touch?”—and b) are far, far smaller than the risk.

TM: I’ve recently found my relationship to one social media app, TikTok, changing. It isn’t bringing me as much joy as it used to—now I check it compulsively rather than consciously, and I’ve been seeing more videos lately that I consider to be stressors. Can you talk about how our relationships with certain digital platforms can evolve, how we should monitor them over time, and what sort of steps we should take if we see our relationship changing in a way that’s harmful?

SN: Oof, TikTok is a rough one, I hear you. But yes, it’s all about intentionality—that’s really the core of digital minimalism. It’s not a once-and-done thing, where you set rules for yourself and then never ever break or change those rules until the end of time, because that’s not how doing anything intentionally works, right? You can’t predict the future, so you might not know exactly what you need or don’t need right away. That’s why it’s important to monitor your relationship with platforms and adjust accordingly, over and over again. It’s really a lifelong thing, because you can bet these platforms will adapt to the digital minimalism wave by finding new ways to capture your attention.

Your relationship with platforms will naturally change, and that’s perfectly okay. It’s also okay when you notice your relationship with one platform or another is becoming harmful, because the first step is simply noticing. That itself is hard to do, but hey, you already did it! You get to pat yourself on the back for that, and then you get to make a change, whether that’s deleting that app off your phone or taking a break from the platform to gather your thoughts.

Once it stops feeling scary, it’s actually a bit thrilling every time you get to make a change. It might sound a little cheesy, but it’s like realizing over and over that you actually have the power, you know? And it becomes easier as you learn to tune into your feelings every day, or as often as you can—no need to beat yourself up if you mess it up every now and then, because you’re human. The really wonderful thing about all of this is that you get to make your own rules based on how you feel. It’s not about doing it perfectly—it’s about reclaiming your agency and not letting these platforms control your emotions and behavior. My book has a guide on how to get started, but it’s something that anyone can do with or without a guide, just by paying attention to how you feel when you’re on social media.

TM: The experience of the pandemic emphasized how important it is to stay connected with loved ones when we can’t be with them in person. My closest friends, for one, all live across the country, so I’ve had to be more deliberate about getting in touch, whether it be sending each other stupid tweets or TikToks, or just texting throughout the day. But at the same time, I’m trying to spend as much time away from my phone as possible. How can you balance the priority to stay connected with faraway loved ones while still maintaining healthy digital boundaries?

SN: I think this is exactly the reason why people are rethinking the way they use their phones, or at least one of the big ones. There’s so much more pressure to be “on” during a pandemic, because the alternative can feel like abandoning your relationships.

I live in Pennsylvania, about six hours away from my best friend in Massachusetts, and we used to message each other on Facebook constantly. For a long time, even before the pandemic, I used that as an excuse to keep Facebook Messenger on my phone, because otherwise, how would I talk to her? Eventually, I communicated my digital minimalism intentions to her, and we moved the conversation to text so I could delete Facebook from my phone. It was that easy. Sometimes, I’ll tell her that I’m trying to stay off my phone for the weekend, so I might not respond to texts quickly, and she is always deeply supportive. And lately, we’ve been trying to schedule times to video chat. It might still involve a screen but taking time to actually talk face-to-face for a couple hours every few weeks strengthens relationships so much more than a never-ending text conversation, the latter of which tends to keep attention permanently divided because of the nature of texting. That said, my best friend and I still text each other stupid TikToks.

It’s true, though, that some relationships will start to fade away when you practice digital minimalism. That’s okay! Frankly, they probably weren’t strong relationships to begin with, and that’s also okay. I think social media gives us the idea that we’re supposed to have countless close friends, but relationships take time. Literally, how would we find the time for that? And are all our relationships really as close as we think, or are platforms trying to force FOMO-fueled friendships to keep us online? I don’t mean to trivialize the idea of Internet friendships, because I have met some truly wonderful people online. But if you communicate your intentions to them, and you’re meant to stay close to them, the universe will find a way.

TM: It feels like in just the past few years a lot more thinkers like you and Jenny Odell and Cal Newport, both of whom you cite in the book, have sprung up in response to not just how to live in the Internet age but how protect yourself from the Internet age. What other thinkers and ideas surrounding digital life are inspiring you right now?

SN: Lately, I’ve been listening to Tara Brach almost daily. I often start my day with one of her meditations, and I find that a lot of her teachings line up perfectly with digital minimalism, even if they’re not directly about digital life.

Growing up, I experienced what I’ve come to think of as a lasagna of trauma—layers, baby—that instilled a deep-seated fear of my own emotions and internal life. Throughout my teens and 20s, I buzzed around like a hummingbird on cocaine, trying to find the job or the person or the shiny flashy thing that would finally make me feel whole. I eventually became quite physically ill from the stress of functioning like this, and I had to sort of let everything in my life come toppling down so I could start rebuilding it with stronger foundations. Tara Brach has been indispensable in helping me learn how to overcome the fear of my own internal life so that I can use my emotions as a guide instead of running away from them. I believe this is one of the most important elements of digital minimalism. If you don’t know how you feel, how can you know what you need?

Pain Is Not Always an Emergency: The Millions Interviews Melissa Febos

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When I was an undergraduate in college, I sent a fan letter via Facebook to an author, a personal essayist, that I greatly admired. To my astonishment he replied, and an email correspondence ensued. Immediately I inundated him with craft-related questions, the most pressing of which was about navel-gazing and how to avoid it. I wanted to write personal essay like he did, but the fear of being interpreted as navel-gazy—vain, narcissistic, self-obsessed—often kept me from writing about myself. This author’s work, though intensely personal, never felt myopic. He sent a lengthy and enlightening reply with the subject line “How to Avoid Navel Gazing.” I’d never treasured an email so much.

You can imagine my curiosity, then, when I opened Melissa Febos’s Body Work and began to read its first chapter, “In Praise of Navel Gazing.” It didn’t completely change my mind on the topic, but it made me reconsider my initial aversion to being seen as a navel-gazer. Febos incisively articulates the systemic undervaluing of women’s narratives and how personal writing has been gendered as feminine—to its detriment. “Bias against personal writing is often a sexist mechanism,” she writes, “founded on the false binary between the emotional (female) and the intellectual (male), and intended to subordinate the former.” If writing about oneself is a feminine act and feminine acts lack intellectual rigor, I wanted to avoid bringing myself into my work at all costs. The trouble was that I bought into this false logic in the first place.

I diverged with Febos on other points, though, such as the extent to which reading is an “exercise in empathy” (I defer to Namwali Serpell on that issue), as well as her claim that Body Work is “not a manifesto.” Even more than a craft book, it is a manifesto that claims and declares, as its subtitle states, The Radical Power of Personal Narrative. She implores her readers to:
tell me about your navel. Tell me about your rape. Tell me about your mad love affair, how you forgot and then remembered yourself. Tell me about the hands, the things they have done and held and hit and let go. Tell me about your drunk father and your friend who died.

Don’t tell me that the experiences of a vast majority of our planets human population are marginal, are not relevant, are not political. Don’t tell me that you think there’s not enough room for another story about sexual abuse, motherhood, or racism. The only way to make room is to drag all our stories into that room. That’s how it gets bigger.

You write it, and I will read it.
A sentiment I fully agree with—there’s no reason not to document your experiences, to capture yourself with words, to work through your life on the page. There is every reason to do these things! But after that last line—“You write it, and I will read it,” I couldn’t help but write in the margins: “yes, but will it be any good?” If Febos gave me permission to write about myself, then my correspondent showed me how to write about myself well. Febos sees all personal writing as navel-gazing; my correspondent saw it as a subsect of personal writing that is superfluous, unfocused, and not-very-good.

Body Work is a sophisticated, penetrating, and elegantly written argument for devoting space, time, and energy to oneself, especially those who have been marginalized and excluded from literary history. For any writer leery of venturing into the personal for fear of being “unserious”—like college-aged me!—this is required reading. I was privileged to speak with Febos about cultivating internal discernment, the quiet work of bearing witness, and why she thinks of writing in terms of temperature.

The Millions: Earlier in your writing career, you were somewhat in thrall to the “the fantasy of toughness—the idea that lack of feeling signified mastery of it.” I love this line. When I read memoir, I want my narrators to feel deeply—I find nothing particularly cool about being cold. At the same time, I want them to be clear-eyed enough to reflect critically on their emotions and actions. In writing personal narrative, how do you negotiate being vulnerable with doing the more detached work of analyzing your own life?

Melissa Febos: I couldn’t agree more! In general, I’m increasingly more interested in being warm, instead of cool. I actually think of writing a lot in terms of temperature. Memoir is almost always interested in topics and experiences that I think of as hot—like, they have a lot of magnetism, they are active and roiling, they can burn to touch. They require a lot of care in handling. When I first approach my subject, it’s messy—there are a lot of the intense feelings, and only the crude bones of what will later become the essay are visible to me.

As I work my way into it, and through it—using craft techniques, research, lyrical modes, et cetera—it starts to cool a bit. And the tools of writing—the aesthetic elements—work as mediators between me and that molten subject. While handling the difficult past and processing it, which is slow and challenging work, I am half distracted by the more instinctive and imaginative and analytical pursuits of my artist brain. That distance allows me to move toward and through difficult emotions and memories in a way I cannot under any other circumstances.

It’s this dynamic that makes writing the site of so much personal transformation and integration for me. By the time a reader sees the work, that molten beginning is still in it, but it is layered over and molded by the whole process—the aesthetic, emotional, and intellectual progressions are all visible and working together to form this very faceted and crafted final product.

The simpler answer to your question is that I let the process take as long as it takes, and I support myself in a lot of ways while I’m writing. Some essays take years and years to ripen before I can really, safely, thoroughly write them. I lean on my creative community a lot. I lean on my spiritual practices. I take a lot of breaks and get a lot of hugs and seek the counsel of other people frequently.

TM: As a woman writer I’ve often bought into what you call “the false binary between the emotional (female) and the intellectual (male),” in which the former is subordinated to the latter. For so long women’s intellect was discredited that there remains a pressure to prove ourselves. As a woman writer yourself how have you confronted this binary, and how would you advise any writer of any gender to confront gendered expectations around their writing?

MF: We’re bombarded with this kind of gendered conditioning from the moment we are born, so I don’t know anyone who is immune to it. The important first step for me has been to stop blaming myself for internalizing the bad ideas that I’ve been disciplined to believe. I’ve had to confront this in many areas of my life. For instance, feeling ashamed of having body shame does nothing to free me from body shame, you know? So, I try to approach the interior voices that parrot these messages with compassion, and then begin the sustained work of countering them.

A big part of this work consists of cultivating an internal discernment. When I have the thought No one cares about this story or This has been done before or This isn’t serious nonfiction, I practice slowing down, so that instead of taking these ideas for granted as true, I have the space to ask myself, Do I really believe that? Does this belief arise from my own experience as a reader? If the answer is no, then I ask, Where did it come from? Sometimes it’s like solving a crime in that a useful question is often: Who benefits from this belief? Who benefits from the silence of this voice or from discrediting this story?

The idea of having to prove my intellect is a trap, and one I wasted a lot of energy on as a younger writer, and a student, and a person in the world—which is no accident. It’s an illusion that distracts and dissuades me from creating my best work. It gets me to cosign a definition of “intellectual” that excludes many forms of my own intelligence. It tricks me into disembodiment.

The other important part is surrounding myself with people who are also committed to this work. I mean, friends and peers and role models, but also the books I’m reading and teaching. Though I’m sort of framing it as an individual undertaking, what we are talking about is social change and social change does not happen in a vacuum or in silence or in secret. It is a collaboration that begins in relationships, that grows out of the stories we tell and to which we give our attention.

TM: Historically women have loomed large in memoir. Four of The New York Times’s top five memoirs of the past 50 years are by women, and it seems like so many leading figures of the form—Cheryl Strayed, Vivian Gornick, Maggie Nelson, Sarah H. Broom, Mary Karr, Alison Bechdel, Carmen Maria Machado, Margo Jefferson, Jesmyn Ward, Elizabeth Gilbert, Patti Smith, Roxane Gay, etc., etc.—are women. How are gender and memoir as a genre interrelated? What do you make of the remarkable surge of women memoirists who are really coming to define the form?

MF: This is one of the main premises of Body Work—that personal writing has been gendered as female over the last 25 years and the biases against it have grown in parallel. I think the perception of “confessional” poetry has taken a similar trajectory, though it begins more like 60 or 70 years ago.

It’s arguable that memoir’s popularity really peaked decades ago, and many magazines that used to publish personal writing no longer do. But overall, the popularity of memoir makes sense, historically. Particularly those by women. Women’s stories, like those of all folks of marginalized identities, are relatively absent from our national histories because they weren’t considered worthwhile or were considered dangerous to the prevailing social structure, and because women didn’t have access to the parts of society that are considered relevant to history or to the means of documenting them publicly, whether they lacked time, a room of one’s own, etcetera. Therefore, they were often isolated from each other, isolated from knowledge of the shared aspects of their experiences. Partly as a result of this vacuum, women—and so many other marginalized folks—are hungry for each other’s stories.

Also, we are all hungry for these kinds of stories. Whatever biases they have, all sorts of people love reading personal writing because it is not actually gendered subject matter. The stories of bodies and interior life, families and sex and friendship and death, and the way our understanding of them changes over time—we all benefit from the sorts of insights that mark the genre of memoir.

Still, if you think about even the most successful memoirs, they might be rewarded in terms of sales, but it is incredibly rare that they are lauded in the institutional way that historically male forms are recognized. How many times has a memoir won one of our most prestigious literary prizes? Almost never. The ones that are occasionally recognized are usually those that include some significant aspect that has been historically gendered as male: theory, journalism, more analytical or archival realms of nonfiction, books that use the personal to overtly take a broad social or historical view. Or they are authored by writers who have already proven themselves by masculine-gendered metrics, like Patti Smith or Joan Didion. Don’t misunderstand me, I love these books—and I write them! But I see clearly the lack of institutional recognition given to straightforward memoirs, books whose principal forms of intelligence and insight—corporeal, psychological, interpersonal, sexual, interior, “domestic”—have largely been gendered female. In the even rarer occurrence that this sort of writing is recognized as serious or intellectual, it’s often written by a man.

I mean, if the equivalent to Karl Ove Knausgård’s autobiographical works, which I appreciate, were written by a woman—multiple enormous books detailing the granular details of motherhood and home life and the narrator’s attending thoughts—would it have found a publisher? If it did find a publisher, do you think it would have been an international literary sensation? Would it have received many awards? The idea is laughable, until it’s cryable.

TM: You cull such amazing examples and excerpts, from heavyweight theorists like Sontag and Foucault, to the leading writers of today, like Natasha Trethewey, Raven Leilami, and Garth Greenwell, among many others. What was your research process like for this book? You pull, for instance, such great models for sex-scene writing; how did you know those were the ones you wanted to spotlight?

MF: My process of consulting and sometimes including other texts in this book was a bit different from my research process for my previous books. Usually, when I’m in the early stages of writing an essay, I have a distinct research phase. I’ve established my interest in a subject and probably begun writing some early ideas and outlines, but my best energy during this phase is spent reading. I cast a wide net, scavenging in databases of scholarly articles, library stacks, whirling in Wikipedia eddies, and talking about my subject obsessively with everyone. It’s a kind of ecstatic, overwhelming state to be in—seething with questions, my mind sparking. Everything leads back to the subject and everything feels connected. It has elements of what Jung might call synchronicity, or what other psychologists might call “selective attention.”

Body Work was less an immersion than a distillation of thoughts that had been circling my mind for many years. [These thoughts] were based on observations accumulated over years spent reading and teaching, and refined through the writing process. So, my own thoughts and experience were really the main source, and the other texts were ones I was already familiar with, that had already contributed to my thinking, rather than new ones that served as foils spurring me deeper into the work. As I was writing the sex essay, for instance, I just made a list of all the sex scenes that came to mind, that rested within reach. The ones I cite in the essay were mostly ones I thought of without ever looking at my bookshelves. I trusted that my memory had already collected and filed the sex scenes that stood out to me, and it had.

TM: I imagine teaching memoir poses unique challenges, since your students are often producing such vulnerable, intimate works. How has your philosophy of personal narrative informed you as a teacher of writing?

MF: My philosophy of personal narrative has been informed by my experiences in the classroom as much as the other way around. So much of what I write about in Body Work came out of years of working with other writers—seeing what making this kind of art did in their lives, what prevented them from doing it, and how the aesthetic processes interacted with their emotional, psychological, and social experiences.

I guess I could think of the phenomena unique to personal writing that occurs in my classrooms as challenging, but I more often think of it as a privilege and an opportunity. I feel so fortunate to have a job that essentially boils down to facilitating other artists as they develop their relationships to their lives and the world they live in through the medium of this form of art. It’s fucking amazing. I love being the custodian of a space where they can do this work, which is so much more than the work of writing—it is the work of growing, becoming, learning how to be in community, how to be seen by others, how to see others and ourselves.

I’ve learned a lot over the years about how to hold a space into which people bring their greatest fears, their secrets, their traumas, their regrets and humiliations and rage. I have learned how to create and maintain boundaries. I have learned—and learned how to teach others—that it isn’t any of our jobs to fix or react to other people’s feelings, only to do the quiet work of bearing witness, of demonstrating that pain is not always an emergency. One of the things that we learn, over and over, is that the most confounding and painful of experiences, when looked at through the lens of art and artistic practice, can become opportunities—to transform those experiences and ourselves vis-à-vis the artistic process, and to demonstrate the possibility of that alchemy for other humans.

In Body Work you advocate for unlearning entrenched attitudes around personal narrative. What other books on craft would you recommend to a burgeoning writer looking to do some unlearning?

I think the unlearning education is one most supported by books that aren’t writing craft books, because our writing is us—our ideas and beliefs and perceptions and feelings, it’s all completely integrated. Unlearning entrenched attitudes is less of a craft issue and more of a life issue. This is one of the arguments of Body Work: that to awaken to a greater truth in our writing, we must awaken inside of ourselves, inside of our society. That said, Matthew Salesses’s Craft in the Real World is fantastic, as is Paisley Rekdal’s Appropriate, How to Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ, Hélène Cixous’s work on écriture féminine. But really, the unlearning literature at our disposal is vast and multifarious. I think everyone should start by reading Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider—over and over.

An Unexpected Encounter: On the Illustrated ‘Ulysses’

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When Spanish painter Eduardo Arroyo set out to illustrate James Joyce’s Ulysses in the late 1980s, he did so with the hope that the final product could commemorate the 50th anniversary of Joyce’s death, in 1991. But resistance from Joyce’s estate prevented the project from ever coming to fruition. Forever after, Arroyo dreamed of one day seeing Joyce’s original text and his own illustrations side by side in a single volume. When, in 2011, Ulysses entered the public domain, that dream became possible.

To commemorate the centennial of James Joyce’s Ulysses, Other Press will publish Arroyo’s dream—a fully illustrated volume of the novel, featuring over 300 color and black-and-white illustrations by Arroyo—in collaboration with Spanish publisher Galaxia Gutenburg. Judith Gurewich, publisher of the Other Press, took on the project just before Arroyo’s death in 2018; although he won’t himself see the edition’s publication on January 25, 2022, Gurewich takes pride in knowing that she helped bring his decade-long dream to life.
The Millions spoke with Judith Gurewich about Arroyo’s legacy, the challenges of reading Joyce, and her international collaboration with Galaxia Gutenburg.
The Millions: This book was a collaboration between you and Galaxia Gutenberg publisher Joan Tarrida, the seeds for which were planted during a visit to Tarrida’s Barcelona’s publishing house apartment. Can you talk a bit about the nature of your collaboration with Tarrida?
Judith Gurewich: I came across Eduardo Arroyo’s artwork even before I met Joan Tarrida. Arroyo’s watercolors were spread on the chairs, tables, and windowsills of the elegant living room at Galaxia Gutenberg, and I was simply blown away. When Joan came in to meet me, I asked right off the bat who this artist was and what his drawings and watercolors were for. This is how this wild collaborative project started. Then Joan took me to a more formal conference room where we talked about literature and about books we could buy from or sell to each other. We made many, many deals after that meeting. It was truly an unexpected encounter. We have very similar tastes and visions of the world.
TM: In 1935, Matisse was commissioned to illustrate an edition of Ulysses, of which just 1,000 copies were made, though many speculate that the artist never in fact read the book himself. Why do you think Arroyo is the right artist to illustrate this new edition of Ulysses, and what about his style do you think complements the novel?
JG: Arroyo has an interesting artistic perspective. For him, the contemporary movements of abstract expressionism and even surrealism weren’t political enough, so he opted instead for a form of radical figurative art more in line with George Grosz or Roberto Matta. Eduardo was thrown out of Spain for resisting the Franco regime, and he remained exiled in France for more than 15 years. By the time he decided to illustrate Ulysses, he was back home and democracy had returned. But his satirical acumen had found a perfect target.
When it came to Ulysses, I think Arroyo felt free to accompany the passages he picked with whatever came to his mind. I don’t think he was under any injunction to make sense of the book. This is an impossible task anyway. As Joyce himself said, “The demand that I make of my reader is that he should devote his whole life to reading my works.” I also think that Arroyo’s interventions serve as a form of punctuation, or as a breather. Joyce’s genius and/or madness allowed him to see all aspects of life on the same plane. No high or low, no distinction between what is allowed or forbidden. Arroyo reveals that Joyce’s work isn’t about interpretation. It is a straightforward process.
TM: Obviously the timing of this project is tied to Ulysses entering the public domain, but why else do you think now is the right time to reintroduce Ulysses to U.S. readers? Because it is such a famously challenging and, for many, prohibitively inaccessible novel, do you think this new edition might help readers rediscover it—that is, engage with it differently or more deeply—or introduce it to new readers who were previously too daunted to dive in?
JG: I think Joyce is a puzzle and will remain a puzzle. But what is interesting is that what was provocative and eventually censored is today also part of the public domain: pornography, insulting the church, speaking the unspeakable. Joyce was a prophet in a way, and one day we may finally be able to fully grasp what he has to say. But for now we have Arroyo to hold our hand as we peruse our illustrated version of this impossible masterpiece.
Honestly, nothing will make Joyce easier. Arroyo’s works are merely an homage to the incomprehensible, interrupted at times by scenes that are easier to understand. Joyce is a mad artist who wants to mess with his reader, and Arroyo is a serious artist who insists on making art accessible. Turning the pages of the book, looking forward to the next drawing may also encourage some of us to read a few sentences. This is good enough, no?
Classics are a necessity in our lives because they say different things at different times. But I wouldn’t call Ulysses a classic that you are delighted to “rediscover.” It isn’t so much a classic to reread but a classic that maybe hasn’t been fully read yet.
TM: At 720 pages, 1.25 lbs., and 8.82″ by 12.28″ in its hardcover binding, this edition looks more like a coffee table book than a novel—and to capture the grandeur of Arroyo’s illustrations, it surely needed to be. How do you feel about this book as an art object?
JG: I think this is an art object more than a book. Anybody will tremendously enjoy turning the pages—the drawings are at once complex, satirical, and super easy to grasp. No art history course required!


This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Whiting Foundation Names Creative Nonfiction Grantees

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The Whiting Foundation named the nine recipients of the 2021 Whiting Creative Nonfiction Grant. Recipients of the Whiting Creative Nonfiction Grant, now in its sixth year, receive $40,000 to support a nonfiction project. Previous grantees include Sarah M. Broom, Andrea Elliot, and Kristen Radtke. This year’s grantees are:

Rebecca ClarrenAshley D. FarmerKevin GonzálezSangamithra IyerLorelei LeeCatherine Venable MooreNina SiegalAli Winston and Darwin BondGraham

Below are brief bios and descriptions of each of the grantees’ manuscripts, the titles of which are provisional.

Rebecca Clarren

An American Inheritance: Jews, Lakota, and the Cost of Free LandHistory/Reportage Forthcoming from Penguin Books

An American Inheritance investigates the parallel histories of the author’s family, who fled anti-Semitic pogroms in Russia in the early 20th century to settle on land in South Dakota given to them by the U.S. government, and the Lakota who were then forced off that land, examining what happens when the oppressed become the oppressors.

Ashley D. Farmer

Queen Mother Audley Moore: Mother of Black NationalismHistorical biographyForthcoming from University of North Carolina Press

An essential book: this is a biography of not only an extraordinary and understudied figure but an entire movement. Queen Mother Audley Moore gives the fraught, feminized, and often unglamorous work of organizing its due, and it contributes to our working knowledge of the history of civil rights, filling in the gaps throughout the twentieth century. Farmer’s groundbreaking and tenacious research allows her to build what other writers claimed was impossible: a full-length biography of the mother of modern Black nationalism. 

Kevin González

JuracánMemoir/History/Cultural reportageForthcoming from Pantheon

Juracán is a memoir about growing up in Puerto Rico in the ’80s and ’90s, of immigrating to the United States in search of opportunities not available on the island, and of being caught between languages and cultures. At the heart of the book is the search for the author’s father, distant in youth, who during Hurricane María became trapped in his apartment without running water or electricity until González was able to return to the island to rescue him. Juracán—hurricane—is the name the native Taíno Indians bestowed upon their god of chaos and destruction, who would descend on the island to air his wrath by way of torrential storms. This mythical figure serves as an overarching metaphor as the book examines Puerto Rico’s colonial relationship with the United States.

Sangamithra Iyer

Governing BodiesEcology/Memoir/ReportageForthcoming from Milkweed Editions

Governing Bodies is a lyrical manifesto and ethical reckoning of the ways earthly bodies are controlled by and liberated from colonialism, capitalism, and speciesism. The book intertwines the story of the author’s paternal grandfather, who quit his job as a civil engineer in colonial Burma to become a water diviner and join the Freedom Movement in India, with the author’s own journeys as a civil engineer, writer, and activist. It foregrounds the rights of animals, the mythology and meanders of rivers, and the strength and vulnerability of the earth. Governing Bodies inhabits liminal spaces and acts as a catena, linking wide-ranging subjects from personal and planetary grief to invisible inheritances, and asks what it means to embody nonviolence.

Lorelei Lee

Anything of ValueMemoir/Cultural reportageForthcoming from HarperCollins

Organizer and sex worker Lee’s Anything of Value blends memoir, history, and critical theory to reevaluate our cultural understanding of sex work and its intersections with class, race, gender, labor, bodily integrity, and the law—and ultimately argues for sex work decriminalization.

Catherine Venable Moore

Disunion: West Virginia Coal Miners and America’s Other Civil War     HistoryForthcoming from Random House

Disunion is a history of the West Virginia Mine Wars, one of the most dramatic struggles for civil rights that this country has known, but also one of the nation’s most obscure. In recounting the stories of three major strikes leading up to the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921—commonly referred to as the largest armed insurrection in U.S. history since the Civil War—Moore brings to life the miners and their families, many of them immigrant or Black, and the tenuous alliances they forged as they repeatedly went up against the powerful combination of corporations that exerted autocratic power over their lives.

Nina Siegal

The Diary KeepersCultural historyForthcoming from Ecco

The Diary Keepers was born out of a New York Times article, “The Lost Diaries of War,” which explored a trove of more than 2,000 diaries collected by the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies in Amsterdam. The author has chosen seven diaries from the collection, which she weaves together to tell the story of the war from varying perspectives, like a multi-character novel. They include narratives of Jews in hiding and imprisoned, a grocery store owner who became a member of the resistance, a young, unaffiliated factory worker in Amsterdam, and a police officer and Nazi collaborator who ran a special unit to hunt Jews. Taken together, their stories create a fascinating mosaic of life in the Netherlands in the five harrowing years from Germany’s invasion of the Netherlands to the end of occupation. 

Ali Winston and Darwin BondGraham

The Riders Come Out at Night: The Failure to End Police Brutality and Corruption in OaklandHistoryForthcoming from Atria Books

The Riders Come Out at Night profiles the Oakland Police Department, the law enforcement agency under the longest-running federal reform program in the United States. The authors, prize-winning independent journalists, have followed the story for 13 years. Through an examination of the department’s past and present, the book examines the evolution of contemporary policing in America and delves into whether the profession, in its current shape, can be reformed.