Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘women’

12 JUNE, 2014

Shonda Rhimes on Dreaming vs. Doing, the Tradeoffs of Success, and the Blinders of Entitlement

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“You want to be a writer? A writer is someone who writes every day — so start writing.”

By far the finest 2014 addition to the greatest commencement addresses of all time comes from Dartmouth College and Golden Globe-winning television writer and producer Shonda Rhimes, creator of some of the most acclaimed scripted dramas of the past decade. Rhimes, who graduated from Dartmouth herself in 1991, is in admirable company — the only other alums to ever give a commencement address at the university are Robert Frost and Mr. Rogers. Rather than regurgitating the usual commencement cliches, Rhimes offers honest, no-bullshit advice on what it takes to succeed (“Dreams do not come true just because you dream them — it’s hard work that makes things happen… Ditch the dream and be a doer, not a dreamer.”), why most middle-class millennials’ complaints are a failure of perspective (“Hard is relative… I’m allowed to own my freedom, my rights, my voice, and my uterus… Elsewhere in the world, girls are harmed simply because they want to get an education, slavery still exists, children still die from malnutrition.”), and how the choices we make around the priorities we set come with inevitable tradeoffs (“That is the Faustian bargain one makes with the devil that comes with being a powerful working woman who is also a powerful mother… Anyone who tells you they are doing it all perfectly is a liar.”). Hardly anyone has addressed the winding road of success with more lucidity since Bill Watterson in 1990, nor resilience with more measured assurance since Neil Gaiman in 2012, nor women with cooler conviction since Adrienne Rich in 1977.

Treat yourself to this gem of a talk — transcribed highlights below.

Rhimes reminds graduates that grit, work ethic and dogged dedication, not dreaming, is what sets apart those who succeed from those who dwindle in disappointment:

When people give these kinds of speeches, they usually tell you all kinds of wise and heartfelt things. They have wisdom to impart. They have lessons to share. They tell you: Follow your dreams. Listen to your spirit. Change the world. Make your mark. Find your inner voice and make it sing. Embrace failure. Dream. Dream and dream big. As a matter of fact, dream and don’t stop dreaming until all of your dreams come true.

I think that’s crap.

I think a lot of people dream. And while they are busy dreaming, the really happy people, the really successful people, the really interesting, engaged, powerful people, are busy doing.

The dreamers — they stare at the sky and they make plans and they hope and they talk about it endlessly… The buttoned-up ones meet for cocktails and they brag about their dreams, and the hippie ones have vision boards and they meditate about their dreams. Maybe you write in journals about your dreams or discuss it endlessly with your best friend or your girlfriend or your mother. And it feels really good. You’re talking about it, and you’re planning it. Kind of. You are blue-skying your life. And that is what everyone says you should be doing. Right? I mean, that’s what Oprah and Bill Gates did to get successful, right?

No.

Dreams are lovely. But they are just dreams — fleeting, ephemeral, pretty. But dreams do not come true just because you dream them — it’s hard work that makes things happen. It’s hard work that creates change. So… ditch the dream and be a doer, not a dreamer.

Maybe you know exactly what it is you dream of being, or maybe you’re paralyzed because you have no idea what your passion is. The truth is, it doesn’t matter. You don’t have to know. You just have to keep moving forward. You just have to keep doing something, seizing the next opportunity, staying open to trying something new. It doesn’t have to fit your vision of the perfect job or the perfect life. Perfect is boring and dreams are not real. Just do.

So you think, “I wish I could travel.” Great. Sell your crappy car, buy a ticket to Bangkok, and go. Right now. I’m serious. You want to be a writer? A writer is someone who writes every day — so start writing. You don’t have a job? Get one. Any job. Don’t sit at home waiting for the magical opportunity… Do something until you can do something else.

Rhimes puts things in perspective in a beautiful way that humbles — which is a fine but palpable line away from shaming, the cultural trope these days — millennials out of their tendency for entitlement:

Tomorrow is going to be the worst day ever for you. But don’t be an asshole. Here’s the thing. Yes, it is hard out there. But hard is relative.

I come from a middle-class family, my parents are academics, I was born after the civil rights movement, I was a toddler during the women’s movement, I live in the United States of America — all of which means I’m allowed to own my freedom, my rights, my voice, and my uterus. And I went to Dartmouth and I earned an Ivy League degree. The lint in my navel that accumulated while I gazed at it as I suffered from feeling lost about how hard it was to not feel special after graduation… That navel lint was embarrassed for me.

Elsewhere in the world, girls are harmed simply because they want to get an education, slavery still exists, children still die from malnutrition. In this country, we lose more people to handgun violence than any other nation in the world. Sexual assault against women in America is pervasive and disturbing and continues at an alarming rate.

So, yes, tomorrow may suck for you, as it did for me.

But as you stare at the lint in your navel, have some perspective. We are incredibly lucky. We have been given a gift… Now it’s time to pay it forward.

Addressing the graduating women and men (because “fatherhood is being redefined at a lightning-fast rate”), Rhimes speaks candidly about the inconvenient truth of a tradeoff — a truth that doesn’t exactly make for marketable books but reveals, instead, one of the most profound paradoxes of modern life:

As you try to figure out the impossible task of juggling work and family, [you will] hear over and over and over again that you just need a lot of help or you just need to be organized or you just need to try just a little bit harder… As a very successful woman, a single mother of three, who constantly gets asked the question “How do you do it all?,” for once I am going to answer that question with 100% honesty here for you now — because it’s just us… Because somebody has to tell you the truth.

“Shonda, how do you do it all?”

The answer is this: I don’t.

Whenever you see me somewhere succeeding in one area of my life, that almost certainly means I am failing in another area of my life. If I am killing it on a Scandal script for work, I am probably missing bath and story time at home. If I am at home sewing my kids’ Halloween costumes, I’m probably blowing off a rewrite I was supposed to turn in. If I am accepting a prestigious award, I am missing my baby’s first swim lesson. If I am at my daughter’s debut in her school musical, I am missing Sandra Oh’s last scene ever being filmed at Grey’s Anatomy.

If I am succeeding at one, I am inevitably failing at the other. That is the tradeoff. That is the Faustian bargain one makes with the devil that comes with being a powerful working woman who is also a powerful mother.

You never feel a hundred percent okay. You never get your sea legs — you are always a little nauseous. Something is always lost, something is always missing.

And yet.

I want my daughters to see me and know me as a woman who works. I want that example set for them. I like how proud they are when they come to my offices and know that they come to Shondaland. There is a land, and it is named after their mother. In their world, mothers run companies. In their world, mothers own Thursday nights. In their world, mothers work — and I am a better mother for it. The woman I am because I get to run Shondaland, because I get write all day, because I get to spend my days making things up, that woman is a better person — and a better mother — because that woman is happy, that woman is fulfilled, that woman is whole.

I wouldn’t want them to know the me who didn’t get to do this all day long. I wouldn’t want them to know the me who wasn’t doing.

So… anyone who tells you they are doing it all perfectly is a liar.

For more spectacular commencement addresses, see Kurt Vonnegut on kindness and the power of great teachers, Anna Quindlen on the essentials of a happy life, Debbie Millman on courage and the creative life, George Saunders on the power of kindness, David Foster Wallace on the meaning of life, Neil Gaiman on the resilience of the creative spirit, Patti Smith on life and making a name for yourself, and Joseph Brodsky on winning the game of life.

via @lenadunham

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11 JUNE, 2014

Anaïs Nin on Abortion and Women’s Reproductive Rights: A Prescient Lament from 1940

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“Motherhood is a vocation like any other. It should be freely chosen, not imposed upon woman.”

Anaïs Nin (1903–1977) was a woman who rejected the options handed down to her by life and instead lived by her own rules. She was also modern history’s most dedicated diarist, beginning at the age of eleven and writing until her death, for a total of sixteen volumes of published journals exploring everything from love to self-publishing to why emotional excess is essential to creativity to the meaning of life.

In 1923, when Nin was only twenty, she married the Swiss banker-turned-artist Hugh Parker Guiler. They decided on an open marriage, of which both took ample advantage over the decades. But the biological cards aren’t stacked evenly for men and women in such arrangements, especially two decades before the invention of the birth control pill: In the summer of 1940, while in a highly involved relationship with one of her lovers, Nin found herself pregnant — by her husband. The circumstances were less than ideal: Not only were Nin and her husband already in dire financial straits, but World War II had just broken out, engulfing the world in hopelessness and destruction. Meanwhile, Gonzalo, Nin’s lover, was a highly temperamental and explosive man intensely jealous of Nin’s relationship with her husband, particularly their physical intimacy. Amid these circumstances, Nin and Guiler decided on an abortion.

From Mirages: The Unexpurgated Diary of Anaïs Nin, 1939–1947 (public library) — which also gave us Nin on the elusive nature of joy — comes the author’s moving account of the complexities surrounding women’s reproductive rights and exposes how little progress we’ve made on the subject in more than seven decades.

She recounts the day of the abortion procedure, performed on August 21, 1940, by a doctor who operated on her without anesthesia despite first assuring her otherwise:

I arrived at nine-thirty and was strapped like an insane person, wrists tied, arms, waist, legs — a strange sensation of utter helplessness. Then the doctor came in. As he began to work, he found the womb dilating so easily that he continued the operation in spite of the terrific pain. And so in six minutes of torture, I had done what is usually done with ether! But it was over. I couldn’t believe it.

And yet the most important encounter at the clinic wasn’t a medical one but a deeply human one. Nin writes:

The only wonderful moment in all this was when I was lying on a little cot in the doctor’s office and another woman came in. The nurse pulled the curtain so that I could not see her. She was made to undress and lie down, to relax. The nurse left us.

Soon I heard a whisper to me: “How was it?” I reassured her — told her how I had been able to bear it without ether, so it would be nothing with ether.

She said: “How long were you pregnant?”

“Three months.”

“I only two — but I’m scared. My husband is away. He doesn’t know. He must never know.”

I couldn’t explain to her that my husband knew, but that my lover had to be deceived and made to believe I had no relations with Hugh. Lying there whispering about the pain, I had never felt such a strong kinship with woman — woman — this one I could not see, or identify, the one who was also lying on a cot, filled with primitive fear and an obscure sense of murder, or guilt, and of an unfair struggle against nature — an unequal struggle with all the man-made laws against us, endangering our lives, exposing us to inexperienced maneuvers, to being economically cheated and morally condemned — woman is truly the victim now, beyond the help of her courage and aliveness. How much there is to be said against the ban on abortion. What a tragedy this incident becomes for the woman. At this moment she is hunted down, really. The doctor is ashamed, deep down, but falsely so. Society condemns him. Everything goes on in an atmosphere of crime and trickery. And the poor woman who was whispering to me, afterwards, I heard her say to the doctor: “Oh, doctor, I’m so grateful to you, so grateful!” That woman moved me so much. I wanted to know her. I wanted to pull the curtain and see her. But I realized she was all women — the humility, the thoughtfulness, the fear and the childlike moment of utter defenselessness. A pregnant woman is already a being in anguish. Each pregnancy is an obscure conflict. The break is not simple. You are tearing away a fragment of flesh and blood. Added to this deeper conflict is the anguish, the quest for the doctor, the fight against exploitation, the atmosphere of underworld bootlegging, a racket. The abortion is made a humiliation and a crime. Why should it be? Motherhood is a vocation like any other. It should be freely chosen, not imposed upon woman.

Mirages: The Unexpurgated Diary of Anaïs Nin, 1939–1947 is masterwork of candor, insight, and raw humanity in its entirety. Complement this particular excerpt with Italo Calvino on abortion and the meaning of life, writing 35 years after Nin.

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26 MAY, 2014

The Oppressed Majority: A Poignant French Short Film about a World in Which Men Are Subject to Sexism

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A tragicomic day in the life of a man who struggles for equality in a mirror-image society dominated by women.

“Those who travel with the current will always feel they are good swimmers,” NPR science correspondent Shankar Vedantam wrote in his extraordinary exploration of society’s hidden biases, “[and] those who swim against the current may never realize they are better swimmers than they imagine.” That’s precisely what French filmmaker Eleonore Pourriat brings to life with imaginative vividness, elegantly waltzing between the hilarious and the heartbreaking, in her brilliant and pause-giving short film Oppressed Majority — a day in the life of a man who faces subtle sexism and unabashed sexual violence in a mirror-image society dominated by women. Laugh, cry, think twice:

For a deeper look at the serious issue beneath the comic veneer, see Vedantam’s indispensable The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives — a perspective-shifting even, if not especially, for those of us who consider ourselves well-intentioned and are thus most susceptible to unwitting biases.

Thanks, Julie

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21 MAY, 2014

Claiming an Education: Adrienne Rich’s Spectacular 1977 Commencement Address

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“Responsibility to yourself means that you don’t fall for shallow and easy solutions.”

In September of 1977, months before the publication of her exquisite Dream of a Common Language and exactly two decades before becoming the first and so far only person to refuse the prestigious National Medal of Arts in an act of remarkable political courage, Adrienne Rich stood before the graduating women at Douglass College and delivered one of the greatest commencement addresses of all time. The speech, titled “Claiming an Education,” was eventually reprinted in On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966–1978 (public library) — the same magnificent compendium of Rich’s writing that also gave us her timelessly beautiful exploration of how relationships refine our truths.

Adrienne Rich at age 22, 1951. Photograph by Peter Solmssen (Schlesinger Library)

What does it mean to “claim” an education, exactly? Like time, which is not something we make but something we find, Rich begins by arguing that education requires an element of active personal initiative:

The first thing I want to say to you who are students, is that you cannot afford to think of being here to receive an education: you will do much better to think of being here to claim one. One of the dictionary definitions of the verb “to claim” is: to take as the rightful owner; to assert in the face of possible contradiction. “To receive” is to come into possession of: to act as receptacle or container for; to accept as authoritative or true. The difference is that between acting and being acted-upon, and for women it can literally mean the difference between life and death.

Rich considers the gendered nature of academia’s substance, a lament that seems dated only if we choose to remain blind to the hidden currents still sweeping society. She captures this with devastating succinctness:

One of the devastating weaknesses of university learning, of the store of knowledge and opinion that has been handed down through academic training, has been its almost total erasure of women’s experience and thought from the curriculum… What you can learn [in college] is how men have perceived and organized their experience, their history, their ideas of social relationships, good and evil, sickness and health, etc. When you read or hear about “great issues,” “major texts,” “the mainstream of Western thought,” you are hearing about what men, above all white men, in their male subjectivity, have decided is important.

And yet Rich is careful to counter any misperception that taking more “women’s studies” courses is the solution to this cultural imbalance:

While I think that any [student] has everything to gain by investigating and enrolling in women’s studies courses, I want to suggest that there is a more essential experience that you owe yourselves, one which courses in women’s studies can greatly enrich, but which finally depends on you in all your interactions with yourself and your world. This is the experience of taking responsibility toward yourselves. Our upbringing as women has so often told us that this should come second to our relationships and responsibilities to other people…

Responsibility to yourself means refusing to let others do your thinking, talking, and naming for you; it means learning to respect and use your own brains and instincts; hence, grappling with hard work. It means that you do not treat your body as a commodity with which to purchase superficial intimacy or economic security; for our bodies to be treated as objects, our minds are in mortal danger. It means insisting that those to whom you give your friendship and love are able to respect your mind. It means being able to say, with Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre: “I have an inward treasure born with me, which can keep me alive if all the extraneous delights should be withheld or offered only at a price I cannot afford to give.”

Responsibility to yourself means that you don’t fall for shallow and easy solutions — predigested books and ideas, weekend encounters guaranteed to change your life, taking “gut” courses instead of ones you know will challenge you, bluffing at school and life instead of doing solid work, marrying early as an escape from real decisions, getting pregnant as an evasion of already existing problems. It means that you refuse to sell your talents and aspirations short, simply to avoid conflict and confrontation… It means that we insist on a life of meaningful work, insist that work be as meaningful as love and friendship in our lives. It means, therefore, the courage to be “different”; not to be continuously available to others when we need time for ourselves and our work; to be able to demand of others — parents, friends, roommates, teachers, lovers, husbands, children — that they respect our sense of purpose and our integrity as persons.

Enacting this responsibility to ourselves, Rich argues, is how we can begin to imagine immensities and a choice monumental stakes:

The difference between a life lived actively, and a life of passive drifting and dispersal of energies, is an immense difference. Once we begin to feel committed to our lives, responsible to ourselves, we can never again be satisfied with the old, passive way.

Adrienne Rich, 1970s

Lamenting the institutionalized biases of the academy — an academy that only a century earlier refused to grant women access and even today has a severe gender bias — Rich urges:

Too often, all of us fail to teach the most important thing, which is that clear thinking, active discussion, and excellent writing are all necessary for intellectual freedom, and that these require hard work. Sometimes, perhaps in discouragement with a culture which is both antiintellectual and antiwoman, we may resign ourselves to low expectations for our students before we have given them half a chance to become more thoughtful, expressive human beings. We need to take to heart the words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, a poet, a thinking woman, and a feminist, who wrote in 1845 of her impatience with studies which cultivate a “passive recipiency” in the mind, and asserted that “women want to be made to think actively: their apprehension is quicker than that of men, but their defect lies for the most part in the logical faculty and in the higher mental activities.” Note that she implies a defect which can be remedied by intellectual training; not an inborn lack of ability.

Returning to the central notion that education is something we claim rather than receive, Rich turns to the student’s own responsibility in the equation — an assertion essential to the education and empowerment of women, but also one whose foundation applies to all genders across all fields of personal growth:

The contract on the student’s part involves that you demand to be taken seriously so that you can also go on taking yourself seriously. This means seeking out criticism, recognizing that the most affirming thing anyone can do for you is demand that you push yourself further, show you the range of what you can do…

It means assuming your share of responsibility for what happens in the classroom, because that affects the quality of your daily life here. It means that the student sees herself engaged with her teachers in an active, ongoing struggle for a real education. But for her to do this, her teachers must be committed to the belief that women’s minds and experience are intrinsically valuable and indispensable to any civilization worthy the name: that there is no more exhilarating and intellectually fertile place in the academic world today than a women’s college — if both students and teachers in large enough numbers are trying to fulfill this contract. The contract is really a pledge of mutual seriousness about women, about language, ideas, method, and values. It is our shared commitment toward a world in which the inborn potentialities of so many women’s minds will no longer be wasted, raveled-away, paralyzed, or denied.

More of Rich’s inextinguishable mind can be found between the covers of On Lies, Secrets, and Silence. Sample it further with Rich on the dignity of love, then complement this particular gem with more spectacular commencement addresses, including Anna Quindlen on the essentials of a happy life, Bill Watterson on not selling out, Debbie Millman on courage and the creative life, George Saunders on the power of kindness, David Foster Wallace on the meaning of life, Neil Gaiman on the resilience of the creative spirit, Kurt Vonnegut on kindness and the power of great teachers, Patti Smith on life and making a name for yourself, and Joseph Brodsky on winning the game of life.

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