Brain Pickings

Art, Inc.: A Field Guide to the Psychology and Practicalities of Becoming a Successful Artist

By:

How to master the business of art without buying into the toxic myth that doing so makes you a lesser artist.

“Art is a form of consciousness,” Susan Sontag wrote in her diary. But for many working artists, who straddle the balance between creativity and commerce, art swells into a form of uncomfortable self-consciousness — something compounded by a culture that continually pits the two as a tradeoff. Cartoonist Hugh MacLeod captured this perfectly in proclaiming that “art suffers the moment other people start paying for it.” Such sentiments, argues artist Lisa Congdon in Art, Inc.: The Essential Guide for Building Your Career as an Artist (public library), are among the most toxic myths we subscribe to as a culture and reflect a mentality immeasurably limiting for creative people.

Congdon, a longtime collaborator of mine and a prolific artist herself, offers those looking to make a career in a creative field, wherever they may be along the journey — aspiring artists just discovering their talent, part-time artists trying to transition into full-time, seasoned artists seeking new ideas to reinvigorate an existing career — the necessary tools for defining success by their own standards, then attaining it on their own terms. From practicalities like pricing, marketing, and photographing your work to psychological tussles like dealing with self-doubt, learning to say “no,” and managing the ebb and flow of success, she offers a 360-degree map of the terra incognita that is the modern creative life-cum-living.

Illustration from Lisa Congdon's 'Tender Buttons,' an illustrated inventory of Gertrude Stein's favorite objects. Click image for more.

Interspersed throughout the seven chapters are conversations with established artists, from legendary graphic designer Paula Scher, who shares the semi-serendipitous evolution of her magnificent typographic map paintings, to Nikki McClure, whose exquisite cut-paper illustrations make it hard to believe she is an entirely self-taught former ecologist.

In the foreword, Jonathan Fields, courageous explorer of what it means to lead a good life, observes the resistance so many creative people have to labeling ourselves “artist” — a resistance that bears striking parallels to the way many women relate to the label “feminist.” Reflecting on growing up with a mother who was a gifted potter and painting with great joy throughout his childhood, he writes:

For some reason, when you hit a certain age and a certain level of “seriousness,” and you start calling yourself an “artist,” making a living at it becomes a source of great controversy. People who have nothing to do with the exchange between you and those who would enjoy your work start to pass judgment. Money, they proclaim, bastardizes both the process and the output.

Why this cultural rift emerged, I really don’t know. Maybe it has to do with the establishment of a power and money structure defined largely by gatekeepers and chosen ones — external arbiters controlling not only the flow of eyeballs, but income. Maybe it comes from the ire of those who’ve not yet figured out how to make their calling their profession seeking to tear down those who have, labeling them sellouts and hacks. Maybe it stems from something entirely different.

Whatever the source, what’s become clear to me is that you no longer have to wait to be picked.

Indeed, the precipice to which the internet has pushed creative culture is in large part what makes Congdon’s book so timely and urgently valuable, and her own atypical journey lends her advice hard-earned credibility. Congdon didn’t grow up dreaming of being an artist, nor did she have even a hobbyist’s art practice until her thirties when, struggling to recenter after an eight-year relationship ended, she picked up a paintbrush for the first time since middle school. She took a painting class at the local university’s continued education department and quickly fell in love with art, eventually going from “someone with no art experience and a very basic skill set to someone who now has a full-time career drawing and painting.”

Illustration from Lisa Congdon's 'Whatever You Are, Be a Good One,' a hand-lettered compendium of famous wisdom. Click image for more.

In the introduction, she marvels at the remarkable sense of arriving into herself that art afforded her:

What felt different about art from former pursuits was that I was motivated by something I hadn’t experienced before: an intrinsic desire to create. It was deep-seated and primal; once I discovered it, I had to make art like I had to breathe. From this passion came a desire to expand my skills, even in areas that were out of my comfort zone. I taught myself to use new media and techniques and practiced for hours and hours until my hand felt like it would fall off.

But, in a testament to the idea that getting noticed hinges on actively showing your work, it wasn’t until she started sharing her art online in 2005 that Congdon began connecting with people who would eventually buy it — and this art of sharing art is, not coincidentally, a centerpiece of Congdon’s handbook. Doing that, it seems, is in large part a matter of getting out of your own way creatively. Congdon writes:

While there is no one perfect formula that will work for every artist, I realized there are a few clear paths and work habits that, used in some combination, can lead to consistent, paying, and satisfying work.

[...]

One thing I know for sure is that to be a successful artist, you must start with the simplest proclamation: I am an artist. It’s a basic assertion, but seeing yourself as an artist — legitimate and genuine — can be transformational.

Illustration by Lisa Congdon from 'The Reconstructionists,' our yearlong celebration of remarkable women. Click image for more.

But perhaps Congdon’s most urgently important point has to do with the mythology of what it means and what it takes to be an artist artist. She admonishes against buying into the perilous notion of the “starving artist”:

Much of what separates successful artists from those who struggle is simply their mindset. Struggling artists often create obstacles in their minds by making erroneous assumptions about the way the world works. They give weight to the “starving artist myth”—part conventional belief that pursuing a career as an artist leads to financial struggle and part romanticized notion that art is better when created in a state of deprivation. But the starving artist myth is just that: a myth. And believing in any part of it will keep you from becoming a thriving, working artist.

Creating a flourishing art practice comes from passion, talent, and hard work. Promoting your work means that people will know what you do. And selling your work will support your livelihood and allow you to make even more art. This is the “thriving artist’s mindset.” Artists who possess this mentality are not frightened by the notion of making money. They think in terms of possibility and abundance, not limits and scarcity. They’ve given themselves permission to thrive.

As a vehement opponent of the “starving artist” myth myself, I’ve often marveled at how the inimitable Patti Smith embodies precisely the difference Congdon outlines. Smith was, quite literally, an artist who starved early in her career, as evidenced by her lettuce soup days. But, as Seth Godin once remarked in considering the necessary vulnerability of being an artist, even though Smith was homeless for years — dumpster-diving for food and sleeping on park benches — she never thought of herself as a homeless person; she thought of herself as “an artist who hasn’t found her muse yet.”

Congdon illustrates the difference between these two mindsets, which map rather neatly onto Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s pioneering model of fixed vs. growth mindset.

Ultimately, Congdon suggests that the fusion of creative purpose and financial fruition comes from the integration of our values with the price of success, however we choose to define it. She writes:

Finding equanimity in the midst of our creative and entrepreneurial journeys is truly our life’s work.

Complement Art, Inc. with a lesson from Muppets creator Jim Henson on bridging creative integrity and commercial success and Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson’s wise admonition against buying into the notion of “selling out,” then revisit Anna Deavere Smith’s invaluable advice to aspiring artists.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

David Foster Wallace on Writing, Self-Improvement, and How We Become Who We Are

By:

“Good writing isn’t a science. It’s an art, and the horizon is infinite. You can always get better.”

In late 1999, David Foster Wallace — poignant contemplator of death and redemption, tragic prophet of the meaning of life, champion of intelligent entertainment, admonisher against blind ambition, advocate of true leadership — called the office of the prolific writer-about-writing Bryan A. Garner and, declining to be put through to Garner himself, grilled his secretary about her boss. Wallace was working on an extensive essay about Garner’s work and his newly released Dictionary of Modern American Usage. A few weeks later, Garner received a hefty package in the mail — the manuscript of Wallace’s essay, titled “Tense Present,” which was famously rejected by The New Republic and The New York Review of Books, then finally published by Harper’s and included in the 2005 anthology Consider the Lobster and Other Essays. Garner later wrote of the review, “a long, laudatory piece”: “It changed my literary life in ways that a book review rarely can.”

Over the course of the exchange, the two struck up a friendship and began an ongoing correspondence, culminating in Garner’s extensive interview with Wallace, conducted on February 3, 2006, in Los Angeles — the kind of conversation that reveals as much about its subject matter, in this case writing and language, as it does about the inner workings of its subject’s psyche. Five years after Wallace’s death, their conversation was published in Quack This Way: David Foster Wallace & Bryan A. Garner Talk Language and Writing (public library).

Wallace begins at the beginning, responding to Garner’s request to define good writing:

In the broadest possible sense, writing well means to communicate clearly and interestingly and in a way that feels alive to the reader. Where there’s some kind of relationship between the writer and the reader — even though it’s mediated by a kind of text — there’s an electricity about it.

Wallace, who by the time of the interview had fifteen years of teaching writing and literature under his belt, considers how one might learn this delicate craft:

In my experience with students—talented students of writing — the most important thing for them to remember is that someone who is not them and cannot read their mind is going to have to read this. In order to write effectively, you don’t pretend it’s a letter to some individual you know, but you never forget that what you’re engaged in is a communication to another human being. The bromide associated with this is that the reader cannot read your mind. The reader cannot read your mind. That would be the biggest one.

Probably the second biggest one is learning to pay attention in different ways. Not just reading a lot, but paying attention to the way the sentences are put together, the clauses are joined, the way the sentences go to make up a paragraph.

This act of paying attention, Wallace argues, is a matter of slowing oneself down. Echoing Mary Gordon’s case for writing by hand, he tells Garner:

The writing writing that I do is longhand. . . . The first two or three drafts are always longhand. . . . I can type very much faster than I can write. And writing makes me slow down in a way that helps me pay attention.

In a sentiment that brings to mind Susan Sontag’s beautiful Letter to Borges, in which she defines writing as an act of self-transcendence, Wallace argues for the craft as an antidote to selfishness and self-involvement, and at the same time a springboard for self-improvement:

One of the things that’s good about writing and practicing writing is it’s a great remedy for my natural self-involvement and self-centeredness. . . . When students snap to the fact that there’s such a thing as a really bad writer, a pretty good writer, a great writer — when they start wanting to get better — they start realizing that really learning how to write effectively is, in fact, probably more of a matter of spirit than it is of intellect. I think probably even of verbal facility. And the spirit means I never forget there’s someone on the end of the line, that I owe that person certain allegiances, that I’m sending that person all kinds of messages, only some of which have to do with the actual content of what it is I’m trying to say.

Wallace argues that one of the most important points of awareness, and one of the most shocking to aspiring writers, can be summed up thusly:

“I am not, in and of myself, interesting to a reader. If I want to seem interesting, work has to be done in order to make myself interesting.”

(Vonnegut only compounded the terror when he memorably admonished, “The most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know what is interesting and what is not.”)

Wallace weighs the question of talent, erring on the side of grit as the quality that sets successful writers apart:

There’s a certain amount of stuff about writing that’s like music or math or certain kinds of sports. Some people really have a knack for this. . . . One of the exciting things about teaching college is you see a couple of them every semester. They’re not always the best writers in the room because the other part of it is it takes a heck of a lot of practice. Gifted, really really gifted writers pick stuff up quicker, but they also usually have a great deal more ego invested in what they write and tend to be more difficult to teach. . . .

Good writing isn’t a science. It’s an art, and the horizon is infinite. You can always get better.

Despite the prevalence of mindless language usage, Wallace — not one to miss an opportunity to poke some fun at then-President George Bush — makes a case for a yang to the yin of E.B. White’s assertion that the writer’s responsibility is “to lift people up, not lower them down,” arguing that part of that responsibility is also having faith in the reader’s capacities and sensitivities:

Regardless of whom you’re writing for or what you think about the current debased state of the English language, right? — in which the President says things that would embarrass a junior-high-school student — the fact remains that … the average person you’re writing for is an acute, sensitive, attentive, sophisticated reader who will appreciate adroitness, precision, economy, and clarity. Not always, but I think the vast majority of the time.

Learning to write well, with elegance and sensitivity, shouldn’t be reserved for those trying to have a formal career in writing — it also, Wallace points out, immunizes us against the laziness of clichés and vogue expressions:

A vogue word … becomes trendy because a great deal of listening, talking, and writing for many people takes place below the level of consciousness. It happens very fast. They don’t pay it very much attention, and they’ve heard it a lot. It kind of enters into the nervous system. They get the idea, without it ever being conscious, that this is the good, current, credible way to say this, and they spout it back. And for people outside, say, the corporate business world or the advertising world, it becomes very easy to make fun of this kind of stuff. But in fact, probably if we look carefully at ourselves and the way we’re constantly learning language . . . a lot of us are very sloppy in the way that we use language. And another advantage of learning to write better, whether or not you want to do it for a living, is that it makes you pay more attention to this stuff. The downside is stuff begins bugging you that didn’t bug you before. If you’re in the express lane and it says, “10 Items or Less,” you will be bugged because less is actually inferior to fewer for items that are countable. So you can end up being bugged a lot of the time.

But it is still, I think, well worth paying attention. And it does help, I think . . . the more attention one pays, the more one is immune to the worst excesses of vogue words, slang, you know. Which really I think on some level for a lot of listeners or readers, if you use a whole lot of it, you just kind of look like a sheep—somebody who isn’t thinking, but is parroting.

'Paper Typewriter' by Jennifer Collier from 'Art Made from Books.' Click image for more.

He returns to the question of good writing and the deliberate practice it takes to master:

Writing well in the sense of writing something interesting and urgent and alive, that actually has calories in it for the reader — the reader walks away having benefited from the 45 minutes she put into reading the thing — maybe isn’t hard for a certain few. I mean, maybe John Updike’s first drafts are these incredible . . . Apparently Bertrand Russell could just simply sit down and do this. I don’t know anyone who can do that. For me, the cliché that “Writing that appears effortless takes the most work” has been borne out through very unpleasant experience.

In a sentiment that Anne Lamott memorably made, urging that perfectionism is the great enemy of creativity, and Neil Gaiman subsequently echoed in his 8 rules of writing, where he asserted that “perfection is like chasing the horizon,” Wallace adds:

Like any art, probably, the more experience you have with it, the more the horizon of what being really good is . . . the more it recedes. . . . Which you could say is an important part of my education as a writer. If I’m not aware of some deficits, I’m not going to be working hard to try to overcome them. . . .

Like any kind of infinitely rich art, or any infinitely rich medium, like language, the possibilities for improvement are infinite and so are the possibilities for screwing up and ceasing to be good in the ways you want to be good.

Reflecting on the writers he sees as “models of incredibly clear, beautiful, alive, urgent, crackling-with-voltage prose” — he lists William Gass, Don DeLillo, Cynthia Ozick, Louise Erdrich, and Cormac McCarthy — Wallace makes a beautiful case for the gift of encountering, of arriving in the work of that rare writer who not only shares one’s sensibility but also offers an almost spiritual resonance. (For me, those writers include Rebecca Solnit, Dani Shapiro, Susan Sontag, Carl Sagan, E.B White, Anne Lamott, Virginia Woolf.) Wallace puts it elegantly:

If you spend enough time reading or writing, you find a voice, but you also find certain tastes. You find certain writers who when they write, it makes your own brain voice like a tuning fork, and you just resonate with them. And when that happens, reading those writers … becomes a source of unbelievable joy. It’s like eating candy for the soul.

And I sometimes have a hard time understanding how people who don’t have that in their lives make it through the day.

'Flights of Mind' by Vita Wells from 'Art Made from Books.' Click image for more.

Echoing Kandinsky’s thoughts on the spiritual element in art, he adds:

Lucky people develop a relationship with a certain kind of art that becomes spiritual, almost religious, and doesn’t mean, you know, church stuff, but it means you’re just never the same.

But perhaps his most important point is that the act of finding our purpose and finding ourselves is not an A-to-B journey but a dynamic act, one predicated on continually, cyclically getting lost — something we so often, and with such spiritually toxic consequences, forget in a culture where the first thing we ask a stranger is “So, what do you do?” Wallace tells Garner:

I don’t think there’s a person alive who doesn’t have certain passions. I think if you’re lucky, either by genetics or you just get a really good education, you find things that become passions that are just really rich and really good and really joyful, as opposed to the passion being, you know, getting drunk and watching football. Which has its appeals, right? But it is not the sort of calories that get you through your 20s, and then your 30s, and then your 40s, and, “Ooh, here comes death,” you know, the big stuff. . . .

It’s also true that we go through cycles. . . . These are actually good — one’s being larval. . . .

But I think the hard thing to distinguish among my friends is who . . . who’s the 45-year-old who doesn’t know what she likes or what she wants to do? Is she immature? Or is she somebody who’s getting reborn over and over and over again? In a way, that’s rather cool.

Quack This Way is excellent in its entirety, brimming with the very spiritual resonance discussed above. Complement it with this compendium of famous writers’ wisdom on the craft, including Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules for writing with style, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Susan Sontag’s synthesized wisdom, Chinua Achebe on the writer’s responsibility, Nietzsche’s 10 rules for writers, and Jeanette Winterson on reading and writing.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Bad Feminist: Roxane Gay on the Complexities and Blind Spots of the Equality Movement

By:

“Feminism is grounded in supporting the choices of women even if we wouldn’t make certain choices for ourselves.”

“Those who travel with the current will always feel they are good swimmers,” science correspondent Shankar Vedantam wrote in his excellent exploration of our hidden biases. “Those who swim against the current may never realize they are better swimmers than they imagine.”

Roxane Gay, one of my favorite minds, has been swimming against the current in many ways — female, black, large, queer. She steps firmly ashore in Bad Feminist (public library) — a magnificent compendium of essays examining various aspects of “our culture and how we consume it,” from race and gender representations in pop culture to the way revolution and innovation can often leave us unfulfilled and unheard to the gaping blind spots of what we call “diversity.” To be sure, Gay isn’t writing to and for women only — what is perhaps her most piercing clarion call to men is made sidewise and subtly, as a comment about privilege in an essay about the class asymmetries of the education system, where she writes: “The notion that I should be fine with the status quo even if I am not wholly affected by the status quo is repulsive.”

Illustration from the 1970 book 'I’m Glad I’m a Boy!: I’m Glad I’m a Girl!' Click image for more.

In the introduction, Gay examines the state of feminism, half a century after Margaret Mead contemplated its future, and justifies her identification as a “bad” feminist:

The world changes faster than we can fathom in ways that are complicated. These bewildering changes often leave us raw. The cultural climate is shifting, particularly for women as we contend with the retrenchment of reproductive freedom, the persistence of rape culture, and the flawed if not damaging representations of women we’re consuming in music, movies, and literature.

[...]

Feminism is flawed, but it offers, at its best, a way to navigate this shifting cultural climate. Feminism has certainly helped me find my voice. Feminism has helped me believe my voice matters, even in this world where there are so many voices demanding to be heard.

“With more people, there are more voices to tune out,” the narrator in Susan Sontag’s short story Debriefing observed with hollowing poignancy. Gay’s greatest feat is precisely the ability — the willingness — to tune in what we as a culture chronically tune out, to expand the constantly constricting boundaries of our bubbles as we struggle to navigate an increasingly peopled world of growing complexity. She writes:

How do we reconcile the imperfections of feminism with all the good it can do? In truth, feminism is flawed because it is a movement powered by people and people are inherently flawed. For whatever reason, we hold feminism to an unreasonable standard where the movement must be everything we want and must always make the best choices. When feminism falls short of our expectations, we decide the problem is with feminism rather than with the flawed people who act in the name of the movement…

Feminism, as of late, has suffered from a certain guilt by association because we conflate feminism with women who advocate feminism as part of their personal brand. When these figureheads say what we want to hear, we put them up on the Feminist Pedestal, and when they do something we don’t like, we knock them right off and then say there’s something wrong with feminism because our feminist leaders have failed us…

I openly embrace the label of bad feminist… I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human. I am messy. I’m not trying to be an example. I am not trying to be perfect. I am not trying to say I have all the answers. I am not trying to say I’m right. I am just trying — trying to support what I believe in, trying to do some good in this world, trying to make some noise with my writing while also being myself: a woman who loves pink and likes to get freaky and sometimes dances her ass off to music she knows, she knows, is terrible for women and who sometimes plays dumb with repairmen because it’s just easier to let them feel macho than it is to stand on the moral high ground.

I am a bad feminist because I never want to be placed on a Feminist Pedestal. People who are placed on pedestals are expected to pose, perfectly. Then they get knocked off when they fuck it up. I regularly fuck it up. Consider me already knocked off.

“Feminist,” Gay admits, is a label to which she objected early and vigorously — a label that “felt like an insult”:

I disavowed feminism because I had no rational understanding of the movement. I was called a feminist, and what I heard was, “You are an angry, sex-hating, man-hating victim lady person.” This caricature is how feminists have been warped by the people who fear feminism most, the same people who have the most to lose when feminism succeeds.

'Feminist, adj' by MariNaomi, from 'The Big Feminist BUT: Comics about Women, Men and the Ifs, Ands & Buts of Feminism.' Click image for more.

And yet, as a kind of born-again “bad” feminist (elsewhere, in a different but fittingly resonant context, she observes that “being good is the best way to be bad”), Gay laments the backwardness of such dismissals and gets to the point — the difficult, complex, nuanced point — with remarkable elegance:

I get angry when women disavow feminism and shun the feminist label but say they support all the advances born of feminism because I see a disconnect that does not need to be there. I get angry but I understand and hope someday we will live in a culture where we don’t need to distance ourselves from the feminist label, where the label doesn’t make us afraid of being alone, of being too different, of wanting too much.

[...]

Feminism is a choice, and if a woman does not want to be a feminist, that is her right, but it is still my responsibility to fight for her rights. I believe feminism is grounded in supporting the choices of women even if we wouldn’t make certain choices for ourselves.

Noting what a poor job “the feminist project” has done of celebrating diversity and multiplicity — how it has largely failed to include women of color, queer women, transgendered women — Gay argues that these failures of inclusion, even if not deliberate exclusion, have resulted in a great deal of resistance on behalf of some women, including her own younger self:

For years, I decided feminism wasn’t for me as a black woman, as a woman who has been queer identified at varying points in her life, because feminism has, historically, been far more invested in improving the lives of heterosexual white women to the detriment of all others.

But two wrongs do not make a right. Feminism’s failings do not mean we should eschew feminism entirely. People do terrible things all the time, but we don’t regularly disown our humanity. We disavow the terrible things. We should disavow the failures of feminism without disavowing its many successes and how far we have come.

We don’t all have to believe in the same feminism. Feminism can be pluralistic so long as we respect the different feminisms we carry with us, so long as we give enough of a damn to try to minimize the fractures among us.

And yet Gay lives up to her disclaimer of deeply human messiness and imperfection. In one of the essays, titled “Girls, Girls, Girls,” she examines Lena Dunham’s television series Girls — a “woman-oriented pop artifact being asked to shoulder a great deal of responsibility these days” — and launches at it critiques that, while measured and thoughtful and wonderfully nuanced, nonetheless fall victim to the very idea that feminism is a one-size-fits-all belief system that Gay herself so vehemently opposes. She writes:

I admire how Dunham’s character, Hannah Horvath, doesn’t have the typical body we normally see on television. There is some solidity to her. We see her eat, enthusiastically. We see her fuck. We see her endure the petty humiliations so many young women have to endure. We see the life of one kind of real girl and that is important. It’s awesome that a twenty-five-year-old woman gets to write, direct, and star in her own show for a network like HBO. It’s just as sad that this is so revolutionary it deserves mention.

It’s poignant sentiment on the surface, and no doubt a culturally necessary lament, but it also bespeaks a subtler dismissal of the notion — the fact, really — that a meritocracy could and should exist even within an ideological movement. (Surely, even the irreverent discussion of “bad” vs. “good” feminism acknowledges some layer of that.) Gay doesn’t allow for the fact that maybe, just maybe, the enthusiasm about Dunham’s work and its acclaim as “revolutionary” isn’t because of what she is but because of who she is — namely, that she is simply really good at what she does, and not because she’s doing it against the cultural current of the patriarchy but despite that.

Another critique jabs at Dunham’s casting choices, which include a number of her childhood friends:

People resent nepotism because it reminds us that sometimes success really is whom you know.

We are all the sum total of whom we know, with whom and what we have chosen to surround ourselves — those are the building blocks of what William Gibson termed our “personal micro-culture.” I, for one, would never have met my closest human beings — those whom I trust to be there when the sky crumbles and for whom I’d do the same in a heartbeat — were it not for what I do and what they do. People who have little separation between “life” and “work” — whose sense of purpose and identity is closely entwined with what they do for a living, which they do out of love — create a centripetal vortex that attracts kindred spirits and builds friendships that are both personally fulfilling and fertile ground for professional collaboration. NPR’s Robert Krulwich captured that importance of honoring this mutual indebtedness in his fantastic commencement address about “friends in low places.” It should be no different when those friends rise to “high” places like the popular television screen. To work with one’s friends isn’t a passive privilege but a hard-earned human gift (yes, a paradoxical phrase, because gifts are supposed to be given freely — but evidently not in this culture and not in this context) and one that should be celebrated rather than condemned.

And so it may seem easy to object that to call oneself a “bad feminist” is fair, but to call others the same is antithetical to the premise and precipitates a vortex of judgment, a kind of fractal finger-pointing reflective of Joseph Brodsky’s searing assertion that “a pointed finger is a victim’s logo.” But that, I trust, is not what Gay is doing — indeed, what lends her writing such poignancy is precisely her capacity for nuance and her ability to hold a multitude of perspectives in nonjudgmental consideration. Her rhetoric offers, above all, assurance for our ambivalences, consolation for the ripping of the psyche that happens when the vectors of the choices we make in real life and those made for us by millennia of cultural mythology and public policy pull us in opposite directions.

She is, in fact, remarkably self-aware of the limitations of these very criticisms:

The moment we see a pop artifact offering even a sliver of something different — say, a woman who isn’t a size zero or who doesn’t treat a man as the center of the universe — we cling to it desperately because that representation is all we have.

[...]

The incredible problem Girls faces is that all we want is everything from each movie or television show or book that promises to offer a new voice, a relatable voice, an important voice. We want, and rightly so, to believe our lives deserve to be new, relatable, and important. We want to see more complex, nuanced depictions of what it really means to be whoever we are or were or hope to be. We just want so much. We just need so much.

She echoes the same sentiment in a different essay, an intelligent critique of the “continued insensitivity, within feminist circles, on the matter of race” and the “willful disinterest in incorporating the issues and concerns of black women into the mainstream feminist project,” as she writes:

Is that my way of essentializing feminism, of suggesting there’s a right kind of feminism or a more inclusive feminism? Perhaps. This is all murky for me. . . .

Illustration from 'Gone Is Gone: or the Story of a Man Who Wanted to Do Housework,' a proto-feminist children's book by pioneering artist and writer Wanda Gág. Click image for more.

In another essay, titled “How We All Lose” — a survey of those rare examples of “writing about gender that is unapologetically sprawling, that reaches both backward and forward and tries to explode the vacuum of cultural conversations” — Gay considers the artificial and limiting nature of polarities:

Discussions about gender are often framed as either/or propositions. Men are from Mars and women are from Venus, or so we are told, as if this means we’re all so different it is nigh impossible to reach each other. The way we talk about gender makes it easy to forget Mars and Venus are part of the same solar system, divided by only one planet, held in the thrall of the same sun.

The most damaging belief at the root of such polarization, Gay argues, is that universal rights are a zero-sum game and equality is always at someone’s expense — a belief that blinds us to what Milton Glaser so memorably framed as the choice, the active daily choice, to perceive the universe as one of abundance rather than scarcity. Considering arguments that perpetuate such toxic mythology, namely Hanna Rosin’s questionable The End of Men: And the Rise of Women, Gay writes:

If women’s fortunes improve, it must mean men’s fortunes will suffer, as if there is a finite amount of good fortune in the universe that cannot be shared equally between men and women.

Touching on the unconscious biases even the best-intentioned of us hold, she adds:

In response to these limited ways in which we talk, write, and think about gender, these vacuums in which we hold cultural conversations, no matter how good our intentions, no matter how finely crafted our approach, I cannot help but think, This is how we all lose. I’m not sure how we can get better at having these conversations, but I do know we need to overcome our deeply entrenched positions and resistance to nuance. We have to be more interested in making things better than just being right, or interesting, or funny.

'The Hunger Games' by Suzanne Collins

In an essay titled “What We Hunger For,” Gay recounts the harrowing experience of being gang-raped in middle school (“Just because you survive something does not mean you are strong,” she remarks in one of the most haunting moments of honesty in the book) and points to The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins as one such unexpected example of bettering the cultural conversation, folding into it a beautiful meditation on the broader gift of reading:

Reading and writing have always pulled me out of the darkest experiences in my life. Stories have given me a place in which to lose myself. They have allowed me to remember. They have allowed me to forget. They have allowed me to imagine different endings and better possible worlds… The trilogy offers the tempered hope that everyone who survives something unendurable hungers for.

This tussle between remembering and forgetting, and the promise of better alternatives, bears a striking parallel to the feminist movement itself. In the penultimate essay, Gay circles back to the movement’s essential paradoxes and the dominant cultural narrative about womanhood itself:

This tension — the idea that there is a right way to be a woman, a right way to be the most essential woman — is ongoing and pervasive. We see this tension in socially dictated beauty standards — the right way to be a woman is to be thin, to wear makeup, to wear the right kind of clothes (not too slutty, not too prudish — show a little leg, ladies), and so on. Good women are charming, polite, and unobtrusive. Good women work but are content to earn 77 percent of what men earn or, depending on whom you ask, good women bear children and stay home to raise those children without complaint. Good women are modest, chaste, pious, submissive. Women who don’t adhere to these standards are the fallen, the undesirable; they are bad women.

[This] thesis could also apply to feminism. There is an essential feminism or, as I perceive this essentialism, the notion that there are right and wrong ways to be a feminist and that there are consequences for doing feminism wrong.

[...]

The most significant problem with essential feminism is how it doesn’t allow for the complexities of human experience or individuality.

She returns to her own resistance to the label “feminist” — a label, she keenly observes, “rarely offered in kindness” — and examines the inherent ambivalence many of us confront in deciding whether or not to identify with it:

I’m not the only outspoken woman who shies away from the feminist label, who fears the consequences of accepting the label.

Once again, she examines the impossible pressure on women — particularly successful women, particularly successful public women, or what Gay so elegantly terms “the dangers of public womanhood” — to reconcile the conflicting norms of female achievement:

I am a mess of contradictions. There are many ways in which I am doing feminism wrong, at least according to the way my perceptions of feminism have been warped by being a woman… I want to be in charge and respected and in control, but I want to surrender, completely, in certain aspects of my life.

[...]

My success, such as it is, is supposed to be enough if I’m a good feminist. It is not enough. It is not even close.

Because I have so many deeply held opinions about gender equality, I feel a lot of pressure to live up to certain ideals. I am supposed to be a good feminist who is having it all, doing it all. Really, though, I’m a woman in her thirties struggling to accept herself and her credit score. For so long I told myself I was not this woman — utterly human and flawed. I worked overtime to be anything but this woman, and it was exhausting and unsustainable and even harder than simply embracing who I am.

Maybe I’m a bad feminist, but I am deeply committed to the issues important to the feminist movement. I have strong opinions about misogyny, institutional sexism that consistently places women at a disadvantage, the inequity in pay, the cult of beauty and thinness, the repeated attacks on reproductive freedom, violence against women, and on and on. I am as committed to fighting fiercely for equality as I am committed to disrupting the notion that there is an essential feminism.

Illustration from the 1970 book 'I’m Glad I’m a Boy!: I’m Glad I’m a Girl!' Click image for more.

Doing that, Gay reminds us, is a matter of not buying into the myths of feminism — the myths that depict feminists as “militant, perfect in their politics and person, man-hating, humorless” — and choosing to reclaim a pluralism of definitions rather than dismissing the notion of feminism altogether. In the concluding essay, she writes:

I don’t want to cavalierly disavow feminism like far too many other women have done. Bad feminism seems like the only way I can both embrace myself as a feminist and be myself… The more I write, the more I put myself out into the world as a bad feminist but, I hope, a good woman—I am being open about who I am and who I was and where I have faltered and who I would like to become. . . .

I am a bad feminist. I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.

Therein lies the layered richness of Bad Feminist, which should be required reading for people of all genders — in Gay’s willingness to stand up as a critical optimist, inhabiting both meanings of “critical” fully and unflinchingly, and to remind us that the multitudes we each contain are not a cause of weakness but a source of our essential humanity, that embracing them in ourselves is the greatest act of personal bravery and embracing them in others the bravest political act.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.