strong women writers: may we read them, may we become them

I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.

In high school, it was Sylvia Plath.  I read her poetry religiously and I would write down quotes of hers in my notebooks. I thought she was the only person who understood me when I was fifteen, sixteen, and seventeen. She validated my emotions – my feelings about being a young woman, belonging to a dysfunctional family, and who I wanted to be as a poet. She beautifully articulated my fears of failure, love, and growing up – and because of that, I didn’t feel so alone. The teacher of my 12th grade AP Literature & Composition class based our grades off of our daily participation points, and one day I felt as if I’d won the lottery when we read a Plath poem and my teacher started quizzing us about her life. I had a verbal sparring match with an ostentatious classmate and smirked after I’d rattled off more Sylvia Plath facts than him, which resulted in our teacher putting more tallies next to my name on the piece of paper she hid in her agenda.

But people were skeptical of me when I told them how much I liked her or saw me closely reading  her Unabridged Journals or The Bell Jar – they jumped right to her suicide. “Oh, don’t read too much of her work! You’ll get depressed.” But God forbid telling 18-22 year old white guys not to read Catcher in the Rye. Never mind the fact that Sylvia had her first poem published when she was eight years old, graduated summa cum laude from Smith (not to mention she wrote over four hundred poems during her time there) won a Fulbright Scholarship to study in Oxford, and even though she received backlash from the writing world, specifically in the poetry genre, which was dominated by men in the 1950s and 1960s, still never lost her ambition to make her voice heard.  While she did battle depression for most of her life, she accomplished so much and her literary career inspired me. Her talent, intelligence, passion for academia and to see the world differently through her writing should not be overlooked just because she ended her own life.

Although I was a poetry fanatic all through high school, I’ve toned down that love a bit and have directed my focus to the nonfiction genre in the past year and a half, although much like every other young Millennial woman, I own a copy of Milk & Honey by Rupi Kaur and consider it the Bible. Last semester, I was in a really great writing class that was about writing non-academic essays and it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. Studying the different forms of essays and experimenting with creative nonfiction diversified my personal library, and resulted in me finding Cheryl Strayed, Sloane Crosley, and Marina Keegan. All of these women, in one way or another, have helped me figure out what kind of writer I want to be since I branched out from poetry. These women taught me that you can be funny and honest simultaneously while writing (but I’ve found that mastering this balance is quite difficult and I need a lot more practice), and most importantly, they’re all really fucking good.  

Whatever happens to you belongs to you. Make it yours. Feed it to yourself  even when it feels impossible to swallow. Let it nurture you, because it will.

Writing about Cheryl Strayed without sounding like an obsessed lunatic is going to be hard, but I’ll try my best. Her memoir, Wild (which recently was given a huge reference in the Gilmore Girls revival, so I hope more people read it) saved my life. I cried the first time I read it because it was that good – breathtakingly honest, heartbreaking, and beautiful. She wrote an advice column for The Rumpus under the pseudonym Sugar, and compiled her best responses into a book called Tiny Beautiful Things. I reread Wild at the end of this past summer when I was going through a few major life changes, and it pulled me out of my rut. Strayed’s literary career is a result of her steadfastness in the wake of all the trauma, loss, heartbreak, and personal setbacks she has experienced, and she has inspired me to be braver in all aspects of my life – as a writer, woman, and feminist. The same goes for Jeanette Walls, who wrote the memoir The Glass Castle.

We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life.

I was on Amazon a few months ago, and looking for a new book to read, when I discovered The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan. A few days later, it was in my hands, the cover photo of an auburn-haired girl in a yellow peacoat staring back at me. I’d never heard of Marina before, so I Googled her, hoping to find more of her work. But it didn’t take me long to realize that all of the articles I found about her were written in the past tense….five days after Marina graduated from Yale in 2012, she died in a car crash – this left me shaken up quite a bit. Her book of essays and stories was published posthumously, and her writing has not only left an affect on me but I’m sure millions of other college-aged girls around the country. At first glance her nonfiction, especially her last piece as editor of The Yale Daily News, seems as though it was inspired by John Keating’s carpe diem philosophy from Dead Poets Society, because it talks about the importance of being young, and seizing opportunities, and how much time we have to be whatever we want to be, but overall,  Marina’s voice is so clear, appropriately poignant, and effortlessly elegant – a voice that sounds wise beyond her years but still stays true to her own generation. She is a rare talent that left us too soon, and if she were still alive I would want to get coffee with her – I have a lot to learn, and one day I hope to discover what the opposite of loneliness is.

The world of humorous essayists is one that is still mostly ruled by men, namely David Sedaris, but the likes of Hollywood comedians such as Mindy Kaling and Amy Poehler have offered their own takes in this genre, going as far as to unofficially create a subgenre called the “femoir”. Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? is cheesy yet remains a guilty pleasure – I read some of the passages when I’m having a bad day and find myself throwing my head back to cackle.  But the David Sedaris’s of the world have met their female match, and her name is Sloane Crosley. Her humor is not as obvious as Mindy Kaling’s – it’s quick. It’s dry. It’s the kind of funniness that I want to want to master with my own writing. How Did You Get this Number and I Was Told There’d Be Cake are honest portraits and thoughtful recollections of a young woman’s journey to adulthood and navigating New York City. Crosley gives me hope for a new generation of funny women who aren’t afraid to say what’s on their minds.

The women that I wrote about today are only a few examples of the women that I have to look up to – and while I encourage everyone to drive to their nearest bookstores or hit Amazon to start reading, what I really want to say is that women need and are deserving of good representation in the writing world, across all genres. Our voices are being marginalized and watered down by fashion magazines, dating advice columns, and platforms like The Odyssey that limit our potential. We’re capable of writing about things other than the color of lipstick we’re wearing, our horoscopes, our dating lives, how to spice things up in the bedroom (although there is nothing wrong with women who like writing about those things), especially during an age where more women are pursuing an education. The topics that we write about and are recognized for should not be so limited. We have all the more room to write about the things we want, we have all the more room to be funny, to be honest, to write about what hurts and what brings us joy. We have the room to be and create a more inclusive, diverse narrative. 

Strong women writers – may we read them, may we become them.

Keep your friends close and your writing utensils closer,

Grace

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