This has been a seriously amazing week for women’s writing on the web, so we’ve got a healthy list of links for you today. And we’ve welcomed a new voice to the mix — Alice Driver, our soon-to-be new staff writer!
Paige Williams’ “The Ghost,” a Byliner Original
I’ve had this Byliner Original on my To Read list for the better part of a year. I loaded it onto my Kindle before a recent trip to Alaska, and finally sat down to read it during a long, foggy delay at the tiny Dutch Harbor airport. Paige Williams tells the story of Jason Derek Brown, a former Mormon missionary wanted for the brutal murder of a security guard. Brown’s been on the run for years, and while spinning out the story of the ongoing hunt for him, Williams weaves in fascinating details about everything from the history of armored cars to the intricacies and success rate of the Most Wanted list.
“The Ghost” is layered and ultimately mysterious, the perfect read for someone looking to escape from, say, a cramped, noisy airport terminal for a couple of hours. One of my favorite facts from the story? None of America’s most wanted fugitives have ever been apprehended in Alaska. — Eva
Kelley Benham’s “Never Let Go,” in the Tampa Bay Times
I first heard Kelley Benham‘s story on the most recent episode of Radiolab, and as soon as I had a chance I looked up the original three-part story that was originally published in the Tampa Bay Times in December. The story chronicles the birth and first few months of the life of French and Benham’s premature daughter, Juniper. Juniper was born at just 23 weeks and 6 days (normal pregnancies last 40 weeks), and Benham navigates the reader through the world of the neonatal intensive care unit: a world of ventilators and tubes; of monitors and protective plastic boxes; of stern doctors, stoic nurses, and an endless rotation of emotional parents, as she and French wait to see if their baby will survive to the next day.
Babies born before 22 weeks are considered to be miscarried or stillborn; babies are considered “viable” after 24 weeks. Juniper was born in an in-between period, about which Benham writes:
Babies born at the edge of viability force us to debate the most difficult questions in medicine and in life. Who deserves to live, and at what cost? Who decides whether a life is worth saving, or worth living? When does a fetus become a human being, with its own rights? When does life begin?
In glorious–and at times starkly, almost frighteningly blunt–prose, Benham circles around the ethics of life, viability, and parenthood. At times she just describes the situation, and it’s in these moments where the journalist in Benham shines through. Even through her voice shed of any potential maudlin sentiments, there were several moments where I was brought to tears, mostly in the moments when she is simply describing her daughter:
Tom wheeled me to her portholed plastic box. The nurse introduced herself as Gwen, but I barely heard her. There, through the clear plastic, was my daughter. She was red and angular, angry like a fresh wound. She had a black eye and bruises on her body. Tubes snaked out of her mouth, her belly button, her hand. Wires moored her to monitors. Tape obscured her face. Her chin was long and narrow, her mouth agape because of the tubes. Dried blood crusted the corner of her mouth and the top of her diaper. The diaper was smaller than a playing card, and it swallowed her. She had no body fat, so she resembled a shrunken old man, missing his teeth. Her skin was nearly translucent, and through her chest I could see her flickering heart.
She kicked and jerked. She stretched her arms wide, palms open, as if in welcome or surrender.
I recognized her. I knew the shape of her head and the curve of her butt. I knew the strength of her kick. I knew how she had fit inside me, and felt an acute sensation that she had been cut out, and of how wrong that was.
Mac McClelland’s “Schizophrenic. Killer. My Cousin.” in Mother Jones
In this beautifully rendered piece, Mac McClelland strikes that fine balance between investigative reporting and personal narrative. She skillfully weaves together the story of her own family members’ mental illnesses and the larger story of the disintegration of mental health care in the United States. The compassion with which McClelland renders her schizophrenic cousin; the non-blaming yet unflinching examination of America’s shortcomings in mental health services; and the way in which these two factors entangle and often lead to tragedy, left me breathless. Not an easy read, but an important one.
Sarah Nicole Prickett’s “A Woman Under the Influence” on The New Inquiry
Tackling mental illness from a different angle, Sarah Nicole Prickett draws us into the mindset of mentally ill women writers by drawing parallels between her own experience with bipolar affective disorder and the life of memoirist Mary MacLane.
It’s a cliche right?–the depressed writer holed up from society, penning her disturbed-yet-insightful perceptions. Prickett examines why this has perhaps become a cliche–“Records of the human condition are often kept by its least reliable narrators”–and explores the resonance MacLane has for her. Admittedly, I hadn’t heard of MacLane before this piece, and what I’m coming away with is a nuanced impression of a complicated proto-confessional-feminist who is one part delusion, one part genius, one part mystery. Prickett successfully captures that kind of personality, with its intermingling of grandiosity with vision and voice, and tells us why MacLane is so important to her: “That Mary MacLane could be wildly, really, truly of-herself, even while psychically divided against herself, makes her my personal genius.”
Helena Fitzgerald’s “All Our Little Lives” on The New Inquiry
I happened to have totally missed the #followateen phenomenon, and I’m really glad to have first encountered it in Helena Fitzgerald‘s capable hands. The smug/creepy act of following a teenager on Twitter so as to tweet about them to all your adult friends touches on a lot of issues: the general stalky creepiness of social media; the reductive way many adults view teenagers’ lives; the impulse of voyeurism; and the ultimately more skillful way in which teenagers approach social media.
My favorite thing about Fitzgerald’s handling of this phenomenon is that she doesn’t jump on the bandwagon of teens-are-so-dumb, nor does she attack the adults that participate in #followateen. Instead she uses a modern-day lens to strike at a universal and timeless truth, and examine its contemporary implications:
Teens don’t have “little” lives because they’re teens but because all our lives are small. We stumble though a pointless minutiae of the day to day. Tiny events that seem like crises are made large only in the telling. What #followateen admits is not that teenagers’ lives are smaller than our own, but that teenagers are the only ones who are doing the internet right. The social internet is determined by teenagers. Our use of the medium, and all of its memes and codes and approved and appropriated and habituated constructions and formal devices are all adapted from the language of teenagers using the internet.
Claire Messud’s interview in Publisher’s Weekly, “An Unseemly Emotion: PW Talks with Claire Messud”
In this interview writer Claire Messud tackles the issue of female rage and the lack of female protagonists, like the male ones she so loved growing up, who are unapologetically angry. Messud eats the interviewer alive, like a cat swallowing a mouse in one breathless gulp, in response to the comment that the interviewer “wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora,” the main character in her new novel, The Woman Upstairs. She responds:
For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections?
Goddamn, if I had been near Messud, I would have kissed her, kissed her for the swiftness of her rebuff, for the way she takes a sexist comment, an expectation of what a female character should be, and, historical raging fucked-up male protagonist by historical raging fucked-up male protagonist, tears it apart. Messud argues that, “rage at life and rage for life are very closely linked. To be angry, you have to give a shit.”
Alexis Page’s “Rejection Sucks and Then You Die: How to Take a Sad Sack Letter (and Shove It)” in The Rumpus
Alexis Page , you made my week with this piece. This is a hilarious, bracingly honest essay — or rant — about a profession that so often doesn’t love us back. If you’re a writer, you’ll likely recognize yourself in every paragraph of this piece, for Page manages to pinpoint every sad, shameful moment we’ve endured on this uncertain path — the hope a kind rejection fills us with, the profound anguish of knowing a 22-year-old intern is at the other end of the curt form letter, the swallowing of pride it takes to write a brief, polite response and then proceed to cry alone at our writing desks:
Or you can do what I did today. You write back—polite, brief. You cry and think what a ridiculous baby you are, but also how the rejection confirms some deep truth that you’ve been waiting for everyone else to discover. (Who are all these people? You don’t know.) You are a loser. A fraud.
But at the end of this sad-true piece, Page reminds us to keep going, to use all these not so minor set-backs as fuel in our writing — “the rejection emails, the slights you committed to memory like slam-book poetry, the anxiety, the yearning—you pour it all into the writing.” That may sound like a bleak consolation at the end of the day, but there’s something to relentlessness: My best friend recently made an incredibly lucrative deal with a major publishing house for her first novel. It is exciting and awe-inspiring and just plain unbelievable. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around it, because, while she’s certainly received praise throughout her 20s, I’ve also watched as the world has told her no over and over again, one (very famous) writing professor even telling her she should stop writing and “find something she is better suited to.” But she kept writing in the face of the all the nay-sayers, because, as she says, what else is there to do? — Simone