I had told the Chinese shopkeeper that to become a writer, I had to learn to interrupt, to speak up, to speak a little louder, and then louder, and then to just speak in my own voice which is not loud at all.
The religious and the modernist impulse seem to spring from the same engulfing moment of self-consciousness and doubt. “My God, where are we?,” then a space of ten or twenty thousand years to give us time to wander out into the shallows, gathering shells and stuff exactly like we’re not supposed to do, before the secondary wave brings in the terrible apprehension once again. It seems so hard to know what we are really doing—what it all comes down to, finally. I remember an exhibition of modernist objects at the Dallas Museum of Art a number of years ago—for the most part just the commonest sorts of things we’re used to living with, but emerged from this terrific redesign, this reappraisal toward first principles as if, to our surprise, such thoughtless accidental things could have first principles or even be adjusted to suggest the possibility. Is this what we’ve been doing all this time, it made one think, when we thought we were only sitting down or making tea or listening to the radio? Is this what we’ve been doing? How extraordinary, beautiful, uncomfortable and strange our lives have been. And maybe risky too, somehow.
I do know, though, that a lot of us point and laugh. The strategy of my aunts and mother is now my default reaction when a fifteen-year-old on Instagram calls me a cunt or when a grown-up reporter writes something about my tits. Just keep pointing and laughing, rolling your eyes with the hope that someone will finally notice that this is not very funny. Pretending these offenses roll off of our backs is strategic—don’t give them the fucking satisfaction—but it isn’t the truth. You lose something along the way. Mocking the men who hurt us—as mockable as they are—starts to feel like acquiescing to the most condescending of catcalls, You look better when you smile. Because even subversive sarcasm adds a cool-girl nonchalance, an updated, sharper version of the expectation that women be forever pleasant, even as we’re eating shit. This sort of posturing is a performance that requires strength I do not have anymore. Rolling with the punches and giving as good as we’re getting requires that we subsume our pain under a veneer of I don’t give a shit. This inability to be vulnerable—the unwillingness to be victims, even if we are—doesn’t protect us, it just covers up the wreckage. But no one wants to listen to our sad stories unless they are smoothed over with a joke or nice melody. And even then, not always. No one wants to hear a woman talking or writing about pain in a way that suggests that it doesn’t end. Without a pat solution, silver lining, or happy ending we’re just complainers—downers who don’t realize how good we actually have it.
The existential crisis that Jay referred to was a long time in the making, but when it happened, it happened fast. Someone (not me) could write a very long book on this topic, but let me do the CliffsNotes version. First, the Internet allowed people to get information without paying for it, which was not good for the newspaper business, which sold ads based on the number of subscribers. Second, the Internet and the smartphone made it so people could get information whenever they wanted it, wherever they wanted it, which was not good for the television industry, which sold ads based on the number of people who sat down to watch TV at an appointed time. Third, the 2008 financial crisis crushed the very businesses that bought the ads that funded the media industry. Newspapers were laying off people or closing altogether. The more experienced reporters were being offered buyouts, so outlets could replace them with cheaper, younger reporters. You now had fewer reporters with less experience and fewer editors writing more often to meet the never-ending deadline of the Internet.
Fourth, while media was weakened by technology and economics, it was also losing its sacred place in our democracy in the eyes of many Americans. By the time Obama had started running for president, the halcyon days of journalism were a distant memory. Public trust in the media declined precipitously, and by the time Trump won the 2016 election, the media was about as popular as Trump himself. Some of this decline can be attributed to a rise in skepticism of American institutions, but the media is not blameless either. Several high-profile incidents have given the public legitimate reasons to be more skeptical. Foremost among these is the coverage of the run-up to the Iraq war, where the media—and The New York Times, in particular—parroted the Bush administration’s false claims about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Finally, the Republican Party and the right-wing media had been running a decades-long effort to convince their voters that the media was their enemy and to create an alternative version of reality. Fox News, the Republican propaganda outlet, which marketed itself under the banner of being “fair and balanced,” was the embodiment of the effort to nullify news that ran counter to the political wishes of the Republican Party and conservative activists.
All of this meant that Obama was entering office at a time when it was harder than ever to reach people through the news media, and people were more skeptical than ever before about anything they learned from the media. Not exactly a recipe for success for a new president (and his communications director) trying to tell the country about his agenda.
When girls tell me that a book I wrote made them a feminist and they want to hug me, I let them, but I also hate myself a little bit because the feeling I am feeling most is that if they really knew me they would never say that. But I say, Thanks, thank you, that means a lot to hear, thank you. It starts to feel like nothing, which is fucking horrible, because when someone calls you a cunt it sticks. It’s everything else that feels like the fluke. I am not supposed to say that. Of the horrible things that men say to women online, I am supposed say, You get used to it. Or They must have sad lives, I feel bad for them. And it’s true—I imagine these men who spend so much time hating women and sending me pictures of fetuses or making videos screaming about my sucking their dicks must have sad lives. Of course they do. There is no version of a fulfilled life that allows someone to write fuck you cunt on Twitter or tell you over email that your four-year-old daughter will grow up to be a bitch like her mom. But despite my best intentions and pseudo-Buddhist upbringing, I don’t feel bad for them. I don’t feel compassion. I just hate them. That’s all I have.
Mathematics contrasted strongly with the ambiguities and contradictions in people. The world of people had no certainty or logic. People confused me. My mother sometimes said cruel things to me and my brothers, even though I felt that she loved us. My aunt Jean continued to drive recklessly and at great speeds, even though everyone told her that she would kill herself in an automobile. My uncle Edwin asked me to do a mathematical calculation that would help him run the family business with more efficiency, but when I showed him the result he brushed it aside with disdain. Blanche, the dear woman who worked forever for our family, deserted her husband after he abused her and then talked about him with affection for years. How does one make sense out of such actions and words? A long time later, after I became a novelist, I realized that the ambiguities and complexities of the human mind are what give fiction and perhaps all art its power. A good novel gets under our skin, provokes us and haunts us long after the first reading, because we never fully understand the characters. We sweep through the narrative over and over again, searching for meaning. Good characters must retain a certain mystery and unfathomable depth, even for the author. Once we see to the bottom of their hearts, the novel is dead for us. Eventually, I learned to appreciate both certainty and uncertainty. Both are necessary in the world. Both are part of being human.
First, the news cycle is dead in the eyes of the consumers; they want news immediately on demand. They don’t want to wait for the 6 P.M. news or the next morning’s paper to be delivered to get the latest news; they want to look at the news on their phone at any hour of the day, while killing time in line at the grocery store or sitting on a city bus. This means that reporters are basically working 24/7, updating stories posted earlier, and writing new stories as soon as events dictate. Second, digital advertising—the revenue source for most media in the modern era—is a volume game. The more content you create, the more ads you can sell, and with declining print ad sales, you need to make up the difference somewhere.
This means we live in a never-ending, always accelerating news cycle, which makes the brutal White House lifestyle more brutal than it has ever been.
If love had changed to something else, something I did not recognise, the terrace at the front of the pensión with its tables and chairs placed under the olive trees looked exactly the same as it did when I last stayed here. Everything was the same. The ornate tiled floor. The heavy wooden doors that opened out onto the ancient palm tree in the courtyard. The polished grand piano that stood majestically in the hallway. The thick cold stone of the whitewashed walls. My room was exactly the same too, except this time when I opened the doors of the worm eaten wardrobe and saw the same four bent wire clothes hangers on the rail, they seemed to mimic the shape of forlorn human shoulders.
The best and worst advice I ever got about being powerful and having a successful career was fake it till you make it. So many of us, women especially, don’t feel confident or worthy or smart enough to be in the rooms that we worked hard to get to. So instead of letting that insecurity take over and showing the world just how vulnerable we feel, we’re supposed to act like we belong. Feign the entitlement that seems to come so easily to our male peers. I live this advice every day and hate myself for it most of the time. Fake it till you make it, but at what point are you just a fucking faker?
Starlings fill the sky. They circle a large whitewashed mansion with green shutters raised above the bay. Scarlet blooms grow in turquoise pots and trees bend in the breeze inside the walls of the garden. There is shade in that garden. And a hammock strung between lemon trees. There is health in that garden. Cool walls and birdsong. I’d get to look young in that place. I’d come home to rest in that place. I’d stop running, running through airports and railway stations, running through European cities looking for rooms and coffee and company and comfort. I would stop running away from this beast inside me. We would rest here and stop being frightened of each other.