Flannery

When I was in fourth grade, my family took a trip to Washington, D.C. My memories of this time are few and hazy, though I remember being excited before we went. As a young nerd, two of my favorite things, in general, were museums and U.S. presidents.

I remember that on the drive down from New York, we stopped in Maryland to eat at a Bob’s Big Boy, which my parents were not happy about. It was my brother Jim’s birthday. We stayed in a hotel, something that, as a large family, we didn’t do often. There was a pool there, which thrilled me and my siblings.

I remember standing in front of the White House on a gray day, my youngest brother at the time beside me in a stroller. We went to Arlington National Cemetery to see the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the John F. Kennedy Eternal Flame. I was sad to find out that the Kennedys had had a baby who died. Growing up Irish Catholic, I was sad to hear about most misfortunes that befell the Kennedys.

We visited Mount Vernon, which I remember being some kind of colossal failure, I think mostly because it was unseasonably hot and my siblings were cranky and bored. At the gift shop, my parents bought me a book. It was full of small biographies of famous American women. I spent the drive home reading it, memorizing details from the lives of women like Edna St. Vincent Millay, Margaret Mead, and Flannery O’Connor, none of whom I’d heard of previously.

Flannery O’Connor was of particular interest, her first name being my last name. I worried that, perhaps, I could never become a famous writer because there wouldn’t be room for two people with the name Flannery in American letters. (Her actual first name was Mary, a fact that has never left me.) However, I felt a kinship with her. She too was Irish Catholic. She had liked animals, which were very important to me as a nine-year-old. She was also, of course, bookish.

I didn’t actually read anything by Flannery O’Connor until my senior year in high school, when our teacher, herself a devout Catholic, assigned several of her short stories in our AP English Literature class. Reading those stories, I felt as stunned as Julian’s mother after she is knocked in the head with a pocketbook at the end of O’Connor’s “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” I hadn’t expected the violence, the sharp observations of human behavior, the mysticism. It was then that I became a Flannery O’Connor devotee which I knew, somehow, had been inevitable.

I saw earlier this week that The Paris Review tweeted, in honor of her birthday, this 2012 blog post with a recording of Flannery O’Connor reading her classic story “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Since listening to it, I’ve been thinking about my favorite O’Connor stories, which I’ve shared below. (I’ve linked to the stories, if I could find them on the internet. I can’t promise that the text will be perfect, as I didn’t read through all of them.)

I find that I go back to these and other stories often, both in my mind and in rereading them. My relationship with them has changed over time. When I started writing more seriously, focusing on short stories, I experienced O’Connor’s writing less as a reader and more as a writer. As my relationship with Catholicism grew weaker, I felt less emotionally connected to her expression of spirituality and more intellectually interested in it. Even though I can’t recreate that feeling of being hit over the head that I experienced when I first read her work, I know that Flannery O’Connor has affected me as a reader, a writer, and probably as a human.

Remembering our first encounter, my reading her short biography in the backseat of my family’s car, looking at a photograph of Flannery supporting herself with crutches on the steps of her Georgia home, I think about the little ways in which life is strange and mysterious. And I’m grateful for them.

Haley’s Favorite Flannery O’Connor Stories:

5. “Wildcat”

6. “The Geranium”  / “Judgment Day” (“Judgment Day” is considered a rewrite of “The Geranium.”)

Also, if you’re interested in the life of Flannery O’Connor, I recommend Brad Gooch’s biography Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor

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Emphatic Hands Turns Two

Emphatic Hands Turns TwoHello. I haven’t written (here) in a while. I needed to take a little break from writing about personal stuff and then when I thought I should start up again it had been so long that I felt too paralyzed to write anything and then all of the sudden it had been a month and that just felt too long, so here I am again. The end-of-summer-slash-beginning-of-fall seems like a good enough time to get back to writing, anyhow.

A few weeks ago, on August 21 (I think), Emphatic Hands turned two. I never imagined I could keep it going this long. I’m proud that this blog is still kicking and immensely pleased that it still has a few loyal readers.

Even after two years, however, I’m still struggling with what I should really use this space for. At the beginning, I didn’t know what to write about other than my daily life, so I posted a lot about books, recipes I’d tried, and things I’d done over the weekend. Over time, I started writing fewer diary-like accounts and more personal essays. I still write a lot about books. And a little bit about music. And, when I have time, I like rounding up interesting stuff I’ve read on the internet.

My plan, for now, is to try to post some kind of personal essay each week. And then to post my weekly link roundup on Fridays. From time to time, I’ll share music I’ve been listening to and book reviews. I’ll try to stick to a schedule as best I can.

Anyway, thank you all for reading what I write here. I’ve grown a lot as a person and a writer over the last two years. Writing for an audience has helped me in more ways than I can count and I’m looking forward to continuing to do so for as long as I can.

Journal Failures

The other day someone asked me if my blog is “about something or more like a journal.” I didn’t really know how to answer. Is it about something? Um, not really. It’s about…me, I guess. I suppose that would make this more of a journal. But I also don’t like thinking of it as “a journal” because of my long history of failing to keep journals.

When I was in second grade, I purchased a tiny diary with a lock at a book fair. The diary was pink with a ballet slipper on the front. The fact that I chose that particular style of diary confuses me now, as I don’t remember being much of a girly girl. But alas, maybe that was the aesthetic I was aiming for then. I wrote my deepest thoughts in that diary in pens of many different colors, as collecting a variety of pens with unnaturally hued inks was one of my main interests at the time.

At first, I vowed to write in my diary every night before I went to bed, which I did faithfully for a grand total of four days. After that, I found that I had a lot of trouble writing about the mundane. Over the next few years, I was compelled to write in the diary only when something big happened, like when my very first nemesis chased me around our playground – which was the parking lot for our school and church – and called me a “skinhead,” which led me to pretend that I was sick and spend the afternoon crying in our principal’s office. Or when I was angry at my family friend and had the sudden realization that she was “a BICH,” which I scrawled with gusto and then crossed out for fear that my mother, who I was convinced was reading my diary, would see that I had written a word that I wasn’t even supposed to know.

Eventually, I gave up writing in the ballet slipper diary. I found it years later, when I was fourteen and we were moving to a new house. I threw it out along with all the other notebooks that reminded me of my past selves.

The number of journals I started after that first one, I don’t think I could count. I followed the same pattern with all of them. I would write consistently for a few days, until the pressure to write every day became too much and I would set the journal aside entirely because I was so ashamed of my failure.

Then, in my junior year of high school, I discovered LiveJournal thanks to a group of my friends who published reliably “emo” laments and screeds on the platform. LiveJournal was the first place that I shared my thoughts and feelings for public consumption. I assumed that my friends were the only people who read my entries, which were appropriately dramatic for a seventeen-year old who spent a not insignificant amount of time driving around suburban New York alone, listening to Belle & Sebastian.

Many months into LiveJournaling, I found out that the college I’d applied to early decision had deferred my application. I was despondent. I was almost too embarrassed to write about what I deemed, at the time, to be my greatest failure. But I did it. I wrote a post about how I felt, in which I said that I deserved to get into this school just as much as anyone else.

It turned out that more people than my friends were interested in what I wrote. Days after I’d published that post, someone told me that they’d heard from another girl in our class that I had said that another girl who had also applied to the same school and was deferred didn’t deserve to get in. I was indignant. This wasn’t what I’d said at all. I was talking about myself. I tried to clarify this in another post, but that didn’t really matter. The damage had been done. I was irrevocably a bitch who talked shit about other people on her LiveJournal.

Though that was the only time I remember someone taking issue with words I’d posted on the internet, the same sort of “bitch” characterization occurred several times for me during that year. A few things I said in real life were either taken out of context or blown out of proportion. I accidentally made enemies just by being myself. I didn’t have “mean girl” status in high school. In fact, I didn’t think I had any status at all. I felt powerless when others called me names or said they hated me. I rarely defended myself, except to those who were on my side in the first place. When I wonder why it took me so long to develop my voice and to rid myself of any of the fear I’ve felt in exercising it, I have to think that this reinforcement of my self-consciousness had maybe a little bit to do with it.

After my LiveJournal incident, I posted less and less frequently, until I stopped posting altogether. I wouldn’t write anything personal to post on the internet again until I started this blog. (I’m not counting Facebook or Twitter because, well, I never really used those platforms to express sincere personal opinions or stories.) I did try keeping private journals again, with varying degrees of success.

I wrote in a journal when I studied abroad in Paris. At first, I recorded everything I did and felt, focusing mostly on my acute homesickness and broken-heartedness. Eventually, though, I became used to things in Paris. I was busy. I had made friends. I didn’t need the journal so much anymore. I wrote a few final entries during my last week, and when I got home to New York, one of the first things I did was stash it in the top drawer in my bedside table. When I opened it years later, I was too embarrassed by what I’d written to read it at all closely and threw it back in the drawer.

I procured another journal during my senior year of college, which I very faithfully wrote and drew in for months and months. When I stopped writing in it as much, I felt the same sort of anger at myself that I always did when I abandoned journals. But then, I just decided that I couldn’t put pressure on myself to write in it. I would use the journal when I needed it, when writing out my feelings made sense. This was extremely helpful during a period when I was trying to figure out “what I want to do with my life.”

I still have this journal, though I’ve mostly abandoned it like I have all of the others. It sits next to my bed, in a basket underneath my nightstand. I’ve crossed out the address in the front and written a new one three different times, not because I think I’m going to lose it, but to note the passage of time. I only open it these days when I feel that I need to write out how I’m feeling in a safe, private place. This has occurred only twice within the past year. Both of those entries were about men. I think the four previous entries were also about men. It’s effectively become a journal about my uneventful love life, which is something I don’t think I’ll write about in public until those non-events are well in the past.

When I first started writing here, I actually wondered how long it would take me to abandon Emphatic Hands. But I’ve been consistently posting for a year and a half now and am kind of shocked by my dedication. In a way, this blog has become my first successful journal. It’s also become my first successful blog. So…who really cares what it’s about? I’m just glad it’s still happening.

What It’s Like To Be A ‘Girl’

When Girls first premiered, I told anyone who cared that I refused to watch it. How could I watch a show that was basically about my life? As a 24-year old living in New York City*, I was convinced the show was going to be a bizarro version of my own experience, which would make it “too weird” to watch. I can admit now, two years later, that I only said these things because I was jealous of Lena Dunham. She got to write a show about the kinds of things I was going through at that very moment. I wanted to be writing that show, but she was. But instead of sitting down and writing my own show or short stories or novel, all I did was complain about the things – my job, my lack of financial support, all of the choices I’d ever made up until that point – that I saw standing in my way.

However, I’m never one miss out on a pop culture moment. I eventually succumbed to the hype after two episodes had aired and “caught up.” I liked Girls. I became a regular viewer. There have always been some parts of the show that rubbed me the wrong way, but I’ve remained a fan and (mostly quiet) advocate of the show over the last two years.

Girls is now in its third season and for the first time, I feel compelled to write about it. This past week’s “Free Snacks,” the seasons’ sixth episode, struck a chord with me. Well, one storyline in particular did. For those of you who haven’t (or won’t) watch the episode, Hannah, whose ebook publication has been stalled for now, gets a job writing for an advertorial section in GQ. She quickly impresses her boss in a brainstorm, but pisses off at least one of her new teammates with her spot-on ideas. When she tells her colleagues that she doesn’t see herself doing this job for long because she wants to be a real writer, they reveal that they’re all writers – of varying degrees of New York-y successfulness – but pursue writing on the side as they’ve settled into the corporate comfort of their jobs. Joe, Hannah’s teammate who has sort of taken her under his wing, tells her that she just needs to write her own stuff on nights and weekends. It’s hard, but it what you have to do.

It’s been a few days since I watched the episode and there’s a lot of stuff I could write about Hannah’s character growth or the expansion of the show’s world, but I keep thinking about how Hannah’s new job storyline relates to my own life. As much as I’ve enjoyed watching Girls – even and maybe especially because of all the parts that have made me uncomfortable – during the past few years, I’ve never been able to confidently identify with any of the main characters. I can’t pinpoint which “Girl” I am because I don’t think I’m any of them.

Shoshanna is too much of the person I tried very hard not to be for me to relate to her, though I recognize what the writers have tried to make her character represent (sometimes). Jessa has always seemed a caricature of certain privileged people who have floated around the periphery of my life. I understand Marnie’s confusion about her identity and uptightness, but I’m not sure I would have made any of the choices she has.

And I’ve always known that I’m not “a Hannah.” Yes, Hannah is a not-yet-successful writer. But she is devoted to writing in ways that I’m not, is confident in her voice, and has made things happen for herself in a way that I’ve never been able to. I, on the other hand, dove right into a career without even the slightest clue that writing professionally was even an option for me. Once I did realize that I wanted to write, I also realized that I’m less willing to struggle than someone like Hannah. I’m afraid of losing my parents’ approval and having to deal with their anxieties about whether or not I’ll be able to support myself. And frankly, I like making enough money to get by, even if it means that I can’t spend all day working on my personal projects. As much as I fantasize about not working an office job, there is a definite comfort in being paid to go somewhere every weekday.

So, you know who I am? I’m Hannah’s new co-workers. Well, I’m a less successful version of Hannah’s new co-workers. Some of them have actually been published. I’ve never been published anywhere but on this blog and, so far, it’s been hard not to be deterred by rejection. But the more I write here, the more I understand my voice and the types of things I’m capable of writing. And this has enabled me to come up with new projects that I’m excited to be working on, even if nobody else is all that into them. It’s hard to keep motivated or maintain any sort of writing momentum while working full time but when I can, I try hard to write on those nights and weekends.

And then, sometimes, I don’t. There are nights I could use for writing when I end up doing something else instead. I like socializing, which often means drinking and dinners that last later into the night than I’d planned. Sometimes, I have to do laundry or cook. Watching TV, reading, reviewing for the class that I’m taking, these all take the time that I could use for writing. And work really does takes a lot of my energy. At the end of “Free Snacks,” when Hannah falls asleep on the couch after work, just after she’s proclaimed that she’ll spend the next three hours writing, I felt her. I liked the Hannah at the end of this episode, who has decided to stick it out at the new job and try to write on nights and weekends, I guess, because she’s become more like me.

Over a year ago, a colleague of my father’s who is also a reader of this blog told me that I should write about Girls. She said she thought I would have an interesting perspective on the show. I told her that I couldn’t possibly write about it. There were already so many people writing recaps and think pieces and garbage that who really cared what I thought about this show? This, of course, was bullshit. Another excuse to mask what I really thought. What I meant was that I didn’t think I could write about it. I wasn’t a critic. I wasn’t even a real writer. Just a person with a small, unfocused blog. Everyone else could write about it better than I ever could.

But here I am, writing about Girls. Or, I guess, writing about myself by writing about Girls. Which leads me to think that I’ve changed. I know I’m still not a critic or “real” – whatever that means – essayist or professional writer. But that doesn’t mean I can’t become one of these things eventually. I just have to write more critical pieces. Getting more serious about writing has been a consistent goal of mine since graduating from college. What I’ve needed more than anything in order to achieve this is confidence, which I feel that I’ve been gaining, slowly but surely. Maybe I’m becoming a little bit more like Hannah, a little less afraid of rejection and certainly more willing to write things that fail.

*I was then living in Manhattan, but months later moved to Greenpoint, where the show is set. I get my coffee at Cafe Grumpy every morning. Take what you will from these facts.

Writing While Female

This past weekend, I finally got around to reading the Rebecca Mead’s profile of Jennifer Weiner in The New Yorker. I don’t read The New Yorker cover to cover like I used to, which I’m sure is due to the fact that I go to the gym less these days. Say what you will about my gym routine, I get a lot of reading done while “doing cardio.” But because I’m lazy about working out, I also am lazy about reading the magazines I subscribe to, so now I pick many of the articles I want to sweat on before I go to the gym, mostly because I’ve seen people talking about them on Twitter. In the case of the Weiner profile, not only had I read a lot of tweets about the article, but I’d also read many tweets about her and what she had to say about the state of fiction being written by women.

As an occasional writer and reader of fiction, the profile gave me a lot to think about. Weiner is right about many things. Reviewers and readers don’t treat fiction written by women the same way they treat fiction written by men. And we simply don’t see much coverage of commercial fiction or the fiction that exists in what New York Times Book Review editor Pamela Paul called “the vast middle.” I’ve been guilty of not reading – and “writing off” – certain female authors precisely because they write commercial fiction or “chick lit.” I even wrote a little bit about this last week when I talked about my relationship with historical fiction over the years and my dismissal of the genre during college as too fluffy for me, though I read Philippa Gregory novels than I had time for.

I think it’s hard to be a female writer and not care about being taken seriously. I didn’t think I could write anything at all until a few years ago because I felt that no one would care about anything I had to say. I don’t mean that I actively though that. Rather, I dismissed the idea of being a writer for a lot of reasons, and when I finally sat down and thought about it in the midst of an extremely frustrating summer as an unpaid intern the summer after I graduated from college, I realized that underneath all of the very rational reasons I had come up with for not being a writer, there was a fear of being unsuccessful. And at that point I’m sure I thought I would only achieve success if I wrote a big, literary novel.

I started writing anyway. I took a few fiction writing classes at NYU. In one of them, I found one of my biggest fans, an older Swedish poet and writer named Gun, who was a little crazy and a lot amusing. She was always positive about my manuscripts – many of which were sloppy and amateurish – and for that, I thank her. But there was one time when she said that my work reminded her of “chick lit” and I almost lost my shit. I brooded over that one for days, thinking that if what she liked about my work was its chick littiness, then maybe her liking it didn’t matter. Maybe I needed to write differently.

That never really happened, though I did start trying not to judge what I write. I’m a 26 year-old woman and what comes naturally to me is to write about things that I’ve experienced and some of those things are dating and struggling with my weight and working on my self-esteem and generally trying not to fuck up at being a person. Though it’s not totally out of the question, I’m probably never going to be a traditional literary writer. So there’s a chance that, if I do eventually write a novel, someone will classify it as “chick lit.” I won’t be mad about it though. I hope I’ll be happy enough to have written something (or to have finished writing something) at all.

Anyway, just read the profile. It’s good and you don’t need to subscribe to The New Yorker to access it, which is nice. Let me know what you think.