Telling Our Own Stories

As I wrote on this blog’s about page, this is where I go when I have nowhere else to go. One of the main reasons I started this blog was because I had started to feel like people needed my writing to be everything to everyone, and the pressure of those expectations was producing some unprecedented writer’s block. The intense personal writing that I had initially become known for was what suffered most, because that’s where it was most impossible for me to address every possible angle of each situation.

Sometimes when I wrote about my personal experiences, people would show up in the comments section and leave their own perspectives, both the similarities and the differences. Sometimes, stark differences. There they would discuss other personal factors that I had been unable to discuss because those weren’t my own factors. This is good. At its best, that’s how internet commenting should be.

But I would also get so much anger. “What you haven’t considered is ____.” “Yeah well what about _____.” But I’m _____ and that’s not how it is for me at all!” “Why didn’t you address _____?” “I’d like this article a lot more if you’d talked about _____.”

And I started getting angry, too. Why were these people expecting me to write about their lives and not my own? Why couldn’t they get their own blogs? How is one person struggling through depression (the thing I wrote about most often) supposed to address every conceivable experience anyone has with depression ever?

And so, writer’s block.

Of course, when I’m able to take a step back and think about it more charitably, it makes sense. Many people wish so much to see their own stories in print, but either they don’t know how to find the words or, more likely, they worry about the consequences of writing publicly about the things I write about. I’m very lucky in many ways, but remember, too, that I face many of those same consequences.

It made a lot more sense to me recently when I read this article about Black Widow and “high-stakes stories,” and why people were so upset about the treatment of Black Widow in the new Avengers movie:

There’s nothing wrong with stories about women who are housewives or stories about women who struggle because they were forcibly prevented from having kids as a condition of whatever mission they chose to undertake. The problem is that with so few women in superhero movies, each of these portrayals stands not only for the choices Whedon made, but for all the choices he and many others didn’t and don’t make. The portrayals of Natasha and Laura rankle at some level, for me, not because they are stories about a woman traumatized by not having children and a woman waiting for her husband to come home, but because it’s another story about those two women rather than any of the other bazillion women who could exist in this universe and don’t. If you had five butt-kicking women in this movie, it would seem perfectly logical that one of them might have a story related to getting pregnant or not. Why wouldn’t she?

These, for me, are scarcity problems. They are problems because there are so few opportunities to show women in action blockbusters that I tend to crave something very much capable of moving discussions of what those portrayals can be like forward.

This is, of course, a different situation and my writing is not a Joss Whedon film (in either the good ways or the bad ways), but I think that there is a scarcity of stories being told about things like mental illness and queerness and sexual assault, and so those of us who are telling these stories are expected to speak for everyone who has lived these stories.

And even though these stories are being told more and more now, and there are many more of them than I could ever read, many people don’t feel like they can share their own. So they look to those of others.

But I can’t tell other people’s stories for them. If I could, maybe I wouldn’t have dropped out of that journalism program years ago.

What I can do is share the writing of people whose stories are different from mine, and I do this online literally as much as I can. I have 2,000 articles saved on my phone that I still need to read. I read them as fast as possible and then I post them, with quotes, to make sure people get at least a little of it if they don’t click.

There’s nothing more I can do now besides hand over my blog to someone else and have them write it instead. And then that person will have the same (possibly overlapping) set of people angry at them for telling their story and not someone else’s.

What else is there? I could end each sentence with “but of course a person of a different gender/race/sexual orientation/class/ethnicity/nationality/religion/body type might experience this differently,” except that 1) that makes for horrifically bad writing and 2) even someone who is exactly like me on all those dimensions might experience this differently. Annoying put-downs about snowflakes aside, we are all unique.

I’m frustrated but I understand. Everyone deserves to have their story told, but not everyone is able (for any number of reasons) to tell their own story. I don’t see how I could do it any better than you, though.

So I try not to take it personally, but in the meantime, writing has become very hard indeed.

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Check Your iPhone At The Door

Now that I’m in graduate school, the beginning of each semester is an opportunity for me to hear the same lecture four times over: the lecture on How It Is Rude And Disrespectful To Your Fellow Students To Use Technology In Class For Anything Other Than Taking Notes, and how, therefore, technology use for anything other than notes is strictly banned in class on pain of lowered grades or public humiliation.

I mean, usually I don’t care that much. I have other ways of distracting myself when I’m bored or anxious, such as writing blog post drafts in my notebook. Presumably, that is okay because it does not involve a keyboard or a screen.

But this past week, two things happened that made me realize/remember how irritating this is. One is that a professor kept rattling off dates and assignments and I was unable to effectively record them because my to-do list and my calendar are both in my phone. (I wrote them down on paper instead, obviously, but that adds an unnecessary extra step and thus an extra opportunity to make an error.)

The other is that I have eight hours of class in one day a week this semester, and that means eight hours during which I am not allowed to respond to emails or messages. Here’s the thing. My role as a student is not my only role. I also have a job. I also have friends and loved ones who sometimes need things from me. I also have projects and other things I organize or volunteer for. I have money to manage. I have an apartment to maintain and roommates to maintain it with.

I am, obviously, not the only student in this situation; we are all in this situation. Maybe it bothers them, too. Maybe it doesn’t because we have different priorities.

Regardless, not being able to access technology for eight hours of one day actually has consequences for me in my role as a friend, partner, roommate, daughter, employee, freelancer, volunteer, and organizer. They’re not horrible consequences; they’re not unmanageable consequences. They are consequences that I might accept if I were choosing them by myself as part of a tradeoff.

But I’m not choosing them here. They are being chosen for me in a paternalistic and condescending way. The message is that I must prioritize my role as a student–in the limited way this role looks to my professors–during these entire eight hours, regardless of what’s going on in the rest of my life.

I am an adult, and I should be able to, at times and within reason, prioritize other things, such as comforting a depressed friend or moderating an online support group I run or doing some online banking or jotting some notes for a piece I need to write, over being a model student.

The patronizing way that my classmates get dragged into this is irritating, too. In a progressive program such as this one, professors probably know that they can’t get away with demanding that we refrain from touching our phones as a sign of respect and deference. So instead, much is made of the fact that the use of electronics for non-approved purposes is a “distraction” to fellow students and is thus “disrespectful.” From authoritarianism to communitarianism, I suppose.

First of all, if my checking my email is distracting to you, I don’t see why taking notes on my laptop wouldn’t be (and that’s, of course, grudgingly allowed). These things look about the same on the outside. They look like scrolling through text and typing things.

Second, our professors are always expecting us to learn how to deal with various adverse situations because they will be part of our work. This is good, though sometimes they take this too far. Bigotry from classmates, for instance, is expected to be tolerated and responded to kindly and copmassionately, because we will encounter this in our work. Guess what? The presence of a person texting on their smartphone may also occur in a work environment, and you need to learn how to manage that and not get distracted by it.

It’s interesting that expressions of bigotry in the classroom are not considered too “distracting” for the students who are presumably targeted by that bigotry. Me taking some notes for a piece I’m working on, though, is a distraction too severe to be tolerated. What I’m hearing here is that professors don’t feel like challenging bigotry or finding ways to prevent its expression (preferring instead to to have everything up for “discussion”), whereas banning technology serves their own needs and purposes. So what is distracting and what is not distracting, or what we need to learn to manage and what we do not need to learn to manage, depends more on the professors’ whims than anything else.

Finally, it is irritating to me, as a student who does not get distracted by other students’ laptop or gadget use, to be spoken for in this way. When professors say, “Do not check your email; it is distracting to your classmates,” I am one of these classmates being used to restrict someone else’s behavior. Nevertheless, I am capable of keeping my eyes on my own notebook and on the professor. You could be watching porn on your phone next to me for all I care.

I can’t help but contrast this with my experience at conferences and other types of lectures. Technology is welcomed into these spaces. We use hashtags to connect with other attendees and respond to the material we are being presented. There are disadvantages to the proliferation of technology use at conferences and lectures, but also advantages. I feel that I learn as much, if not more, at these events as I do in my classes.

Obviously, conferences and classes have different aims and work in different ways. My point isn’t that classrooms need to become more like conference halls and that we need to adopt course-specific hashtags or whatever. My point is that technology doesn’t necessarily inhibit learning, and nor does it necessarily distract others around you from their learning.

And none of this is to deny that technology can interfere with classroom experiences, that professors can experience it as disrespectful, or that students can make irresponsible and ultimately harmful decisions about technology use.

But I don’t appreciate being treated like a child, and that doesn’t make for a great learning experience, either. I don’t appreciate the adverse effects these rules have on my ability to keep my life and my education organized and productive. I don’t appreciate feeling “on display,” like I have to “perform” my student role by refusing to ever glance at my smartphone screen or open a new tab for my email. I already have problems with feeling like my behavior is constantly being watched and judged; I imagine many women do. This seems like the opposite of the sort of space a social work professor would want to cultivate.

I’m sure they imagine they’re creating a space that’s focused and respectful and engaged. To me, it just feels stressful, restrictive, judgmental, and infantilizing.