The 5th Annual 3% Conference is 2 weeks from today. One of our main stage speakers is Steve Almond, an author and creative writing teacher at Harvard's Nieman Fellowship. Almond is also co-host of the WBUR podcast Dear Sugar Radio with Cheryl Strayed, which is where he caught 3% Founder Kat Gordon's ear. She + Almond will sit down for a fireside chat about "Answeritis" on November 3: talking about framing problems better before you attempt to solve them. To illustrate Almond's amazing powers of observation, compassion and foresight, Gordon asked him to respond, Dear Sugar-style, to this impassioned letter from a 3 Percenter.
Dear Answeritis Guy,
I'm a journalist who also works in advertising and social. Yesterday I had a fight on Twitter with Sean Lennon. I hadn't meant to; I was just defending a friend, who complained about a guy that "mainsplained" to her, and then got called out really violently by a really pissy man. (He told her she was "cuntbitching.")
My friend is young and smart and ambitious. She doesn't have a lot of followers, but for some bizarre reason Sean Lennon replied to her: "'Mansplaining' is sexist." I was mad for her. She was alone in the internet ether, being attacked—first by a very angry guy, and now by this famous asshole—for an experience she had, and that some man she doesn't even know actively denied she had. I didn't want to deal with the violently angry guy, but I did reply to both him and Sean, just to say, "It's a real thing—men even do it to each other," and I shared an Economist article I'd read about the phenomenon.
I blocked Angry Guy and figured Sean wouldn't engage me, because, of course, he was getting attacked EN MASSE by women yelling about how John Lennon beat the shit out of Yoko Ono.
But he did. We ended up arguing for the longest time and that didn't help me get to sleep. He doesn't seem very smart, or even deeply invested in the topic. I just flew into a rage all by myself and he keeps insisting he doesn't care that much ... but he doesn't stop replying, either. Meanwhile, I literally lost my shit.
I never wanted to be a "feminist"-beat journalist. I want to be a strong journalist in my superficial space, who asks important questions, and who can help lots of different people think about things differently. I do what I do because I believe advertising has a responsibility it didn't ask for but must assume. We shape people. Because it brings in shitloads of money, it attracts megalomaniacs, psychos and misogynists. It is an industry that needs people who care about it, and who care about other people.
You can't change minds with an article, you just give yourself fucking grief. I didn't believe we needed pro-woman efforts anymore—until within the past five years, after the accumulation of many, many years, events and ideas did its slow work on me. I want to save my energy for my novel-in-progress, and for my actual jobs.
But I also feel like this "feminist branding" of myself is happening despite me, because, incidentally, I've been writing about it a lot and preaching a lot about it generally, which means I've been thinking about it a lot, trying to work something out.
If I don't write about this mansplaining thing, I kinda feel like I won't be doing my "job" as a thinker and a writer, which is stupid, because why is this my job? I don't want death threats and rape threats and shit; I lack the strength of mind, I'm easily cowed and hate attention. I already can't sleep because of a Twitter exchange with some clueless rich kid who didn't get it when I told him not to play his violin for me—he literally thought I believe he plays the violin, and said I must be mistaking him for someone else.
So I don't know what to do. I want to be brave and do the important and the right thing. I feel this unshakeable sense that being born a woman is like being born into a terrorist state. Fear is a daily friend. Small remarks that used to fly by me seem infinitely harmful.
The result is that I've often put myself in this position where I'm screaming into a void, and way over my paygrade; I haven't been trained for this, it's not my focus. I don’t want to duck a responsibility. I just want to be able to manage it in ways that won't work my peace nonstop, because I don't think I have the strength to carry this.
There’s a famous saying in the world of literature that goes something like this: Rhetoric is an argument with someone else. Poetry is an argument with yourself.
My hunch is that you’re interested in making poetry, but that you're living in a world that’s clamoring with rhetoric. To put a finer point on it: the Internet is pretty much the capital of rhetoric. It’s filled with lonely, aggrieved people consciously and unconsciously looking for a pretext to have a flame war with someone else.
So my first piece of advice is one that I’ve come by the hard way (and that I’m still working to follow): focus on the work you need to do on-line and get yourself off-line when the whistle blows, so you can devote your time and attention to the novel you want to write.
I get that this is easier said than done. Believe me: I get it. In fact, it’s so hard for me to resist going on-line that I had to buy a software program called Freedom that doesn’t allow me get on-line.
But in the end, the Internet is really just a tool. It’s how we use it that gets us mired in long, frustrating arguments with strangers. There’s some part of you that feels a moral duty to articulate to men the ways in which their privilege causes them to lecture and talk down to women. You have every right to do so. Because men do this constantly. (In fact, I’m doing it right now!)
But as you seem to realize, no matter how tactfully and precisely you make this point, there are still a lot of men, and some women, who just aren’t ready to buck our patriarchal systems of thought. They are a brick wall. You may be able to make some cracks in that wall, but don’t expect to see it move.
That being said, what’s really important in your letter, and beautiful, is the poetry, the places where you speak more honestly and vulnerably, about the ways in which you’re reassessing your life. What you describe is really a kind of awakening, the beginning of a more honest consciousness.
I want to be brave and do the important and the right thing. I feel this unshakeable sense that being born a woman is like being born into a terrorist state. Fear is a daily friend. Small remarks that used to fly by me seem infinitely harmful.
This is the sound of someone who is fully alive, who is paying closer attention to her inner life than she ever has before. If a nasty row with Sean Lennon is the event that got you to this point, then you should thank Sean Lennon. Without even meaning to, he helped you start to see the truth of your life in a deeper way. Is some crazy but discernible way, he served as a dark teacher.
Your job now is to make good on what you’ve articulated above: to be brave and forceful in examining your life, to call out sexism and misoginy when you see it, and most of all to do the work that gives your life meaning. That’s not always the easiest course, but it’s the right one.