A couple of weeks ago I went to the Jewish Contemporary Museum in San Francisco to hear a roundtable discussion between three terrific women writers: Michelle Tea (Rent Girl, Coal to Diamonds: A Memoir; co-creator of the performance art collective Sister Spit), Eileen Myles (Not Me, Chelsea Girls, Inferno) and Jill Soloway (creator of new television series Transparent). The discussion revolved largely around each of their careers, their struggles and successes, and their affinity for each other’s writing. What they ended up talking about the most was how they all pulled heavily from their own lives to inform the content of their writing—and how frequently they were criticized for doing so.
Jill Soloway said something that struck a real chord with the audience, which was composed mostly of women: “Women writing about their lives is a radical act, and more women should be doing it. You cannot get cis white dudes to stop writing about their lives; trust me, I’ve tried.”
There was applause, there were jokes about Karl Knausgard.
A woman writing about her life is doing a radical thing because by doing so she is saying that her life has value and importance. That her life is interesting enough to write (and read) about.
Michelle Tea helped to found Sister Spit because she was tired of going to open mic nights where the only people performing were dudes who wanted to be Bob Dylan or Johnny Cash, or (even worse) both. She was tired of hearing the same perspective over and over again, tired of hearing about men’s lives. It was 1994, and Tea wanted, for once, to see more women — and more lesbians, more feminists, more gender nonconforming people — in front of microphones.
She was not alone. When Sister Spit began performing around the country, they quickly realized they had an audience. Sometimes, according to Tea, that audience was four goths in a vinyl-upholstered booth at a midwestern gay bar. But there was always somebody who desperately wanted to hear what they had to say.
And now, every year Tea and a rabble of new and old Sister Spitters hop in the van and do it all again as Sister Spit: The Next Generation. The audiences are a bit bigger these days.
In 2012, Sister Spit collaborated with City Lights Publishing to form the imprint City Lights/Sister Spit, which they inaugurated by publishing the anthology Sister Spit: Writing, Rants and Reminiscence from the Road.
These days more and more women are sharing their personal experiences in writing, and that is a beautiful thing. I see a new memoir written by a woman every time I walk into a bookstore. It brings me hope, it makes me feel optimistic for future women writers.
It also makes me think that the mass influx of writing about women’s lives may be what’s causing Myles and Tea and Soloway to face the criticism that they do. It’s why memoir is now a denigrated genre, it’s why I overhear somebody at the comic shop say about Alison Bechdel, “yeah, she’s a great writer, I love her comics. But, you know, they’re all autobiographical.”
Because there’s an observable thing, a documented phenomenon that occurs when a large number of women enter a particular field of work. Somehow, people find a way to denigrate that work and pay less for it. Secretarial work, for instance, used to be a mostly male-populated field. It also used to be much more respected as a career path. Now that the field has become highly populated by women, though, the work has officially gained the status of “women’s work.” That is, no status at all.
I can see a similar thing happening with the brand of personal writing that these women practice. As more women writers, artists, and creators enter the field, critics start taking the whole field less seriously. Men have been writing about themselves and their lives since the dawn of writing — it’s tempting, in fact, to say that it’s all they’ve ever written about, though sometimes it’s just been under the guise of fiction. But now that women have got a foothold in the medium, have started bringing their journals and letters and memoirs to publishers, now, suddenly, writing from one’s own life is somehow less respectable. Less literary.
It’s starting to sound a lot like something out of How to Suppress Women’s Writing. A made-up way to denigrate, and all-but-censor this thing that a woman made. Oh, sure, she wrote it, but it’s a memoir. She had the courage and skill and energy to make it, but, poor thing, she doesn’t know that it’s not worth making
Myles said that “I never called any of my work ‘memoir.’ It was the critics who called it that. Sure, I pull content from my own life, but what writing isn’t pulled from life?” She spoke about her newest book Afterglow, not yet published, which is written from the pespective of her late pitbull, Rosie. “It’s a memoir,” she joked.
You can hear a recording of this entire discussion here. Note that I paraphrased the quotes above.
Note: This piece previously said that Sister Spit had disbanded as a performance group in 2006. That was not accurate, as was thankfully pointed out to me by Tea herself. Whoops. – RB