A lot of people have stories they want to tell about their lives and some of them have come up to me and say “hey Erik, you’re a writer,” (accurate) “I want to write this memoir…” My responses to this are probably not what they might expect. First off, memoir is a totally different publishing universe than fiction and while I have a kind of maybe if you squint understanding of how the fiction machine works, I don’t know anything at all about memoir business. I do know something about storytelling though and what makes a readable book. So that’s where I focus my advice and it starts with above all else, lie.
Storytelling is about what you choose to say, when, and in what order and it’s equally about what you choose not to say. The instinct when setting down to write a memoir is to tell a story from beginning to end. Start with your cousin Steve because he was there, oh and also that neighbor across street, and it was probably 1996 because Bob Dole was all over the news, and then and then. That’s not a story. That’s a recitation. It’s a grocery list of events. It might be interesting to the people that are on the grocery list but to everyone else it’s lacking the compelling parts that make stories universal. Which doesn’t mean your memoir ISN’T compelling or universal. It just means you need to fight the grocery list urge and edit. You need to lie. I know your cousin Steve was there but <magic flash!> now he’s gone! Also, Bob Dole? We can move on from Bob Dole.
Good storytelling is focused. It’s intentional. It’s not the same thing as talking to your friends at a party about That One Time. Your friends have context. They have YOU. Go into a room of strangers and you’d tell the story differently. Like, maybe say “hi” and put on a “My Name Is” sticker with your name on it. When you write a story your audience, ideally, are all strangers. You need to introduce yourself. You need to introduce everyone. And cousin Steve isn’t important just because he was there. Cousin Steve, in fact, is hurting your memoir. You need to get rid of him and everything else that doesn’t serve your story’s purpose.
“Wait,” you are maybe asking me right now in this imagined conversation we are having: “but what is my story’s purpose?” Easy answer: I don’t know! You need to know that. THAT is, in fact, the first thing you need to decide before you commit yourself to a story(fiction or memoir). What do you want out of writing a story? Common answers are to entertain, inform, relate, or evoke some kind of emotional response or responses in readers. Some memoirs are about grief and the grief process. Some are about hope. You might be thinking “well my memoir’s purpose is to make me all that fat memoirist money” and that, my theoretical uninformed capitalist friend, is not it.
You might also be thinking that writing your story down would be therapeutic. That 1996 election with Bob Dole was really upsetting for you and you have feelings about it you want to work that out. I think that’s awesome! But that’s therapy. That’s not writing a book. Writing a book can also be therapy (usually is actually) but there should be more to it. You need to remember that the story is as much about the audience as the storyteller and if the audience isn’t connecting to it, you have a problem. Audiences connect with shared emotion and experience and I hate to break it to you, not a lot of people are still having nightmares about Bob Dole.
The good news is that people are fundamentally similar beasts and we all want to find common ground. You might be surprised how easy it is for a person to relate to a totally unexpected thing in a totally unexpected way if the give them the space and opportunity to do it. And you guessed it: you create space in a story by getting rid of cousin Steve. You create opportunity in a story by lying. You don’t have to wholesale invent new things (hey there, James Frey) but you might move things around a little. When I say “moved around a little” I don’t mean (necessarily) moving your memoir’s climax from the October 16th 1996 debate between incumbent president Bill Clinton and Former Senator Bob Dole at the University of San Diego moderated by America’s most trusted newsman, Jim Lehrer. I mean moving around when you present this climax. Some people assume stories start at the beginning, chronologically, and end with the end, chronologically. This is grocery list thinking. Stories move around. They digress. You memoir could start with election night and then flashback. It could start in modern day. It could start anywhere. It can hop. Your story is a frog. You choose where it lands based on your chosen purposes. You lie (edit) to present the story that you need to present.
You still with me? Because here’s where we go ask Alice. Memoir and fiction– they’re coming from you and they slip back and forth. I wrote an autobiographical thing once and spent a paragraph on this close friend of mine’s sad blue eyes. My close friend has brown eyes. I didn’t do this on purpose. Fiction accidentally slipped into my memoir. And it will happen a lot because memory is imprecise and you fill bits in as you go. On the flip side, fiction will always have “real” things slip in. Sometimes you write a story down and it takes years before you look at it and realize “oh boy this is actually about Ross Perot being excluded by the presidential debate commission.” A story well-told is a part of you and you are all memoir whether you want to be or not.
Anyway. That’s what I say to people that want to write memoir.
In which the author implores you buy my story and tells another for free.
When I was a sad round boy I used to call my middle school teachers at home when I was lonely. I just wanted someone to pick up the phone. I had this one teacher, Mr. S. I thought he was someone that understood me. I thought he was my sad round boy mentor but, in retrospect, he was not someone a sad round boy should have been left alone with.
I used to imprint on older men, follow them with big round boy puppy eyes, collecting their tossed off affections and approvals. I wanted to be a better sad round boy and I thought they could tell me how. I wanted my brother back, my dad, my favorite ghosts. I admired charming monsters and sometimes they looked at me with vicious sad round boy devouring eyes and I thought I heard them say “sad round boy, you can do this” but they never did.
So I got taller, less round. I paid a lot for therapy. And taxes. And a custom URL. But I always had this unresolved craving for a Mentor with the big letters. I imagined a Punk Rock Novelist. Blue collar. Self-made. He would tell me How it Was and he would be foul mouthed and honest and vulnerable and he’d tell me he’d been through 37 kinds of Hell, had a closet full of souvenirs and matching scars, and he’d say “I understand you and believe me because of the 37 kinds of Hell thing we just talked about, Erik: you can fucking do this.”
There is no Punk Rock Novelist. He’s just a character I wrote because I needed him. And maybe I still imprinted on him. Maybe I still wanted his tossed off affections and approvals. Maybe I thought I needed them. Turns out, I didn’t.
So, Space Cocaine. Zip zap COVID-19 fun times short fiction hell yeah. Some very wonderful people invited me to join their madcap adult supervision recommended anthology, Space Cocaine: the Zoom Situation, and I wrote them a story called “Whispers.” I wrote it when I was lonely and just wanted someone to pick up the phone and understand me. It’s about our hero, Vanessa. She’s blue collar, self-made, foul mouthed, honest, and vulnerable. She really doesn’t have a clue how it is but she’s been through 37 kinds of Hell and she’s so scarred and she’s so scared to open the door and go outside. But she needs to save the girl, doesn’t she? She’s our hero. Our hero, she needs a Mentor with the big letters and she gets one. It’s the one she never expected and the one she’s always needed.
I’m the Punk Rock Novelist. I’m the Mentor with the big letters and I swear, frequently and through 37 kinds of Hell and back, you can fucking do this. Every sad round boy, every funny shaped sloppy feeling person in the whole infinite multiverse, you are stronger than a minotaur and you can do the thing that scares you. Believe me.
Life, as it tends to do if you’re very lucky, goes on. As I continue to shake some of the static from the last year it seems a great time to short blog a little bit about Erik Stuff and Things Optimistic Post-Pandemic Edition.
I have been doing my hustle thing and haven’t fully updated you, my faithful readers (hi, Joel! how’re the cats?). First up, catch me guest podcast hosting and generally being associated with the very excellent Overcast podcast. Subscribe and tell your friends! I am specifically the host-y voice of episodes 145 and 148. If you clap and make laser sounds into the mirror I might even be back!
Next, I am incredibly proud to be associated with and share pages with the excellent weirdos of the Space Cocaine anthology Volume 2: the Zoom Situation! We have a reading coming up super soon where I will be Live and In Person at the Rose City Book Pub Tuesday June 1st! There is also going to be a Zoooooooooom (and in the Future a YouTube recording)! Check out the event description!
Finally, I continue to write and run in the world and there’s a lot of cool things coming up! I am excited to participate in a writing workshop run by Chelsea Cain and Chuck Palahniuk starting soon in a haunted movie theater! I continue to query agents that have never heard of me for a Dirty Space Opera with Wizards and Sad book and I signed a contract for my first professional short fiction sale for a Christmas-y kind of thing that will appear later this year to get you in the a holly jolly mood! I am working on lots of poorly conceived shenanigans and just so so enthusiastic about emerging from the shadow of COVID-19 into a new, unpredictable future.
Stay tuned! Get vaccinated! Tell a friend you haven’t seen in a while that you miss them! Drink plenty of water!
I made a lo fi weird fi sci fi radio drama pilot where I did all the voices, SFX, and made the music. There are dinosaurs, Mecha Strom Thurmond, hamsters, sandwiches, eating a little girl in a wheel chair, the Many-Faced Badger Lord, A PUPPY, and nihilism. Enjoy!
I remember lying down in a curtained off square in the Emergency Room and listening as the person next to me fought for his life. Or it could have been her life. He or she was unconscious. My ER neighbor was another suicide case and the only thing I know about him or her is that the pills I took were less deadly than the pills he or she took. I swallowed 25 or 26 orange oval antidepressants with most of a fifth of cheap vodka. Those were just the pills I had in a drawer. My neighbor took something with aspirin. What I didn’t know before that night in the ER is that the pills you can take for a headache, that you can buy from a convenience store, can shred your kidneys and kill you if you take too many while the antidepressant pills I was prescribed by a bored doctor after a five minute screening will just make you sleep for sixteen hours if you take them with a charcoal chaser. I think a lot about what would have happened if I had different pills in my drawer that night.
It’s been almost exactly fourteen years since the night I tried to kill myself. I stayed in the Johnson Unit, a dedicated mental health corner of Sacred Heart Hospital a few blocks away from the University of Oregon, for the weekend. They put me in these powder blue grippy sock slippers and had me participate in group therapy sessions with suicidal teens and dried out broken down drunks. The first day I was in an overdose haze. I was fuzzy and empty. I shuffled around overlit halls and sat in front of a television with a half dozen other patients watching something incomprehensible. I didn’t know how to comprehend who I was and what I’d done. I didn’t know how to comprehend what would happen next. I remember that no one in the Johnson Unit that weekend was had taken an overdose of aspirin. I don’t know what happened to my suicide twin. I never found out.
Eventually, I had to start seeing visitors and I had to tell family out of town what had happened. I had to call them and tell them on the phone what I’d done. Those were the worst phone calls I’ve ever made. I remember all of their fear and the surprise and hurt after I explained it. I remember that however low I felt, however weak and lost I’d been before taking those pills, it was worse after I had to say it out loud. But, after I said it, after I admitted it to myself and to everyone else how bad it had gotten, it got a little bit better. I had so many friends come to see me all at once that they didn’t have room in the regular visiting room. My mom brought me a bacon cheeseburger. She hugged me and we both cried and shook. By the end of the weekend I wasn’t cured of clinical depression but I thought that maybe I could be.
For me, the worst part of mental illness is how isolating it can feel, how silent and ashamed it makes me. When I was in fifth grade my mom attempted suicide for the first time I know about. She had a history with alcoholism and different psychiatric diagnoses. She spent her 40th birthday in a state mental health hospital. We visited with cake a stuffed bear. She told us how she’d escaped the hospital and found a bottle of whiskey in a barn before they found her and brought her back. My mother’s problems, screaming unintelligible madness from the floor of her bathroom, drinking bottles of wine alone, getting committed the day after my 10th birthday party, and telling me horrific and detailed stories of her childhood abuse while we sat on the edge of her queen sized bed, were secrets that no one had to tell me to keep. They were secrets I carried with me at elementary school while we talked about Greek gods and goddesses, while we learned long division, and how to diagram sentences. The kind of sickness she had, something like a suicide attempt was a foreseeable outcome but I was a kid and I couldn’t tell anyone that could have done anything. It hit me like an asteroid coming out of the clear blue sky.
She took pills with wine, similar to what I would do ten years later. That day she called in sick to work but I just thought she had a cold. I got home from school that day and she was locked in her bedroom, quiet. I left her alone for a little while and watched some television before I realized something was really wrong. I pounded on her door and shouted and she didn’t answer. I managed to climb up the outside of the house to her bedroom window and got it open. She was asleep and I couldn’t wake her up. I called the neighbors and they called 911. The ambulance arrived just as my older brother was getting off the bus from high school. A lot of people made a lot of phone calls. My grandparents came down from Seattle to take care of us for a couple of weeks while my mom recovered. My grandmother took me aside in the hallway outside of my mom’s room at the hospital. She told me that my mom didn’t really mean to die because if she had she would have done something worse. That didn’t make me feel better and the question that it suggested lived inside of me for years making me angrier and sadder the more I thought about it; if she didn’t want to die, what did she want?
October has a tendency to make me sad. My trip to the Johnson Unit was over the weekend before Halloween. Some of my friends that came to see me came in costume before heading off to a costume party. For the first few years after it happened I would take out my handwritten suicide note and re-read it on the anniversary date. I would read those six pages of stream of consciousness as I slowly built up to my overdose and I would try to remember all of it. I stood in front of the mirror in the bathroom that night and told myself I didn’t really mean it. I stared into my own eyes and told myself I was bluffing. I was so angry and so lonely and so hopeless. In the weeks leading up to that night, suicide had been growing inside of me like a weed. I told people I was thinking about it. I wrote stories about it. I was calling out for help but it just ended up sounding like a Nine Inch Nails song. When I got that antidepressant prescription and when I got the vodka some part of me knew what I was going to do. I used to revisit all of that like a somber trip to a graveyard every year so that I would never forget it and so that I would never fall into that again. Eventually, that night stopped being an anniversary event and just became part of my life. I still have the note though. It’s in a shoebox somewhere in the basement. I keep it like old photographs. I keep it like a totem. I have to admit that I’m afraid to get rid of it.
I used to go this group for teenagers with mentally ill parents when I was in middle school. For an hour on a semi-weekly basis I could talk openly about my family’s secrets. I could talk about my mom’s symptoms, about the side effects of her medication. She used to sleep all day and when she was awake her jaw would move nervously. I could talk about how lonely it was to keep all that secret. Even as I went off to college and started dating I used to obsess about how long I could know someone before I could trust them enough to tell them about my mom, and, eventually, about my brother, and finally, about me. I had this girlfriend the summer before my suicide attempt. My mom had a serious relapse into alcoholism and called to tell me she was thinking about hurting herself again one day. After she noticed I was upset, I told my girlfriend and she told me she couldn’t handle hearing about it. That was more devastating than my mom’s latest breakdown. When I was able to talk about my family or about any of my own serious problems, I had to joke about it or keep it vague so people didn’t get uncomfortable. I never wanted to be the weird kid that bummed everyone out at the party.
Even my family never wanted to talk about it. When I would write stories that were partially autobiographical my brother would read them and say, “these are good – but I wish you wouldn’t just dwell on the past.” I don’t know how we could ever dwell on something that we all did our best to pretend wasn’t happening. Even as my older brother descended into a serious twenty year cycle of addiction, my mom couldn’t or wouldn’t see the extent of it. My brother came home for Christmas one year and started to detox from heroin on Christmas Day. He was crippled with it, bent over and wracked with it, sweating and hurting and bedridden, until he left back for Portland on a bus in a hurry so he could score and get himself right again. We didn’t talk about it. How could we?
I don’t need a lot of help to remember and reflect on events like these but social media seems really interested in helping me anyway. I got reminders over the weekend that it’s been three years since the last time my mom attempted suicide. Saved on the cloud are my frantic terrified updates after she emailed me that she was going to take an overdose of morphine (saved in my email: “I just took a bunch of my morphine and I will finish it soon. Goodby Erik.” ) and the half hour that followed while I tried from more than a hundred miles away to find out what was happening. “I’m losing my fucking my mind. My mother emailed me saying she’s taking an overdose of morphine. she’s in Eugene. The fire department and paramedics are on the way. All I can do is wait… LOSING IT,” I posted. Then: “20 minutes. Oh God. Oh my god.” And finally before getting ahold of my then-girlfriend and now-wife to drive me down to the hospital, “Ok. Ok ok ok ok . Just heard. she’s on the way to the hospital. she took a bunch of pills… she was walking around – they can probably get her stomach pumped. FUCK” Was this going to be the time she really meant it? How could I know?
Over this past weekend I spent some time with people I care about a lot but don’t know really well yet. I listened to a recitation of addictions and personal failures and family secrets I probably should have guessed about but hadn’t. For a long time I believed that my mother’s sickness, a sickness shared by several other members of her family, was a rare errant virus. I believed that most families were happy and healthy and mine was the weird one. With the limited wisdom and experience I’ve gained with my own struggles through depression and out the other side and after talking to a lot of people about their lives and families, I think addiction and mental illness aren’t mythological beasts that only party with the skeletons in my closet but they’re out there in most families. I know and love a lot of alcoholics, addicts, and the mentally ill, ones that are clean or stable and ones that sometimes aren’t. We’re more normal that we think we are. The shame and the silence is the worst part of these diseases. What would it be like if we could just talk about all of it and be there for each other without the stigma? Why did those phone calls from the Johnson Unit feel worse than finishing the last sentence in my suicide note?
I’m not an alcoholic or an addict and I haven’t had struggles with clinical depression for more than ten years but that could change. I’m not a better person now than I was fourteen years ago. I’m just alive and happy and doing my very best every single day. I have hundreds of hours of counseling, years of new coping skills, and a fiercely loyal network of friends and family that I rely on when I feel that empty numbness and that sadness and anger. I still feel ashamed of it. I still feel afraid to talk openly about it.
My grandmother, the one that took my brother and I up to her house in Seattle back when I was in fifth grade after that first pill overdose, passed away the same week my mom sent me that email. It was an argument about my grandmother’s funeral service that precipitated my mom’s actions that night. I look for patterns in things and overthink them looking for meaning. That same week, I also finished writing a novel, watched Obama and Romney debate, noted what would have been the second anniversary of my first marriage half a year after we split up, had a predictably terrible argument with my brother, and was in the groom’s party for one of my best friend’s wedding. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the meaning of all those events crowded into less than seven days. I got drunk at the wedding, first to celebrate and then just to keep myself together, a self-destructive coping mechanism I learned young and often. When I got too drunk to dance, I went outside into the cool October night and cried out on the deck of the wedding venue. My girlfriend held my hand and listened while I said all of the silent shameful terrible truths I’ve parsed out so carefully for so long. All that fear and the ocean of grief. A ten year old kid crying the day the ambulance came, a twenty-one year old man confused and grateful that he found the safer pills. I felt so powerless against more than twenty years of it crashing down on me while they danced inside. I didn’t know what my mother meant to do if she didn’t mean to die. I didn’t know what I meant to do. The night of my overdose I called my mother at work. I cackled an angry demon laugh, a hurt, furious, fucked up child laugh, and told her exactly what I’d done. I wanted to hurt myself and I wanted to hurt her too. I didn’t know why she couldn’t be better when I was a kid. I didn’t know why I couldn’t be as a man. It all came spilling out from my drunk blubbering mouth, confessing to a woman I knew I had fallen in love with and didn’t want to lose. After I was done, after I said it all out loud, we went back inside and danced some more.
I’m incredibly excited to announce that I’ve launched a new podcast called Rough Draft Out Loud and you, loyal ErikGrove.com readers, are going to want to check it out and tune your podcasting machines to the proper frequency.
So what’s Rough Draft Out Loud? Well, I’m glad you asked, Mr. Theoretical Person! Rough Draft Out Loud (or RDOL as the cool kids are calling it) is a podcast where I do two super awesome things. The first thing that I do is read an except from a sweet novel I’m writing called Save the Date! For free! For your ears! Now, you hardcore ErikGrove.com fans know that Save the Date! is a book that I posted a couple of excerpts from other a year ago on this website which clearly means that this website can tell the future. That’s right, you can read earlier drafts of the first two chapters I’m audio-ing for RDOL right freakin’ now. The second thing that you can’t get here and you can only get on RDOL is a discussion of the writing process behind each section of the book with my patent-pending brand of jokey jokes and wisdom things for your ears. Plus, if you subscribe to the podcast now and tell all your friends about it you can get also get a set of steak knives!*
*….if you were to also buy a set of steak knives from some kind of steak knife retailer. There’s really no relationship to RDOL or ErikGrove.com and steak knives except that I sometimes enjoy steak and use steak knives to assist in that enjoyment. I endorse steak knives as a concept. You don’t want to be cutting steak with a butter knife, you guys.
I realized a couple of things when I came online to work on this site today. The first is that erikgrove.com is now a year old. The second is that until this morning’s blog (On Writing: Running Through the Rapids) I hadn’t posted anything in 6 weeks. It’s been even longer since I posted something about what I’m personally working on. As I’m prone to reflection, nostalgia and gratuitous bloviation, I see this as an opportunity, dear reader, for one of my generally uncommon State of the Erik blog posts.
My desk, my world.
I’m about 6 months into my adventure as a full-time “I don’t really get paid to do this yet” writer, part-time “I actually get paid to do this” consultant, and quarter-time “I do it for the love” fake French Canadian mime assassin. The last six months has both gone by incredibly fast and seems impossibly dense with activity and change. I wrote a lot for a website (I linked a lot of it here but I’m missing a lot of it because reasons and shiny things) and then stopped writing for that website. Aside from the blog posts here, I’ve written a lot of fiction, most of it still in progress. I’m most of the way through a YA book about Halloween and a couple hundred pages into a great big punchy superhero epic (early draft material here). I wrote and posted a lot of short stories and also excerpts from an older not-at-all-YA project called Violent Femmes. I’ve also been developing some card games and I’ve been working on a sadly delayed podcast that’s going to be going forward this year. I’ve also taken actual real person vacations, a first for me in a long history of workaholism.
I saw monkeys! And ate tacos! So Cal sunshine!
It’s probably because of my technical consultant background that I automatically look at my life and work in term of quarters (three months, not the currency, silly) and this is the beginning of the third quarter or, in a more project manager-y speak, third phase. Phase 1 was all about deprogramming. I had to re-learn how to be a person that didn’t have a day job and a day job paycheck as the center of my universe. It might sound very privileged to talk about how hard it was to become voluntarily unemployed but the truth is that your brain starts to work in a certain way, at a certain pace with certain expectations when you tell it that the only thing it has to do is push work from one work pile to another work pile for a work boss to get a work check so you can afford the home that keeps you warm between work days. For me, my job became an ambivalent deity and I was a devoted cultist. I struggled to think beyond that paradigm but I couldn’t. Work haunted me. I had dreams about work things and found that every aspect of my personal life revolved around a job working for someone else’s goals. Some people can get work-life balance right in that kind of environment but I couldn’t. I lost perspective and it turns out I needed about three months to get that back. Going into phase 2 I knew that I wasn’t willing to go back on those same terms. The way I was working the job I had, I was doing it wrong but it took time to understand how wrong it was and what right was for me.
Phase 2 ended up being about experimentation and stumbling. I felt like I’d been in Plato’s cave and managed to get free and stagger out of my cubicle into a disorienting world. I tried to do a lot of different things and found that some worked out well and others less well. I was ambitious and bold and ultimately overstepped on a couple of things but it was a good learning experience. There were points when I was daunted and felt defeated. It’s difficult to look at all of your options and not have some outside force tell you what to do. By December I realized I needed to regroup and revisit my goals again. I resumed work on some projects I’ve set aside, I ended or paused work on some things I had been doing. It was around this point that I decided that contributing to Bleeding Cool wasn’t working for me anymore and amicably parted ways. I took some extra time out for the holidays and focused on getting my fight back for the New Year.
So now it’s Phase 3. Today is the official start – the first working day back from my vacation – and I’m feeling good, airplane cold notwithstanding. My plan is that Phase 3 is all about finishing what I’ve started and racking up some wins. I’m going to be looking at some self-publishing options again. I’m going to get that poor podcast up and kicking. I’m going to be trying to finish play-test versions of some of the games I’ve been working on. I’m hoping to finish a draft of the great big super punchy novel. I have a lot of plans to write more blog posts here – to keep material coming on a semi-regular basis. I’m thinking about doing a multiple part series or two. I have lofty goals and an awful lot of stubborn. If Phase 3 is anything like the ones that preceded it I’m going to do a lot of course correcting but I’m going to keep moving ever forward, cocky, confident or just foolish, accomplishing goals, writing words and, as always, rocking out to a pretty killer punk rock soundtrack.
With thanks and unending love for my wife, partner in crime, defender of the Oxford comma and sidekick in all things super awesome whose support and patience make everything worth doing possible
Last week I wrote an editorial for Bleeding Cool about diversity, harassment, threats and trying to understand each other. You can read it right here and you should before continuing because this blog talks about it and some of the things that came up because I wrote it.
I was hesitant to write the editorial for a lot of reasons. One of them was because I knew that me being me (33 year old white male, straight, married, west coast USA middle class) was going to become part of the story. I realize that not everyone agrees that 33 year old, white straight men have an inherent privilege but I’ve experienced that privilege in my life and I believe I have. I’m mindful of it and the role it plays in people’s impression of me and my ideas. I think I have to be and that’s perfectly okay. When I was in school and I raised my hand, teachers called on me. When I’m at work and I demand a raise, I’m praised for having initiative. Those aren’t the responses other people get for the exact same behavior. I became incredibly aware of this in college when I would interact with professors and I would notice other students, most of them shy or regularly dismissed, didn’t have the same relationships with the professor. The good professors made an extra effort to engage those students and I made an extra effort to encourage them and support them by not talking over them, by giving them a chance to answer a question about Beowulf or just by taking their point of view seriously when I was faced with it. I don’t consider this commendable behavior. I consider this the bare minimum I need to do to not be a jerk.
So, enter my piece from last week and a lingering question about whether I, or any similarly privileged straight white man, should or needs to get their straight white man opinion in about an issue that has a lot to do with things that don’t directly impact me. I want to immediately revise and expand on that thought because I think it’s absolute bullshit. Sexism does impact me. It impacts my wife. It impacts my friends. If I have a daughter someday it will impact her. There is not a man planet with a man ecosystem and a separate woman planet with a woman ecosystem. Still, the question remains – what role do I have or should I have in this dialog?
Heidi MacDonald, posted an impassioned call to arms to men specifically – it’s actually something I read that galvanized me to write the editorial:
And you know what? This is not women’s problem. This is MEN’S PROBLEM. I know most internet trolls are teenaged boys who don’t know any better, but this is MAN’S THING. This is something you men need to figure out and condemn and deal with. There should be MAN RULES about it, like how you’re not supposed to go into the urinal next to another guy, that kind of thing. Belittling, embarrassing, threatening and shaming women should not be some kind of masculine rite of passage. It should be the opposite of being a real man.
MacDonald has no standing or obligation to speak for all women about what men should and shouldn’t do about sexism and harassment in comic books but she wrote something that struck a chord with me and with others. She’s also someone I respect a great deal and I would consider her one of the dozen or so really noteworthy comics “pundits.” So from her point of view, men need to call other men out. I was doing that (I was going beyond that but also that).
Awesome. So, I should get my straight white man costume and rush in to help, right? Not so fast. There’s another point of view on this shown in this series of tweets from DC Women Kicking Ass that indicate a sense of resentment for men getting active in the debate:
Got an email from a guy who thinks the treatment of women in comics has reached an apex and it’s time do something. Sigh.
Oh and it’s also time to talk about the treatment of female characters, gays and POC in comics. Clearly my job is done.
Good job ladies fighting the good fight but the dudes are here so you know go, um, yeah we’re dudes.
I totally understand where DCWKA is coming from. Women in comics, people of color, gays – they’ve been marginalized and they have been fighting the good fight by necessity for years and years and self-righteous straight white guys coming in and saying “all right, little lady – we’ve got this” is remarkably and overpoweringly condescending. I don’t know the full context of what DCWKA was responding to but I see this sentiment, this veiled (and sometimes not at all veiled) resentment for straight white men trying to get their straight white man fixing hands on things.
There’s a secret weapon that people have in arguments about these topics: the dreaded White Knight argument.The way this argument works is that if an outsider tries to comment or vaguely kind of help a marginalized group that outsider is only doing it because he’s a White Knight and gets satisfaction for riding in to the save the day. This term and argument dismisses any sincerity, misplaced or patronizing though it may be, from the accused White Knight. Because the White Knight secret weapon hinges on what a person’s internal motivations are, it’s virtually impossible to convince someone that you’re not trying to help out of self-interest but out of genuine selflessness. And the worst part? There’s invariably some self-interest in trying to help someone. Personally, I define myself as the sort of man that will always stop and help someone that needs a hand, that will always try and talk about things and find consensus and common ground. I’m an idealist. It’s central to my sense of self. So, when I read Janelle Asselin’s now well-known Tumblr post about getting threatened and when I read Heidi MacDonald’s call to arms, I wrote my thoughts with complete sincerity and I know there was some part of me that needed to do it because it’s important to my self-worth that I’m a good guy and I do the right thing. I’m a white knight. I’m also passionate about changing comics culture for the good and I’m trying in every way I know how to help with that change and not be a condescending dude. But you can see the contradiction here.
Are men getting involved “just” White Knights and should they check themselves for privilege and patronizing? Or are men a critical part of the dialog and compelled to loudly voice dissent when another man behaves badly? I think the answer is both as long as neither are used as cause to shut down someone’s contribution. All of us guys that want to help, we need to be really mindful of being fixers and assuming that we have some secret answer because we just figured out that sexism and racism and all of the worst isms still exist in the world. But at the same time, I’d like to see the White Knight argument retired. It’s fair to question someone’s sincerity and to call them on their self-interest and force a little perspective but it’s still a smug argument killer to say, “yeah, well, you’re just a white knight.”
Ideally the effort to improve comics and all of society should be an all hands on deck kind of scenario. My contribution to it is not special or unique because I’m a straight white man and I also don’t think it’s any less significant either. I don’t think being suspicious of White Knights is any kind of misandry or that men are really suffering under the yolk of unfair judgments. I do hope that our intentions become clear but more than that our actions demonstrate those intentions and that all of us keep talking about this and working together.