Where the girls weren’t

Writing

A million years ago, back in 1978, I showed up at the Harvard Crimson in the fall of my freshman year to try out for a slot on our storied school paper. Joining me for the first Crimson “comp” of our college lives were maybe a dozen other eager young would-be reporters. Among their names: Bill McKibben, Jeff Toobin, Nick Kristof, and David Sanger.

I recall only two other women—though there may well have been more—and none of us would scale the journalistic heights attained by what is, in retrospect, a remarkable percentage of our male peers.

In recent weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about what this means—or doesn’t. After election to the Crimson‘s News Board, I rarely ventured back. I recall feeling generally disaffected. One of my few clear memories is of a football whizzing over my head as I typed toward deadline. I don’t recall any intentional or explicit sexism.

So what happened?

Were the women of my Crimson era victims of discrimination, of a non-congenial (if not hostile) work environment? Or were we simply less focused and ambitious or maybe less talented? Or is the whole thing a statistical fluke that means exactly nothing?

My answer: I really can’t say for sure. There are, however, clues.

As recently as 1977—the year before I entered college—two-thirds of Americans believed that “it was much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family,” Stephanie Coontz wrote earlier this month in a New York Times piece on why, fifty years after publication of The Feminine Mystique, women aren’t showing more zeal about moving into the full-time workforce. It’s a cultural attitude that feels deeply familiar from my Indiana childhood and which, along with the ongoing absence of structural supports for women seeking to balance work and family that Coontz describes, likely accounts for much of the under-representation of women throughout the workforce.

That said, I’ve always been deeply skeptical about the notion that numbers tell the whole story, a skepticism honed over several years as Harvard Law School’s de facto point person on women’s issues. (I graduated from HLS in 1993 and practiced law for a few years before gravitating back towards writing, eventually winding up as then-Dean Elena Kagan’s special assistant for communications.)  A 2005 speech I drafted for the dean acknowledged the undeniable fact that “women are not assuming leadership roles in proportion to their numbers” but also noted some possible non-discriminatory explanations.

Most intriguing to me was a tantalizing finding by a Harvard Law School student working group that women’s reasons for choosing law as a career differed from those of men. “Compared with men, women were more likely to choose ‘helping others’ (41% v. 26%) and ‘advancing ideological goals’ (24% v. 15%) and less likely to choose ‘high salary’ (32% v. 44%),” the group concluded in its February 2004 report.

So what are we to make of this? Well, I don’t have a comprehensive answer, but I can tell you what I made of it. My main takeaway wasn’t (and isn’t) that the world needs more female corporate law partners (though I certainly have no quarrel with you if that’s what you’re after) but that we need to place a far higher value on work where the primary goal is to make the world a better place. We need to value teachers, social workers—and public service lawyers—more, not to find new and better ways to steer them towards corporate work if that’s not where they want to go.

None of this, however, really speaks to the world of writing and journalism, which regardless of your gender, has never been a route to riches. While fewer women of my era may have made it to the New York Times, I think we can safely rule out avarice as the reason.

I should also be clear that I’m not saying Crimson women of my era did not go on to be highly successful in highly demanding jobs–investment banking and corporate law being two examples. And a handful of women of my college era did go on to successful writing careers–though with once exception, more on this below, none achieved the brand-name presence of those guys I comped with in the fall of 1978.

If I were to take a stab at guessing why women of this time and place–Harvard, the late 1970s–may have struggled to gain purchase on the writer’s path, I would probably start with the unconscious belief that our concerns—and our stories—didn’t really matter, a belief no less powerful for being unrecognized. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the most well-known female journalist of my Crimson generation—Susan Faludi, one year ahead of me—made her name with a book that focused on the hitherto unrecognized “backlash” against women. And just yesterday, I was struck by how Crimson classmate Nick Kristof (and his wife Sheryl WuDunn) make a related point in the introduction to Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide:

“[W]hen we began reporting about international affairs in the 1980s, we couldn’t have imagined writing this book. We assumed that the foreign policy issues that properly furrowed the brow were lofty and complex, like nuclear nonproliferation . . . . Back then the oppression of women was a fringe issue, the kind of worthy cause the Girl Scouts might raise money for.”

That they did write the book—and that it’s become a national bestseller—is one of many heartening signs that things have, and continue to, change. The fact that I’m writing this piece is another. When I look around, I’m struck by the number of women writers with whom I’ve crossed paths, most of whom are seven to ten years younger than I, who have managed in remarkable ways to tie their personal experience to larger concerns and trends. My law school classmate Susan Cain, author of the bestselling Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, is a wonderful Exhibit A.  There’s also former law firm colleague KJ Dell’Antonia, who now heads up the New York Times wildly popular Motherlode blog; cyber pal Marci Alboher, who draws on her own life experience in the just-published Encore Career Handbook; occasional New York dinner party companions Pamela Paul (a New York Times writer and editor whose first book, The Starter Marriage, grew out of her own failed first marriage), Annie Murphy Paul (whose books include Origins, which delves into the cellular beginnings of life through the lens of motherhood), and Deborah Siegel, memoirist and co-founder of She Writes, an online community for women writers. There are likely many more whose names escape me at the moment.

Years before I turned to blogging and writing essays like this one, I had a reasonably successful, if short-lived, career as a suspense novelist.  Getting a book deal was a huge thrill and yet, when I was honest, I had to admit that the actual writing of these books wasn’t all that thrilling. For years, I took this to mean that I wasn’t really cut out for writing. And then a chance remark turned everything around. I’d just described my “ideal day” as part of a small group exercise at a Harvard Business School program for women. This vision involved waking up in the country, having coffee, then turning to my writing.

“But I had that day, and you know what? I wasn’t all that happy,” I concluded.

One of my listeners gave me a reflective look: “Maybe you were writing the wrong thing.”

Note: This piece was revised on March 8, 2013 with the addition of paragraph 12, intended as clarification. 

Should you write for free? One author says yes. Here’s why.

Tapping a Pencil

Years back, when I had a full-time job within the not-so-hilarity-filled walls of Harvard Law School, there was one thing I could always count on to brighten my day: 3L Jeremy Blachman’s humor column in the law school’s student paper. (Here’s one of my favorites.)

As it turned out, I was far from the only reader eagerly awaiting Jeremy’s next offering. Unbeknownst to us all, even as he schlepped from class to class in Cambridge, he was (fictionally) thousands of miles away, spewing withering, operatic rants as a West Coast law firm partner—and drawing in thousands of readers with his “Anonymous Lawyer” blog. (One law professor, who used the blog in his class, called it a “cultural phenomenon.”)

“I was just writing satire,” Jeremy said, when he finally revealed himself to the New York Times in late 2004 (and shortly thereafter garnered a major book deal). “In a way I’ve been disappointed that I’ve been able to pull it off. I’ve painted a picture based on a few months of observation and the worst things I saw, heard about, or could imagine about law firms, and experienced lawyers are chiming in, saying: ‘This is exactly what it feels like.’”

Some seven years later, Jeremy continues to write, now from his home in Manhattan. He’s at work on a second novel, as well as a film adaptation of the first, and has written for McSweeney’s and the Wall Street Journal, among other venues.  (And lest there be any doubt, he hasn’t lost his talent for skewering the world of law firms, witness this fictional partner’s memo dating from the economic downturn.) Here, he shares some thoughts about writing, both on and off the clock.

By Jeremy Blachman

Amy e-mailed me last week to ask if I’d write a guest post for Plan B Nation. In her e-mail, she said she felt bad asking me to write for free. She linked to this musician’s post in an online forum:

And, indeed, a quick Google search leads to an endless number of online posts telling people not to give away the milk if you want someone to buy the cow. (Of course, many of these posts seem to either be about actual cows or the raw milk debate, but still, the point is clear.)

I would like to offer hope. In the Plan B Nation economy, a lot of things that might sound silly are not in fact all that silly. In the Plan B Nation economy, I believe writing for free is an actual, legitimate thing to do, even if you have actual, legitimate bills to pay. And I don’t think it’s just about writing. I think the more things you can do for free—the more proof of work you can throw out into the universe—the better off you’ll be. After years of writing things—for free and not for free—I still can’t predict what’s going to bring attention, followers, and potential opportunities, and what isn’t. You don’t know what is going to turn into something real. (And by “real,” I mean useful in paying for actual food.)

Almost a decade ago, I was about to start law school. I was mostly going to law school to buy myself three years—albeit at an astonishingly high cost—to figure out how to be a writer. I had written sketches and songs for the Princeton Triangle Club while an undergrad—and then, having no clue how to turn that into a job as an actual writer, I spent a year and a half working in marketing for a software company. I continued to write on the side—some television scripts, a musical, and some very long e-mails about working in marketing for a software company—and  continued to have no idea what to actually do with my life. To a great extent, I was too risk-averse to move to Los Angeles, be someone’s assistant, and hope that developed into an opportunity to be a writer. Partly because I would be terrible at answering someone’s phones, and partly because I had no idea how the entertainment industry worked.

Having deluded myself into believing that going to law school would open all sorts of doors, I decided, hey, at least I’ll have a degree at the end of three years, and if I can’t figure out how to be a writer, I can be a lawyer. Anyone with any knowledge about anything would have tried to convince me this was a terrible idea, but fortunately I didn’t know any lawyers, had no idea what a law firm was, and didn’t want to spend $25 for the Vault Guide to Corporate Law Careers.

Before starting law school, I happened to read an article about blogging. I decided that starting a blog would be a neat experiment to force me to write every day, and the blog would give me a place to try and turn the law school experience into some sort of comedy. I had never read any blogs, and I knew nothing of the blog world. On August 8, 2002, having received my 1L course schedule in the mail, I began writing.

Cut to a year and a half later. The first e-mail I’d sent with my Harvard Law account was to the Crimson to see if I could write for them. Grad students, they quickly informed me, were not allowed to write for the storied college paper. Instead, I pitched a humor column to the law school paper, and started writing there weekly. My blog had about 700 readers a day, which seemed like a nice number. But it hadn’t gotten me any closer to being a writer for real. My roommate had no idea why I was wasting my time writing for free on the Internet. I could pretend I had a plan, but I didn’t.

I had spent my 1L summer working for eight weeks for a small publishing company and six weeks for a political media firm—both jobs I had found entirely outside the law school career services system—but I figured that over my 2L summer I would try out a law firm, so that at least I would be making an informed decision about what to do post-law school. I interviewed, I got an offer, I accepted the offer. I hadn’t blogged much about the interview experience, for the (sensible) fear that it would hurt my chances. On a whim, 2L spring, thinking maybe there could be some funny blog posts to write in the voices of some of the partners who had interviewed me, I started a second blog, an anonymous blog about an over-the-top, evil lawyer, playing on all the stereotypes I’d heard, and exaggerating the details I’d seen in the interview process.

Now my roommate had no idea why I wasting my time writing two blogs for free on the Internet.

I was not entirely sure either.

The first blog ended up being a year and a half of practice for the anonymous one, which, thanks to some beneficial links early on, quickly grew a larger audience than the blog with my name on it. For a brief moment, I found this irritating. “Why are more people reading my anonymous blog than my real one?” Eight months later, after having used my summer associate experience to obtain more details I could grossly and unfairly exaggerate, the New York Times wrote a story about “Anonymous Lawyer,” revealing that I was the writer behind it. I got over 500 e-mails that weekend, including a bunch from agents and publishers, and I ended up with a book deal to turn the blog into the Anonymous Lawyer novel.

I was, of course, very lucky—I am certain that I benefited a great deal from the accidental timing of my blog. It hit just as blogs were becoming mainstream enough for publishers to start getting interested, but not so far along the curve that bookstores were filled with books built off blogs. I sold a television pitch based on the book to Sony and NBC and worked with them for two years on a sitcom adaptation. I’m currently working on a film version and have other scripts I’ve been writing, along with a second novel. All of this emerged from writing I was doing for free, without any idea about where it would lead.

That’s what’s great about this Plan B Nation economy. Sure, perhaps no one is going to pay you up front. But the Internet makes the world where people do get paid accessible to anyone, and you never know if—or when, or how—you’re going to be found, and what your free work might lead to.

I still write for free because I don’t know what might next hit. (I also write for pay, if anyone out there is open to pitches; feel free to e-mail me.) As it happens, the most e-mails I’ve gotten recently have been after pieces I’ve written for the humor site McSweeney’s, for free. There is no shame in writing for free. Amy had nothing to feel bad about.

Jeremy Blachman is a freelance writer and the author of Anonymous Lawyer, a comic novel about corporate law. He welcomes e-mail.

Wherever you go there you are? Not necessarily

kitchen1

A year ago today, I was packing up my Cambridge apartment a stone’s throw from Harvard Square and preparing to return to Northampton, the bucolic western Massachusetts college town where I’d previously lived for two years in the early aughts.

I’d been in Cambridge for six years, and a hard six years it was. I’m still not quite sure why. It was the third time I’d lived in the storied educational mecca, home to Harvard, MIT, and countless brilliant minds. I’d been there twice as a student. This time I was back for a job at Harvard Law School, where I ultimately wound up writing speeches for then-Dean (now U.S. Supreme Court Justice) Elena Kagan.

It was a pretty great job in a pretty great city, but for some reason my life never really came together there.  Most difficult—and puzzling—of all was the fact that I couldn’t seem to make friends. Being single, my friends have always been especially important to me, and not having any good friends close at hand—well, it was quite a challenge.

In fairness, by the time I moved, I’d manage to collect a handful of intimates, but given the time and effort I put in, the results were pretty paltry.  Was it me? I wondered. It had to be me. After all, who wouldn’t like Cambridge?

This was pretty much the way my thoughts were going when my boss decamped for Washington, D.C., and my Harvard job abruptly ended in the spring of 2009. At the time, it seemed to make sense to just stay put. I had a strong professional network in the Boston area, and even with the Great Recession upon us, the region’s job market was still relatively robust (at least compared to other places).

Over the next year-plus, I picked up freelance projects and other short-term work, but more and more, I found myself pining to return to western Mass. While I’d last lived in Northampton a decade before, I’d made frequent trips back to see friends, and I loved my weekend visits. Still, I sternly reminded myself, mini-vacations are not real life. Making a move wouldn’t change any of the very real difficulties facing me. I’d still be jobless, looking for work, still financially strained. I’d still be single (which is great if you choose it, but the fact is, I had not).

Also: I already knew from experience that just because I thought a change would make my life better didn’t mean that it would. Psychologists have a fancy name for this—affective forecasting error—the idea being that we humans are notoriously poor predictors of what will make us happy.

Wherever you go there you are. The saying stuck in my mind. Everyone knows that you can’t change your life by simply changing your surroundings–and lest you have any lingering doubt, research bears this out.  In one often-cited study, researchers found that people who believed they would be happier living in California actually would not be. I couldn’t help but suspect that Northampton might be my personal California (albeit a far chillier and less sunny one).

And so it went until my unhappiness reached the point that even an unlikely option seemed worth the risk. I didn’t know what else to do. Plus, I couldn’t help thinking—or at least hoping—that a move might serve as a jump start.

I was encouraged to find some support for this notion in journalist Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success. There, Gladwell recounts the story of Roseto, Pennsylvania, a bustling self-sufficient town established in the nineteenth century by immigrants from a single Italian village. In the 1950s, a physician discovered that the town’s residents enjoyed astonishingly good health, with men over 65 dying from heart disease at half the rate of the United States as a whole, and with death rates from all causes 30% to 35% lower than expected. After significant research aimed at controlling for variables–diet, genetics, exercise–researchers concluded that, remarkably enough, residents’ health could be traced to nothing more than the fabric of town life, with its rich social bonds and traditions.

Maybe I was grasping at straws, but this seemed promising. It seemed to suggest that while “moving to California” might not in itself boost happiness, the sense of belonging to a vibrant community could have a profound impact. The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that this made total sense. After all, wasn’t it likely that I’d be happier in a place that I knew and loved, surrounded by people I cared about and who cared about me?

Moreover, I was able to garner research to back me up. Again and again, close relationships with family and friends have been shown to be one of the strongest proven predictors of happiness.

Reader, I moved.

And as I approach my one-year anniversary in Northampton, I’m delighted to tell you that I am indeed far, far happier than I was before. While the move certainly hasn’t fixed everything—I’m still looking for work, still looking for love—I’m deeply grateful for my life here. Along with the welcome infusion of human warmth and connection, I cherish the texture of daily life: stopping by the farm down the street to pick up eggs, playing board games with my friends’ kids, working with Friends of Children and Treehouse, local organizations doing cutting-edge work aimed at transforming the nation’s foster care system. The list goes on.

The moral of the story? Changing your surroundings won’t necessarily change your life. But then again: It might.