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.