Archive for the 'writing' Category

why personal essays are really important

When I started writing personal essays on the internet, I was half embarrassed, half proud. Even though I grew up in a generation that’s supposedly all about oversharing and facebooking and nonstop blabby social connectedness, I’d still learned that privacy is a virtue, modesty is preferable, and you shouldn’t air your dirty laundry. But I also wanted to talk about things that felt relevant but had been kept quiet. And I wanted to share those things with other women, because I had a sneaking suspicion that I might be facing some of the same challenges that girls and women all over the world deal with, even if those challenges at times felt intensely, well, personal. Even if they felt too small and mundane for the news. I came into personal essay writing open-minded, scared, and determined.

And then I read the comments.

But it wasn’t just the comments. Someone (who kept him or herself anonymous) tried to get me fired from my synagogue job after reading an essay I’d written about a complicated romantic situation. The message was clear: no one who works at a religious institution should write about her love life. I was a whore, wrote commenters. I was never going to be happy. Never going to find love. I was going to ruin every man who came near me. Personal attacks were the result of personal writing. Afraid and humiliated, I apologized to the synagogue president and cried all night.

That was years ago. Since then, I’ve watched critics and commenters alike chastise personal essayists for their vulnerability, their supposed self-centeredness, their apparent fame-mongering. Even as the personal essay as an art form becomes more popular, its detractors are ready with scathing criticisms that suggest it is worthless, superficial, and, god forbid, easy. And it’s interesting that most of the criticism is lobbed at women. Often young women. Because more often than not, it is young women who write personal essays.


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Kate on March 4th 2013 in feminism, life, uplifting, writing

you are not vain

I am lying in bed, sick, watching Hulu because the inspiration has drained out of me. And the holiday commercial for Victoria’s Secret replays and replays. I can’t look away.

Supermodels with breasts like plastic fruit, so round, move in slow, calculated adjustments, their skinny flanks decorated with proud ribs- a precise school of dolphins, surfacing suggestively.

“Love me,” they murmur. “Desire me.” They say it as though they already know that we do. Sometimes a voice whispers, but their mouths don’t open, as though it’s the lingerie talking. They smile wickedly, sweetly, smugly– whichever way they’re supposed to.



After all these years of living in this country, in this city, in this culture, I am still faintly surprised for some reason, that they are almost naked. I don’t know why. It’s a reaction that comes up from childhood, maybe, from somewhere deep and certain. I am indignant at their nakedness, because I can’t seem to avoid it. I don’t have a choice except to keep shutting my eyes and turning away.

“It doesn’t matter,” I tell myself. “Why should it matter?”

When I was a kid, standing in line at the grocery store with my mom, I felt like I couldn’t look away from the women on the covers of the magazines, with their glossy skin and upthrust breasts and pouting lips and sultry, shadowed cheekbones. They were always women, and they were always sexy. Occasionally, a man is on the cover of something, but often he is wearing a sharp suit that covers everything. Often, a woman is completely naked, with strategically placed hands, or flowers, or something ironic and playful that references a recent role she’s been cast in. Money, puppies, whatever.

But women who speak of the pressure they feel to look a certain way, who agonize, who fixate, who buckle under the pressure, who get cosmetic surgery, who complain, who mention our insecurity—we are considered vain.

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Kate on December 13th 2012 in beauty, body, perfection, writing

the only one eating all of the doughnut holes (a story about choosing a career)

Louie CK does a bit about cookies at a party- he keeps sneaking back to take another, pretending to “rediscover” them every time. “Oh, look! Cookies! I should probably have one…” Bear said it reminds him of himself. Brenda said it reminds her of herself. It reminds me of myself, too, so I don’t know who all of the other people at that party are. The ones who aren’t taking the cookies. But I wanted to share a story about a time when this happened to me.

It starts during the time when I still didn’t know what I was going to be when I grew up.

When I went to grad school, my plan was to grab the Master’s degree on my way to the PhD, and head straight through to the end, where I’d be a professor in a foggily half-imagined future full of diplomas and a sense of quiet security. But then, a few months into grad school, I realized that no, I’d gotten the whole thing wrong, I wasn’t going to become a professor, ever. I wasn’t cut out for it. I didn’t have that drive that the other students had—that urge to burrow into a text, that finely honed focus. I wanted to talk in broad swaths, and I couldn’t ever make up my mind. I wanted to study big, wide-open topics, and I didn’t care if I never read in the original text. And worst of all, I was bad at theory.

So, with only half a year of my Master’s left, I had to scramble to figure out the rest of my life. Or at least a viable beginning for it.

My thesis advisor said, “Maybe you should try to write,” but before I listened to her, I decided to go to cantorial school.

I had been a lay cantor at my synagogue in NJ since I was a teenager, so I knew I liked it, and actually, I’d once been so sure I’d become a fulltime cantor that I picked my college for its music school and proximity to my synagogue, so I could work all the way through. I started college as a vocalist in the music education program, because I’d heard that a music ed degree was desirable in cantorial school. And then I was miserable. And I sat in a practice room after music theory class crying and writing a poem about the grand piano with its comforting bulk and its sharp, punishing teeth, or something. At juries, the voice faculty told me that my voice was not “bel canto” enough. I googled it. It meant “beautiful singing.” It was beautiful singing enough for the congregants, damn it! I thought bitterly. Then I went on a bitter walk in the rain.

“The cantorial influence is too strong,” said my voice instructor, an enormous, barrel-chested man with a red beard who sang with the New York City Opera and told tales of his own grandeur. “You have to give up singing at your temple if you want to be a true classical singer.”

I didn’t want to be a true classical singer. I wanted to sing haunting, ancient Jewish melodies. That was the whole point.

(singing Jewish music makes me feel mysterious and sexy, like this. source)

So an academic year after I arrived, I stood up and walked out of a piano test.

“I’m done,” I said to the panel of judges. “I quit.”

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Kate on December 4th 2012 in fear, food, life, work, writing

the hope scale

My therapist said people who are high on the hope scale (I didn’t know about it, but I think it’s a scale that measures how good you are at being a person) succeed more. There was this study.

I said, “Shit. I’m screwed.”

“No, no,” she said, laughing. “Your hope will just look different. It will be subtle.” I think that’s what she said.

But seriously, it is lame to be a champion worrier, and to wait and wait to check my goals off the list that runs my life. Especially because goals change so fluidly, without you even noticing. It makes it hard to trust yourself. It makes it hard to figure out what’s actually important.

For example, when I was twelve or so, my dad took me to Carnegie Hall to see Oscar Peterson play. My dad is a jazz pianist, and he loves Oscar, and so I loved Oscar, too. I played classical, then, and I took it very seriously, like I take absolutely everything because I am probably a robot. At intermission, I went up to the stage and I touched it. It was golden brown wood, maple? I don’t know my wood colors very well, and deeply scratched, which I hadn’t expected. I’d thought it would be shinier. I whispered, “Someday I will walk across this stage.” It was a vow.

(eep. source)

And I kept it, but not really. I sang in a choir once at Carnegie Hall, in college, but that didn’t count. I’d meant that I would walk across the stage to a grand piano, and then I’d sit down alone and play, like the fifteen-year-old girl I’d heard of who was already doing that and who I hated passionately for it. I am not good at keeping my vows, apparently.

But the thing is, by the time I sang with the choir, I didn’t even care who was sitting on the piano bench. I didn’t want that anymore. Not even a little. Instead, I wanted to get into grad school. More than anything, I wanted to prove that I was smart enough for Harvard (spoiler alert: I wasn’t). Recently, it occurred to me that I’m not so concerned with being that kind of smart anymore. And now I want to be this famous writer. It’s always something, isn’t it?

It all seems a little silly when I think about it for a second. Being this kind of person. The kind of person who is always rushing towards something, who is always scrabbling for a handhold, trying to pull herself up a little higher, towards something she can’t quite see.

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Kate on October 17th 2012 in fear, life, new york, work, writing

already smart enough, without even trying

This piece is a part of my Little Victories series. 

I don’t know the names of the parts of grammar. I remember “prepositional phrase” from this big purple book I had growing up. I remember that there are articles that can be definite and indefinite, but I can’t remember which one is “the” and which one is “a.” And it’s been embarrassing for a long time, but not embarrassing enough to google.

There are all of these things I should probably know that I don’t, and I sort of wish I knew them, and I’m hoping no one will call me out on them, but I’m not exactly making an effort to learn them. Instead, I’m making mac and cheese. Instead, I’m writing the way I would talk if I was better at talking. And for the first time in a long time, I am OK with that. It’s a good sign—I think it means that there’s always hope. Unless it means that my inquisitiveness has curled up and died in a corner somewhere and I will be the counterexample in a future New York Times article about how intellectually active people can stave off Alzheimer’s.


No. It’s progress. It took me a long time to let myself feel smart enough, without making a huge effort to sound smarter. I am just now reaching the stage where I can make occasional small talk in an elevator without the evil voice in my head snarling, “Say something witty, you pathetic nitwit! Yes, the dog is shaggy and cute, but doubtless everyone makes that obvious observation. DISTINGUISH YOURSELF.”

(The voice in my head is like the British butler in movies about how Americans think England used to be, except he’s become unhinged and he’s about to kill everyone.)

My mom made an effort to teach me grammar. I recited “behind, beneath, before, on, in” and whatever else. But it didn’t stick. I was building a lean-to in the woods, and I got good at latticing the branches and packing the gaps with moss and leaves. I practiced sketching faces almost every day and finally I could make their eyes gleam and give them realistic expressions.  I was learning lots of things. People are always learning lots of things.

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trying to sit in the dry patch for more than one second

I am bad at the afterward.

A couple years ago, I went to pick up my Master’s diploma in the basement of one of the stately old buildings on Columbia’s main campus. I was graduating mid-year to save money. I had worked my ass off.  This is a crime against culture, and I know people will hate me for it, but it’s the truth: I had been in New York City for a year and I had only been to the Village once, in the pouring rain, to interview someone for thesis research. It seemed like a different city down there, and I had to go right back uptown and transcribe the interview and read three hundred pages and learn a different language so that I could prove that I was cultured.  I tremblingly defended my thesis and proficiently translated academic texts in the new language and then finally I stood in the basement of the elegant building and this guy with sparse reddish hair dug through stacks of diplomas as high as fortress walls, looking for mine. He gave me a cynical little smile when he handed it to me. I walked outside, took the cobblestone path to the memorial library steps and sat down for a minute to think about my accomplishment. But all I could think was, “Shit.” And then I thought, “Shit, what do I do now?”


(this is all i need, right? source)

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Kate on September 27th 2012 in fear, life, new york, Uncategorized, work, writing

why you should fail at things a lot

My little brother didn’t get a summer job he interviewed for. He really wanted it. He kicked butt in his cover letter, and he was at his best in the interview, too. Afterwards, he didn’t want to talk about it, and I didn’t know what to say. It’s a weird thing, when you’re like, “give me more responsibility. I want to work all day instead of being a kid,” and the world is like, “Too bad. You have to stay a kid.”

I was worried he’d blame himself.

I’d really wanted him to get the job, because I really didn’t want him to learn to stop trying. That’s what happens sometimes after you get turned down enough. You throw up your hands and you say, “Whatever!” and whatever you decide to do next after that “whatever” is usually not anything worth remembering. It usually involves a lot of TV shows that you’ve already seen and weren’t totally crazy about the first time but this time they feel a little more nuanced. Unless you have incredible fortitude of spirit, and honestly, I’m not even sure what that is. I may have just made it up.

I felt called to say something. The way that I feel called to write to A.O. Scott and tell him that his review of Snow White and the Huntsman was really, really wrong. She is not a feminist symbol. She barely even talks. But maybe even more than that. So I sat my brother down, the way I thought a good big sister would, and I said, “Um, so, I thought that—well, I wanted to talk to you about something,” in my confident, charismatic way. He looked at me blankly. I said, “I want to talk to you about failing.”

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Kate on July 11th 2012 in family, fear, life, uplifting, work, writing