I’ve been working on taking a look at the blogs of people who read my own work, and this one from The Editor’s Journal intrigued me. It’s a very neutral reposting of the matrimonial tips of someone named Dr. Heavenly Kimes. The intent of the post is less to criticize her directly and more to start a conversation in the comments. The tips are fairly provocative, in that they assume a traditional, patriarchal structure is the ideal marriage. This is one of those rare times where I’ve fully enjoyed reading the comment section. Reactions varied, but on the whole they were thoughtful and respectfully phrased, even if they were fairly vehement and opposed at times.
My own response was too lengthy to be a comment. I had something to say about every one of the tips Kimes gave, because all of them were their own mixture of good and bad. There was at least the grain of a good thought in all of them, but phrased in such a way that following it verbatim would be likely be a terrible for many couples. Now, the fact that she is apparently in a husband-is-the-head-of-the-family marriage doesn’t bother me. If that’s what makes her happy, it’s her right to live that way. What bothers me is her assumption that what makes her happy will make everyone else happy; that her relationship is the kind everyone else should have. Her advice doesn’t read like she thoughtfully looked at what made her marriage work and which elements can be generalized for just about anyone. It looks like she slapped down a list of things that happened to work for her and called it a day.
For an analogy, let’s pretend that I found a great way for me to get over writer’s block was to have a beer while I write my first draft. It makes a certain amount of sense; alcohol helps many people relax and stop overthinking, so it might shut up that annoying, overly critical inner editor, at least until I’m ready for a rewrite. All that is fine. However, if I were to put “have a beer while you write” up on the internet, say as item four on my list of top ten ways to beat writer’s block, that would be a problem. My decision may have been informed by the fact that I am not an alcoholic and don’t have any other health issues that would make a drink a day an issue, but that’s not something I can assume about all my readers. Medical issues aside, for some writers it really is important to write a great first draft, so they need their heads clear to do their best writing the first time around. For some people, alcohol can make them feel more anxious or depressed, so it might make their writer’s block worse. Of course, whether my readers actually follow my advice or not is up to them, but it would still be fair to judge the advice I just gave as bad. When I was trying to decide what to do for myself, the only standard was whether or not it worked for me. When I started giving advice, now a new set of standards apply. If my suggestion would have adverse effects on a substantial number of the people I’m advising, that is practically the definition of bad advice.
That’s not to say that I can’t draw on my experience to give advice; I just need to phrase it in a way that is likely to be actually helpful for the audience at large. For example; “If there’s an inner editor who won’t shut up, find things you can physically do to help distract yourself from it. I like to have a beer while I write. For other people, going to another setting helps them focus. Some people take a walk and talk into a recorder, and then transcribe their thoughts later. Some people even like having some music or the TV on in the background.” Now the advice is better. I’ve given a good guideline, and some concrete examples of how to apply it. For some readers none of the suggestions will work, and that’s okay. Where a single inapplicable suggestion is unhelpful, a series can still provide material from which the reader can begin to brainstorm.
The other issue I have with her tips is that many of them play into sexist double standards. That issue could have disappeared if she had prefaced her article with something like; “I’m a straight woman in a traditional the-man-is-the-head-of-the-family relationship, and we both like it that way. It might not work as well for everybody, but if you are the same way, or think you might want to be, here’s what has worked for us.” The issue with sexism is that it forces gender roles onto people who don’t want them, or under circumstances they don’t want. For people who happen to be fairly traditionally masculine men or feminine women, it is all right to still be that way. You are not betraying the whole of feminism by staying home and cooking for your family. I know masculine men and feminine men, tomboys and girly women, trans people and cis people and people who zig zag over the gender lines like a crayon in the hand of a two year old. My goal is not to take people out of one set of boxes and put them into another. It’s to demolish the boxes, and if some people drift over to space that happened to once be encompassed by a box, that’s fine. So long as it is an open space, rather than a crammed corner full of miserable people who didn’t want to be there, I say mission accomplished.
In a boxless world, I might be able to read Kimes’ presuming good intentions and say no harm done. As someone who doesn’t fit in the boxes, however, I can attest that we are not in a boxless world. We are in a world where the boxes have gotten badly dented and often there is a hole you can escape out of. There is still a lot of social pressure to stay in the box, and within that context, I can’t help reading her advice as a part of that pressure, whether she intended it that way or not. This is the other issue with the thoughtlessness of her advice. In my made up example, there isn’t a lot of social pressure to be a drink-while-you-draft writer. If you read it and know drinking that much would be bad for you, that can make it fairly easy to ignore. For a married woman struggling to build a good career for herself, hearing for the twelve thousandth time that no husband wants a wife who puts her career first, the effect is different. There probably is some harm done. So even though I will acknowledge several places where Kimes has makings of a good point, on the whole her approach is badly flawed.
Coming up next; a blow by blow analysis of all her points, because overthinking is fun!