This month, the theme at The Coven is A WOMAN’S WORK. And, in a true moment of horrible serendipity, my excuse for not delivering this letter sooner is that I was working. In an office. With a commute and wearing trousers and packed lunches and everything.
It seems that being a woman, or indeed being anyone who examines the ramifications of gender and identity, is the product of a lot of hard work – mental and physical. Every morning, I would get up a few minutes early to paint on my femininity. Primer, concealer, foundation, blush, bronzer. For Christmas, my mother gave my sisters and I a set of make up brushes – things that I had never used before – and almost instantly I was sucked into their capabilities. Like an artist’s canvas, a blank, clean faces rises to be examined by the artist. What will it be today? Soft red fibres blend terracotta bronzer deep into the concaves of the skin, a trompe l’oeil sculpture that marks out unexplored angularities on a rounded plane. A painterly watercolour wash of coral over the cheekbones, over a flexible layer of not-quite-real flesh. Your skin, but better. And lips, and eyes. Lips; red, red, red – but what shade? Four brushes flicked in sequence over the eyelids, deepening sockets, lifting brows, blending together a synthesis of reality and not. It’s like art, your face. The potential of it is undeniable.
Some days, I would go into work clean and scrubbed and pigment-free and at about 3pm or so, catch myself looking in a mirror. Myself – shiny, slightly red – always stares back. “Yuck,” we both say, unfairly. We need to remind ourselves not to think this way.
You will always be you, but the method of presentation can be relatively hard work. It’s the first act in any performance, setting a tone, making a mood. Questioning that method of presentation; its conflicts, its idiosyncrasies, its hypocrisy; that’s work too.
This week, I was invited to go back to Central Saint Martins to talk to fashion journalism students about – guess what – aspects of my work. Not the literal mechanics of it. Not the working evenings and weekends, not the pains of living month to month, not the pleasures of no commute and a hot water bottle on a chilly day. Instead, the emotional mechanics. How to prepare for writing a personal essay. Forging an emotional connection in your writing. And shopping.
When I did that course, this was not a thing that we ever spoke about – despite the fact that emotional, personal, storytelling kind of writing is controlled by women. But then again, why would it be taught? The processes of journalism are a product of language, which is a patriarchal tool. Like, sorry I guess, but it is. It’s a very male dominated industry, despite the reams and reams of women who train in fashion journalism and branch out into features, cultural or political writing. Personal writing though… That belongs to us.
I sincerely hope that this becomes something that is taught in journalism schools in the future, because good writing is good no matter what the structure. And journalism is all about structure.
There were nine women sitting around the table. All of them different, all of them interesting and unique and talented and smart and hardworking. I am publishing an essay by one of them (who, it remains to be seen) in May but, to be honest, I’d be very excited if any of them decided to pitch me right now *AHEM*. Not all of them will like personal writing, but if anything else it’ll be worthwhile work. Candid, friendly self-examination is always worthwhile.
If, like them, you are interested in writing well or making writing your work, here are some pointers that came up in our conversation:
- Never start writing a personal essay without knowing how it will end – you will probably end up writing yourself into a not great place. I feel that I have to clarify that this really only applies to journalism – if it’s a diary or just some writing you work on for yourself, forge ahead.
- Writing a good personal essay is not always about interior monologues – even small actions/exposition show people who you are.
- Think carefully before mining your trauma. Are you writing for yourself? Will you be OK with it becoming tomorrow’s cyber chip paper?
- When you write about the people you love, consider their feelings. Involve them only when they’re part of your story.
- Always remember, you have an obligation to be accurate in as much as you can. Fact-check, record meticulously: It’s still journalism.
- In for a penny, in for a pound. People will still want to talk about your essay even if you’d rather forget it. So don’t forget it.
- Beauty is boring, boring things are beautiful.
- Social media. Newsletters are the way forward for introspection/analysis (one girl visibly rolled her eyes when I said this, LOL).
- Don’t be an asshole . Why be passive-aggressive when you could be aggressive instead? But don’t be afraid to pull people up. Confront.
- Realise that language is largely a patriarchal construct; as a woman, emotional connection through writing is a powerful female tool though.
After the talk, I ran to meet a friend (a feminist academic and also a much-loved Coven writer) for lunch. I was red and puffy. I felt drained. When I told her about it she said, “Well, yeah. I feel that teaching is heavily related to performance.”
I nodded and let my red lipstick smear all over my chin as I bit into a cheese sandwich.
Sarah Waldron is the editor of The Coven.