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how to write like a brooklynite, part 1: amy sohn

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OK class. The text for today’s session is this amazing piece of journalistic commentary, “The 40-Year-Old Reversion” by Amy Sohn. Let’s do a play by play – might want to open the article in another window and follow along as I point out the highlights.

1. It’s a good idea to start something like this by blithely referring to a knowing/unknowing joke about some unfortunate caste or category of people to set  the tone for the piece. This permits the readers to understand where they are, socio-demographically speaking, and where they most certainly aren’t.

Once a month I get together with half a dozen moms from Park Slope and Carroll Gardens. We call ourselves Hookers, Sluts and Drug Addicts.

Also note that the delivery of such a joke is a matter of touch. Sohn gets it just right here: Hookers, Sluts, and Drug Addicts are abstract and “funny” enough to keep things edgy yet chill. Adding “Teenage Pornstars with AIDS” or “Project Girls who Give Head for Crack” to the list would potentially bum readers out.

2. Following from that, head directly into a mildly dirty anecdote – something to give the piece a general air of… how to describe it… women staring at each other’s tits.

Sally and I hit it off right away. She had short hair and heavy lids. It turned out we had met ten years ago at the pool room in the back of the Brooklyn Inn, bantering and competing for boys.

Sally went to the bathroom and I waited in front of the door for her to finish. When she came out, I said, “Lemme see your tits.”

“Why?”

“I heard you got a reduction.”

She lifted her shirt and bra and flashed me. “They look good,” I said. “What did the old ones look like?”

They were too big for my little body. They were an F. After I weaned, I would roll over onto one of them in my sleep and it would wake me up and then I would realize it was part of my own body. Now I’m a D. I love them.” Then she started stroking them. A cook stuck his head out of the kitchen.

Notice, here, the way that Sohn doubles down in the final paragraph of the anecdote, moving from women looking at each others tits to a woman and a cook watching another woman massaging her own tits. Note too, at this point, that Sohn  widely sidesteps the temptation to move into fullbore sucking, lapping, or licking.

3. Once you’ve cleared ironical slurring and salacious suggestion, you can permit yourself a little vanity-mirror moment, just to register for the readers that you are in fact still desirable enough that any of the rest won’t be gross in the “ugly-old-people-having-sex” sort of way.

Later we decided to go to a bar in Boerum Hill. The restaurant owner, Dave, said he would drive us. He turned out to be a divorced dad. We all crammed into his SUV. There were car seats in the back seat and he threw one of them behind us. The other wouldn’t move so a small mom sat in it, scrunched.

As we were crossing the Gowanus Canal, Dave said, “I just want you to know that I would have sex with any one of you ladies tonight. Even the pregnant one.”

“Thank you,” we said.

3.1 But it would probably be best to tie the “guy-who-says-you’re-still-hot” digression off with a knowing, self-reflexive wink – but a wink that nonetheless you are definitely still potentially somewhat up for it and not the kind of bitch who gets tetchy about stuff like harassing comments made by restaurant owners:

The difference between twenty-five and thirty-eight is that, at thirty-eight, when a strange man says he wants to have sex with you, you feel grateful.

4. Now it’s time to disentangle yourself from digressive anecdotery about Sluts and Tits and Cougarism in order to roll out the actual pitch of the piece. And by pitch I mean just that: this is where you copy and paste the email that you sent to the editor of the web-only publication that you’re writing in now. In the course of doing so, probably best to hat-tip the massively-overexposed and over-analysed bit of pop culture flotsam gave you the idea for the piece in the first place. Nobody, after all, gets tired of pieces along the lines of Lena Dunham – c’est moi. C’est nous tous! 

When “Girls” hit this spring, I was shocked by how true the show rang to my life—not my old life as a post-collegiate single girl but my new one, as a married, monogamous, home-owning mother. My generation of moms isn’t getting shocking HPV news (we’re so old we’ve cleared it), or having anal sex with near-strangers, or smoking crack in Bushwick. But we’re masturbating excessively, cheating on good people, doing coke in newly price-inflated townhouses, and sexting compulsively—though rarely with our partners. Our children now school-aged, our marriages entering their second decade, we are avoiding the big questions—Should I quit my job? Have another child? Divorce?—by behaving like a bunch of crazy twentysomething hipsters.

4a. Above all else, it is absolutely vital to end the pitch-repeating “thesis” paragraph with a reduction of any (if any – let’s hope not) complexity you’ve generated so far into a single word brandname for what you’re describing. If you don’t do this, how will Newsweek what to put on their cover the week that you’re the star – they sure as hell won’t go with the title of the novel that you’re flogging by doing all of this in the first place.

Call us the Regressives.

Without a capitalized Name like this, how the hell would anyone know what you’re talking about? What sort of twitter hashtag would they use when arguing about whether you’re a shitter mother than the Tiger Mom or not? Most important of all, they might just start to get the sense that you’re extrapolating wildly (and hyperbolically) from a sample set that includes People who Live on My Block of Union Street, the One between Court and Clark.

5. OK – you’re just about ready to drop the name of your novel into the piece at this point. Careful – this part takes a deft touch.

My new novel, Motherland, is about five New York City parents who act out mid-life through adultery, marijuana or Grindr. The characters are inspired by my neighbors, who seek liberation not through consciousness-raising and EST the way their mothers did, but through Fifty Shades of Greyand body shots. They arrive home from girls’ nights at three a.m. on a weeknight and then complain about hangovers at school dropoff.

In another lesson, we’ll spend more time on the principles of novelistic construction that are on display in this dazzling set piece. For now: note the elegant to-and-fro of contradiction and confirmation of preconceptions are work here: moms are moms but also not because they fuck and drink, these people are made up but actually real, things have changed but really haven’t but really have, and this will have porny fucking in it, just like 50 Shades. All this in the course of a couple of sentences.

5a. This is slightly annoying, given the patently obvious universality of Sohn’s novel and this piece (and, presumably, yours as well), but it’s a good idea to underscore that universality for the haterzz by patiently explaining that the phenomenon in question is definitely not simply an insanely local case / unanchored particularity / simply evidence of the hothouse-reeking-of-egotistical-bullshit that is Brownstone Brooklyn but is in fact a global phenomenon.

(And this regression is not confined to upscale neighborhoods in New York City—I hear similar stories from friends in Los Feliz, Montclair and Rye.)

You can be forgiven if you don’t know where these desperately provincial backwaters are that Sohn mentions – why would you? I mean, the fact that they are only slightly more suburban versions of Brownstone Brooklyn, one in LA the other two just outside NYC, and are filled by exactly the same sort of people, only with bigger houses and maybe the shot at sending their kids to public school instead of having gram and gramps pay for St Anne’s, doesn’t contradict the fact that this stuff is probably happening in Omaha and rural Bangladesh. Or isn’t, as the whole piece is staked on the fact that Brownstone Brooklyn is so insane hip that…

You know what, forget it. Let’s move on.

5b. …we’ll move on save for one more thing. It will probably happen that some redneck will call you up on this Montclair or Rye thing. If so, answer with an eye-roll and the response “Oh, so I guess we don’t do irony, do we, where you’re from?”

6. Right. That’s it for the mandatory stuff. Now it’s time for the body of the piece, which needn’t be much more than a series of anecdotes about the phenomenon in question. Whether they actually add up to making a case for the existence of this phenomenon isn’t the point. Rather, the point is to deploy what you have – basically a series of mildly titillating / gross / silly things that have happened or you have “heard about” while sidestepping the fact that they may not in fact be real. One way around the later problem is to write in the present tense (“They arrive home from girls’ nights at three a.m. on a weeknight and then complain about hangovers at school dropoff”) or, even better, avoid using verbs beyond strange “it is” constructions at all:

The childbearing is over, the breastfeeding in the past, the sling donated to Housing Works. It’s the moment when a mom dresses as a Harajuku girl for Halloween, or there’s a full bar at a four-year-old’s birthday party, or two ladies step out of book group to smoke on the stoop. It’s blowjob gestures at cocktail parties followed by a-little-too hysterical laughter. It’s the mother who says, “Mommy needs an Advil because she stayed up too late last night.” It’s fortieth birthday parties at karaoke bars.

See that: through the “it’s, it’s, it’s” formulation, you’re not actually asserting that any of these things actually have taken place. Rather this is the sort of thing that would happen if this Regression thing was happening, and since you’ve said it’s happening, then they have happened too. Perfect – you’ve learned the secret of tautological spin.

7. It might be a good time, lest the reader starts to lose interest or attention, to reaffirm that this is just like the stuff that happens on her/his favorite cable tv shows.

The same Facebook moms who use kid photos as their profile pics post galleries of their binge drinking. Is the behavior really amoral? No. Does it cross a line? Rarely. But there is a wild, life-craving, narcissistic, oblivious madness to it that reminds me of Don Draper and pals in the mid-sixties. These women are the men their mothers divorced.

8. Now that you’ve done the amorphous “things that might be the case but who really knows” non-story story thing, the remainder of the piece can consist of a stream of consciousness list of mundane things that vaguely reinforce the Big Idea of the piece. Have no fear if these mundane things are really mundane and utterly disjointed, one to the next. What follows is an exhaustive list of what actually happens in the remainder of Sohn’s piece – exhaustive so that you can you can be reassured that having nothing really to talk about shouldn’t at all put you off writing a piece of this sort:

  1. Once, a woman in Fort Greene had non-intercourse sex once with a coworker.
  2. Once, a married woman with kids used coitus interruptus as her birth control method.
  3. Once, a man bought XL condoms from the Park Slope Co-Op
  4. Once, two men took Xanax while drinking.
  5. Once, a dad gave the author some marijuana.
  6. Once, the author took the subway to Park Slope once because there were no cabs on Smith Street.
  7. Once, people went back from drinks to someone’s place to do a line of coke.
  8. Once, someone said to the author that her Asian boyfriend had a large penis.
  9. Once, people at a party attended by the author smoked pot on the front stoop.

9. As you can see, the takeaway point is this: the initial “tits out and self-fondled” story is the alpha and the omega of this piece, and clears room for everything else. That along with a catchy tagword like “Regressives” will allow you to transform, as if (or, probably, in fact) effortlessly, some silly shit that happens at boring kids’ birthday parties in at the Center of the Literary Universe (i.e. Brooklyn) into a piece that not only captures the World Zeitgeist, but further even becomes a talking point during the dead-air times on CNN.

Did you catch a guy peeing against your garbage cans? Then exhibitionism in the new hip thing amongst the BoBos of Park Slope. Did you bump your head during sex with your husband? Watch out, EL James: it’s married BDSM that’s the new rage in Red Hook. Did a friend of a friend let one rip during a cocktail party? Then – as you can easily imagine – farting is the new flirting in Boerum Hill.

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July 30, 2012 at 3:00 pm

back

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I’m staying in Brooklyn for the next two or so weeks. I’d like to get back to blogging – the better me, in some senses, is the me that blogs… rather than leaving all the passing thoughts to quick dissolve in time or silent suppression. So watch this space – I’m already working on a couple and should post soon.

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July 12, 2011 at 1:19 pm

Posted in blogs, brooklyn

teaching writing, remembering teaching writing

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Writing a lecture on “essay writing” in the off-minutes today. Will deliver it to the first-years on Monday. In America, I never “wrote lectures,” as I played everything, no matter how large, as a seminar. Here, you’re at a podium and the students won’t talk back, even if asked to. And so you write lectures. It feels strangely old-fashioned. The upside is, I suppose, that there’s a chance that the work that I’m doing today will last me for the remainder of my career, some thirty-two or so years if I stay at my place (and I might!) and they don’t get rid of manditory retirement (which they shouldn’t!)

Writing this takes me back to my year teaching first-year writing (too posh, the place where I was, for “composition.”) I sat through an endless week of summer sessions on how to teach writing; I was surly; I learned an incredible amount. More than half of what I know about the teaching end of teaching English I learned during this period. It was a big time for me. I got my first job, conceived my first child, came to terms (well, sort of) with leaving Brooklyn, the only place I’ve ever unambiguously loved.

I drove to work from Brooklyn, my little blue VW Jetta Wagon, two or three days a week. It was a half time job with half time pay – still more money than I’d ever made in my life. I had an office in a building that wasn’t the English department, and a primo parking spot in a primo lot. I listened to NPR, day after day, while making that commute. Brian Lehrer. Strangely, I never thought to stay late, extend my stay at the university. Life, from my perspective now, seemed incredibly uncomplicated. I picture fast, clean roads, the view from the bridges that I’d cross on the way there and on the way back. Easy conversations with friends who’d hitch a ride back to the city with me when they were out at the university too. At night, I’d type away at my dissertation, which needed to get done.

At the end, we had the baby, who lived for five weeks in the city of her birth, and then we left. They were filming an ad for Nike on the stoop of the brownstone across the street the day the moving trucks came.

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October 10, 2009 at 8:53 pm

Posted in academia, brooklyn

dream 1 – parking lot 11201

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Just to test the limits of my new, no limits blogging, a dream from last night…

Running late, as usual, getting home after a night of drinking. For some reason I get stuck, I stop, at a vacant lot, a parking lot, on the north side of Atlantic Avenue. There is of course no parking lot on Atlantic Avenue, but this one is directly across the street from that Shell Station. This one, only at night….

I have my bag that I always carry there with me: books and magazines and notebooks, and my eee and its plug. Perhaps I am giving up. It is too late to go home; I have blown it, and not for the first time.

Just then a “madwoman” – overlayered as the homeless are during the New York winter – and swinging about broom or a rake with neither intent nor reluctance to injure slowly makes her way up the sidewalk and into the lot where I am standing. She thinks that I’ve done her wrong; whatever she is angry about it is my fault. But it is easy enough to disregard the charge. Clearly she disturbed, and moving under the guidance of something other than reason.

She moves past me and down the block, past a few buildings, to yet another vacant space, another parking lot. In this one, however, is the little shed where the attendant sits, the person in charge of both this lot and the mine.

I get there, to the other lot, just after the menacing woman has left. There’s a young woman in the little shed, in her early twenties, neither particularly attractive nor particularly unattractive. She is frightened, but not too frightened. This sort of thing must happen all the time to her, working nights at a place like this. I offer to walk her to the train, just to be sure – the F stop at York Street. It doesn’t make sense – York Street is two stops away, Bergen Street is basically right around the corner. But she reluctantly agrees.

I realize I’ve left my bag back in the other lot, so I decide to head back to retrieve it. I further decide to take a weapon with me, just in case. The only thing available is one of those branch cutters – long handles, tiny scissoring head. I can’t figure out how I’d use it as a weapon – you certainly wouldn’t try to snip somebody with it, and if you swung it by a single handle that wouldn’t work either. Obviously the answer is to hold the two handles, one in each hand, and swing it like that, but it doesn’t occur to me in the course of the dream. I take the cutter anyway.

I know before I get back to my lot that everything will be gone. The eee, probably my notebooks, the memory stick. My phone is still in my pocket. But when I get there, a man is just leaving – sheepishly, only half-stealthily – with a book in his hand. It’s Keynes’s General Theory of Employment, Money, and Interest…. except that’s not what it’s called in this dream, it’s simply called Theory of Unemployment. When I yell at him he turns, walks back to my bag, drops the book in, and then disappears and then I am woken up.

Elements of dream that recurred from the waking day that preceded it: I was a bit late getting home. I wrote a post on Brooklyn in which I mentioned Atlantic Avenue.  I worried about the fact that there is a hole in the bottom of the bag that I carry, and that old keys that I don’t need anymore were threatening to fall out. I mentioned to someone that someone else really doesn’t understand Keynes’s General Theory.

Elements of the dream that have appeared in previous posts: Aside of course from Brooklyn, the tool.

Other contextually significant elements: I visited that Shell station repeatedly when my car developed a mysterious “power drain” issue – leading to battery failure at inopportune times, such as in the JFK airport parking lot after a 24 hour long flight back from Beijing or in the middle of an intersection on Clinton Street. My first daughter was born in the brown brick building visible to the right of the gas station – that’s Long Island College Hospital. My good friends may well be in that hospital tonight, delivering their second child.

Strange matters for report: I never would have walked drunkenly from Cobble Hill to Brooklyn Heights by myself. Quite the opposite. Generally when I came home worse for wear, I would have taken the 2/3 to Borough Hall and then walked down Court Street from Brooklyn Heights to Cobble Hill. When I did live in Brooklyn Heights, I never drank in Cobble Hill / Carrol Gardens. Strange that I was headed in the other direction, against the stream of personal history as it were.

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May 8, 2009 at 9:42 pm