“Your problems aren’t bad enough”: Privilege and the personal essay

eatpraylove.jpgBefore leaving home on an April Sunday to drive to an Elizabeth Gilbert lecture/workshop in Detroit, I got into a small argument with Joe about, well, Elizabeth Gilbert.

“I hope you have a good time. Personally, though, I can’t imagine ever wanting to read that book,” Joe said, referring to “Eat Pray Love.”

“This event isn’t about ‘Eat Pray Love.’ She’s got a new book out about creativity,” I said.

But then, like a scab you just can’t stop yourself from pulling off, I asked, “But why would you never read ‘Eat Pray Love’?”

“Because this woman basically took a year off of work to travel and go to all these amazing places, and it sounds like all she does is complain,” said Joe. “Nobody else can just take a year off on a whim. Other people with real problems have to just keep going in their lives.”

“That’s pretty reductive, and it’s not really fair,” I said. “You haven’t read the book. She was going through a divorce when she sold the idea for the book, so she got an advance and used that and her savings to travel for 9 months. But even if she had been rich, does that mean she has nothing meaningful to say about her experience? I mean, you’re right, most people aren’t able to do what she did. But that made me all the more curious to read about what it was like, and what insights she managed to take away from it.”

The debate continued, though the time when I’d have to choose between continuing this verbal cage match and being late for Gilbert’s talk was fast approaching.

But my face burned, and I was all in. And there was a reason for that.

“If women like Elizabeth Gilbert are ‘just complaining,’ as you say, than really, so am I,” I said. “I’m writing from a place of privilege. I lost my job three months ago, but because you’re an attorney, we’re not in any danger of losing our house or going hungry because of it. I was denied unemployment because I was free-lancing, and that was annoying, but it was little more than an inconvenience. And right now, I don’t have to take the first job that comes along because I desperately need it; I can take my time and wait for something I really want. All those things scream ‘privilege.’ So if being financially comfortable means you have nothing meaningful to say about your life, then that applies to me, too.”

To be honest, I don’t remember what Joe’s response to this was. My hackles were up so hard, and I was so fiercely on the defensive, that all I remember next is driving to Gilbert’s workshop and struggling to find a parking space.

But I was reminded of this exchange again in June, when I shared a blog post I’d written with a bunch of fellow ex-journalists.

There’s a Facebook page, called “What’s Your Plan B?”, where (recovering?) former journalists from all over gather to share stories and triumphs, provide perspectives, seek advice, etc. I’d previously shared another of my essays, “How ‘Spotlight’ helped me say goodbye to newsrooms,” at Plan B, and many members had responded positively. Plus, a writer always wants her work to be read by those who might most connect with the subject, right?

With that in mind, I decided to also share my “things I’d never done before being laid off” essay on Plan B, and I introduced it this way: “Because many of you might be in the ‘still reeling from my newsroom layoff’ trenches with me, I thought I’d share this blog post, which balances some lighthearted insights with some far more sobering ones – like the fact that I can’t bring myself to read stories posted by my former co-workers, despite the fact that I wish them well.”

I observed considerable caution and care when writing this preface. I knew there were ex-journos out there facing far more dire circumstances than I have thus far – which was why I deliberately made a point of using the word “lighthearted,” and pointed to a “sobering” example that wasn’t all that grim (but something many might relate to).

The criticism came pretty swiftly.

“I know people going bankrupt and losing homes.”

“I can’t relate to this at all.”

Getting a gut-check now and then is healthy, of course, but these responses made me feel selfish and awful and small.

I responded to each commenter, telling them that I know exactly how lucky I know I am to be in a situation where I’m financially going to be OK until I find my next job. But as is often true, this had been a result of random luck. Years ago, I happened to fall in love and marry a man who’s now paid well for his work – hence my economic privilege, even in the face of unemployment. (Had I married another journalist, our family would likely be in a very different position.)

In the past, when others had been laid off and I wasn’t, I’d felt survivor’s guilt for keeping my job; now, even though I hadn’t survived the latest round of layoffs, I instead felt survivor’s guilt for my family not being in a more precarious position financially while others’ families were.

So maybe I am a jerk for talking about my emotional, unemployment-fueled distress when many people have it way worse than I do. After all, when it comes down to it, I’m just another annoying middle class white woman who has the time to write about her comparatively minor frustrations, discomforts, and unhappinesses.

And during that initial argument with Joe, I did say that part of the issue, clearly, was that the still-underrepresented voices of those in far more serious circumstances weren’t heard from nearly as often, in part because they don’t have the luxury of time when they’re primarily trying to survive.

For this reason, I wanted to urge those commenters who were telling me their much tougher stories to write more extensively about them, so that their narratives were out there, too. So that I could walk in their shoes, and so others could, too, and gain a better understanding.

But where does that leave me and my propensity to examine my (admittedly privileged) life through the prism of personal essays?

The short answer is, I can’t stop writing them. It’s a reflex now, and something that helps me process different aspects my life: aging, family, friendship, parenting, marriage, unemployment – all of it. Plus, though I got those rough critiques on Plan B, I also had others who said, “Boy, can I relate” and “This reflects my experience as well.” And I have to remember that. Their responses are no less valid than those who found fault with me.

Ultimately, what I’ve said about Gilbert applies to me as well: we all have a right to tell our story, no matter what our societal vantage point; we all have valuable insights to contribute to humanity’s larger conversation, and as long as we try to do so with open hearts and minds, there’s room for growth.

That said, nothing says you have to read everything that lands in your field of vision. Just because we all have the right to tell our story doesn’t mean we have to read everyone else’s out there.

So if you’re in the middle of reading a narrative or perspective you don’t find worthwhile, JUST STOP READING IT. Don’t dump on the writer (unless the person’s a total creep with obviously bad motives). Move on.

Life’s too short, and there’s too much great writing out there that will give you something powerful to chew on.

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7 thoughts on ““Your problems aren’t bad enough”: Privilege and the personal essay

  1. teacherpatti says:

    I’m with Joe–I wouldn’t read that book if you paid me to. (Of course, part of this is me being bitter that I will never get ANY advance, let alone an advance like that and also because I cannot believe that book actually sold.)

    That said, someone recently told me to not compare our suffering. I was all OMG MY HOUSE AND MONEY AND HOUSE WON’T SELL AND OMG all summer long. Then I went to dance camp and met someone with brain cancer and felt like a turd for complaining about something so stupid. Several friends cautioned me to not compare my problems with someone else’s problems because we each have our own crosses to bear or whatever. So maybe I can’t relate to your particular set of circumstances, but I am still empathetic and understanding and want to help. And you are right–just stop reading if something is irritating. It’s like people who get upset about Kickstarters–just don’t give money. Problem solved!

  2. This was great. I really relate to this. I got so much crap on xoJane for writing what I thought. I was called so many names – racist, sexist, dumb… someone said I was going to be divorced within a few years from my husband. Write what feels true to you. As long as you don’t put other people down it’s all good.

  3. Renee Martin says:

    Wow do I regret clicking on this link. You had an entire conversation abour Eat Pray Love and how valid it was for her to tell “her story”, without once mentioning that she spent nine months mining cultures of colour for enlightenment and how this all amounted to white privilege and neo colonialism at work. You’re either intentionally obtuse or so privileged you cannot tell your arse from your face. I am so dobe with sniveling white women.

    • Jenn McKee says:

      You’re right that my essay didn’t focus on the cultural issues that arguably make “Eat Pray Love” problematic – because that wasn’t the focus of my post. My focus was about whether essayists must pass some sort of “sniff test” regarding the seriousness of their problems in order to write about their lives; and it sounds, from your response, as if you believe the answer is “yes.” Which is fine. The question haunts me often because I ask it myself all the time. And I can assure you I’m not intentionally obtuse – certainly accidentally obtuse on occasion, as we all are – but I do think that starting from a place of assuming that everyone is doing their best most of the time is a good policy. I’m sorry you didn’t find what you were seeking when you clicked on this link; but as I said in the essay, if that’s the case, you’re free to find what you want through a Google search, or to write your own.

  4. LKnake says:

    I love this. Why do we have to assign a suffering value on who gets to tell stories? All of our feelings and suffering is valid. No matter how rich or privileged any person is, they are going to struggle and face demons. At the same time, we can acknowledge all the good in our lives and what we are grateful for. Vilifying one another for not having suffered enough seems about the most ridiculous arguments we could possibly have.
    Thank you for sharing your story, Jen. I appreciate it.
    And to those who don’t like it, to paraphrase Liz Gilbert, go write your own effing story.

  5. […] former colleague Jenn McKee recently wrote about privilege and how privileged white woman aren’t “supposed to” write about or acknowledge their pain […]

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