Rachel Arndt’s debut collection of essays, Beyond Measure, takes a close look at routines, rituals, and measurements of all kinds—and how they all connect to uncertainty. One essay, which Arndt read aloud at Chicago’s Women and Children Bookstore to appreciative laughter from a standing-room-only audience, explores Bed Bath & Beyond and its return policy; other essays consider judo tournaments and the bizarre nature of asking ten-year-old children to lose weight for athletic competitions. Many of the essays explore womanhood, and especially young womanhood, in some way. “Her experiences will particularly resonate with female readers, who will identify with her coping mechanisms for dealing with sexist measurements imposed by society, from stereotypes of narcoleptic women as hysterical and attention seeking to false constraints placed on female intelligence and physical strength,” Publishers Weekly observed.
For the National, Aviya Kushner spoke with Arndt about being a woman writer right now and how the world reacts to young women writing personal essays—along with how these essays were made, and eventually molded into a collection.
Q: This is an unusual and dramatic time to be a woman writer, and I am curious to hear your thoughts about what it is like to write right now as a woman. In this era of #MeToo, and the constant barrage of presidential news reminding us that making lewd comments about women does not disqualify a man from the highest position of authority in the world, what do you think the responsibility of a woman essayist is? Do you feel compelled to write about subjects you might not have considered before and offer a woman’s point of view—or do you find yourself returning to familiar topics, to the wells you cannot stay away from, but thinking about them more deeply through the lens of womanhood?
A: I find myself returning to familiar topics—which makes me feel, occasionally, sort of guilty and navel-gazing, like I'm abnegating a responsibility to further a crucial public discourse. But on the other hand, it is not the responsibility of women who write essays to stick to universal topics—even topics that are supposedly universal to women. (On the other hand, it's possible for topics that don't seem universal to imply universally understandable questions and answers and to universally encourage the kind of self-critique and critical thinking that lead to important societal progress.) It is our responsibility as essayists to be essayists—to write essays that do what essays are supposed to do: Show the mind at work, revel in uncertainty, and end up somewhere different than where they started. What I write about need not be universal; for so long, we’ve read only what men write and accepted those topics as appealing and applicable to everyone. But they're not, at least not always, and our topics need not be either. That's okay.
It's my responsibility, then, as a friend pointed out, to resist the urge to hide that I am a woman writer. Just because a topic is not universal doesn’t mean that readers different than I won't learn from it—at least not if I’m taking on the role of the essayist suitably. If you have an obsession, then write about that obsession, I tell myself. I'm not sure if that's right, or if it's responsible, but it's what I'm doing.
Q: Essays are the result of so many elements, but I wonder if you can offer some specifics—some clues to your thought process. Your essays are concerned with measurement and exactness, and they sometimes explore the experience of being a woman and having a woman’s body—for example through being weighed for judo tournaments.
I wonder if this deeply personal material has become wider, more social, more political, in your mind because of our current moment. Is there a subject or piece you have written that you might not have considered in the same way prior to, say, the 2016 Presidential election or the lead-up to it? Was there a particular comment or event that motivated you to write it? And is there anything in Beyond Measure—even something as small as a sentence—that might not have been there without recent political and cultural events, that you might be able to discuss?
A: None of the essays in the book are specifically a response to Trump, but there are sections of some that unavoidably deal with his election. In “Commute,” for instance, which is a train-ride diary, you can tell when he was elected because the mood changes, shifting from my own existentially downtrodden frown to the collective and much more pressing downtrodden frown of my fellow commuters in Chicago. The train is such an uncanny space because of how it distills and concentrates the mood, how it serves as a community whether we like it or not. That community didn’t take well to the election of a sexual predator. Nor did I. But I found, on the train, that I wasn't too pleased with the thoroughly late-capitalist response to the election—that we react by consuming the right products and treating ourselves kindly. So I found myself, one day on the train, looking over someone’s shoulder at her phone and reading an article about “self-care." It bothered me, that phrase. I didn’t know—and still don’t know—what exactly it means, though I suspect it's tied to the obsession with skin care that popped up alongside Trump. To look good is not to feel good, and the skin-care obsession enforces beauty standards—and an overall superficiality—in a way that troubles me. I won't pretend I myself am not obsessed with my body (my essays make it clear that I am), but I will say that the obsession isn't an altogether positive one, at least in terms of my mood and at least in terms of overthrowing the patriarchy.
Q: There seems to be a recent trend of very young women writing essays that attract a lot of attention on social media, much of it negative, and then—sometimes—the writer issues an apology. I am thinking, for instance, of the recent Washington Post essay titled “I Am Tired of Being a Jewish Man’s Rebellion” that set Twitter aflame, and then the writer issued an apology. The idea of a woman apologizing for her essay made me sit up, and I’m interested in your thoughts on this concept of essay-followed-by-apology. Do you think editors are seeking out young women—and not young men—to write on controversial subjects? Are women writers being asked to put their careers on the line for publicity, however dangerous? Is there, in your view, more of a risk for a very young woman to write about her personal life, to stake a claim as an essayist, than, say, an older woman or a man of any age? And—because I cannot resist asking—do you worry about any of this, at all?
A: That essay and the response were interesting because both were so mind-blowingly—but unsurprisingly—off base. The premises of both were wrong. It was as if someone told this woman she should write about dating and she noticed the calendar (near Passover) and decided to make her argument about religion rather than about coincidence and general fickleness, and it was as if someone told readers that they should respond not only to the writer’s anti-Semitism but, more aggressively, to her right as a woman to write about her love life in public.
That in public is compelling to me, because it is, I think, why readers tend to be so hostile to personal essays: It’s as if they’re saying How dare a woman express herself in public, where we have to listen to her? Some of the backlash, therefore, had to do with whose expertise we trust. There’s a backlash against personal essays in general, and it’s especially pointed when these essays are written by women; it’s as if readers don’t trust women to report their own experiences or even experience the world accurately. This is the case for all sorts of marginalized communities, communities whose members are chided for writing “too personally” or “too confessionally.” It’s as if their subjectivity doesn’t count. What we too easily forget is the subjectivity implied in all sorts of writing, whether there’s an “I” on the page or not; in all essays, the “I” is implicit. Why not actually write it down? Probably because it foregrounds that this is someone insisting that we listen to their experience and because that experience is one we've been taught that we can't (or shouldn't) learn from.
Lili Loofbourow said it best in her VQR essay “The Male Glance:” “We still don’t expect female texts to have universal things to say.”
Q: Let’s switch from politics to the joys of book-making. Beyond Measure is your first book, and I’m interested in hearing about how it happened. When did you first begin writing the essays in the book? When did you realize there was a connection between them, and that they would form a collection of essays? How, in your mind, does a collection of essays differ from individual pieces? I’d love to hear your thoughts on ordering a collection of essays, on connecting them, on how these essays connect for you, and what you learned from the experience.
A: I began writing the book when I was in grad school at Iowa. I wrote some of the first essays during the summer of my third and last full year there, when I was working in a sandwich shop and still thinking the collection would be about sleep. I forced myself to think that for about half a year until, walking with a friend from the English department to a pizza place one day, that friend noted that I seemed to be writing an awful lot about rating things. Indeed, I was. And so I quickly discovered that I was writing about measurement and, somewhat less quickly, about uncertainty. I switched gears, and the essays became easier—though never easy—and I wrote and wrote and continued to write after school ended until there were enough essays to tell some sort of story about uncertainty (though I couldn’t tell you exactly what, even now).
I wanted the collection to avoid making the same point over and over, or at least to make the point from different angles, illuminating different facets of it. I realized this after the fact, and I hope I succeeded.
Q: I hope you don’t mind if we go back in time a little bit. I understand that these essays were your thesis at The University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program, affectionately known as the NWP. (Full disclosure: I have an MFA from the NWP too, and also wrote a book that began as a thesis.) What is the difference between a thesis and a book? What did you have to add or expand to make the leap to publication?
A: I’m not entirely sure there’s necessarily a difference. But in my case, the most obvious differences were length and the state of completion. I had a lot of revising to do after I turned in my thesis. I had to make the essays more specific. And I had to learn to do that without the constructs of workshop and the expectation of such a narrow audience. So I suppose another difference was audience.
To better write for that new, wider audience, I added new essays to what was the thesis. I added new details. I tried to vary the tone. I also played with the order of essays and gave it what I hope is a better title (it’s at least a title I’m not embarrassed to say aloud.) My editor and agent guided me, and for that, I’m ever grateful.
Q: Thank you, Rachel.
Aviya Kushner is the author of The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible. She is The Forward’s language columnist, and her essays have also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Wilson Quarterly, TriQuarterly, and Longreads. She is an associate professor at Columbia College Chicago and a Howard Foundation fellow in nonfiction. Follow her on Twitter @AviyaKushner