At Work As a Teacher and Writer, It’s Not My Job to Manage the Feelings of Men
It’s not my job to absorb every feeling a man has. In my classroom, I am the one who decides whose feelings get airtime, and how they are shared.
On the plane coming home from a writer’s conference last year, I sat next to a well-known male novelist who spent the entire flight talking to me about his feelings. He talked before takeoff. He talked through the drink service, during which I fumbled with the tiny plastic wrapper on my ginger cookie for far too long. He talked with increasing intensity and volume. He talked until I got up and excused myself to go to the bathroom. When I returned to my seat—the middle seat—he continued to talk, me nodding along to each theory he offered about the unfairness of every literary prize; the general injustice of the world for not appropriately lauding his genius.
Maybe likening this all-too-common experience to a hostage situation is melodramatic, but melodramatic is exactly what men have so often called me when I’ve dared to articulate feelings of my own.
I have encountered this phenomenon with several male students as well. It is cis men who so often dominate class discussions while the rest of us stare at our notebooks. It’s cis male writers who have immediately friended or followed me, filling my DMs with offers to critique my work; who have sent me emails with attachments containing everything they’ve ever written. Who have insisted on taking up my time with their feelings—about everything from the continued relevance of David Foster Wallace to the correctness or incorrectness of the Oxford comma to their lactose intolerance.
While the novelist on the plane was talking about his enduring frustration with the world of New York publishing, an essayist I admire was seated to my left, at the window seat. I’d recognized her at the gate and had hoped to have the opportunity to talk with her. We’d never met, but I knew she had an essay in a collection my publisher was releasing the following year. The essayist looked over every so often at the novelist as he talked. She made no eye contact with me, gave no outward indication as to what she thought about what he was saying.
I hoped she might intervene at some point, and eventually she did introduce herself to him, reminding him that they knew each other. He said he’d heard she accepted a visiting professorship at a prestigious university. She confirmed, she was on her way there now. He hoped the university would wise up and turn her visiting professorship into a full-time job, he said, and then he winked. Or smirked. Or smirk-winked.
Melodramatic is what men have so often called me when I’ve dared to articulate feelings of my own.
She turned back to the magazine she was reading, and he continued to talk to me. As he talked, he gathered my social media profiles and liked, linked, or friended me, after which he appeared in my DMs—first to apologize for talking my ear off, and then to talk some more about his feelings regarding the hopeless impossibility of trying to publish a memoir. He wished me luck with mine.
I have replayed our meeting over and over in my mind. I have thought of all the ways I could have pivoted, shut him down: opened a book, put in my headphones, turned to my seatmate and asked her about her work. Instead, in the moment, I was frozen. I was a writer with a just-sold memoir and a fledgling teaching career, and the male novelist was far more established.
While he talked, he told me that several women had accused him of aggressive or combative behavior. He seemed to be daring me to agree with them. I hmmmm’ d. I nodded when appropriate. I folded and refolded my cookie wrapper. I smiled. In doing all of this, I believed I was containing him—preventing his feelings about the women who had accused him from spilling into the aisle, or over to the woman to my left. No one asked me to do this, but I did it anyway, like it was my job.
Maybe part of the problem he was having was with the way that feelings are often gendered in our culture. Many men seem to think that to have actual feelings like sadness, anger, or hurt telegraphs weakness. But their opinions —especially those voiced loudly, repeatedly—apparently telegraph power. Turning feelings into opinions can weaponize them. It prevents connection and creates a hierarchy, allowing the speaker, usually a man, to dominate.
Recently, when I was getting ready to teach a beginning memoir and creative nonfiction workshop, I decided to set some ground rules for the class in regard to the sharing of feelings. In creative nonfiction and memoir, ostensibly, we are dealing with a lot of them. Without a genuine interest in the emotional resonance of our lived experiences my students, nor I, would have set aside a Sunday morning when we could otherwise be doing nearly anything else—walking the dog, drinking coffee in our pajamas, walking the dog in our pajamas—to sit in a classroom and read, write, and talk. We all have feelings, and perhaps for most of us, they are complicated and difficult to express. This is why we write. There is no shame in this.
But I felt it was important to try to distinguish between feelings and opinions, and to remind my students that neither is our focus in class. The temptation to focus on how a piece of writing makes us feel, especially for beginners, can obscure what that piece may be doing on a craft level. “I am less interested in your feelings than I am in giving you the tools to write about them well,” I said. If my teaching philosophy were an equation, it would look like this:
Craft > Feelings
The women in my class audibly sighed when I explained this, as though pressure had been released, a burden lifted. Smiles teased the corners of their mouths. A few nodded. The men did not sigh or smile. I can’t say for sure they bristled, but I’m confident they were not pleased.
In an earlier class, I’d introduced Cheryl Strayed’s essay “The Love of My Life,” about, in part, the extra-marital affairs she undertook in the wake of her mother’s brutal death from cancer. That’s when a male student, a retired executive, made his feelings known: “Some people may be offended by this. Some people may not appreciate the behavior she’s trying to justify.”
I think all women teachers would recognize this moment in a class. “Let’s talk about how she’s describing that behavior,” I said. “Talk to me about the language she uses, her tone. Is she justifying her adultery, or simply offering it for you to parse?”
In graduate school, I had a professor who told our cohort that she was uninterested in our feelings about the texts she assigned. She expected us to be able to tell her what the writers were doing . I assign the Cheryl Strayed essay because it’s a fine example of a memoirist using reportage to describe a thorny situation. Her narrator is slightly detached—removed enough to recount the details but not quite far enough away to tell the reader what they mean. It’s for the reader to decide what they mean.
The retired executive continued: “This behavior is unacceptable and offensive. When my wife cheated on me . . . ”
The rest of the class, mostly women, waited while he told us how the essay made him feel, how his ex-wife had made him feel. Adultery is terrible; all betrayal is. But sometimes the adult decisions adults make are complicated. Good writing—and Strayed’s essay is an example of good writing—uses craft to reveal nuance and tension. Good writing can transcend our feelings about the events described. We were all there to discuss her writing, and ours.
We eventually got back to the essay, but by then we had little time left in class to discuss it. The retired executive waited for me in the hallway after class to continue to share his feelings about the essay. Like the novelist on the plane, he’d also confused the feelings/opinion divide in our discussion. The essay made him feel something he was not comfortable feeling, and so rather than allow himself to become vulnerable in his consideration of it, he opined about the work itself and its “offensiveness.” He didn’t stop opining until I had to leave.
My memoir isn’t out yet, so I’ve not yet had the experience of men offering unsolicited comment or sharing their feelings about my work, but many women writers I know have. One award-winning essayist I know recently published a piece about the death penalty in a prestigious journal, a subject she’s written about extensively. After it ran, she received an email from a self-described “pro-death penalty expert” who said that he would happily “answer any questions” she had. (She did not have any questions.)
In Rebecca Solnit’s now-classic Men Explain Things to Me , she named something that has always existed. Men have opinions. They often give voice to these opinions whether or not they are qualified to do so. They voice their opinions when there is a female expert on the subject (in Rebecca Solnit’s case, her own book) right in front of them.
Women should not have to negotiate the threat of verbal assault or violence if we do not center a man’s feelings.
Of course, such insistence can be more than just annoying; sometimes it can be frightening or dangerous. In February of this year author Roxane Gay participated in an event at USC with Amanda Nguyen, Nobel Prize Nominee and founder of Rise, a national non-profit focused on advocating for sexual assault survivors’ civil rights. During the Q&A, a “combative, disrespectful” man dominated the microphone, hurling accusations and making everyone, not just Nguyen and Gay, feel threatened. Afterward, Gay wrote: “I don’t like feeling unsafe on stage, but tonight that sure happened.”
My own encounters with men’s opinions have never turned violent, not physically violent, but this seems more like luck than anything else. Whenever I have dared to disagree in public with a man, I have received my fair share of accusations and belittlements. I’ve grown accustomed to it. But women should not have to negotiate the threat of verbal assault or violence if we do not center a man’s feelings, or allow one to dominate a situation.
My experience with the moderately famous novelist on the plane taught me an important lesson, one that perhaps I should have internalized long ago: I am not responsible for the feelings of all men, especially at the expense of my own. It’s not my job to absorb every feeling a man has, or moderate them, or even listen to them if I choose not to. In my classroom, I am the one who decides whose feelings get airtime, and how those feelings are shared. Without boundaries like this, women miss opportunities to connect with each other—as I missed the chance to talk with an essayist I admired on the plane. We miss opportunities to make our own feelings and opinions heard, and we waste valuable time, energy, and attention that could be spent undermining the patriarchal structures and systems that give men’s feelings preeminence—one essay, tweet, or class at a time.