What are your tips for presenting a clear argument that has the power to change minds and doesn’t alienate people?
I had an interesting experience about 20 years ago. I was working on [activism surrounding] depleted uranium, the toxic material that may have made a lot of Gulf War soldiers sick. I took some great experts I was working with to a radio interview with a super left-wing guy. It was interesting, because what motivated the experts was love. They cared about justice, humanity, and truth. The guy who was interviewing them was looking for paydirt. He just saw it as a chance to attack the U.S. government. His voice was angry and accusatory.
I learned two things listening to that interview: One is that the emotion needs to belong to your reader or listener, not to you. You can use up all the emotion before it even gets to the person who’s going to consume your creative work. No matter what you’re talking about, you can be passionate, you can be fiery, but you have to figure out how you can let your readers or listeners feel that emotion, and not use it all up [yourself]. Another thing is: Know what motivates you. Love does a lot more, and keeps you going in a much better way, than hate. It connects you to people. Include the people you’re writing for—you have to care about them in some way, because no matter how one-sided it may seem when you’re writing a million-word book, you know you’re in a conversation with them.
How do you hold on to your convictions in the face of dissent?
You mean the haters.
I’m dialing down my involvement with Facebook because it can take up a huge amount of time that you could spend doing something more useful. Often, you come into contact with people who aren’t pleasant, civil, or constructive to engage with. Young people, particularly, get so vulnerable to all these stupid attacks. Social media exposes you to every single person who doesn’t have good manners, who got up on the wrong side of bed and wants to cut someone down, who trolls, who hates the kind of person you are, et cetera.
Social media could have a very different nature. Who it’s run by, and why it’s run the way it is, are really political questions that we all need to be asking. If Twitter wasn’t the best tool for sending death threats to outspoken radical feminists, what would it look like? You know, if people felt ashamed when they said something hostile and nasty and ugly, and civility was a high standard. What would social media look like if it were run for the benefit of the community rather than for the profit of corporations serving advertisers? But even if social media wasn’t filled with nastiness, there are more-important things to do than check your phone every three minutes. That’s not conducive to productivity, depth, a strong sense of self, or peace of mind.
Let’s say I’m in a conversation in which I realize I’m being mansplained to. What is the best reaction in that situation?
When somebody’s patronizing, insulting, or sexist, I usually just stand there looking polite, thinking about how fast I can get away. I mentally scratch them out of my address book. If somebody patronizes me, it’s just like, You’re not somebody I want to know, you’re not somebody who’s ready for give and take, you’re not somebody who gets me, and I don’t ever feel like I need to fight them. I just need to get the hell out of there. Sometimes, if I’m getting interviewed on the radio or doing a panel discussion, I’ll argue a point. In everyday life, it’s very hard to change people’s beliefs—unless you’re a much better debater than I am. I can do it as a writer, but I can’t do it in live conversation somehow. I just get the hell out of there!
Tell me something that you learned later in life that you wish you had known as a young person.
You don’t need to be good at everything. Nobody is. When you’re young, you’re so anxious because you’re not good at some dumb thing. But really, we’re lucky if we’re good at one thing, and we like that thing. I’m lucky because I’m good at writing. I wish I were athletic; I wish I could sing. But I don’t wish that stuff that hard, because the sweet spot is loving what you’re good at. It’s about letting go of a lot of these worries: Am I good at everything? Does everyone like me? Am I the most _____?
In the long run, a lot of things turn out in unexpected ways. A lot of youthful despair comes from this sense that the misery, rejection, or loneliness one has in the very moment is what life is always going to be like. You get older, your heart’s been broken a few times, and your life’s fallen apart a few times—and you’ve built that life over again, better, a few times. You get used to the fact that bad things happen, but you’re resilient. You can survive them, and you’re not the only person they’ve ever happened to. Things are just going to continue to change, whether they’re good or bad. You don’t need to get too attached to the fact that your life is totally awesome, or to the idea that your life totally sucks. It’s gonna change. (That last part was secret Buddhism.)
Anything else you’d like to share with Rookie readers?
That I was a scrawny, miserable, impoverished, marginalized, unpopular teenager and my life turned out so much better than anyone, starting with me, ever expected. Life is fairly unpredictable. One of the horrible stories we tell each other in the United States is that you’re in the prime of your life when you’re 15, 20, something like that. At that point, people have yet to have settled down and find the people who are going to love and encourage them, or figured out what they’re going to do with their lives.
I’m a case study of how life can get better and better and better. I was a battered little kid. I grew up in a really violent house where everything feminine and female and my gender was hated. Now, I live in this really beautiful Victorian apartment, and I have the loveliest man in my life, and all these other people who love me. I have a really exciting life—I find what I do for a living really interesting. I have great adventures. I want to encourage people to know that your life has barely begun when you’re 15, or 17, or sometimes even 25—you’re still building foundations. ♦