What Debra Monroe Knows
A new memoir on class, education, and relationships.
Debra Monroe teaches in the MFA Program at Texas State University and is the author of six books, including The Source of Trouble (winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award) and On the Outskirts of Normal: Forging a Family Against the Grain.
Her latest book, just out from the University of Georgia Press, is called My Unsentimental Education. Two of the chapters were notable essays in the Best American series (2011 and 2015), and the book’s been getting good attention. The synopsis says in part:
Both the story of her steady rise into the professional class and a parallel history of unsuitable exes, this memoir reminds us how accidental even a good life can be. If Joan Didion advises us 'to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be,' Monroe takes this advice a step further and nods at the people she might have become but didn’t. Funny, poignant, wise, My Unsentimental Education explores the confusion that ensues when a working-class girl ends up far from where she began.
I’m fortunate to have been included in the book’s publication, in my role as Series Editor for Crux: The Georgia Series in Literary Nonfiction. Recently I asked Debra if she’d mind a few questions by email, as she prepares for her book tour and ongoing media events.
Welcome back to the blog, Debra!
A piece you wrote the other day for Salon focuses on the relationship side of the book’s content. I’m sure that strikes a chord with many readers. I wonder if I might ask about the professional side of things. What was the atmosphere like for a woman entering academe when you did?
When I was a grad student and teacher of freshman comp, it was hard to even call it sexism: it felt more like bewilderment. For example, when I was working on my master’s degree, 80% of the grad students were female but the graduate faculty was male, and our professors sometimes reminded us that a full-scale career wouldn’t mix well with marriage. At the time, this didn’t strike me as sexist, though to say this to a female student now would be almost actionable. The warning seemed well-intentioned, if tied to another generation’s concept of what a woman should do. Many of my classmates heard this warning and did a personal inventory about how much they and their partners would sacrifice for her to teach in a university.
I remember sitting in the faculty meeting at Illinois where it was announced that the great feminist scholar Nina Baym would retire, and she reminisced wryly that her first title at the university was “Faculty Wife.”
Ironically, though, I’m sure this was considered a courtesy, to give an educated wife work. I read the biography of Jean Stafford—one of the finest story writers of the twentieth century, also one of Robert Lowell’s wives—and Lowell would get sinecure-like gigs via university-situated friends, where he’d write and teach a class. The men who’d hired Lowell sent him the good news that Jean Stafford could be their typist. She cooked for them too. She was as well-published as Lowell at the time.
Women of my time were caught between generational imperatives: pre-feminist and feminist. Our professors hadn’t entirely discarded pre-feminist attitudes, and we hadn’t either. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I didn’t just wake up as a card-carrying feminist who wanted to shake up the halls of ivy. I loved being a student, and I had a lot of ill-judged relationships that ended, so men only temporarily, if serially, distracted me. I stayed in school, Plan B, because Plan A (marriage) failed. So my career happened, as I say in my book, “by accident.”
By the time I was doing my PhD, sexism was still explicit, but so were some objections to it. The meeting to determine which submissions to the nationally renowned literary magazine would be accepted had always been held at a bar with strippers. When a woman on the committee complained, the editor counter-complained about the loss of “tradition,” but the meeting got moved. When visiting writers arrived, some—not all—assumed that a female graduate student would materialize as his escort, a courtesan, I suppose, because intellectual admiration would be part of the package. This was a time when there weren’t prohibitions against professors dating students, either. One professor married and divorced three students.
I was part of that first cohort of female hires when universities first acknowledged that women professors put different writers on the syllabus, that women respond differently to female writers and characters, that we professors serve as role models, making the career seem feasible to students who are women. Before us, women in academia were rare. We arrived as a group, generationally.
At my first job, a handful of women who’d been hired a year or two earlier than me were married, and I noticed immediately that their husbands were all unemployed or underemployed. My then-husband was a little undone by the move too, realizing he’d moved for his wife’s career. This didn’t happen to men hired before us. Their wives (often with the same qualifications as their husbands) taught as adjuncts or became unofficial research assistants for their husbands. But most husbands don’t want to be that for their wives: assistants, underlings.
I felt uneasy starting out, as maybe everyone does as we begin our careers, and I also came from a blue-collar background that emphasized how a woman should train for work that fits around the edges of her life as a wife and mother. So even if I wasn’t “the first” in a specific sense, it was a new role, new enough according to my ken, that my career felt provisional.
As for today, in my department, female professors are well-represented. Our university president is a woman. The dean who just retired was a woman. Higher education is more welcoming to women—conceding the occasional retrogressive bad behavior—than it was thirty years ago. Most of problems related to gender that I see have to do with negotiation styles, learning styles, and how women and men are conditioned to approach decision-making or class discussion with different codes of behaviors. But this isn’t always true.
Much of the charm and poignancy of the new book comes from that blue-collar start. How did class play into your career?
That problem is unchanged for anyone, male or female, who takes this route. Until you grow comfortable in your new milieu, which might take years, you’re isolated. You don’t talk about work with colleagues because you’re afraid of sounding unsure. You don’t talk about food, drink, hobbies, because these are social class markers. You don’t talk about vacations: Spooner, Wisconsin, to visit family, or Paris, France, to visit the Louvre. Even talking about teaching was impossible: To me it was a proving ground, while others saw it as the natural outcome of well-laid plans.
When you “go home again,” family dialogue shrinks too, and circulates around a handful of memories. So you’re playing a role as a family member too: you’re “acting” there as you’re “acting” at work. You’re neither who you’ve become, nor who you used to be. Eventually, these selves synthesize, but for me it didn’t happen quickly.
What do you do in the meantime?
Find a few trusted friends who accept the old you as well as the new you, the one who got shanghaied into the enthralling life of the mind. For me, this took almost twenty years.
If you see or hear sexism in code, respond in code. I’ve learned to say: “I respectfully disagree because. . .” and offer well-articulated reasons. This didn’t come naturally at first because, raised to be a girl, a good wife, I was acculturated to repress or soft-soap objections. And because we work 25-30 years with the same people, we don’t want to blow up the workplace into angry dysfunction. So a cool head, diplomacy, and kind of artful statecraft about your perspective is key.
My thesis director, a kind, brilliant man, Donald C. Stewart, gave me two great pieces of advice: 1) Publish a book every five years, and that will help you in every negotiation because you’ll be confident. 2) Never fight a battle that’s not about a student’s welfare. (In other words, no petty battles about egos.)
As a teacher and mentor, how do you navigate among students’ preconceptions of you, based on gender and what you write about?
You have something to teach—what you studied, well-expressed by now, one hopes—and you teach as your most capable, most radically empathetic self, turning your intuition up high in service of what the individual student needs. It’s inevitable that some of the roles you play in the rest of your life—mother, father, sister, brother, friend—will carry over with the information you’re purveying. Unless you’re being condescending or distracted, I don’t see that as a problem. I’m not pretending to be gender-neutered in the classroom. The way to fight systemic sexism is to be there, a woman, and to matter.
How about gender in the writing?
Perhaps we should be able to write outside gender, but I don’t feel compelled to anymore. I did sometimes write from a male point of view in my first books. And at a certain point I considered how many books I’ve read that never had a single complex female character, how few women writers were on the syllabus when I was a student (I earned three degrees in English), and I decided to not worry at all about writing about being a man.
When I was in my PhD program, enrolled with Pam Houston, who was the only other woman student in the fiction track, a male student said we hadn’t lived enough to write. She was working on Cowboys are My Weakness, and I was working on The Source of Trouble. He took a year off to travel the world, Hemingwayesque. When he came back, Pam and I had first books under contract. We’d spent the time on craft, not exotic life experience, and we trusted that our experiences, which we knew intimately, would be worthy if we mined the undercurrents well. Alice Munro, Alice McDermott, Jayne Anne Phillips, Louise Erdrich, Amy Hempl (I could go on) didn’t need to be bullfighters, soldiers. Every subject is worthy if you go deep and write well.
I agree with Cheryl Strayed’s assertion that we can’t worry about writing like women, because thinking too much about how to write is beside the point. Work ethic is all: get down to it. Yet it’s true that women writing about family dynamics still get called “women writers” while a man who writes about family dynamics gets called “sensitive.” I agree, too, that it’s problematic to call this a “golden age” for women writers. No one at any point in history would ever have said it was a golden age for male writers. A writer was a writer, which was to say a man, but you didn’t need to say so, and a woman writer was a woman writer, and you did need to say “woman.” People still say “woman writer” and never say “man writer.” Women were underpublished and underread for centuries, and women are being published now than before, yes. But does that make this a golden age? No. Yet we live here and now, and we do what we can.
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