Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Elizabeth Collins talks about the loaded subject of The Beautiful Anthology

I first heard about the Beautiful Anthology from the superb writer Gina Frangello. Because I love Gina's writing and I trust her judgement completely, I wanted to see a copy--plus, beauty is such a queasy kind of topic.  What's beautiful? Who decides that? And what does it do to us if we don't fit the general norm? (Please don't make me go back to my teenaged years, where I was routinely mocked, caricatured and threatened for the way I looked.) The Beautiful Anthology is provocative, inspiring, and yup, important. I asked writer/editor Elizabeth Collins, who put together the anthology of essays, poems and art, if she'd come on my blog, and I'm honored she said yes. Thank you so much, Elizabeth.

What sparked the idea for this collection? Were there any surprises? 

We have so many great contributors at TNB. (The Nervous Breakdown.) Getting a group together for an anthology seemed like a natural project for TNB Books. 

Beauty was chosen as a topic because it's a universal theme. Everyone has an opinion about it; everyone has a story and strong feelings about the subject.

As for surprises--yes, definitely. I was pleasantly surprised by some of the creative twists in many of the essays. For example, I asked my writer friend J.E. Fishman to contribute, and he came up with a fascinating piece about the most beautiful tennis serve he ever hit. Similarly, one of the first students I taught--now a grown-up and a very talented writer--Nora Burkey surprised me with her mature, feminist take on why we should not impose Western ideals of beauty on other parts of the world. I could go on, of course. The point is that many of the essays and stories have an interesting, unexpected angle. I would say that The Beautiful Anthology explores the flip side of beauty, and not necessarily the literal definition of the word.

This seems like a collection that would really touch a nerve. Can you talk a bit about that?

I think beauty is a loaded subject. Most of us feel that we don't measure up in terms of beauty. We might feel resentful about the ideals of beauty that are always shoved in our faces and that are always changing. Fashions change; the general notion of what is beautiful (in terms of fashion) changes. But beauty should be more than that. Beauty should be a feeling, a state of grace, a happy place where we simply feel our best and at peace with the world.

Sometimes, when we think about beauty, we immediately also think of when we did not feel beautiful, when the beauty was outside of us and not in us, but we longed for it. 

What I find interesting in the anthology is the different takes on beauty that our male and female contributors have. The female experience is often fraught with fears of not measuring up, and full of worry about what we'll look like when we grow up. The male experience is conscious of not wanting to judge the opposite sex too harshly, and/or finding a new vantage point from which to discuss the subject of beauty.

I was really moved by your piece, by the way something that happened in the past still has such an impact, almost like a scar. (I still can remember my mother saying I looked like a wild woman with my hair--and I was only five!) Do you think we ever get over those scars?

As for my piece, well, it's funny that I don't remember what I had for breakfast yesterday, but I remember precise details about what life was like when I was five (and even a bit younger). I think the healing comes from a place of acceptance, a realization that "this is who I am. This is what I look like." My story is about a scar--but we all have scars of some kind. We can let those scars bother us, or can we not even see them anymore (as is the case with me). It's also about taking care of what you have and making the best of it. We can absorb the things we are told about what is beautiful or how to be beautiful, but ultimately, we have to make our own way and be who we are. 

I loved the photos in the book. Who did them?

The photographs in the anthology are all finds of our intrepid and talented book designer, Charlotte Howard. (I can direct you to her for more on the photos; she got them all and made the placement decisions)

Do you think women will ever not be burdened by the idea of what they should look like?

As for whether or not I think that women will ever NOT be burdened by ideas of what they should look like? Well, we are assaulted constantly with media ideals (magazines, TV, film) and images of models and infomercials about fitness, etc. It's literally impossible to be unaware of what the marketers are trying to sell us (or make us feel insecure about). Even if we moved off the grid and isolated ourselves, we would still have some hopes for our looks and our body, perhaps based on family members' influence, or our neighbors or friends. I think that it is when we get away from our natural states that we start to be less beautiful--and by this I mean that if our bodies are very out of whack in terms of size, then that's a signal to us that our weight is unhealthy. After all, the "perfect" size woman is supposed to be some ideal of fertility, her shape literally a signal that she is good mother material. On some level, the human animal will always find the "healthy" specimen the most attractive, and when we feel good, we tend to look good, so it's all a circle.
(I am probably getting too literal and biological--sorry.)

What's obsessing you now? 

Do you mean in terms of projects and writing, or beauty-related topics? I am in the final stages of memoir writing/pre-pub madness. My memoir, Too Cool for School, is about my experience as a English teacher in a girls' school. I got pretty caught up in my persona as "rock star teacher" (which is embarrassing to think about now) and I was constantly being tapped for new classes, new projects. On one level, perhaps it was because I was versatile and I'm a writer, so it makes sense to ask me to teach lots of different kinds of writing, but on the other, I had people say to me, "They are setting you up to fail. No one can teach that many classes well." And it's true. At some point, the house of cards has to fall. In my case, I was blindsided by a politically motivated attack by a couple of parents who wanted me fired because I am a Democrat, and it became this horrific witch hunt that nearly killed me. Sounds dramatic, but when your purpose in life is attacked, it can leave you reeling. So that story is what is coming next, but even that is a subject I am over because I have been living it (and the attendant notoriety) for years. I am telling the story and I wrote the book in the hopes of helping protect other teachers, particularly in the hyper-partisan landscape and partisan teacher hate that's been going on. I really want to work on my new YA novel, though. If I could get my draft done this summer, I will be happy.

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

As for unasked questions, I suppose I'd like to address the idea that The Beautiful Anthology is not chick lit; it's a universally appealing (I hope) exploration of many facets of beauty. We have male contributors; we have sad stories, funny stories, academic stories, political stories--a great mix of fresh voices from an international slate of established and emerging writers. Now, I realize that sounds too promo, but I feel I have to say it if I can. 


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