Monday, April 6, 2020

Why do powerful women not want to own their power? The inimitable Katie Roiphe talks about THE POWER NOTEBOOKS, the anxiety of being vulnerable, the gap between private and public lives, and so much more.

Drawing of Katie Rophie by Katy Hunchar

Katie Roiphe is an author and journalist writing about feminist issues. She is most known for writing The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism, and In Praise of Messy Lives, as well as The Power Notebooks, and has contributed articles to prominent publications like The New York Times, The Washington Post, Harper’s Magazine, Esquire, The Paris Review, Vogue, and Slate. She has a PhD in literature from Princeton University and is the director of the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.

Thank you for being here, Katie!

I love the structure, the notebook entries. (note: the answer to this question is in your book, but it’s fascinating, so I’d love to have you talk about it.) What made you decide on this?

I actually felt that my usual ways of writing would fail me. I didn’t want to write arguments or elegant essays. I wanted to examine my uncertainties, doubts, bewildering moments, intimate confusions, and for this the form of a notebook, with its jottings and stories made the most sense. I wanted something raw, unfinished, note-like. I have been keeping notebooks since I was twelve, and as a scholar have pored over notebooks and journals in archives since graduate school, so the form has long intrigued me.

What I also deeply admire is how vulnerable you’ve let yourself be in the writing.  How incredibly brave to open your life up to readers like that. Many of us, especially those women with power, have been taught not to do that, to always act “as if” we are in complete control. You didn’t. What was that like, giving up that power? How did you feel about it as you were writing and how do you feel about it now? Is anything you are going to write in the future going to be different because of that?

The answer is that I felt very anxious! I had to wake up at four thirty or five in the morning to write this book so I could pretend the outside world didn’t exist and feel a kind of pure solitude. I thought of giving it up several times. And now that it is out I feel a little like my publisher broke into my house in the middle of the night and stole my real notebooks (which is not exactly what happened!). Anyway, it was the hardest thing I have written, hands down, and yet I felt inspired inspired. Partly by the photograph of Simone de Beauvoir I reproduce at the beginning of the book, naked, in heels, seen from the back in her forties. She left the door open with a photographer in the room. I somehow find the contradictions of that photo lodged in my head. She wrote, “I have shown women as they are, as divided human beings, not as they ought to be .” And that gave me courage. This book is about tolerating contradictions, learning to live with them, and I got more comfortable with that by the end.

It’s fascinating that you found contradictions about power and women—and how we all experience it, and why you kept revisiting it, even back to teenaged years,  why we fail to hang onto it. We like the idea of power, but not powerful women. How do you think we can start to change that?

I don’t know about how to change it. For me, analyzing and observing and catching our ambivalence about power (and powerful women) on the page was the most I could aim for.

I’m struck by this question: Why must we have private and public selves? Why can’t we be one integrated person? There might be a cost for that now, but if we continue to become a new normal, won’t that cost vanish?

One of the reasons I delved into the lives of women writers I admire in this book—Sylvia Plath, Edith Wharton, Mary McCarthy, Jean Rhys—is that it helped me see the gap between public and private self in other people. So it’s not just that I was failing to be consistent—powerful in public, weaker in private—but lots of the writers I admire most did too. The spirit I wrote in was not to judge anyone, or say what is healthy or not healthy, but to see and uncover and learn to accept the contradictions as part of life. I think the “divided human beings” Simone de B. wrote about are inevitable (and as I have heard from many male readers, they feel divided too.)

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Well besides coronavirus? Garth Greenwell’s gorgeous novels, Cleanness and What Belongs to You and Hilary Mantel’s trilogy. Both are fantastic insomnia companions.

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

I guess you could have asked if I was writing anything new and alas the answer would be no I am too busy checking the news 1,000 times a day and being generally anxious. But one of these days I hope to start something. I always think of John Updike saying that the consolation of being a writer is that you can “turn pain into honey.”  That would be nice right about now for those of us who are achieving it.

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