Tonight, I went to a BAM “Eat, Drink and be Literary” event to see author Sloane Crosley speak on humor and insight in her writing. Sometimes, I just want to hear another slightly sarcastic forty year old white woman speak to experiences I can sort of relate to. Crosley is of the school of humor where she ties personal anecdotes and observations back to universal conditions, a synecdoche that I feel is representative of Generation Xennial. We tend to speak in metaphors, in pop culture references and personal essays, in stories that represent the feelings we cannot allow ourselves to be insecure enough to voice. We are the last generation before social media, the last to have come of age in a time before oversharing was common, and our personal essays therefore depend on circumstance as metaphor for emotion.
That said, I enjoyed all of Crosley’s books, and while reading them, I saw her as being a voice of my generation, using humor as a lens to examine what it means to live in New York City in the twenty-first century. Yet I have trouble connecting to Crosley’s essays in the visceral way that I connect to, say, Lindy West. Crosley’s work, and her voice, somehow comes across as too polished, too East Coast, almost academic. Her wit is polished and slightly self-deprecating, but not in the passive-aggressive snarky way that I relate to as a Canadian. Her essays are exceptionally well crafted, and exemplify, to me, what it means to be a New Yorker here and now: a sense of being polished and well spoken, of being quick witted and literary, of the inheritance of the legacy of hundreds of years of writers in this particular city. I am not, however, polished and well spoken, at least not consistently, so my disconnect is entirely a personal one.
And yet, there was a period at the end where everyone was asking questions, and I did not. I wanted to ask about how being a woman, and a woman of our age, impacted Crosley in her writing. I thought about asking, do you feel you approach your work differently than you would have had you been born a few years later? Were you better able to perfect your craft because you were first published in 2002, not 2012, and personal essays were not yet tarnished by a culture of oversharing? I wanted to ask, how do you feel your voice is affected by being a woman? Do you feel you write differently or approach humor differently than your male counterparts? However, I felt like it would have been putting that author on the spot to ask about the differences in how women experience humor, especially since she has never written about the challenges of being funny as a female. I felt like she was somehow disconnected from the challenge of being a woman in comedy because of her medium as an essayist, as opposed to being a woman comedian in a performance role. I feel like we’re just not making progress in allowing women to be funny in America, and yet this was not the funny woman to ask about that particular topic (unlike again, say, Lindy West).
Still, I was riveted by Sloane Crosley, by how quick her wit is in conversation. I appreciated hearing about the writer’s craft, about the intensity of fiction versus non-fiction, about the way creating a story out of memory impacts the original experience. It’s so true, how crafting an anecdote impacts our perception of an event, as we select only the details that are most relevant to the concept we’re trying to convey, or that are most interesting to our audience. The memories I’ve written about over the years are now one-dimensional, almost shellacked and preserved for posterity. Some may have been lost otherwise, but others have been polished into representative tales. It was interesting, to hear that perspective from an essayist who has given her own memories to her craft.
I even actually enjoyed the most awkward part of the evening, which was where I sat down at a table of total strangers. The series format is a buffet dinner, at tables of 8 people, each table stocked with wine, thankfully, to help it along. I took a seat at a table with two welcoming older people, who kindly told me where the empty seat was and then said the nicest thing possible, which was that they guessed my age at twenty-five. They were lovely people who lived in Brooklyn Heights, and had been in Brooklyn for decades.
The rest of the table, once they returned from the buffet, also all turned out to all be closer to my parents’ age, retirees with time and means to engage in the arts. They weren’t all familiar with the author, but they all came to every event in the series, whether or not they had read the books. I quickly discovered that most of them were also long term residents of Brooklyn, going back to the seventies, a time unimaginable in Brooklyn to those of us who consider a pre-2008 home purchase to make one a pillar of the community. Fortunately, I am fascinated by anecdotes of Brooklyn and New York City from the 70s, and they seemed interested enough in my anecdotes of being a Canadian. We all got along just fine, and despite my initial nervousness, I found myself chatting away. (Did I mention these tables also had wine?)
I found the whole experience immensely worthwhile: a chance to support literature, to support the National Book Foundation, to support BAM – but most of all, it was important to support myself. I do not write essays, exactly, but I do write thousand word blog entries. I would like to write those kind of essays, to be able to tell a story that encapsulates so much of the world around me, to be able to use non-fiction as a narrative that still manages to contain metaphor. That, to me, is a high art. This was also something I chose as my first “artists date“, part of the Artists Way project I’ve committed to doing this quarter as a way to reconnect with my own writing and creativity. It was something that inspired me, that challenged me a bit, that gave me some concepts to mentally chew on – an idea right in line with the dinner party. Maybe I’ll go back in a month for Min Jin Lee.