Monday, March 24, 2008

“Transcending” Race: op-eds

Last year, I read an article in the New York Times about Katie Orenstein’s class on writing op-eds. She trains women to write editorials as a strategy to redress the gross gender imbalance on newspaper op-ed pages (it’s about 85-15). I was intrigued and excited. I blogged about it.

Katie wrote me and put me on her list for the next time the course was taught. That was February 23rd and I took the day-long seminar in the Spartan offices of the Woodhull Institute in Lower Manhattan. I was one of 16 women, ranging in age from 25 to 65 or so, mostly working in the nonprofit sector (Code Pink, the peace activist group; Girls Inc., the girls empowerment group that got in trouble with the right-wing home-schooling crowd for their affiliation with American Girl dolls, etc.) [Lots of mommies, left and right, like the American Girl dolls as an alternative to Barbie: American Girl dolls are expensive but they teach history, come in many hues, and are built like little girls: no breasts or hips. Girls Inc.’s website includes links for older girls who might want to learn about sexuality--it’s about ten clicks in and it’s vital information for girls but some folks don’t want their daughters to have any access to anything about wondering about lesbianism…)

I took the class. It was amazing and fascinating. I recommend it to anyone who’d like to polish her voice and present herself in public with confidence and command.

She began with an astonishingly simple and challenging exercise. We went around the table: “My name is ___ and I am in expert in ___ because ____ .” It took fully two hours for this roomful of accomplished women, most of whom work for social in the nonprofit sector, to fill in those blanks.

Her point was made: if we cannot own our own expertise, why should anyone listen to us? If we do own it, then we can say what we know so others will hear it.

It was strange, too, from my perspective as a writing teacher to hear her teaching us to write what are basically 5-paragraph essays (intro, 3 points, conclusion), the very form I’m working to train my freshmen to move beyond. But she’s absolutely right, of course: the problem with the 5-paragraph form is not the form itself but its formulaic application. Editorials should begin with intros, they should make a couple points (and three is a kind of magic number for proving a point), and they should conclude.

Now I’m on fire with the desire to get an op-ed published. My ambitions are less noble than those of some of my classmates: I’m less on fire with a single issue than with several (education, the election, ethics, work-family balance, feminism, the role of literature in all of this) and, above all, I’m on fire with the ambition to join the cultural conversation in an even bigger way than this blog lets me do.

So, last week when we got back from Vermont, I listened to Obama’s speech on race and took a crack at an editorial on that. I knew I had no chance, realistically, of publication, but I wanted to try.

It didn’t reach the New York Times, surprise, surprise, so I’ll give it to you in my next post…

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