Personal Editing: Our Feminist Stories
Once, as a teenager, I scandalized a pastor. “Were they high school sweethearts?” he asked enthusiastically, upon learning that my parents would soon celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary.
"I guess,” answered my teenage self, “my dad was my mom’s teacher.”
“Well,” the pastor replied, “I’m sure he was young and…”
“No,” I said, “he wasn’t.” That pastor was determined to rewrite the beginning of my life story as a Christian romance novel, and my teenage self wasn’t having it.
Unfortunately, when it comes to my story as an adult, I struggle with the pervasive social pressure to tell a conforming narrative. I fear judgement and gossip, someone else repeating my story for another audience and casting me as the villain
Storytelling is a means of empowerment that enables us to comprehend our experiences and organize our identities in a complicated and chaotic world. Religious mythologies and fables help us teach values and social norms. Journalists and politicians recount individuals’ experiences in order to highlight the tangible impact of government policy on people’s lives. We share anecdotes at graduations, weddings, and funerals to emphasize the significance of these events.
As someone who teaches writing and studies literature, I find this tradition both intriguing and essential. I also do occasional editing and translating work, however, in which my objective is both more dangerous and more impersonal.
As an editor, I carefully change wording, eliminate inessential or confusing details, and warn writers about phrasing that could alienate their audiences. As a translator, my task is to deliver someone else’s message to a distinct linguistic community. I adjust and rearrange, attempting to deliver the story in a more presentable and more accessible form than I received it.
When we tell our own stories, whether to prove a point, impress others, or understand ourselves, editing and translating are fundamental. We choose not only which elements to highlight, but which to exclude. Often, we even sacrifice meaning for audience approval.
“I married and started a family young,” I remember one friend saying at a social gathering. She then described her husband, their home, and the wholesome activities they enjoy with their children. Everything she said was true, but I also knew that when she had married young, it was to a different man with whom her relationship had been much less stable. She never alluded to the fact that her dream of making a happy home with a devoted husband had caused her intense pain and required some trial and error.
Another friend is self-conscious about her privilege. She often deemphasizes key elements of her well-rounded education and only tells her closest friends that she belonged to a sorority, because others could read these things as incompatible with the depth and strength she has worked hard to cultivate in herself.
No matter how complicated our experiences are as contemporary women, people expect simple answers to certain questions. How did we meet our partners? What do we do for a living? What brought us to live here? When will we have children? And there’s always a man, like that pastor, reminding us not to make anyone uncomfortable. “Don’t you mean…?” “I’m sure that you will…” No.
What if we fell in love with someone who was unavailable? Failed miserably at a dream career? What if we have too much or too little ambition, or money, or sex? We reword that part, or offer a translation, a footnote, anything to control our narratives.
We have a right to privacy; we do not owe our colleagues, social media followers, or even family members, certain details about our lives. But when we do choose to share, I wonder what it would mean if we focused less on the milestones and more on the growth between them, those intensely uncomfortable, and sometimes devastating, moments when we lost something, forgave someone, questioned our own judgements, struggled to survive, or definitively chose an unconventional path. These moments, after all, lead to the sweet weddings, the cross-country moves, the meaningful careers, and the beautiful babies.
As a feminist, I believe in our right to choose a nontraditional life and, furthermore, in our freedom to veer off whichever path we choose, sometimes messily or disgracefully. But I communicate something entirely different to the younger women listening when I succumb to the compulsion to tell my story like a romantic comedy or a family sitcom.
My goal is for my adult self to internalize what my teenage self already knew, that the truth is nonconforming, and that, while others are free to interpret, disregarded, or dislike our stories, we are responsible for protecting their meaning.