I’m hardly the first writer to suffer through some unkind feedback in a workshop—and still, I’m going to talk about it. This happened to me years ago, in grad school. In the short fiction draft I was working on, which I’d brought in for feedback, a young woman recalls an almost laughable unkindness done to her in college, when a sort-of-boyfriend broke things off by giving her a basket of heart-shaped scones.
The on-paper innocuousness of this memory—Just some baked goods, after all!—only intensifies the narrator’s preoccupation. Just some baked goods, so then why does the memory feel so not-quite-right to her, so lingeringly weird?
I’d brought in two other stories to the same writing class before this one. Both, similarly, were stories in which young women talk about their own experiences, about memories they’ve snagged on, are unable to let go of—a formative friendship dying out, the sting of a sibling’s dismissive sense of humor, a feeling that a male friend subtly crossed a line. Presumably it was something about these stories in the accumulation, about their narrators, that prompted one of my classmates to write on his copy of this latest story: Why do you keep writing about irrelevant shit?
Even back then, I knew better than to take this as real feedback. For years afterward, I laughed whenever I recounted the incident: so ridiculous! Lately though, I’ve been thinking about it again—because I eventually developed those three stories and others into a book, I Meant It Once, which was published this summer. No one has spoken to me again in such harsh terms as why are you writing about irrelevant shit—but versions of the sentiment have lurked along the way to publication.
It’s shown up even, and perhaps especially, in the most professional of evaluations: agents I queried sometimes told me the manuscript lacked a thing you could put your finger on to describe why it matters. Editors who turned down the book shared comments like Is this bringing us anywhere new? and What is the author’s point? Recently a critic reached out, unprompted, to tell someone who worked closely with me on the book that my stories lack “depth.” With the book’s publication, this kind of assessment has come in from certain readers too—in response to a brief 250-word review in the Washington Post this summer, for example, someone in the comments derided the book’s “bore factor.”
The subtext I always hear in this feedback is: What we have here is just some girls talking. Every time it happens, beneath my own embarrassment and doubt, I also have an instinct that these comments—not to mention the confidence with which people share them, how casually they assert the irrelevance of my work—do actually contain useful feedback.
Not about my particular book, though: rather, about the value we as a society assign to young women’s stories, and the extent to which we let young women take their own experiences seriously and trust in their own understanding.
In my stories, narrators often become fixated on a memory. Conflicted, they think they should know better than to dwell on this thing they’re stuck on. They tell themselves it’s silly, that there are worse things, but they find they can’t help themselves: they keep thinking about it, keep talking about it, keep having a reaction.
At some point, well-intentioned people will attempt to set them straight as to what is “important” and what is not. Calm down, says a boyfriend. Pick yourself up, says a father. Take it easy, says a co-worker, an ex, and a random guy in a subway station. These suggestions are made offhandedly, easily—as if the advice were straightforward, unimpeachable, pragmatic. As if it were this obvious, this simple. In the scone story, a male friend eventually asks: Do you ever feel weird that this still bothers you?
The narrator does feel weird: she knows she’s supposed to get over it, can hear the voice so clearly that keeps saying this doesn’t matter. But she can’t let it go, and on some level she wants to know why.
You have to calm down here, nothing very bad is happening, another narrator repeats to herself, suppressing her own instincts—about a situation that will, in fact, eventually prove to be “bad.” She’s internalized take it easy to the extent she can barely take herself seriously. Later, she looks back on what happened and remembers lying awake at night unable to sleep. She remembers episodes of inexplicable, uncontrollable crying. She wonders why, at the time, she was so out of touch with her real needs and wishes, so unable to act on the basis of her own feelings.
The answer, I think, is a direct result of coming of age in a society that doesn’t take you seriously, that considers what happens to you irrelevant. We learn to question our own experiences. As in: maybe it wasn’t that bad. Maybe it was all in my head. Maybe I had it coming. “Listen to women, believe women” was the rallying cry of #MeToo. But we have no hope of enacting that change of mindset collectively if we can’t even read a ten-page short story about a young woman’s life without announcing I’m not sure this actually matters.
I’ve mentioned a boyfriend, a father, a male friend: all of them telling the women in my book to calm down. This doesn’t get at the full picture—the women in my book say it to each other, too. You’re going to have to pull it together, says a beloved roommate to her bereft friend. A younger sister teases her emotional older sister for crying. A mother tells her daughter she’s overreacting. There are worse things in life that your scones you know, says a friend.
In a society where our unimportance is so often the subtext, we’ve learned to discredit ourselves and each other—learned to mistrust that our experiences matter, that our instincts have something to tell us. We write ourselves off, question our feelings, choose carefully when we make a big deal of something. The misogyny is internalized, then acted out on ourselves and each other. I see this in women who’ve read my book and eagerly told me the stories resonate with them, but then seem to waver on the question of the project’s social relevance. Some will describe one of my narrators passingly, as if this were a given, as dramatic. Or clueless.
The implication seems to be: “I relate to her, but I also know better. Doesn’t she know there are bigger things at play in the world than what happens to some girl?” We internalize the message that what happens to us doesn’t matter, and we perpetuate it. Irrelevant. Just a lot of girls talking. That so many people have felt so comfortable hazarding these stories might not matter is, I think now, precisely what the stories are about. Their urgency lies in the temptation to dismiss them as unserious. That someone might pick up this book and not see the “point” is exactly the point.
I didn’t set out to write about this. When I started putting together a book, my interest was in how to realistically write about memory. But in this effort at realism, I unconsciously filled a book with exactly the kind of regrettably realistic dialogue I’d been hearing all my life from other people. Take it easy, don’t overreact.
It was only when I stepped back and looked at the different stories together that I realized the imperative to calm down comes up in nearly every one. And it was only when I shared the book with other women in my life that I realized how broadly this resonated.
The first sentence of my book is: This happened to me when I was still in college. I’ve come to think of those first four words, this happened to me, as a kind of invocation, a hint of what’s to follow: these women are going to say what happened to them, whether you think it’s serious or not.
They’ll talk about what they remember of adolescence and early adulthood—these periods of life when they learned for better or for worse what the world is like, and how the world sees them. They’ll experiment, consciously or not, with the possibility that their own experiences are worth trying to understand, and that what they feel about their memories might contain a truth worth knowing—that if a memory has stayed with them, it’s in some kind of friction with the dominant narratives they’ve been taught, and that this is worth untangling.
Through telling their stories, my narrators look closely at the gap between what they’ve been told about the world, and what they actually experience—and in the process something shifts. By continuing to think on these things that have lurked in their minds for so many years, they engage with the absolute relevance of their own lives.
The narrator of the scone story, for example, feels her way toward the realization about why she’s been bothered, all these years: it’s a story about being treated as disposable. And by thinking and rethinking about what upsets her in this old story, she sees how the theme has repeated in her life.
For my part, the longer I sit with my old workshop memory—why are you writing about irrelevant shit—the more I see its insidiousness reach, the more I see its echo in other parts of my life since, the more it galvanizes me. All these years writing this book—close to a decade, the better part of my twenties and into my thirties—I’ve been teaching myself that there is truth in my own experience.
What happens to us needs to matter. This happened to me when I was still in college. It can’t only start to matter what happens when we’re older and established, or if we manage to rise to some kind of status that renders our prior experiences of sudden interest those who would have dismissed us. If we box our youthful experiences into some reductive category—if we call them silly, unserious, irrelevant—we suggest that young women themselves are equally so. And so the cycle repeats itself.
“The young female voice carries the least authority in society,” Liz Phair said a few years ago, on the podcast Song Exploder. She was talking about Exile in Guyville, her 1993 album from a young woman’s point-of-view. “I wanted to see if you had a little girl voice, which I sort of did, what you could get away with saying. Would anyone listen, would they care?”
She made an album to find out. I wrote a book to find out. We find out by creating: by telling the story. This happened. Longing for the authority to speak about one’s own experiences, and then beginning to do so: this in itself is radical.
I Meant It Once
By Kate Doyle
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Published July 18, 2023
Kate Doyle is the author of the short story collection I Meant It Once, published in 2023 by Algonquin Books in the US and Corsair in the UK. Kate has published stories in No Tokens, A Public Space, Electric Literature, Split Lip, Joyland, The Millions, Lit Hub, Wigleaf, ANMLY, and elsewhere.