When I was young—eight or nine maybe—I learned that two of the mountains near where I grew up used to be volcanos. When I asked if they would erupt again, my older brother and my father explained why they wouldn’t. The volcanos were active in the Paleocene era—around 65 million years ago. Whatever they had to say, they had already said it—they had already spewed and exploded and raged. Now they stood quiet, content.
I’ve been thinking of these volcanoes lately, since a meeting I had in which I was told that the first pages of my essay collection sound like I’m "ranting." My first pages consist of a short introduction and the beginning of an essay. In the introduction I write about how I used to scream as child—wildly, unexpectedly, uncontrollably—and how, at the urging of others, I eventually grew silent. The point of the introduction is to share that the following essays are breaking that silence; they are me, screaming again. In this respect I am like a volcano. I have been brewing and bubbling and burning hotter every year for the last twenty-plus years with no release—until now.
When the pressure builds beneath a volcano it doesn’t quietly leak rainbows and roses. Lava can be 2,100 ºF. Eruptions can rain down ash—pieces of rock, minerals, glass. They are not contained or orderly. There are some volcanoes that erupt slowly over time, like the Hawaiian volcano, Kilauea. With volcanoes like that, a large, disruptive explosion isn’t necessary because it is in a continual release. It doesn’t need to blow and spew because it has been slowly oozing lava for the last thirty-some years. But there are other volcanoes, like the Yellowstone Supervolcano; it hasn’t erupted in 630,000 years. Should it erupt again, it would be catastrophic.
My essay collection is probably somewhere more in the middle. I would even argue that it’s probably quite tame, given my fear of ever offending anyone. But my point here isn’t to defend against criticism. It’s to push back against the idea that a woman speaking her truth—her sometimes angry, unfiltered truth—is the same thing as ranting. Further, it is to push back against the idea that ranting equals bad, that angry equals wrong. It seems to me that women are long overdue for some ranting, or screaming, or whatever we feel the need to express. This meeting was arranged for me, so this person wasn’t my target market. Nor was he someone I would normally seek feedback from. But listening to him talk about my work felt like the professional equivalent of every boyfriend I’ve ever had who has told me to calm down when I was upset about something. One, I am calm. And two, so what if I’m not?
In her essay Cassandra Among the Creeps, Rebecca Solnit writes that the word hysteria comes “from the Greek word for ‘uterus,’ and the extreme emotional state it denotes was once thought to be due to a wandering womb; men were by definition exempt from this diagnosis that now just means being incoherent, overwrought, and maybe confused.” But, she continues, “Women diagnosed with hysteria…appear, in some cases, to have been suffering from abuse, the resultant trauma, and the inability to express its cause.”
The women were volcanoes, unable to erupt.
What bothers me about this meeting isn’t that this person didn’t like my work. It was that it was another instance of something that’s been happening my entire life—other people (sorry, but it’s usually men) telling me that how I feel is wrong. Which, if you do the psychological unwinding required here, eventually leads to this conclusion: I am wrong, or, there is something wrong with me. This is the kind of thinking that leads to a slow silencing.
I admit that he got to me a little bit. Since our meeting I’ve been questioning the value of my work—whether I am being too girly, or ranty, or whatever. I have been going through my essays, wondering if I should tone them down, or if I do, in fact, want them in the world. Which is how the patriarchy wins.
Does the world need another essay about a woman who was torn apart by loving the wrong man? Or another essay about what it’s like to be single and over the age of 35 in a culture that glorifies couplehood? Or another essay exploring a woman’s decision not to have children? I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not. My job isn’t to decide that. My job is to do my work, to commit to the page the truest things I know. What happens after that is out of my control.
What I do know is that I have spent most of my adult life thinking that I am alone in how I feel about the world and my place in it. But in the process of writing and sharing my work I’ve learned that I’m not. I’ve been approached by strangers and acquaintances alike and have been told, “me too.” The recognition of myself in another, and vice versa, is the balm that calms what simmers just beneath the surface.
The thing about imposed silence is that what needs to be said doesn’t go away. Like lava, it grows hotter and more explosive with time. And eventually it can no longer be contained. This is what happened as I wrote my collection, and it’s what’s happening with women across the country.
In the old paradigm women’s voices aren’t heard or valued. Women slink away and say, “oh, okay.” Women are silenced. We still have a long way to go, but that era is dying.
Because I won’t shut up. I won’t go away. I’ve worked too hard in recent years to find and tell my truth only to be met by someone telling me that how I feel isn’t the right way to feel. Maybe my work is girly or ranty. But guess what, I am a girl. Or I was a girl, and that girl still has a lot to say. And being girly—despite what I’ve been told my entire life—isn’t a lesser thing.