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Interview Thu Apr 04 2013

Deborah Siegel on Writing a TEDx Talk and Breaking Gender Binaries

Writer Deborah Siegel is nothing short of inspiring. She's a successful writer and gender scholar, and has contributed her many talents to the growth of several organizations dedicated to launching the careers of women writers. She does not just write, she does.

In February, Siegel gave a TEDx talk entitled Born That Way?, which tackles socially constructed gender binaries, the pink and blue convention, and parenting boy girl twins from what she calls her petri dish at home. Deborah Siegel.jpg

She was kind enough to take the time to discuss her graphic memoir in the making, writing a TEDx talk, and what it's like watching the subject of her intellectual pursuits come alive in her own children:

How did the process of writing your TEDx talk differ from writing an article on the same topic? Can you talk about your process a bit?

The first step was to create a 2-minute video audition, so I wrote a 500-word script and combined it with a short slideshow. With help from a filmmaker friend (also, coincidentally, the mother of boy/girl twins like me), I made the video. That process alone was clarifying. I'd been going in circles about what it was I wanted to say, in book form, about the gendering of childhood in the earliest years of life. Part of the challenge was that I was still in the thick of those years with my twins. In memoir, time gives a writer the distance of perspective. I didn't have that yet, but playing in a different genre gave me a new spin. Since I only had 2 minutes, I was forced to distill and let go of all the competing threads clamoring for attention. It was freeing to be forced, in effect, to think short.

When it came time to write the actual talk, I switched back into a more familiar writerly storytelling mode. With the story nailed down, it quickly became clear which images to use. But then something serendipitous occurred: the images started to kind of feed the words. During the revision process, I tried to make my language as concise as the images I had picked.

Mixing up the visual and the verbal felt playful and expansive at the same time that it pushed me to be precise. I think I'm hooked.

You've written, studied, and taught gender for many years. Have your kids reshaped your understanding of gender and the way you approach the subject as a scholar?

Yes. I'd thought about these things in the abstract. Then all of a sudden here I was, an anthropologist in the belly of the beast, with the beasts just out of my belly, and I felt helpless to fight the blue and pink wave that had snuck up upon me as the gifts and hand-me-downs started to pour in. Through it all, I developed a truer understanding of how our children become tabula rasa not only for commercial iconography but for our own implicit bias. In other words, I grew far less righteous. I mean, we ourselves are implicated in reproducing gender in the most subtle of ways.

Along the way, the question I thought I was interested in changed. Previously, I'd been curious about how culture influences children's gender identity. But I became much more interested in turning that question around. Instead of obsessing about how we influence the very young, I wondered how might they influence us. I started to think more about what we adults might learn about gender from the very young. The way kids under age three bend gender fascinates me. This is a time in their lives when they don't yet know where they fall. They live beyond the gender binaries that adults are more socialized to accept. We can learn, from kids, to embrace paradox, and get out of our own limited thinking--and not just around gender, of course.

Talk about the your idea for a graphic memoir in the making. Is this the first time visuals would play a role in your writing? How does the visual component impact the written content?

My husband Marco is a graphic designer by training. We've always dreamed of some kind of creative collaboration--not that raising twins isn't one, but we want to team up professionally in some way too. During our children's first three years, I kept a running log of my hopes, expectations, and blunders while striving to follow feminism's so-called "rules" for raising a liberated daughter and a sensitive son. I also launched a Tumblr blog (The Pink and Blue Diaries) where I continue to capture links, quotes, and threads from popular debates around gender and kids, and a Pinterest board (Tots in Genderland), where people are posting photos of young kids upholding, and breaking, gender norms. I've been thinking about ways to integrate the verbal and the visual, ways to pull together the personal, cultural, and theoretical strands. One day, the four of us were out on a walk in the woods and Marco drew us on a tiny sketchpad. I had one of those "aha" moments. Maybe a graphic memoir is how it all might come together. I'm not sure yet. We'll see.

This is the first time I've incorporated visuals in my writing process, yes. One of my fellow TEDxWindyCity presenters, graphic facilitator Brandy Agerbeck, gave a wonderful talk about how the visual can literally shape thinking. We're three-dimensional creatures, she says, so why do we flatten our thinking to fit onto paper and screens? A friend of mine, novelist Christina Baker Kline, creates a mood board for each novel she writes. Marco's drawings of our twins are currently pasted to a mood board in front of my desk. Seeing the sketches as I'm writing triggers a different part of my brain. Again, I think it has to do with precision and concision. I'm used to writing long. But what kind of sentence, I wonder, is the verbal equivalent of a graphic sketch?

When we last spoke, we discussed how talking about something can actually be an especially elucidating part of the writing process. Do you think your Talk will have this effect?

When I was writing my dissertation, I used to email thoughts to one of my committee members as a way to get unstuck. Email isn't talking, but it's conversation, and it helped me break through back then. I now offer coaching to individuals and organizations seeking to expand their thought leadership, connect with audiences, and bring their expertise public in fresh and newfangled ways, and I find that talking an idea through is the number one way to release someone from the tyranny of the page (aka screen).
The talk I just gave is already elucidating the writing for me, but not in a conventional way. What it's done is given me permission to think more expansively about genre and form. After the talk, I launched a Pinterest board called Tots in Genderland, where people are posting photos of young children breaking, and upholding, gender norms. I'm attending The Power of Narrative conference in Boston and am eager to learn more about new digital forms of storytelling, both so that I might engage in them myself and help others learn to incorporate new tools for public messaging and idea spreading down the road.

Will you tell us a little bit about the Op-Ed Project and discuss how it fits into your writing career?

The OpEd Project is a social venture designed to diversify the range of voices we hear from in public debate, starting with women. It was started by my friend Katie Orenstein, and I joined up in 2011, in large part to help foster its presence in the Midwest. I just finished leading a 3-month faculty fellowship program at DePaul, and there's a year-long program at Northwestern, and four seminars open to the public each year. Every time I teach these seminars, I try to send a piece of thought leadership, as we call it, out there myself, to be sure I'm walking the walk, and keeping the process I'm teaching fresh. Collectively, we're trying to reach a tipping point, so every bit counts. The community the project has created is phenomenal. I'm inspired by movements, and this one is so tangibly having an effect, not just on media but on the individuals who come through its programs.

I've learned a lot, as a writer, from focusing on evidence-based arguments of public value--which is basically what we teach. You know, the TEDxWindyCity organizers presented us with a fantastic webinar by the folks at SquarePlanet. We were instructed to think concretely about what we wanted our audience to know, feel, and do. The same goes for writing an oped. In 750 to 1000 words, you need to move your audience to action and get them on their feet. Opeds are a passionate genre. That's what grabs me about teaching the form. But the form is a gateway, of course, to so much else, and I'm passionate about seeing underrepresented voices become thought leaders in their own right.

See one, do one, teach one has been my motto for some time. We've been encouraging the scholars we work with to consider TEDx as one of many possible platforms for their ideas. We need more women and underrepresented voices opining on that stage--and far beyond.

What are the most important things writers who identify as women should keep in mind in 2013?

First, as we said at She Writes when it first began, writers don't let writers write alone. I'm a firm believer in the role of writing buddies, groups, networks, mini-retreats if possible (I'm leading one for writing mamas on May 18 at StoryStudio) and other forms of supportive writing company. Bonnie Friedman writes, "Successful writers are not the ones who write the best sentences. They are the ones who keep writing. They are the ones who discover what is most important and strangest and most pleasurable in themselves, and keep believing in the value of their work, despite the difficulties." Writing is full of difficulties. The key to sticking with it, for me, is community.

But of course the problems are far more structural than that. The world needs women's voices--we are nowhere near parity in terms of women's share of public voice. And in 2013, it's still not easy to be a woman who writes, professionally, if you've got young kids. My friend Miriam Peskowitz has written poignantly about the myth of the unencumbered artist, the writer with no other cares in the world, and how the time conundrum presents differently for mothers who write:

Scarcity is a tough clime to write from. Creativity wants spaciousness. The time conundrum is especially difficult for women writers with young children, especially hard when the writing, the voice we are searching for is not commercial, when it doesn't come with a salary or with enough pay that provides, that reassures, that says to the woman writer "It's okay to trade more hours for more childcare, so your creative spirit can grow."

The daring writer's contribution to time's scarcity is not to let the truth of this conundrum remain invisible, to not succumb to thinking of it as an individual matter. To articulate what it means to be a woman who writes from amid all this, who knows what is happening, and who somehow, still, finds ways to give written voice to her passions.

The thing is to think big, to unearth that ineffable quality of being big and dreamy and daring, even when the whole thing is wearing us down.

I can't say it any better than that.

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