Giving it to the Man

A mis en scène of fake humility

A multi-tweet advice thread calling itself “HARSH WRITING ADVICE” popped up in my Twitter feed a few days ago from someone I don’t know and don’t follow. Its aim was to dispense tough girl “HARSH WRITING ADVICE” tips to aspiring writers. I rarely react to Twitter. I’ve got better things to do. But her series of HARSH WRITING ADVICE tweets provoked me. They were misguided, they were sad, but above all, they were an auto-da-fé denouncing the very idea of women being competitive or ambitious.

I gathered from the context she’s a screen writer. Here are her three golden rules, plus a cherry on top:

1. We had strengths and weaknesses as writers. The ones who were able to do assistant jobs got staffed first, and I think they’d agree they weren’t consistently the strongest in the group. The best scripts that we workshopped to death didn’t sell. It just doesn’t work like that.

2. One sold a pilot last year and, when he got notes that he didn’t know how to incorporate, I was his first call. I spent weeks reading every rewrite, giving daily notes. I can’t even get a pitch meeting ! It’s not a competition. If it were, it’d be more fixed than figure skating.

3. The harshest advice I have is this: Learn your craft. Drill structure and character development into your bones. Do it so many times it becomes muscle memory. Then accept that everything after that is a lottery you have very little control over.

4. I apologize for going viral again. That is also not a competition but it seems to happen an unfortunate amount.

It’s a troubling read, not just because it’s written with the self-awareness of an earwig, but because the message is a mini-hand grenade. It’s a work of art in its own way, a subtext theater of personal revelation. Interiors sure do reveal themselves on Twitter, I’ve learned.

Our expert brags about “cooperating” with a group of guys. Why only guys? The detail speaks volumes, and leads me to believe her point was to make sure she was the center of male attention. I infer male attention mattered more to her far more than her own writing. She proudly reports having spent weeks working on a screenplay for one of the guys, weeks rewriting his work, at the expense of her own work (I can only assume if she’s working on his, she’s not working on hers.) Of course, she does not appear to expect either reward or reciprocity nononon, mon cheri that would not be playing fair.

To protest you’re playing fair by giving away the goods in a world where those on top have never and will never play fair is not only foolish, it is self-sabotaging. My skin crawls, the hairs on my neck stand on end. Why would a young woman do this?

Women’s rights rally. Photo by Monica Melton on Unsplash

Then this dispenser of HARSH ADVICE makes the commandment all little girls of the boomer generation were force-fed, which we’ve struggled against ever since. Thou shall not be competitive.

I thought younger women had evolved past this toxic message. She writes: If it was competition “it’d be more fixed than figure skating.”

Hate to be the one to break the news, or pop the denial bubble: it is more fixed than figure skating. It is fixed by the people who make decisions in favour of the people who are like them, and the women who enable them. It is fixed to enable powerful men. If you have not read it, please read Jennifer Barnett’s brilliant Medium post I Left My Career in Prestige Media Because of the Shitty Men in Charge and They Are Still In Charge and Still Fucking Up.

The world is fixed in favour of the floaters, the studio heads, the mediocre editors and the plagiarists they enable. The air bubbles up beneath them, buoying their lives and careers. They expect, like Brett Kavanaugh, the world will genuflect itself to their desires, both carnal and professional. And it does, it does, because it is fixed by men who created the structure and by men who got there because women like this young lady are very willing enablers. She suffers from good girl disease. It is always fatal.

The next bit of HARSH WRITING ADVICE was the most ludicrous. She asserts, despite all evidence — and despite the fact she’s willingly given away her own creative store—that the quality of the work doesn’t matter in the end.

Oh, it matters all right. When famous guys who have never had an original thought can plagiarize women’s work with impunity, the quality and originality of the work they plagiarize sure does matter. (I write about that in a subsequent post, which I will link to.)

Wildly successful men who have never had an original idea pillage women’s work and women’s creative efforts. Their careers are built on the backs of women like me who then can’t get work, don’t get credit, aren’t included, can’t get contracts, and lose their careers.

Sadly, the self-described dispenser of HARSH WRITING ADVICE frames it differently:

Then accept that everything after that is a lottery you have very little control over.

This is more accurately called “rolling over and letting yourself be f —.” Hey, it might not even hurt. Especially, if, as our advisor does, you “cooperate.”

Those who are using her are definitely not cooperating with her. I never met this young woman. I would probably dislike her if I did — how can a young woman be so delusional? — yet I’m still outraged on her behalf. I feel badly for her.

Women like me have had men’s knees on our necks for generations.

No, having a successful career is not a crap shoot. It is a game designed to be won by the men who designed the structure of the career train.

The saddest part of her post for me, though, was her last comment: her disingenuous apologia about her post going viral.

That is also not a competition, she writes, but it seems to happen an unfortunate amount.

Her false modesty torpedoes her premise. In the end, what she truly values is on display: she wants the goods, she wants to be rich-and-famous. By protesting otherwise — results, well they don’t matter, no? — she reveals herself to be little different from those talent-void Instagram influencers. They envy others. They would never in a million years admit it. And yet they aspire to riches beyond their wildest dreams. The truth is out: she doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the writing. She wants to be that thing she dares not name, the thing she admonishes her readers for wishing: She wants to be successful. She wants to be famous.

Self-immolation in a public forum always draws eyeballs. But to see it carried out in service of cloaking a cringe-worthy neediness under the moniker of HARSH WRITING ADVICE is a real spectacle.

Writer for NYT, Sci Am Nat‘l Mag Award. Climate, mental health, wild things. Newsletter

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