Like everyone other woman in a certain place in life, I am reading Lean In by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. This is Sandberg’s manifesto on why feminism has stalled. She argues that women don’t assert themselves enough, don’t demand “a seat at the table.” It’s a phrase that gets repeated like the chorus of a pop song. ”Lean In” has become a catchy truism. It has taken up residence in my psyche before I’ve had the chance to question whether I want its accompanying baggage.
The table of her Lean In is in the corporate boardroom, where big things happen: risky ideas, influential connections, game-changing decisions. Sandberg describes how she is often the only woman seated at this table. But in every arena women are not filling important leadership positions where risk and reward await because they don’t “lean in.” They don’t believe they can. But they should. We should. Though obstacles have and will come along the way, Sandberg says the first step to getting ahead is to assume you should be there.
No doubt Sandberg was not thinking of English professors when she went looking for a cure to what ails women in the workforce. But I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea of leaning in and whether there is a relationship between writing a book and “getting a seat” at the proverbial table.
Writing a book, like “leaning in” at work is risky, aggressive, and full of uncertainty. You must insist that your characters–or in my case, cultural and literary events and ideas–matter. In doing so, you insist that you matter. That I matter.
That’s hard to do. Writers don’t know if the work matters until the thing is finished and is read by others. That is, if it gets read. So we have to believe in the ending even though we are at the beginning.
I’m reading Lean In while listening to music–a soundtrack that I wouldn’t, at first, deem a likely pairing for Sandberg’s treatise. The CD of songs I have here is called “My Last Mixed Tape” : “Alternative Music of the 1990s”.
I got the CD–not a real mixed tape like from my adolescent angst days– at (deep breath) Starbucks. I hereby swear that this was my first time buying music next to free samples of caramel macchiatos. But the circumstances were trying. I had just finished giving a paper at an academic conference: twenty minutes talk time, twenty hours work load. I spoke for a small crowd in a huge hotel that time forgot (the wallpaper was pre-mixed tape era). Still dressed for winter–it was 40 degrees inside despite the desert climate– I found this Starbucks after a string of bikini shops and bars, and a futile search for green vegetables and shade.
The CD is full of those post Cold-War, pre-digital age anthems of emptiness and anxiety. Radiohead’s “No Surprises” is here. So is Belle and Sebastian. Nirvana is not here, but should be.
The songs relate to the manuscript I am working on about writing and culture in the 1990s. But they also tell us something about cultural and historical depictions of success, then and now. Instead of the 2013 world of ”leaning In,” many culture makers of the 1990s– from academics like Bill Readings to artists like Sean Landers– were feeling tied down by a world that could not acknowledge or accommodate a diversity of identities, emotions or experiences. The CD seemed to say, circa 1993, “better to lean out.”
I grabbed the CD in an attempt to live in both of these worlds–the 1990s and today. I wanted to go back in time, press pause on the insistent drive to power, reignite the ethos of grunge–serious and thoughtful critique from the margins. But I also hoped that these songs would propel my writing project forward, back into the room and at the writing table of success. The package printed printed on the cover suggested this possibility. It reads, “A mix tape can convey a mood or a theme…or it can be like this CD—a collection from the ‘90s heyday of mix tapes that you just gotta here.”
“Would this music speak to the mood or the theme of my book?” the 97 degree heat of Vegas had me asking. Perhaps this compilation could tell me something that the intellectuals of the library stacks could not. Or at least tell me something about how we (or corporate) are mass-producing nostalgia for that decade, now that we are far from it.
I played the CD in the privacy of my hotel room of no view. Not bad, not great. Liz Phair and Pavement did offer a welcome way out of Vegas. And, for a brief moment I leaned all the way into another geography, another generation, a familiar, if fuzzy picture of possibility. There we are, my sister and brother in May 1993, 1994. It’s summer. Maybe. We are sitting together. I think. We are in David’s tiny bedroom. He is there. The shades are down. And we are listening to “alternative.”
But just as I tried to capture that room and our places in it, they were gone. The mood yielded a moment in time and a spot in history. But it did not make a book.
Turns out, even in Vegas, there is no one quick fix, no easy ticket to getting a seat at the table. Sandberg would agree. We need more than nostalgia or desire; we need hard work, confidence and a healthy dose of tolerance for risk to get our seat at the table.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story of success either. At least not for writing. Because a “seat at the table” assumes that this table is already there. Our job is to go out there and sit right down.
Only some businesses are filled with empty rooms that require setting a table of our own making. A writer’s workplace is like this. A writer has to lean into ideas so that they can exist and progress. But she also needs to know when to get up and move on, when all of that forward moving misses the mark, losing what was once there, or bypassing what is right in front of us. She needs to know when the table we sit at is either too desolate or too crowded or too popular: furnished by memory’s ghosts or with soundtracks already compiled by coffee shop chains.
I’ve got no catch phrase, no refrain, for making this balancing act work. Only this: though we may be stuck in the desert sometimes, let there be no cure in the quest for something, somewhere, alternative.