Gina Barreca’s latest book is as funny and forthright as her previous memoirs. But this one, she says, is even more personal and more revealing – examining relationships she holds most dear, including that with husband Michael Meyer, who also taught English at UConn.
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I had enormous fun writing If You Lean In, Will Men Just Look Down Your Blouse? And I learned a lot. Yes, this book takes on a number of social and cultural issues – everything from the “Twilight” and “Fifty Shades” phenomena to the powers of Spanx and Goji berries. But it’s different from most of my earlier work, because it’s more personal and unguarded.
We get braver and more honest as we get older. I don’t know if it’s true that we women become invisible as we age, but we certainly become more audible. We become more politicized, less willing to simply nod and smile if we disagree, and more willing to stand up for ourselves and others (instead of leaning in – I’m not a Sheryl Sandberg fan, and that’s where the title comes from; there’s a chapter about my issues with her work). And both women and men, somewhere between 40 and 50, begin to distinguish what actually makes them happy from what they’ve always done to please others. Being able to define that difference is an accomplishment. It’s one of those areas of expertise that takes at least 10,000 hours to learn. At a certain age, you finally become the indisputable authority on the subject of yourself.
It’s time to write, to read, and to drive with the top down.
I know I’m getting braver as I get older – and that won’t come as a big surprise to anybody. Having taught creative writing classes at both the undergraduate and graduate level, I’ve always emphasized the need for writers at every level to figure out what story they’re really trying to tell. It’s usually buried four or five paragraphs deep and embedded in a particularly sharp, fierce, sometimes off-the-cuff line the writer might have been surprised to hear herself or himself say. It’s rarely the well-groomed, much-rehearsed, and overwritten sentence that grabs a reader by the throat.
I tried to respect that in my own writing while completing this manuscript. While nobody could accuse me of keeping my personal life out of my earlier books (after all, I wrote a memoir about my time as one of the first women at Dartmouth College titled Babes in Boyland, and my first book, They Used to Call Me Snow White but I Drifted, draws deeply on my Italian upbringing), this latest collection takes more risks.
For example, in a section titled “If You Met My Family, You’d Understand,” there’s a chapter about questions I wished I’d asked my mother before she died (she was 47 and I was 16). There are essays about how my parents’ troubled marriage helped clarify what I wanted from my own. And while deep fears aren’t necessarily funny, there’s an essay about my own panic attacks that includes an incident with a butterfly net. There’s also a section titled “If You Run With a Bad Crowd, Can You Call It Exercise?” “Real” humor is real.
I try to write about teaching, writing, my professional life, and my own relationships with honesty as well as humor. When I write about my friends and family, I ask their permission to tell their stories as well as my own. Most of the time they’re generous enough to grant it.
The excerpt below is from an essay about my husband, Michael Meyer, on the day he retired from the English Department at UConn. I first published it with The Chronicle of Higher Education, but even though he’s the focus of the essay, I did not, in this case, show it to him first. I wanted it to be a surprise. It was a delight to adapt it for If You Lean In and to have it here in UConn Magazine, since Michael was everybody’s favorite professor of American Literature.
Gina Barreca is fed up with women who lean in, but don’t open their mouths. In her latest collection of essays, she turns her attention to subjects like bondage, which she notes now seems to come in 50 shades of grey and has been renamed Spanx. She muses on those lessons learned in Kindergarten that every woman must unlearn, like not having to hold the hand of the person you’re walking next to (especially if he’s a bad boyfriend), or needing to have milk, cookies, and a nap every day at 3 p.m. (which tends to sap one’s energy, not to mention what it does to one’s waistline). She sounds off about all those things a woman hates to hear from a man like “Calm down” or “Next time, try buying shoes that fit.” ‘If You Lean In, Will Men Just Look Down Your Blouse?’ is about getting loud, getting love, getting ahead, and getting the first draw (or the last shot). Here are tips, lessons, and bold confessions about bad boyfriends at any age, about friends we love and ones we can’t stand anymore, about waist size and wasted time, about panic, placebos, placentas, and certain kinds of not-so adorable paternalism attached to certain kinds of politicians. The world is kept lively by loud women talking and ‘If You Lean In, Will Men Just Look Down Your Blouse?’ cheers and challenges those voices to come together and speak up.