Advice

Scholars Talk Writing: Laura Kipnis

'Ideally you want to be an id on the first draft and a superego on the second'

January 24, 2016

Readers of The Chronicle will be plenty familiar with "Troublemaker" Laura Kipnis, a professor of film at Northwestern University. In February of 2015, she wrote an essay about "sexual paranoia" on campuses. A group of Northwestern students protested the piece, and then two graduate students brought a Title IX case against her, arguing that her essay had a "chilling effect." No one could do a better job than Kipnis herself in describing the whole affair: "Being protested had its gratifying side — I soon realized that my writer friends were jealous that I’d gotten marched on and they hadn’t." She's working on a book, titled Higher Education/Stupid Sex, based on her recent experiences.

But many of us were reading Kipnis long before this series of unfortunate events. She’s been writing interesting, provocative, funny, smart, and graceful essays for a long time. I first became aware of her when she published Against Love: A Polemic. Publishers Weekly, in a starred review, called the book a "ragingly witty yet contemplative look at the discontents of domestic and erotic relationships" where Kipnis "combines portions of the slashing sexual contrarianism of Mailer, the scathing antidomestic wit of early Roseanne Barr and the coolly analytical aesthetics of early Sontag." Who could resist that kind of mash-up?

Can you describe your development as a writer?

Scholars Talk Writing

In a continuing series, Rachel Toor talks with noted scholars about the joys and pains of writing.

Kipnis: It’s been a fairly anomalous development because I actually started out as a visual artist. I was a painter, and went to art school where I learned that painting was dead, so I started making video art, which eventually led to video essays based on scripts I wrote, which led to people asking me to write about my work, which led to further essays on aesthetics. … Then an editor at Minnesota approached me about publishing a collection of the video scripts along with critical essays I’d been writing, which became my first book. None of this was exactly planned. Eventually I just got more interested in writing essays than shooting them.

How did you learn to write for a more general readership?

Kipnis: I'd shown one of my videos at the big cultural-studies conference at Illinois, then for some reason the organizers asked me to write something for the volume — that first huge cultural-studies reader. I said I wanted to write on Hustler magazine, which I was a little obsessed with at the time, and to my surprise they said sure. So that came out and caused a bit of a stir because it raised class issues in relation to porn, which wasn’t something being talked about at the time, certainly not by feminists. Then Joy Press, who was an editor at The Village Voice, asked me to write a cover piece on Larry Flynt timed to the Milos Forman biopic about him that had just come out. Which was the first time I was really edited. It was like going to writing school for a year crammed into a couple of days of editing.

I’d written a bunch of academic essays by then, and I had no idea how full of godawful academic tics my writing was. I’d never considered myself a real academic — I’d never had to write a dissertation or jump through any of those disciplinary hoops, but I was writing horrible jargon anyway (these were the "theory" years). It was both helpful and also deeply humiliating to have someone point out that people outside of academia wouldn’t understand those veiled references to Foucault. (I remember another editor mocking a passage I wrote critiquing someone who was critiquing someone else. She told me that was the essence of academic writing, and was to be avoided.)

My writing education continued when I started writing pieces for Slate and other places where you get seriously edited in a way that you don’t for academic publications. What I learned is that there’s a level of sloppy writing you can get away with in academic writing that you simply can’t put over in journalism.

To be honest, I find myself almost unable to read academic writing at this point, especially the left-leaning, social-justice seeking, politically invested versions, even when I share the politics. So much of it is mutual stroking for the already persuaded, addressed to a cognoscenti who share your ideas and parlance. Writing for wider venues is actually a lot more challenging; at least that’s been my experience.

Has the whole Title IX thing changed the way you think about your prose?

Kipnis: To some extent, yes. The more I learn about what’s going on around the country as far as Title IX charges, secret hearings, failures of due process — far worse stuff than what happened to me — the more responsibility I feel to keep writing about it, because most of the people who’ve gone through this aren’t in a position to go public. At the same time, if I have to write about "issues," I still want to try to find a voice that’s not simply straightforward and journalistic. I like to think the essay is a form that can contain multiple imperatives and tonal registers. At least that’s what I’m after. Yet taking on this subject also feels like stepping into a hornet’s nest — last time it was actually a bit inadvertent (I didn’t foresee students marching against me or filing charges), but this time I know what I’m in for.

So are there ways you’ll write differently now?

Kipnis: It made me more determined not to shut up on the subject, and not to kowtow or pull punches. I tried to keep a light tone when I wrote about being brought up on Title IX complaints because it seemed more rhetorically effective, but I don’t mean lightness of tone to suggest that what’s going on isn’t grotesque, and in the long run, both anti-feminist and anti-democratic.

What do you struggle with in your own work?

Kipnis: I often feel like I'm struggling to find a sense of freedom, to feel like I own the page, to not feel beholden to conventions. Though a lot of the time I’m really just struggling to figure out what I think, which I often don’t entirely know until the end (if then).

Also, even though I said I’ve learned a lot from being edited, I hate being edited. It makes me horribly self-conscious, so I’m always struggling to banish all the editors from my head while at the same time using what I’ve learned from them. I suppose ideally you want to be an id on the first draft and a superego on the second.

How do you manage to get stuff done?

Kipnis: Oh, like everyone else on the planet, when I really need to finish something I force myself to shut down my email — then I find myself sneaking and checking it on my phone. I typically need to fool myself into starting things, to sort of sneak up from behind on them — articles or reviews on deadlines, I mean. I tend to accumulate a lot of scraps of paper, then waste a lot of time typing them up and cutting and pasting and rearranging the new pieces (I mean physically, with scissors and tape and so on), which at least produces the illusion of momentum. It’s all incredibly inefficient.

What do you tell your students about writing well?

Kipnis: Punctuation is your friend! I teach film, so my students are mostly writing screenplays, and a lot of them seem to think punctuation is for old has-beens. I also try to get them to use the world around them for material, to be spies. I like assigning Erving Goffman to encourage social spying. Reading him typically blows their minds, or the smart ones have their minds blown. He’s so irreverent and sees through the dreck of social niceties they’re typically so steeped in. I suppose I think — and try to teach — that writing well requires shedding the niceties.

Any tricks, tips, or techniques? Any style books you love?

Kipnis: I mostly read people I think are interesting stylists, hoping it will rub off, I guess. I revere Bellow — there’s something in the rhythms of his sentences, the little fillips, the exuberance, that’s very familiar to me. Maybe it’s the feel of Chicago, where I grew up also — the sound of ornery Jews. I like reading the old guys — Updike, Mailer, Roth — because they can really blast you away with their intelligence, even if they’re hateful women-loathing coots. I like the friction, I suppose.

I’m interested in people who’ve been declared persona non grata like Naipaul, Hitchens, Amis, père and fils, … who say awful things but say it so elegantly. As far as style books, I’d mostly recommend Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, along with everything else he wrote. Anything I know about style I’ve learned from Freud, not so much from his own style per se, though he’s a great writer, but by reading him as an aesthetician, as a formalist. I remember once declaring pretentiously to someone that I was a Freudian formalist and he said, "Isn’t that the same thing?"

Hmmm, I’m looking at that list and noticing there are no women on it. Uh oh! Sontag was a big influence on me as an essayist, but she’s grown harder to admire lately; there’s a little too much certainty there. On this subject, I recently met Terry Castle for the first time — there's someone whose writing style I admire more than I can say. We had a conversation (that would probably get us both run out of academia if anyone had overheard it) about disidentifying, as writers, with the whole being-a-woman thing — what a tiresome constraint it is. (I talk about this same thing a bit in the preface to my last book, Men: Notes From an Ongoing Investigation, about why it was an evil sort of fun to write about men.) For me, the pleasure of writing is that when it’s going well you get to step out of the gender box and just be a sort of free-floating élan vital.

Rachel Toor is an associate professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University’s writing program in Spokane. Her website is http://www.racheltoor.com. She welcomes comments and questions directed to careers@chronicle.com.