Gina Barreca's books, which have been translated into seven languages, include They Used to Call Me Snow White But I Drifted, Babes in Boyland, and It's Not That I'm Bitter. Her new book is Make Mine A Double, a collection of essays
published by UPNE in September. She has appeared on 20/20, 48 Hours, NPR, The Today Show, Joy Behar, and Oprah to discuss gender, power, politics, and humor. Her books, Gina is a professor of English and feminist theory at the University of Connecticut. Here, she answers 5 questions from She Writes intern Isabel Farhi, about her craft, humor, feminism, and how they overlap.
You write in many different mediums, from blogs to memoirs to co-writing with Gene Weingarten in the Washington Post. Do you go about writing them differently? Do you have a favorite?
One of the terrific things about writing for various kinds of places is that when I simply can’t write for one venue, I’ll write for another; it’s something I suggest every writer try to cultivate in terms of her own work. This way you give yourself no excuses not to write, and that—finally and ultimately—is what separates the amateur from the professional. I’m usually working on a longer project at all times—for example, I just finished editing a collection titled Make Mine a Double: Why Women Like Us Like to Drink (or Not) for the University Press of New England—so when I couldn’t sit down and write something new, I could always “play” with the collection, either in terms of working with one of the 28 contributors or drafting a press release (with Laura Rossi Totten, my friend and publicist). If I have an idea for a longer piece, I can write that even while I’m doing a blog for Psychology Today or an article for Principal Leadership. One helps the others along. I love writing with Weingarten because we laugh throughout the whole conversation, but I get jealous when he writes with other women. It’s a trade-off.
You not only write, but also have appeared in radio, TV, and live shows . Do you find performing harder, easier, or simply different than writing?
Performing is entirely different from writing. I don’t use notes when I get up in front of an audience; since every group is different, and every topic needs its own immediate response, you can’t draw on the same resources you’d use in writing. You need to be able to be absolutely in the moment, not choosing every word carefully, but answering swiftly and directly. Often writers trip ourselves up in performances because we try to do on a stage what we do on the page—that’s not an appropriate expectation.
When looking at your website, the amount of content is astounding—it seems like you always have something more to say. How do you choose topics for your writing? Are they annoying things you notice, flashes of inspiration, or researched premises?
Life is hysterical, right? If you spend fifteen minutes listening to the conversations of strangers, you have enough to write about for a week. I’m not kidding, either. One of the most productive exercises I insist my creative writing students complete is the one where, every week, they come in with ten “found lines”: random fabulous statements made by people they don’t know. They learn to pay attention to the voices outside their heads as well as the ones inside of them, and often discover in the process that looking outside is enormously helpful for a writer. You can’t just sit and spin like a spider out of nothing all the time—you’ve got to make like a bee, and go from place to place, to pick up some sticky stuff and carry it elsewhere in order to make things happen. This way you nurture yourself and what’s around you; it also gets you out of the house. To write you need to read and to listen—and not only read your own work and listen to your voice.
Why do you use humor as your genre of choice?
I use humor in my work because laughter is the sound you make when you’re free—and for too long, women haven’t been able to make that sound, at least not in public. The laughing woman has been considered the hysteric or giggler, when we all know she’s really the truth teller and the troublemaker. When you can help someone to laugh with you, for that moment—that glorious, incredibly important moment—you’re both standing in the same place and seeing the world from the same perspective. Laughing with someone is as close as you can get to him or her without giving him or her a hug. I love making someone smile even when I’m not in the room with her—humor is a gift, a weapon, and a tool.
Your work is identified as both feminist and humor. Do you think the one influence the other, or that one changes how the public receives the other?
Since I assume everyone I meet is a feminist—meaning that I give people the benefit of the doubt and imagine they believe women are fully human beings, which is, after all, the definition of feminism—I don’t worry about how feminist and humorist “go together.” I’m just glad they do. Both are about looking at the world in a new way, about making life a more joyful, engaging, enriching, lively gig, and about making sure that those in a position of power don’t remain unexamined in their emperor’s new clothes (even if they bought them at TJ Maxx).
Check out Gina's website for more information on her books and appearances!
Be sure to look at Gina's She Writes blog for her new weekly Tuesday writing prompts!