The stepdaughter of a good friend of mine has become a sexpert. She received her doctoral credentials in “sexology” via a mail-order college, written a breezy book, and set herself up in business with high-paying clients. Because she is also telegenic and articulate, she’s done well on radio and television. As for her personal life, it’s a mess, she hasn’t a clue. She’s neglecting her kids, her husband—she’s on the verge of divorce—and her dog. She’s going out to fancy restaurants every night, buying fashionable clothes, meeting the rich and famous, and accumulating debt. But, in American terms, she’s a success. Visibility, acclaim, admiration, money, without much effort. For now, anyway.
Though I am sure a lot of people have found the sexpert’s advice helpful and have enjoyed her breezy book, I've often wondered if she ever thinks about what she’s done or who she is. In academic terms, she’s “commodified herself,” though I’m probably misspelling and/or misunderstanding the concept. But what I think it means is this: she’s selling herself. And so it was no surprise when my friend called to say that this very successful, entrepreneurial American woman suddenly realized that she—this commodified, inauthentic someone—has a short shelf life and that she has absolutely no idea what she’ll do next apart from botoxing the lines in her face.
“You don’t have to be on radio or TV. You can stay home with the kids a bit and write another book,” my friend suggested.
“And what did she say?” I asked.
“She said she’d think about it.”
“Thinking’s good,” I said. “All my students are thinking a lot. They’re becoming good writers.”
And I thought of them with pleasure. How hard they are working and how the writing, reading, and thinking has deepened them.
We are now entering the 7th week of class at NYU and, despite life’s pressures, everyone in the workshop is making great effort to maintain the discipline of their writing lives. Without apology, I ask them to do a lot, and I have high expectations because I know—from great experience—that their effort will be rewarded. Real effort is always rewarded, not monetarily perhaps, but in more important ways. In fact, the rewards are already evident in the writing itself which is starting to fly, and the risks the students are taking to find an authentic voice and subject. This was not true at the beginning of term. The voices, then, were reined in, timid, or polemical. No longer.
I’d like to invite the floundering sexpert into my class. Sexpert, you are invited. I’ve already had a lot of other survivors in my workshop, men and women forced to change careers because of down-sizing or lay-offs. The entrepreneurial spirit of Wall Street goes only so far, as we all well know.