Many American women struggle about whether they can be both mothers and professionals, especially women with little social and financial support. Female artists know this problem too well. Is it possible to write and to parent? Do you sacrifice your painting career and creative energy to raise children? Yes, our culture says, you do. But at The Atlantic, journalist Erika Hayasaki argues that this is an oversimplification.
Hayasaki, a mother of three, understands the complex truth from experience. Before giving birth to twins, she took her first kid on reporting trips, to book readings and to the classes she teaches. Her writing life thrived. After adding twins to the mix, juggling became more complicated, but as a creative thinker, Hayasaki sees opportunities and advantages in her new paradigm.
To get insight into the relationship between motherhood and the creative life, Hayasaki looks at neuroscience, psychology, and the life of female rats. Tension will always exist between the need to do create and the need to mother. And yes, mothering takes huge amounts of time, Hayasaki argues, but it also involves many of the same elements as creativity: grit, flexibility, resourcefulness, innovation, and novel thinking.
When Abraham became a mom (her son is now 8) she realized she had to change her habits and daily patterns. She knows that fostering creativity often involves changing how you look at the world. “Being a mother gives you a different perspective,” she said. “You’re dealing with a wholly novel situation. You’re discovering a side of yourself that is completely new. All of this could be useful to creativity—which is about novelty.”
In 1953, the psychologist Morris Stein defined human creativity as the production of something original and useful. Rex Jung, a neuropsychologist at the University of New Mexico who studies creativity and the brain, takes that definition a few steps further. For an idea to be creative, it must also be surprising, he says.
Creativity requires making unusual connections. At its core, Jung said, creativity is original problem solving. This is an evolutionarily derived process that is important to survival. Humans who achieve high creativity usually have endurance and grit, Jung said. Creative people take risks, Jung said. They are bold, and adept at finding new and unusual ways to get tasks done.
“In this period of extreme pressure, when mothers are going through massive changes in their bodies, diets, and hormones,” Jung hypothesized, “that is when creativity should emerge as a highly adaptive reasoning process.”
This week, we’re sharing stories by Ijeoma Oluo, Michael Hall, Erika Hayasaki, Jerry Saltz, and Caren Chesler.
We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in investigative reporting.
Long-form journalist and translator based in Mexico City.
Stories About My Brother (Prachi Gupta, Jezebel)
Gupta investigates her brother’s death with tenderness and intimacy, providing us with a rare glimpse into the way toxic masculinity affects men. She recounts childhood memories of her brother Yush and his evolving views on power and masculinity, which have been shaped by his family and his mostly white classmates and peers. As Gupta grows up, she embraces feminism, which her brother defines as a “female supremacy movement,” and from that point on, their relationship deteriorates. Gupta, haunted by her brother’s death, digs deep to push through the pain of mourning and discover the cause. When she interviews Yush’s friends, they reveal that he had deep-seated insecurities about his height which led him to seek out limb-lengthening surgery. Yush believed that being taller would make him richer and more successful. Instead, he died of a pulmonary embolism, one of the side risks of the limb-lengthening surgery. Gupta’s work is personal, revelatory, shocking and provides insight into an area where we need more work: the ways in which conventional ideas of masculinity and power harm men.
The Death and Life of Frankie Madrid (Valeria Fernández, California Sunday)
I am drawn to investigations that harness the power of one story to illuminate the situation of a whole group — in this case, the lives of young, undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Fernández writes poetically about the death and life of Frankie Madrid, an undocumented teen who arrived in the U.S. with his mom when he was either 4 or 6 months old. Fernandéz begins the story with Frankie’s death — he committed suicide after being deported to Mexico — and then works her way back in time, investigating the cause of his suicide, his relationship with his mother and the difficulties of daily life while being undocumented. Via Frankie’s story, we begin to understand the pressures that undocumented kids face and to question the increasingly inhumane U.S. immigration policies and practices that played a role in his suicide.
A few years ago, reporter and journalism professor Erika Hayasaki traded a few emails with me wondering why there weren’t more visible Asian American long-form writers in the media industry. After discussing some of our own experiences, we concluded that part of the issue was not only a lack of diversity in newsrooms, but a lack of editors who care enough about representation to proactively take some writers of color under their wings.
“There needs to be more editors out there who can act as mentors for Asian American journalists and give them the freedom to explore and thrive,” I wrote. Long-form journalism, we noted, is a craft that is honed over time and requires patience and thoughtful editing from editors who care — not only about what story is being written, but also who is writing those stories.
We also listed the names of a few Asian American writers who have been doing some really fantastic long-form work. With the Asian American Journalists Association convention currently underway in Atlanta, Georgia (if you’re around, come say hello!), I wanted to share some of my favorite long-form pieces written by Asian American writers in the last few years. Read more…
Sarah Menkedick | Longreads | July 2019 | 38 minutes (10,294 words)
For me the low point came two months after publication, at a playground a few blocks from my house. I sobbed on the phone with my sister, eking out incomprehensible sentences about my career this, my life expectations that, writing this, the publishing industry that, until finally my sister said, “Maybe you should look for a different job?” and I realized the jig was up — I was doomed to keep doing this ridiculous and often seemingly pointless thing.
A few weeks before this, I’d received my first letters from readers telling me how much they’d loved and needed the book, and I’d had another sister-to-sister phone call — just as wrought with emotion — in which I raved about all the deeper meaning and purpose of this milestone and how it wasn’t about the sales and the metrics but about what mattered blah blah blah. I ping-ponged like this for awhile, alternately aglow and despondent, hopeful and wretched, until finally I just started writing again and got on with it.
Despite the very American idea that the artistic impulse and the parenting impulse are fundamentally opposed, writer and mother Erika Hayasaki looks at science and mothers’ experience for the truth: That becoming a mother makes many women more, not less, creative.
In the 2000 film Unbreakable, we’re introduced to two characters at opposite ends of a spectrum: an extremely frail man with a brittle bone disease played by Samuel L. Jackson, and a man with superhuman levels of strength and invulnerability played by Bruce Willis.
“However unreal it may seem, we are connected, you and I,” Jackson’s character tells Willis’. “We’re on the same curve, just on opposite ends.”
In a recent issue of Wired reporter Erika Hayasaki introduced us to another set of people on the opposite ends of a spectrum.
Steven Pete has a rare neurological condition that makes him unable to feel pain.
Pete pauses for a moment and recalls a white Washington day a few years ago. “We had thick snow, and we went inner-tubing down a hill. Well, I did a scorpion, where you take a running start and jump on the tube. You’re supposed to land on your stomach, but I hit it at the wrong angle. I face-planted on the hill, and my back legs just went straight up over my head.” Pete got up and returned to tubing, and for the next eight months he went on as usual, until he started noticing the movement in his left arm and shoulder felt off. His back felt funny too. He ended up getting an MRI. “The doctor looked at my MRI results, and he was like, ‘Have you been in a car accident? About six months ago? Were you skydiving?’ ”
“I haven’t done either,” Pete replied.
The doctor stared at his patient in disbelief. “You’ve got three fractured vertebrae.” Pete had broken his back.
Pam Costa has the opposite neurological condition — she feels pain constantly, as if her body is on fire.
Because the inflammation is exacerbated by physical contact, stress, and even the smallest elevation in surrounding temperature, Costa lives her life with great care. She wears loose-fitting clothes because fabric feels like a blowtorch against her skin. She sleeps with chilled pillows because the slightest heat makes her limbs feel like they are crackling. “Have you ever been out in the bitter, bitter cold, where your feet were ice?” she asks me. “Almost frostbite? Then you warm them up and it burns? That burning sensation: That is what it feels like all the time.”
Pete and Costa are also connected, sharing a genetic link that has helped scientists understand why we experience pain and how to treat it.
We asked a few writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here, the best in under-recognized stories.
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Michael J. Mooney
Dallas-based freelance writer, co-director of the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference.
You Are Not Going to Die Out Here: A Woman’s Terrifying Night in the Chesapeake (John Woodrow Cox, The Washington Post)
I saw this story posted and shared a few times when it first ran, but in the middle of an insane election cycle, it didn’t get nearly the attention it deserves. This is the tale of Lauren Connor, a woman who fell off a boat and disappeared amid the crashing waves of the Chesapeake Bay. It’s about the search to find her, by both authorities and her boyfriend, and about a woman whose life had prepared her perfectly for the kinds of challenges that would overwhelm most of us. This is a deadline narrative, but it’s crafted so well—weaving in background and character development at just the right moments, giving readers so many reasons to care—that you couldn’t stop reading if you wanted to.
A science reporter from Oakland, California, who teaches at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and is the author of We Have the Technology, a book about biohacking.
A clear-eyed, thought-provoking retelling of Michelle-Lael Norsworthy’s long legal battle in hope of becoming the first American to receive sex-reassignment surgery while in prison. Her lawyers argued that the surgery was medically necessary and withholding it violated the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. But, they argued, rather than grant the surgery and set a legal precedent, the Department of Corrections instead ordered her parole. The piece is a nuanced take on what it’s like to transition in prison—at least 400 California inmates were taking hormone replacement therapy when the article was published in May—where trans women are vulnerable to sexual assault and survivors are placed in a kind of solitary confinement, stuck in limbo in a prison system where it’s unsafe for them to live with men, but they are generally not allowed to live with women. And it asks a bigger question: What kind of medical care must the state cover?
Investigative Reporter, New America Future of War Fellow.
At first, it may seem like a simple essay about cultural appropriation, but this opus on the nameplate necklace is so much more than that. It is a beautiful ode to black and brown fashion. It is a moving history of how unique names became a form of political resistance to white supremacy. And it is the biting reality check Carrie Bradshaw so desperately needed. Read more…
We asked a few writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here, the best in investigative reporting.
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Senior Editor at The California Sunday Magazine.
Hands down the best reporting I read all year is Shane Bauer’s “My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard.” Bauer applied for a job at the Winn Correctional Center in Louisiana; though, let’s be real, as you’ll learn from the piece, applications are hardly necessary. Winn, which is run by the Corrections Corporation of America, the company that basically invented private prisons in the eighties, pretty much begged him to come onboard. After all, the pay is $9 an hour, the shifts are twelve hours long, and only some one-third of hires stick around. Bauer’s piece gets readers up to speed on the history of private prisons and their ubiquity today and takes readers deep into the particulars of the understaffed hellhole that is Winn–a place in which the guards, having so little support, are left to negotiate their own rules with prisoners. Bauer’s portrait of the prison community–and it is a community–is rich, illuminating without being condescending, in part because Bauer is, to some extent, a participant. Here’s a taste of an exchange between Bauer’s 19-year-old coworker, a kid all too keen to demonstrate his power named Collinsworth, and a prisoner he won’t deign to talk to:
“The best thing you could do is get to know people in the place.”
“I understand it’s your home,” Collinsworth says. “But I’m at work right now.”
“It’s your home for 12 hours a day! You trippin’. You ’bout to do half my time with me. You straight with that?”
“It’s probably true.”
“It ain’t no ‘probably true.’ If you go’ be at this bitch, you go’ do 12 hours a day.” He tells Collinsworth not to bother writing up inmates for infractions: “They ain’t payin’ you enough for that.” Seeming torn between whether to impress me or the inmate, Collinsworth says he will only write up serious offenses, like hiding drugs.
First of all–mini spoiler alert–you can make a diamond out of someone’s ashes! That’s just one of the odd little twists in Alice Gregory’s nail-biter about the most unlikely of nail-biter subjects–an architect’s archive. The architect in question is the very on-trend (and truly talented) Luis Barragán, who designed geometric buildings with vivid colors throughout Mexico. And the problem is that a Swiss manufacturing family owns his archive. The woman in that family for whom the archive was bought is determined to carefully catalog his work herself and protect his legacy and so she has refused to grant anyone access to his archive for the last two decades. This story is about a contemporary artist’s clever plot to persuade her otherwise. Gregory’s excellent structuring lends suspense and urgency to questions about how to best maintain a virtuoso’s legacy. Who should be allowed access to his archives and who should determine who should be allowed access? Read more…