Briallen Hopper is an English Lecturer at Yale University. Her writing can be found in the Huffington Post, Chronicle, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New Inquiry, New Republic, Killing the Buddha, and much more. You can find her on tumblr at http://briallenhopper.tumblr.com/ and on twitter @briallenhopper.
The very first pitch that I sent in my life was a response to Briallen’s essay on reading YA fiction at the Los Angeles Review of Books. I think I started it off with something like:
My name is Angela Yuen, I’m fifteen years old, and I want to write reviews/essays on fiction books for you.
Now if you haven’t exited out by now, thank you very much. I’m utterly ecstatic that you haven’t.
I often feel extremely lucky to have been given those first chances by editors (apparently they appreciate snark by the way, considering that first pitch) to publish my thoughts. But even before that, the first push to write comes from reading other people’s work, and letting it fill you with awe. For that I am grateful to writers like Briallen whose essays and articles I read and re-read, even if I do not always understand the entirety of what she says– something I have found a kind of comfort in.
I do not know what chain of events had to happen from when I first decided to respond to Briallen’s writing to now, getting to interview her as an editor of MARGINS. But I know that words are not something you drain out and keep. The best writings are the ones you take from and take from again, that get better as you age, because each time you read you understand a little more.
When you find those stories, it feels like growing up is going to be okay after all.
You have been teaching for quite a while now, in various locations with students of tremendously different backgrounds and ages. What has that diversity taught you, and how has it influenced the way you teach and write?
From my college work-study job tutoring English and ESL at Tacoma Community College back in the ’90s to my current job teaching writing at Yale, I’ve worked with so many different kinds of students: veterans, first-gen students, immigrant and refugee students, divinity students, pre-med students from under-represented backgrounds, students at hyper-segregated public high schools, international students, highly-privileged Ivy League students, and students who are in several of these categories at once.
I’ve learned so many ways that education is valuable, hard, and soul-stirring. Above all, I’ve learned that reading and writing are life for so many people—whether that means mastering basic literacy skills that allow you to hold an entry-level job, or reading a novel that prompts you to have a real conversation with your father for the first time in years, or writing an essay about immigration status or non-conforming gender identity or music or madness that creates unexpected new feelings of kinship or freedom in yourself and your readers, or that transforms your own mind as you’re writing it. All these are things my students have done.
What misconceptions about millennials and the youth of today have you discovered to be false, or rather, more complex than most imagine to be?
Stereotypes-wise, in my experience it is true that millennials live on social media and are glued to their phones, and talk to their parents more than my generation did. But I don’t think any of those things are necessarily bad! Still, I try not to generalize about my students too much. They often surprise me.
Vice versa, what misconceptions about teachers do you think are prevalent in today’s society? How can students empathize and understand teachers better in order to make the most of their education?
To society, especially Chris Christie and his ilk, I would say: teachers are doing some of the most important work there is. Their work should be respected, and they should be trained thoroughly and paid fairly.
To students, I would say: teachers are human beings, with all the good and bad that that implies. Yes, there are some objectively good or bad teachers, but most teachers are good for some students, less good for others. A lot of teaching is about a mysterious and complex mixture of personalities, subject matter, seasons, spaces, even time of day. I’ve taught the same course three times a year for four years, and every class is different. Sometimes you love a teacher but don’t learn that much from them, and sometimes you don’t realize what you learned from a teacher until years later. Then there are a few classes you find yourself remembering every day for the rest of your life, but they might not be the ones you’d expect.
General pieces of advice for students: go to office hours if you have questions or concerns or bubbling-over enthusiasms. If you have a disability or health issue or other personal situation that may affect your work, let your instructor and other support systems know as soon as possible, and try to work things out before it becomes a crisis. And remember that your grades are not your teacher’s assessment of you as a person, or even their assessment of your intelligence or academic potential. They are simply an evaluation of work you did at a certain time in a certain class. That is all.
For me, as a teacher and a student, education is best when it is about process, community, courage, and openness. And, of course, joy.
Did you identify as a feminist when you were a teenager? How did that influence your upbringing?
I didn’t, though I should have. I struggled with depression, disordered eating, and self-harm, and I often felt objectified and silenced and unsafe, but I didn’t have a framework to help me understand how gendered all those experiences were, and how they were the result of oppressive structures and not just my own personal problems. When I got to college and read feminist writing—and, just as importantly, anti-slavery writing and anti-racist writing—I understood structural injustice for the first time, and I learned a new language for liberation. I began to understand how all freedom struggles are connected.
What is a piece of advice you would like to give to the young teenage feminist on how to stay confident in their work and their voice?
Spend as much time as you can with people whom you love and appreciate, and who love and appreciate you back! Use your energy in the service of justice and joy. And let yourself nerd out in a totally immoderate and unhinged way on what you love, because that kind of immersion sustains your soul and makes you the adult you will become. I am still nourished by all the hundreds of old movies I watched when I was a teenager.
Which kinds of books did you read as a teenager? What are the ones that impacted you the most?
My favorites were 19th-century novels by women: Louisa May Alcott, George Eliot, the Brontes, Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell. They all write so intensely about young women becoming adults and I took it all to heart. I constantly re-read the Sue Barton series by Helen Dore Boylston, who writes brilliantly about women’s relationship to work in a way that feels very modern; she gave me a way to think about vocation, as did Maud Hart Lovelace, whom I also constantly re-read. I loved old self-help books like Live Alone and Like It by Marjorie Hillis and What Shall I Wear? by Claire McCardell, which became the blueprints for my adult life. I also remembering plowing through so many complete oeuvres: ALL of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dickens and Oscar Wilde and Shirley Jackson and Dorothy Parker and John Donne. I went on a Gore Vidal kick too, and I read a lot of ephemeral mid-century pulp fiction and ghost-written Hollywood biographies. I read every single Vogue magazine when it came out. And I’ve been reading Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers and Josephine Tey and Ngaio Marsh mysteries over and over since childhood and will never stop.
I miss those days of coming home from the public library positively weighed down by pleasure reading. I used to read about a book a day until I got to grad school and reading turned into work. That’s when I started watching TV.
What is your procedure like for writing? How much do you research? Do you have a step-by-step process, or do you write spontaneously whenever you feel the urge?
My friend Ritu just told my writer friend Ash and me about this word “omniana.” It means “a miscellaneous collection of scraps of information on different topics, often in written form.” We were both like: OMG, this is the perfect word for our insane hoarder-y writing process of scrambled notes and epic inscrutable drafts!
I posted a description of my writing process on tumblr this spring when my essay on spinsters felt like it was billowing out of control:
1) Do too much research yet feel guilty for not doing enough; devote so much time to this stage that towards the end of the process my original findings will have utterly fled my memory
2) write hard-to-assemble notes over a period of months in small purse notebooks, large desk diaries, assorted margins and endpapers, scraps of paper on the nightstand, notebooks at my office, notebooks at my carrel, and other places I can’t remember for the life of me
3) write a hundred or so pages of garble spread out over ten or twenty files
4) slowly piece everything together in a painstaking patchwork, printing periodically until my printer runs out of its very expensive ink
5) if I’m smart, send something to an editor who can help me out of my choose-my-own-adventure infinite-possibility paralysis
6) revise with gratitude, growing momentum, and fits-and-starts of despair
7) finally get to the point where my desperation to be done outweighs my desire to be good
One last important point: for me and many other people, writing is social. When I realized this in my twenties it was a huge breakthrough. Now I always share writing-in-process with editors and friends. I talk through ideas in person or on Facebook, and I often write with someone else in the room. I host “writing bees” that are kind of like quilting bees, only with writing instead of quilts. It has made me a more prolific writer and an infinitely happier one. As one of my writing buddies said, “It’s so wonderful to know I’ll never write alone again!”
You write frequently about serious issues, including subjects like racism, religion, and gender equality, to name a few. I particularly remember loving your Huffington Post piece on the OU frat boy’s apologies back in March. Especially coming from someone who is a non-POC, what is important to remember when writing pieces like these?
I am always second-guessing myself as a non-POC person writing about race. There are so many ways to do it wrong, and every time I try I know I will fail to get it right. But at the same time it is so clear to me that there is nothing more important than racial justice (except climate change, obviously, which is also a racial justice issue), and since I am a writer I should be writing about what matters most. But I never want my voice to displace or compete with the voices of people of color, and I never want to claim to speak on their behalf. I want to amplify others’ voices, and I want to know when to be quiet. This June I spent several days working on an essay on Rachel Dolezal, and then when the Charleston massacre happened I thought: put that essay away. No one needs to read essays by and about white ladies right now.
I’m the Faculty Fellow at the University Church in Yale, which means I preach at the Yale Chapel several times a year, and this past year I kept having to preach after a racial tragedy or act of racial terror: the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, the killing of Walter Scott, the Charleston massacre. One of the congregants told me “you are our war-time preacher,” and I knew what he meant: being a preacher in modern race-riven America means preaching about racist violence. But before I preached a sermon on Ferguson, the pastor said “you need to explain to the congregation why you care about these issues.” In other words, it’s not self-evident why a white lady would be preaching about systemic racism—it requires an explanation in order not to seem random or self-righteous. On the one hand I thought, fair enough. At the same time I was like: how could anyone NOT care? THAT is what would require an explanation! I was raised in racist country, and now it is going up in flames and so many people are risking so much to fight for freedom. How could I preach about anything else?
Racism is so deep. I have studied racial history since college, I wrote a senior thesis on Frederick Douglass and a dissertation on racial reform movements, I have family members of different races. But even the first draft of my sermon on Charleston was full of sentences that minimized the terror of white supremacy.
In part I write about race in order to resist my own racism, and to hold myself accountable.
Growing up in the Silicon Valley, at my school (And many others I’m sure) people who choose to pursue writing or liberal art related careers are often pitied and patronized. Most adults (and fellow students in turn) will discourage me from seeking out a path that isn’t reliable in giving me revenue in the future. As someone who teaches English courses and has succeeded in becoming an established writer, did you have to experience this in high school? How do people in this situation learn to stop doubting themselves? What key guidance tips can you give someone in following a road similar to yours?
First, I should say that I don’t feel like an established writer and probably never will, but I do write things a lot! Which is one definition of being a writer. I empathize with your experience as an aspiring writer. I grew up in a blue-collar family, so I deal with different pressures, but the anxiety about supporting yourself is real regardless of your background. And unfortunately it’s not realistic to say “whatever, money doesn’t matter, follow your dream!”
What I would say instead: Think about something else you want to do, and pursue it along with your writing. Not necessarily as a “day job” or a means to an end, though sometimes that’s necessary, but as another vocation that you are interested in and feel connected to. Almost every writer I know has another job besides writing. Most of them are teachers or editors, but some of them are social workers, ministers, or community organizers. Other writers are plumbers, bakers, doctors, or computer programmers, or parents who stay at home with their children full-time. Writers often find that doing this other work balances their lives and enriches their writing. Of course nothing is ever ideal, and the amount of hours in the day is finite, but so many beautiful books have been written by people with full-time non-writing jobs. So many women get up at dawn to write before their children wake up.
Do you plan on writing a book in the future? If so, do you know what kind and what it will be about?
I’m working on a book proposal now! I don’t want to jinx it by saying too much, but it is an essay collection growing out of a piece I wrote this summer on spinsters.
Besides writing, what other things are you in to? (Fandoms, television shows, hobbies, etc.)
I am pretty good at baking. I like to keep my covered cake-stand full of deliciousness. And I couldn’t live without TV. I want to write the best essay ever written on Cheers.
What advice would you give your younger self?
My 89-year-old grandma lives in a retirement community that has the best motto: “Enjoy your age.” I loved it so much that my grandma gave me a coffee mug with the slogan on it. It’s good advice whether you are a teenager or in your 30s like me or almost ninety like my grandma. There is something uniquely precious about every age, whether it’s potential, energy, intensity, wisdom, or being at rest. A related piece of advice, from the classic and highly-recommended movie Postcards from the Edge: “It’s real important to enjoy your turn.”
What small writers, artists, or content creators should we look up and interview next?
Definitely Sarah Mesle, humanities editor at LARB! Also Elizabeth Spenst, editor of DOWN Magazine at Yale.