I’m nearly finished with the draft of my next book, a memoir about the twelve years I worked for Amazon as, you know, a woman. I have a fairly granular list of what’s left to do on this draft and every day I look for something that seems doable and I do it and then I get the incredibly disproportionate satisfaction of crossing it off. (I was one of those kids who was a sucker for a chore chart. LOVE to cross things off.)
I’m starting to run out of the tasks that seem doable, but I can’t think about that yet.
Here is the thing about writing a memoir of working at Amazon: a good 25% of the work is un-gaslighting yourself. For at least the first year, I second-guessed every word I wrote: Maybe you misread that situation. Maybe you really weren’t good enough. Aren’t good enough. Maybe you just needed to be tougher. Maybe you just didn’t try hard enough. Maybe the problem wasn’t that you were a woman, just that you were the wrong kind of woman.
“This is a book about what it’s like to spend a whole decade failing,” I announced to John at one point. “It’s a failure memoir.”
“Huh,” he said.
Don’t get me wrong: all memoir requires ruthless self-interrogation. We are complicit in our own life stories. But the stark light I was shining on myself was getting excessive, not to mention *meta.* What a disappointing writer I’ve turned out to be, I thought at the end of most workdays. It was almost like being back at the Zon, where much of the time I’d just hope to end my days afloat enough that I hadn’t swallowed salt water.
Two things got me back on track. One was sharing pages with a tiny number of trusted friends with no connection to Amazon. From their reactions, I started to realize there was a character at the center of my book, a person they wanted to “go for the long car ride with,” as my friend Claire describes the memoirist-reader contract. They were rooting for her, and fascinated by the circus she’d joined, and entertained.
The other happened last fall. I was in Indianapolis with my then-boyfriend, who was producing a record in a very cool analog studio there. Every morning I’d drive him to the studio and then come home and work at the desk in our sunroom. I was sitting there one day in the very specific October light, wrestling with some mortifying event in the book and thinking “How the fuck did you even become that kind of person?!” Which is, um, a fairly important question for a memoirist. (Though I still maintain that the perfect, all-purpose memoir epigraph is from the National’s ‘Daughters of the Soho Riots: “How can anybody know/How they got to be this way?”)
Anyway, I was sitting there trying to figure out who the fuck I was before I had to go ferry the boy home from work, and without really thinking about it drew a timeline—1970-2006, aka birth to joining Amazon—on a piece of scratch paper and started filling it in with events and milestones that shaped me as a woman who works for money. 1971: the ERA passes. 1973: Roe. 1974: women can get credit without a male co-signer. 1977: sexual harassment is legally recognized for the first time. 1978: it becomes illegal to fire a woman solely for being pregnant, and the ERA requests an extension. 1980: no one likes the Susan B Anthony coin. 1982: the ERA extension passes with no new ratifications and with five states having *rescinded* theirs. 1984: no one likes Geraldine Ferraro. 1985: my Western Civ teacher says he hates having to let his wife work. 1987: my computing teacher complains daily about having to allow girls in class. 1988: three of the four male professors in my department make it clear almost immediately that they’re interested in me, a child of eighteen years. 1992: Anita Hill slut shamed on national television. 1998: Monica Lewinsky slut-shamed on national television. 2001: the very day I’m promoted to director of the film department at my job, it’s suddenly urgent that two male VPs show me a locked storage room full of hardcore porn DVDs that have been collecting dust for years and request my plan for cataloging and archiving them.
And so on.
The book cracked open that day, the day I realized I and millions of other working women had been born into a highly dynamic war. THIS is how you got to be this way, I thought. The me in the book still fails at plenty of stuff. But not once after the day I made the timeline have I ever, ever mistaken it for a failure memoir.