Washington Post Magazine: XX Files

Sandy Fernandez and Sandra Beasley
Washington Post Magazine Assignment Editor and Local Poet
Tuesday, July 15, 2008 12:00 PM

Washington Post Magazine editor, Sandy Fernandez, was online Tuesday, July 15 at 12 p.m. ET to talk about the Magazine's new column, "XX Files," which will feature a variety of personal essays from female writers. She'll be joined by Sandra Beasley, a local poet and the new column's first contributor.

The transcript follows


Sandra Beasley: Hi folks, Sandra Beasley here -- writing you from lovely Sewanee, Tennessee, where I just arrived for a writer's conference held every year at the University of the South. I'm in a little coffeehouse where every mug is a different color, refills are only 55 cents, and the dominant soundtrack is gypsy guitar. Pardon me in advance for any punchiness...it was an eleven hour drive!

I'm thrilled to be sharing this chat with Sandy Fernandez. A writer is only as good as her editor, and Sandy's one of the best. Thanks to everyone who has already written in about the column. I'm looking forward to taking your questions.


Sandy Fernandez: Thanks for the shout-out, Sandra. It was great working with such an adept and poetic writer. And I'm looking forward to all the questions.


Falls Church, Va.: Isn't "XX Files" a bit of a throwback to the days when Style was the "For And About women" section? In 2008, do we really want to present women's voices as something Other -- something separate from "normal" voices -- to be segregated and literally put in the back of the magazine?

Sandra Beasley: Sandy can answer this on behalf of the Post's editorial perspective; I can only offer my personal take.

This question comes up all the time in the creative writing world -- on my "women's poetics" listserv, or when people are putting together curriculum that ties into "womens's studies," or when an anthology is published that groups by gender.

But when you're launching a feature (or a class, or a book), you need some type of hook -- some type of limiting factor. Otherwise just reading submissions would be a full-time job. Creating the "XX Files" as a place for the female perspective, with no other fixed requirements at this time, gives the Post the widest possible opportunity to consider and present interesting stories, while still giving the column shape and coherence.

It's our job, as the contributors, to make sure that the stories we tell don't settle for cliches of "girly" subjects. But that's not an issue of feminism; that's an issue of good writing. Frankly, I think that right now, in the initial stages, it's natural that the gendered identity of the column is what's noticeable. But over time, I hope that that fades, and it's just the column you turn to for a fresh, engaging story.


Sandy Fernandez: I can definitely add to that. The space taken up by "XX Files" has been dedicated to a woman writer -- and a fabulous one, IMHO -- for the last 13 years, with little fanfare. By inviting submissions, I actually think we are opening it up to more perspectives, rather than limiting it.


Arlington, Va.: Great column, I enjoyed it! I'm looking forward to reading more from Ms. Beasley in the new "XX Files."

Sandy Fernandez: Sandra will, I have my way, be contributing again -- and often. Glad y'all liked her first piece.


Washington, D.C.: Is it just me, or does the "XX Files" read a bit like those old "Women's Sections" I've read that newspapers used to have? The ghetto's updated for the times, but it's still a ghetto.

Sandy Fernandez: I think there is a limiting aspect to "ghetto" that isn't there for "XX Files." In the olden days, they said the Style section was a ghetto because it was the *only* place in the paper that published women, or published on topics of interest to women. These days, we welcome women in all sections of the magazine. Except for Gene's page -- that's strictly a Gene ghetto.


Arlington, Va.: Have you run into any of the other ladies from the sauna outside the Embassy? Any awkward glances? Particularly from the one who hit you with the smelly branch?

Sandra Beasley: Tragically, we have not seen each other since. No Christmas cards...no book club. It's as if (*sniff*) our naked time meant nothing to them.


Washington, D.C.: Are you still considering other contributors? I have a friend who has a weekly column, Smart Mouth, which I adore, and would love to see some of her work in the Post. She works for the Dayton Daily News (Cox ownership). I'd be happy to e-mail you samples or links.

Sandy Fernandez: We are considering other contributors, and will be for the foreseeable future. Just a few rules: The piece has to be about 800 words, it has to be 100 percent true and unpublished (including online), and we're only accepting completed manuscripts, not pitches. Aside from that, we're open to quite a bit.


Wilmington, Del.: What a wonderful column! I'm wondering when in your life you realized that everyone around you was bluffing just as much as you. Your column should certainly be of comfort to those who haven't yet figured this out.

Sandra Beasley: I think everyone has a critical moment in high school, then college, when you look around and realize everyone is afriad to let on that they don't know it all. This was my first glimpse of that in the professional world. My father passed on the tradition of bluffing--he's both military and a lawyer, two fields where projecting confidence at all times is crucial.

It got us lost sometimes, on road trips.


Clarendon, Va.: Ms. Beasley, I very much enjoyed your column. However, as one of the roughly 300,000 lawyers in the Metro D.C. area, I'm quite offended you can't remember the name of all of our very important law firms. On a wholly unrelated note, where did you all come up with the name and idea for these columns? Any hints as to future topics?

Sandra Beasley: I've now enrolled in a comprehensive course, which uses a model first developed for speed-reading and training Jeopardy contestants. It will take two weeks to complete. I expect to know all 300,000 lawyers by name, age, and astrological sign, by the end of July.

That's a lie. I'm at a southern writing conference. The next two weeks will be talking poetry, gossiping about other writers, and sipping bourbon as we rock in white wicker chairs on a veranda.

But I'm coming back home to a lawyer boyfriend, a lawyer father, and two lawyer best friends. So that's 4 down, 299, 996 to go.


From the 22182: I think I can take a lot of credit for this article. You see, in addition to being in a creative writing class with Sandra in Middle School, I also drove her to school on multiple occasions without which she probably would have never graduated, or set out on this amazing career. As you can see from my lack of any coherent sense for grammar, punctuation or spelling, I was able to set a really bad example for Sandra early on, so that she knew exactly what not to do.

As someone who now works in the diplomatic world (that creative writing class did teach me one thing, I shouldn't do it) we all have a lot of these kinds of stories, but none of us would ever be able to write them quite as well. Congratulations.

Great article, and keep 'em coming! ( psst. Sandy, you should definitely have Sandra write again!)-- Grey

Sandra Beasley: * laughing * Okay, I have old friends coming out of the woodwork. Thanks for all those rides to school, Grey!

And now's the time to let you know: ALL my friends had crushes on you. HUGE crushes.

In an earlier Q someone asked about ideas for future columns. There are a few already in the pipeline; it helped, in these first few, that these were stories I'd told at parties. I'd already worked out the kinks of which details worked, which were funny, which were clutter.

One thing I'm realizing is that stories need to gestate, to sit, before I'm ready to write about them. MY POV on something the day after it happened is very different from my POV a month later. I don't know how Jeanne Marie Laskas did it! (And I'm a big fan of hers, by the way. It's an honor to follow her, and a VERY big set of shoes to fill. Um...not that she has big feet, per se.)

One of the interesting challenges, for me, is figuring out which narratives work best as a 750-word essay, and which will show up in poems or more "creative" writing. Each style uses a different set of muscles.


Washington, D.C.: Did you manage to pick out the reindeer carpaccio?

Sandra Beasley: This is a whole other column (okay, it's fun saying that), but I have a ridiculous number of food allergies. So in big catered situations I am very, very limited in what I can try. And oddly enough, I had not had reindeer before and therefore, was not feeling adventurous.

My learning curve for trying new foods is very slow...there are certain foods that never seem essential to try. especially when the side effect might be death. I didn't have mushrooms or oysters, for example, until I was 22.

So if I remember correctly, my diet for that evening consisted entirely of smoked salmon and vodka. The keynote speaker made fun of me for it.


Sandy Fernandez: On the moniker: Tom Shroder, the editor of the magazine, talked a bit about the origins of the name in his note last week. The inspiration was part chromosome, part hit TV show. But I spoke to a writing class last night and one of the students seemed to think it was a play on X-rated, which I thought maybe gave us more credit for spiciness than we deserve.


Arlington, Va.: Ms. Beasley, I thoroughly enjoyed your essay and look forward to more from you and other contributors. Once you walked in the sauna, did you even consider running back into the locker room to get a towel or by that point was it just too late? I thought your piece did a great job of walking us through how it felt at that moment. I am still laughing about it today. Thanks!

Sandra Beasley: I was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, where "streaking the Lawn" is a big rite of passage. The year I actually lived on the Lawn, I saw an average of 3-4 pass by my door, naked, per night. So I tried to rationalize my little...debut...as an echo of UVA days.

There was no going back.


Great Falls, Va.: I guess being naked made you the most uncomfortable person in that sauna. But I'd have to think the lady in pearls, having been made to physically assault a naked woman with a tree limb, would be feeling a wee bit out of her comfort zone, too. What was the mood like as everyone was heading back upstairs?

Sandra Beasley: Our response was a big, huge, sigh of relief. Never in my life have I seen a group so happy to be headed into a discussion of nuclear waste disposal.

I'd be curious too know how the nice lady in pearls described her evening when she got home. Maybe she thought it was relaxing. Maybe she has coworkers she'd like to hit with a branch, and this was a vicarious satisfaction?

To be fair, there were some benefits: my skin was unusually glowy for the rest of that week. The oil was fragrant. I would go back, if given the opportunity. I would just insist that I be accompanied by the constituents of a local nudist colony, so we'd all know what the deal was going in.


Iwakuni, Japan: Sandra...so you think you've won?

Sandra Beasley: I always win. Sometimes I win at checkers, though, when the world is playing chess. It's the world's fault for making the boards look exactly the same.


Re: From the 22182: This is easily the best thing that has ever happened to me. "And now's the time to let you know: ALL my friends had crushes on you. HUGE crushes." My wife will be so pleased.

Sandra Beasley: Aw, damn. There's always a wife.

You're a lucky woman, Grey's wife!


Sandy Fernandez: Somebody asked about upcoming topics. We've been lucky to get all kinds of great submissions, from a story about someone spending way too much on vet care for her guinea pig; to a piece about a crazy, baby-makes-two healthcare wrangle; to a piece by one of my favorite Latina writers on the day her therapist called--to ask for advice because her housekeeper had been picked up by la migra. (To which Michele, a 4th-generation American, said, wha?)


Syracuse, N.Y.: Congratulations on your very entertaining column! My husband and I enjoyed it very much and it reminded us of starting out years ago and various on-the-job errors. Your sense of humor is very unique; how do you balance it in the more serious medium of your poetry? We are looking around for your book now.

Sandra Beasley: You know, I can't intentionally put humor in poems. It either emerges organically, or it doesn't. Definitely writing in a more surreal vein helps. I have a whole poem about capybaras, which are a naturally funny animal. As the poem notes, their hind legs are longer than their forelegs; so they are, in a sense, travelling eternally downhill.

I was just sitting here, remembering errors of old. Once I was at Rita Dove's house (the former poet laureate) for a workshop. I was in her living room, and I spotted a red, sculpted, metal form in the corner, on her floor.

"What is this?" I called out to her, nudging it with my foot. "A wastebasket?"

"Oh," she said, as I kicked it again, "that's my Glamour Woman of the Year Award."

I find that the more important the person I'm around, the bigger embarassment I usually manage to cause myself.

The book is out and about! You can use that sweet sweet convenient axis of evil known as Amazon. But if you're in DC, the wonderful indie bookstores--Olsson's at Dupont, Politics & Prose--have it on their shelves.


Sandy Fernandez: Is capybara the new platypus? Hmmm.


Boston: I'll look forward to more essays as this column finds its feet. It's disquieting how many "women's true-life stories" seem to follow the script of "I tried this wacky thing that I wasn't very good at and knew nothing about, and jeez were there some embarrassing parts to the whole experience! But, tee hee, it all worked out in the end!" We all share these kinds of experiences, but for some reason they seldom get labeled as "men's true-lief stories."

Sandy Fernandez: As a veteran of women's magazines, I do get your point. But I also have to point out that I think those kinds of columns cross gender lines--I was just reading an old piece by Gene about harassing a restaurant PR person and getting his comeuppance. And that narrative--I do goofy things and what transpires--is a staple of observational humor.


Washington, D.C.: Soo... where do I buy your book? Are your poems as funny as you are?

Sandra Beasley: I don't know if I'm particularly funny, though I appreciate the compliment. I might be honest about embarassing things. Writing poetry slowly, surely, erodes your filter for withholding detail.

Which makes the people around me innocent bystanders, and my writing the big runaway train of truth. I freely admit that it's not fair to these poor, beloved people. I have a feeling future evenings out will be punctuated by "That's off the record!" My mother has already made me sign a non-disclosure agreement.

One other thing I should mention: not all my columns are funny. I'm glad they're not running back to back, because the variation in tone would be a bit drastic. I'm dying to see the column Sandy mentions about guinea pigs...we had a couple of those feral creatures in our house as well.


Sandra Beasley: About the Boston Q -- actually, I think there is a niche for books about men taking up new hobbies or attempting epic feats, ones that usually fall under the "manly" rubric, and failing miserably (but extrapolating Meaningful Life Lessons). Think of George Plimpton and his sports reporting, if you want to go historical. Or, in the contemporary world, look at books rather than magazines. I'm thinking of Todd Gallagher's book, Andy Roddick Beat Me with a Frying Pan. Which I confess, when my boyfriend firt mentioned, I thought was the tale of Roddick assaulting some poor innocent writer-type sent out to do an interview.


Sandy Fernandez: Looks like we're out of time, so Sandra and I are going to skeedaddle. Thanks for joining us, and keep checking out the column. We'd love to hear your opinions and are always open to submission at xxfiles@washpost.com. Cheers!


Sandra Beasley: My cup of coffee is way past cold and the owners of this little coffeeshop are getting restless, so I think I need to log out and plunge into the maelstrom of the Sewanee conference. Thanks to everyone who wrote in, and read the column. It's been a pleasure chatting with you!


Bethesda, Md.: Thanks for a very funny story ... Will XX publish women of all ages or will it be mostly 20 somethings?

It was just really refreshing to read Jeanne Marie who was married with a family and dealing with all that entails, especially next to GW's column which seems to draw the very older, sort of goofy guy type.

Sandy Fernandez: Oh, sorry -- I had to answer this late-breaker. Absolutely: We are open to all ages. Getting all kinds of diversity is imperative for the column.


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