We recently published Kim Magowan’s badass “Performance Review.”
Here, we ask her two questions about her story:
1) I love how searing this piece is — from the first sentence on, I was like “hell, yes!” I think a lot of women really internalize these conflicting expectations and, when we can’t live up to all of them, feel like we are failures when we have really been set up to fail. Is there a time where you have been set up to fail that might have sparked this piece?
Thanks, Cathy! And yes, I have a feeling a lot of women will relate to this one. The background for this piece is that I had just found out the college where I’ve been teaching for the last twenty years is planning to close, so those feelings of shock, grief, and outrage are part of the “stone soup” of the story. (I always visualize stories-in-progress as pots on the stove that a lot of random ingredients get tossed into, including whatever upset is currently churning through my brain). But beyond the immediate stress that leached into this piece, I do think women are (unfortunately, unfairly, outrageously) socialized to be extremely tough on ourselves. Perhaps I’m extrapolating; perhaps I’m just badly wired this way. Certainly I am the sort of person who believes the one tepid teaching evaluation in a stack of enthusiastic ones is the one that reveals the essential truth about me. And I’ve read that men tend to overestimate their skills and qualifications in resumes and job interviews, while women tend to lowball ours—we believe we are less qualified than we truly are. So all those feelings of anxiety, frustration, feeling the pressure to be perfect, and resenting that pressure, fed into this piece. It’s an angry story. “Searing” is a perfect description: the protagonist reminds me of those cartoons where people are so enraged they have steam coming out of their ears.
2) This ending is so powerful. The woman suddenly can’t manage something as “simple” as cooking bacon. It almost seems like a failure here, too, but when her son calls for her, she is “elsewhere, far beyond his grasp.” For me, that feels almost like a victory. How do you see this moment at the end for the woman?
Yes, exactly! Elvis has left the building! And at least how I was imagining her state of mind standing over the bacon pan, it’s not that she “fails” to cook bacon. She just (excuse my language) doesn’t give a crap anymore. Or, more accurately, she cares less, for once, about pleasing someone else (the child who likes her bacon to be chewy). Instead, she’s interested in the process of transformation. The bacon is turning into something else. In her eyes, it isn’t a failure (burnt bacon), it’s this fascinating something-else (obsidian-like). This might be over-thinking it—as I said, I wrote this story in a fit of pique!—but standing over the pan, she’s transforming too. She isn’t there any longer to serve other people, to be pleasing, nurturing, decorative, supportive, and flawless. Because of that, she eludes. I do see that ending as victorious! It’s a middle finger up.