Instructions for dancing: My year with Ellen Willis
There are things that date cultural critic Ellen Willis’s 1992 essay collection No More Nice Girls — not the least of which being the physical attributes of my own copy, a forlorn and musty-smelling library discard. Over the course of its twenty-seven feminist-minded pieces (most of which were written in the 80s, and quite a few of which originally appeared in the Village Voice, where Willis wrote for many years) she complains about Reagan, engages in a back-and-forth with Betty Friedan, bemoans feminists’ lack of sex-positivity, and refrains almost entirely from even mentioning queer perspectives — the last of which is hard to imagine from anyone who calls themselves a radical feminist (as Willis most certainly did) today. And yet — for reasons both personal and political — I can’t think of any one writer who influenced my thinking over the past year more than Ellen Willis.
I remember very vividly this past spring, sitting in front of my computer at my desk job, reading dispatches from “Sex, Hope and Rock ‘n’ Roll,” a conference celebrating the release of Out of the Vinyl Deeps, a collection of Willis’s music criticism. It was a weird, transitional moment for me: I still couldn’t tell if it was an end or a beginning. My full-time contract job was coming to a close, and a decent number of freelance opportunities were coming my way, but I still wasn’t sure what any of it amounted to — I imagined myself ending up, a few months later, in a nearly identical job, staring at an identical computer screen, feeling an identical sense of psychic death. But something about this passage from music writer Daphne Carr’s account of organizing the conference stirred me; it seemed to point down a more difficult but infinitely more exciting way of living:
I had moved from dead-end Youngstown to New York City at 18 to find a world to support my desire to be an intellect and activist. When it didn’t present itself the way it did to Dylan in 1961, I grew dismayed, only later realizing I had to make that world if I wanted to live in it.