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Contemplating “Natural”

June 14, 2012

Something stuck with me the last episode of HBO’s Girls. If you’re not already watching Girls, go do it now, it’s great.

A character, Tally, came into the show who had just recently found success after the death of her boyfriend by publishing a book about it. She is set up as the “arch-nemesis” of the main protagonist Hannah (who is also a writer) because she is apparently no good at writing but can get a book deal while Hannah remains agent-less and struggling.

While discussing her recent success to Hannah, Tally (who is pretty much made to be a character we hate) says to Hannah ink regards to their writing careers:

You know someone like you, you’re always really sweatin’ it, you know, really working at it and I really admire that effort to do something that is not maybe the most natural to you.

There’s that wonderfully hated word: natural. It’s the source of many inequalities in this world (thinking that women are naturally more bent to raising children than being in the workplace, that men are naturally more combative and less emotional than women, that people of color are naturally more violent, I could go on). And here, Hannah and Tally are discussing something so trivial, the naturalness of writing, something I think about quite often.

Hannah doing what writers do best. Sitting in front of the computer. Not yet writing.

For all intents and purposes I probably should not write. It doesn’t often feel so natural to me. Often I think I’m not the most effective or persuasive writer, though I’m working at it. Which leads me to wonder why oh why do we privilege the “natural” so much? Why is it such an insult to Hannah to tell her writing is not natural for her. And why do we continue to rely on what we see as “natural” to shape how we interact with people and our world?

In a lot of respects, with environmental efforts, I can see how helpful this is. It’s not natural at all to genetically modify seeds so that they can’t reproduce Monsanto (and thus throw off an entire developed ecosystem of crop raising). And it’s not very natural to devote huge swaths of arable land to producing corn or soy. Then again, many human interventions in the actual natural world often feel quite unnatural (and mostly deleterious).

But with people I’m starting to wonder whether the word natural even belongs in our vocabulary. For one thing, it means nothing to the FDA, and is therefore useless on packaging, except to fool unsuspecting shoppers. And for another, it serves to group and to confine and to limit and to prescribe things onto people that they should/shouldn’t/are/aren’t/etc. And I see no reason to confine people (in all their wonderful diversity) to scripts that are written by others and then called natural until we can’t even tell the difference anymore.

So the next time you don’t try something because you think it might not be “your thing” or it doesn’t come so easy to you, I urge you to keep at it. This being written by a person who has almost all but given up ever thinking learning Javascript is possible. But I’ll learn it eventually if I need to/want to or anything in between, even if I’m fairly certain I’m not naturally inclined to do so. Silly word.

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