Labor of Love Author Moira Weigel On Writing and Dating in the Digital Age

  Moira Weigel

Moira Weigel

By Lindsey Wojcik

Do not swipe left.

If that message were sent to someone living in the early 1900s, they’d be hard pressed to understand what it meant. However, with the advent of Tinder, “swiping left” has become a gesture of rejection. The app, as many are aware, is a tool that people use to meet and connect with other people in hopes of sparking a romantic relationship. Of course, sometimes Tinder and apps and websites like it—OkCupid, Match.com, and Hinge, for example—are used for more casual meet ups, known as hangouts or hookups.

Although a 2013 New York Times article argued that “hookups” and casual “hangouts” replaced the ritual of the date, and ultimately served as the end of courtship, author Moira Weigel was skeptical. So she decided to dig deeper to uncover and explore the evolution of dating, which she notes Americans did not start doing until about 1900, in her debut book Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating.

Weigel, who will appear at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass., on May 23, recently discussed with me who has—and continues to—influence her work, how her education at Yale helped her write the book, and what she was surprised to learn about dating.

Lindsey Wojcik: What enticed you about being a writer? Did you always want to write or did something specific inspire you to pursue it?

Moira Weigel: I have wanted to be a writer for longer than I can remember. My grandmother, who often looked after me when I was growing up, always reminds me that all I ever wanted to do together was “enact plays,” which involved making up elaborate dramas with half a dozen different roles for each of us to perform in front of an invisible audience. She was patient. I also always loved to read, and my love of reading and my desire to write fueled each other. In first and second grade, I got obsessed with The Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and through them I became obsessed with other historical fiction. I started writing a historical novel about a seven- or eight-year-old girl living through the Revolutionary War. It had twenty-one chapters. After that, I tried writing science fiction and fantasy. By age 11 or 12, I had somehow progressed to grim little psychological realist stories.

All of which is to say, I may not have been the coolest kid in my elementary school. I think I was pretty eccentric, in retrospect. But reading and writing became ways to satisfy my curiosity about my world and to invent new ones. I am a person who gets intensely excited about and interested in new experiences—probably to a fault. And I can be willful, thinking that I can make things the way I want them to be if I am only dogged enough about it. Writing fiction may be a rare human context in which both of those qualities help. 

LW: Who influenced you early on and who continues to be a source of inspiration?

MW: When I was a kid, I was really into history and some sci-fi and fantasy, as I mentioned. In high school, I fell in love with poetry—reading it, memorizing it, and writing it. Jorie Graham, who taught me in college, was and remains one of my greatest inspirations. She treated poems with the seriousness of spells—or prayers. She deeply believed that each word mattered. She showed me how choosing an em-dash instead of a semicolon, say, could totally change the entire mood of a sentence. She showed me how repeating a word enough times could convey the entire emotional life and the inner conflict of a character, or how making the line break in the right place could make your reader catch her breath. Most importantly, she taught us to be precise. These were the George W. Bush years, when it seemed as if political language was becoming more and more empty, and that emptiness was being used to spread lies and to disclaim responsibility for violence. Jorie showed us that using language accurately was not only a key to being an original writer: It was an ethical act.

Now, though, I mostly write prose. The great intellectual discovery of my twenties was feminism; and particularly feminist theorists of the 1970s and 1980s. Some of them may have inspired me more at the level of ideas than of style. Thinkers like Silvia Federici, Angela Davis, and bell hooks—I can divide my life into before and after I read them. They helped me discover my own life experience as legitimate subject matter—helped me see that experiences I had previously dismissed as banal were in fact interesting, or at least worth contemplating.

Recently I have been reading a lot of writers, who use the flexibility of the essay form to move between private experience and more abstract ideas, or who blur the boundaries—as they say—between autobiography and fiction. Many are female, but not all! Roland Barthes was a great master of this; I think my friend Amit Chaudhuri is now. Last year, I read all of Elena Ferrante’s books and Lucia Berlin’s stories in A Manual For Cleaning Women and adored both—albeit in different ways. I admire Chris Kraus a lot for the mad inventiveness of her books, for their emotional and psychological insight, and their wit. (Everyone talks about I Love Dick, but I think my favorite of hers may be Aliens and Anorexia.) The same goes for Maggie Nelson’s wonderful books The Argonauts and The Red Parts. I was quite delighted to discover Chloe Caldwell and Jenny Zhang, last year, two sharp and funny writers who manage to create such an immediate sense of intimacy with their readers, through their tones of voice and through their casual use of reference. Some of the my favorite poets who I return to have this warmth—achieving intimacy through a kind of off-handedness. I’m thinking of Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Eileen Myles. Though I would not call her warm, Emily Dickinson has the same quality of building a universe through tiny characters at hand. The assumption that you know their mythology invites you in.

Gone Girl was one of the most gripping things I have read recently, in terms of thinking about gender dynamics. I read the book after seeing the movie, knowing the major plot twist, and was still completely gripped. I recently re-watched “Rosemary's Baby” and was thinking about it in this light too: so much about femininity and motherhood are condensed in it. And on television I have absolutely loved the last two seasons of “Orange Is the New Black,” as it has let itself let go of the outside world and simply become an observational drama about this world of women. 

Cinema is also a great inspiration to me. I’d like to move between sentences and paragraphs the way a director like Robert Bresson cuts between shots. I’d like to create the emotional intensity that a director like Chantal Akerman or Tsai Ming-liang can, just by placing a camera in the exact right place, and then leaving it there. Cinema is an art of time. The idea of creating a literary work that can get a reader to live with it, in it, with the senses as well as the mind, in the same way that a film invites us to—that may be my greatest aspiration. 

LW: During your career, you have focused on gender, media, and culture. What about those topics intrigued you?

MW: Those are some very broad nouns I throw around to try to make some sense of what I am doing. I think at the broadest level I am interested in the forms that we, as humans, construct to let us think and interact. And, since we are always living in a world built by others, the forms that we inherit, that frame our experience without our even knowing it. Gender is one of them.

LW: Have you noticed any significant cultural shifts in gender, feminism, media, or film since you started writing about it?  

MW: Definitely. I think that the conversations around gender and sexuality that are being had, both at the margins of academia and in more mainstream pop culture, are much richer than they were even five years ago. I am not a techno-utopian, but I do think that the Internet has allowed a far more diverse group of voices to be heard, and created an invaluable sense of community toward which to direct our conversations. 

LW: What inspired Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating?

MW: There are two answers, and they’re related: Labor of Love grew out of a friendship with a classmate from graduate school. Meeting Mal Ahern was a cosmic gift to me, because our closeness gave me permission to take the kinds of everyday concerns we discussed together seriously and to dignify them with writing. Before Mal, it had never occurred to me that I could write about love or sex or shame or loneliness—that those would interest anyone. Then I realized that if they were of interest to someone as brilliant as she was, they might actually be interesting. We also collaborated directly on several essays. My book grew directly out of that collaboration.

In terms of the subject matter, I became fascinated by “dating” because I was reading about it all the time and even doing it but had no idea what it was. I realized that it might be a way in to investigate a lot of themes about gender roles and relations. I also hoped that it would help me understand my desires—the difference between what I wanted and what I thought I was supposed to want, questions that, though they sound so basic, I think women are often encouraged to defer. It did.

LW: How did your academic pursuits as a PhD student in the Comparative Literature and Film and Media studies departments at Yale help with the writing process for this book?

MW: My training as an academic helped in a lot of ways. It has taught me to do research, how to digest huge amounts of material, and how to root around in archives. And I would like to think that it has taught me to be skeptical and rigorous in how I post my questions and careful in how I make my arguments. Of course, when writing a non-academic book that can also be a liability. When presenting academic research you can assume that your audience is already interested and fairly informed about your subject. As a writer, it’s pretty much the opposite; you have to lure them in. 

LW: What specific aspects of the dating culture did you want to tackle in the book?

MW: I was interested in using dating to think about gender roles and how they have or have not changed over time. I thought of dating as a theater where we play ourselves, or rather, the version of ourselves that we think would be desirable. I was interested in this vulnerability that basically every human has—wanting, in some way, to love and be loved. And the specific forms that that yearning or feeling might take in different situations. And how we try to protect ourselves against it. 

LW: What were you surprised to find out about the history of sex and romance during your research?

MW: So many things! The great joy of working on this book was that total strangers were constantly telling me about the intimate details of their lives and romantic histories. And history is always so surprising. That is part of why it is politicizing or even radicalizing, I think. The past is always so much stranger, and the present so much more contingent, than it seems. One thing that surprised me to learn was that when men and women first started going out in public—looking for partners without family supervision—it was thought to be a kind of prostitution, and women were arrested for it. It reveals so much about the dynamics that still underpin a lot of straight dating: the idea that it is some kind of transaction, and perhaps that it is work for women and recreation for men. 

I was also stunned to learn that the idea that women have a “biological clock” that they should always keep in mind when looking for love only dates back to the late 1970s or 1980s. Finally, a fact I like to throw at the Boomers I still think of as grown ups: For all the panic about “hookup culture,” sociologists have shown that our generation is in fact less promiscuous than theirs was.

LW: Now that you have your first book under your belt, what’s next for you?

MW: Well first things first: I have to finish my dissertation, which my advisors at Yale have very kindly been patient about, while I worked on Labor of Love, but they are going to be expecting it soon. Then I hope to write another book! I have about 30,000 words of a novel I think about returning to, which is inspired by experiences I had living in China several years ago. And I have the beginnings of an idea for another nonfiction book, which I have been starting to explore in my journalism—my essays for The Guardian and The New Republic, among other places.

LW: What’s your advice for up-and-coming writers of all kinds?

MW: This may sound trite, but I think it is true: The most important thing is to find the subject that feels completely urgent to you. “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader,” Robert Frost said. I think we could say the same thing about many emotions: excitement, the sense of transformation. You need to write about the thing you need to write about. In my experience, part of finding the subject that feels vital to you is finding the community of people who share your questions, people you can converse with. They may be people you know already; they may be the ghosts of writers past. But it seems essential to have invisible listeners to write toward.

Then, of course, comes the grunt work. Even with your imagined listeners in place, writing rarely feels as easy, for me anyway, as a casual conversation. I have often told my students: Flow is not usually an experience you have as a writer. Flow is an experience you work to create for your reader. But if you are moving toward solving a vital question, and finding the most precise and truthful ways to articulate what is vital to you, that process will be its own reward.

To learn more about Moira Weigel, visit her official website, like her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter @moiragweigel.

The Writer’s Bone Interviews Archive