In Defense of Platform

August 11, 2017 § 28 Comments

He’s got 11.5K followers

I heard it yesterday, and I’ve heard it before. At conferences. In workshops. In podcast interviews. Always from a reasonably famous, multiply published writer. The workshop leader. The big visiting cheese.

“Don’t even think about platform.”
“Don’t worry about platform.”
“F*ck platform.”

I know they genuinely want what’s best for their students. They want us to focus on words, not clicks. Want us to make great work before thinking about the market, not let what’s selling this week influence the book of our heart.

They are wrong.

They are näive, out-of-touch, factually incorrect and a little bit condescending. Darling little writers–first make a book! Don’t put the cart before the horse!

Of course we want to write a good book. That’s why we paid to take your class. But you know why else we paid to be here? Because we’re hoping (mostly in vain) that you will slam down your pencil, announce “this is the greatest work I’ve ever seen!” then end class immediately and lead us by the hand directly into your agent’s office, shouting “Marlene! You gotta rep this one!”

That’s not going to happen.

You know what else isn’t going to happen? My memoir won’t be magically plucked from slush by an agent who says, “Nobody knows who you are, but you’re so brilliant, don’t even worry about it! Sure, the memoir market is glutted right now, but you–you’re totally different than every other author and the glistening diamonds of your words will bring the world to your door!”

What I see on #MSWL–that’s Manuscript Wish List for those who scorn hashtags–and on websites and in interviews is agent after agent after agent looking for “Memoir/self-help with strong platform.” Sometimes they switch it up: “Memoir/self-help with existing platform.” Novelists have it a bit easier–it’s more about the words, but platform doesn’t hurt. Platform can be why the agent requests the full manuscript instead of saying no to the query, because they know you on Twitter and you’ve been cool. Platform doesn’t get you the book deal (famous-person books are a different category), but it can get you in the door.

The social-media slammers genuinely don’t understand social media. Now, I’ve got a horse in this race–I am, as you probably know, Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. I give talks on using social media to practice writing craft. I am invested. But as a person who cares about effective and genuine social media, I also know this:

Platform is not clicks, or follower numbers, or multiple posts a day, or going viral.

Platform is the ability to directly connect with potential book buyers. And my wonderful, brilliant, famous teachers, there’s a reason you don’t think much about platform:

You’re already standing on it.

Platform = fame+genuine, personal connection. That notable book award? The reviews you got in the New York Times? Your Oscar nomination? The conference I just paid $900 to hear you speak at? Your adoring, book-purchasing, word-of-mouth-generating students across the country? That’s platform.

Platform is getting your name out there, yes, but it’s also about genuinely connecting with other people. Social media helps build supportive writing communities. There’s YA Twitter and #5AMWritersClub Twitter and Black Twitter. Places we can hear our idols speak for free, even ask them questions about their work. Places we can meet future readers, people who enjoy interacting with us and will later evangelize for our books. Places we can share our ideas and be challenged, and find out who else is interested in what we have to say.

Social media can waste our writing time, sure. But we can also use it to practice and improve. Write image-inspired micro-essays on Instagram. Editorials on Facebook–Anne Lamott’s doing pretty well there. Rock Tumblr like Roxane Gay. Use Twitter to make every word count, pack endless meaning into a single sentence, and take that craft back to our essays and stories and poems.

My brilliant and beloved platform-hating teachers already have books out in the world, published before Twitter existed. Before agents counted followers before offering representation. My teachers’ publishers are already invested in them, so it’s easy to tell a room of baby writers, “Publicity is the publisher’s job! Not the writer’s!”

Not any more.

I’m in a memoirists’ group on Facebook. More than 100 of the members have traditionally published books in the last five years. They’re doing just as much self-promotion, book-tour-arranging, press-release-writing and word-of-mouth-creating as the self-publishers. They have to, so their sales will justify book #2.

Would I like to be purely writing, unsullied by social media? Sure. It would save a bunch of time. I genuinely enjoy Instagram and blogging here, but yeah, there’s a sense of duty in some of my “platform-building.” But the chances of my being taken on by an agent who is blinded by the beauty of my creative nonfiction and cares not at all for the clickbait of this world is somewhere between being struck by lightning and winning a scratch-off for more than $50.

So please, dear famous teachers: Stop bashing platform. The way we build it is different than the way you did. Not easier, not harder–just different. And we are expected to do it in order to begin to approach the success you’ve already earned, the success that means you don’t have to be on Twitter.

If you want to walk me into your agent’s office, I’m up for it. I’m writing the best book I can write and practicing my craft and protecting my time and I am ready when you are. But until then, pass the hammer, because I’ve got platform to build.

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Allison K Williams is teaching Writing Better With Social Media at the Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference in Lancaster, PA Sept 8-10.

Anxiety and Public Reading

August 4, 2017 § 19 Comments

Profile_KOBy Katrina Otuonye

I took part in a reading with The Porch Writers’ Collective in Nashville last week, and I read for about 10 minutes from a collection of nonfiction I’m working on. I think it went well, even though I was a little nervous, though a bit less than usual. Practice does actually make perfect. But the first couple paragraphs, getting over the dry mouth, mentally smoothing over the shakiness in my voice, my little animal brain kicked in, the one that always says, “What are you doing?”

The voice comes from a little preppy version of me, in a pleated skirt and my hair up, in a bow. She sits cross-legged on my shoulder, filing her nails. I’ve been meditating and going to therapy to help with my anxiety and latent feelings of not-good-enough-ness that have followed me around for nearly 20 years now (thanks, middle school). Before, that voice was usually buried deep, deep down and now she’s emerged. This is bad, because she’s a bitch. This is also very good because now she’s shown herself, so I can crush her.

All of this is happening while I’m reading my work, which I’m rather proud of. I’m proud of my ridiculous memory and that I get to write about my experiences. I’m proud that I’m a damn good writer, that I got to read my work. I plan to keep sending out my writing and publish my book.

But in that present moment, licking my lips, reading my work, little preppy me speaks up. She says, “You’re too nervous. You’re never going to finish. This isn’t going to work. You should stop right now and walk out the door.” I actually pictured myself gathering my papers and dashing out. I didn’t speak to the voice, I know that in some twisted way, this voice is attempting to protect me. It’s just that we all so easily have these little spoken or unspoken worries circling all day every day, whether or not they’re fully acknowledged.

I keep saying little because that’s what these worries are—they’re diminutive, but powerful. They can’t take over unless you let them. I keep saying you, but really I mean I. I mean me. They are the imagined voices of the people that don’t care all that much about me, but still sort of exist in my orbit. I care way too much about those people. I’m working on it.

In 2014, Lupita Nyong’o gave a speech at Essence’s Black Women in Hollywood event, about representation and her hopes and dreams when she was younger, not of being a great actress, but of having lighter skin. Even as she started to accept herself, started to become more comfortable with who she is, she said, the hardest part was allowing herself that acceptance because, “I had begun to enjoy the seduction of inadequacy.” Sometimes it seems easier to think, “woe is me” and give yourself permission to stop trying. It can feel better to place yourself in the hole first, at the very bottom, where you believe everyone else will put you anyway.

In relationships, or the confusing situations I keep finding myself in, it’s the voice that says, “Well of course he ghosted you, why did you think he would text you back, what about you made you think that he would show up?” It is a sad and dangerous hole, and I can tell you your life will be 1000 times easier—my life is easier—when I stopped trying to analyze and police the motives of others in an attempt to apply the unknowable and uninteresting to my sense of self-worth. It has no bearing. This feeling that we’re not quite good enough, that I am not enough, it keeps us in the dark. It keeps us from loving fully and honestly. It keeps us from being vulnerable, from being ourselves, from honoring our values, feelings and instincts. Listen to your better angels. They’ll always steer you in the right direction.

So while I was still reading, I had a little smile on my face as I thought, screw that, I’m not leaving. I just started. And the little me went away, because I moved forward. Because often the people who don’t have my back (real people, not my damaged subconscious) are playing small and trying to bring me down because they don’t like the sight of me striving, writing, editing, revising. At the reading, I was too focused on telling my story to pay her any mind. I was still nervous, I still tripped over a word or two and changed a couple phrases on the fly, but it was me and it was my work. I did it, and it was good, and I knew exactly what I was doing.
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Katrina Otuonye is a writer and editor from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She holds a BA from the University of Tennessee and an MFA from Chatham University. Katrina’s work has appeared in publications such as Tarpaulin Sky PressLitro MagazineCrab Orchard Review, and The Toast, among others. She’s currently retweeting to her heart’s content @katrinaotuonye, and writing a memoir and a collection of creative nonfiction. You can find more of her work at katrinaotuonye.com.

 

Haiku Series: On Waiting for Acceptance

August 2, 2017 § 13 Comments

CarlaBy Carla Sameth

Sunlight sings birds float
Splatting against my window
Draw curtain, no more

Me: stare computer
Like moth drawn to blinking light
Nothing found inbox

Green giants sway languid
Bold trees unafraid sweep sky
Writer waits for “yes”

Sorry not for us
Wonder: then who am I for?
”No” writer splats hard

Lives for burst of “yes”
Sad wish for public reward
Facebook posts Twitter tweets

Trees stand still waiting
You love me as is
Breeze soothes your warm hands

Fingers remember
Writer doesn’t need label
But words need a home

Striving for answer
Claim we are worth something more
Write: I am enough
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Carla Sameth has an MFA in Creative Writing (Latin America) from Queens University. Her work has appeared in several anthologies and publications such as Brain, Child; Full Grown People; Mutha Magazine; Longreads, Narratively; Tikkun; Angels Flight Literary West; Pasadena Weekly; Entropy, Hometown Pasadena and La Bloga. Carla was selected as fall 2016 PEN In The Community Teaching Artist, and was recently awarded a Poet Fellowship with the Martha’s Vineyard Institute for Creative Writing. She teaches at the Los Angeles Writing Project (LAWP), Secondary Writing Institute at CSULA.  She also teaches creative writing to incarcerated youth through WriteGirl. She is a member of the Pasadena Rose Poets, and presented as part of their first annual “Poetry Within Reach” series via an NEA grant in summer 2016.  Previously she “brought home the oatmeal” as a single mom, running her PR firm, iMinds PR.

Writing Despite the Obstacles

July 19, 2017 § 22 Comments

avk_headshot--hair_loose (1)By Ann V. Klotz

How much do I really want to write this summer?

In early June, I finish an amazing on-line course with the incomparable Joelle Fraser in which I write faithfully every single day for ten weeks. The content of my memoir grows substantially. I write about my family’s century-long love affair with a tiny resort community in the Allegheny Mountains. I write about losing my brother one summer long ago, about creating a summer theatre program with my husband and then ending that program in that same time.  I write about my mom’s death and how I still expect her to be on the porch when I arrive.  I write and write. I struggle some with tension and conflict, try to set up more obstacles. Once school finishes, I’m going to take a stab at a real first draft; I’m going to use index cards to arrange what I have—three years plus a lifetime of material.  I will write every day.  By the end of the summer, which for the Head of a school means the first week of August, I’ll have a draft.  I tell my teacher and my classmates as if by voicing my intention I will make it so.

Late one June afternoon, I return home from school. My son, twelve for another few weeks, says, “Mom, by accident, I spilled some iced coffee on your laptop this morning, but I cleaned it up.”

“Okay,” I answer, distracted by my father-in-law’s ill health, my husband at his bedside in another state. I am preoccupied with schoolwork still undone, by what to make for dinner. It is several hours before I open the laptop.  The keyboard is sticky.  I wipe it with a damp cloth.  A moment later, I discover the shift key on the left doesn’t make a capital letter.  Puzzled, I tap repeatedly.  The letters cavort in a lowercase kick line. Like a trapped animal, gnawing on its own paw, I shift and over and over again, as if the act of repetition will suddenly remedy the problem.

I can’t make an appointment at the Apple store because I can’t shift in order to enter the capital letters of my laptop’s identification number. Suddenly, I discover there is another shift key on the right. Jubilation.  I make an appointment.  My son, worried now, accompanies me.  A few nights ago, I had dropped his phone on flagstones, shattering the screen.  The fast-talking young man warned us of dire possibilities; my son might lose all his pictures of his cat, might lose his high scores on various games, but in the end, the repair was uneventful.  Everything was fine.  With this in mind, I take my place at the genius bar feeling hopeful.  My kind tech helper appears.

Coffee in the keyboard?  His smile dims.  He offers to send it away for days and days; it will cost $500.  I might need a new computer; moisture isn’t a good thing.  A new computer is only $1200.   He smiles again, encouraging.

“I’m a writer,” I think.  “I’m traveling.  I can’t be without my laptop.  This is my month!  $500?  $1200?  At a moment when our expenses are already too high? No way.”  I droop.  We leave the shiny store.

“I’m sorry, Mom,” says my son.

I vanquish glum self-pity, reassure him that accidents happen. I phone my husband, guilty about bothering him with something as dumb as my keyboard while his father drifts in and out of consciousness.

He recommends rice, so we immerse the whole laptop in a rice soak, burying it deep in a baking dish.  In the morning, the left shift key remains broken, as is the control key.  I head to Pennsylvania to drop my son off at my sister’s, then drive back to Cleveland and fly to Washington, D.C. for a conference.  My father-in-law grows weaker, slips away.  I focus on how irritated I am with my computer.

In a bland hotel room in D.C., “I like writing by hand,” I tell myself, knowing it’s a lie.  I cry.  The shift key and grief.  I can’t untangle them.

I try to teach my fingers how to shift on the right.  It is the summer of 1975, and I am in Mrs. Romanofsky’s typing class at Lower Merion High School:  “A-S-D-F-space; J-K-L-semi-colon-space,” she intones, blonde hair curled tightly and sprayed in a bouffant up-do, an imposing creature towering over minions at typewriters.  My brother died later that summer, so I never finished the class, but I learned enough to trust my fingers without thinking about where they needed to go on a keyboard. I am fast and mostly accurate.  I crank out emails, letters to families, notes, first drafts quickly. But now, clumsy, I fumble, impatient with my errors, tense.

I ask my husband, home again, to look at the offending key.  He who can fix anything, especially computers, removes the key, cleans underneath with a toothpick, gets it to work, briefly, then declares it still broken.  Some things can’t be mended.  He offers ideas to try once get to Pennsylvania, to the house that is the center of my memoir.

For the past several years, in the middle of the night, my father-in-law would sometimes phone, frantic:  “Seth, Seth—“ he would cry, oblivious to the hour.  My patient husband would, long distance, soothe his dad, and solve the problem.  My broken key is not a desperate situation, merely an annoyance.

I adapt, revise my practice.  My computer automatically capitalizes the first letter of a new sentence and almost always makes ‘I’ capital, so that’s a gift. It is tempting to hold a grudge against the shift key, but this is my month.

Finally arriving in Pennsylvania for our fleeting summer, I take my laptop to the porch and begin.

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Ann V. Klotz is a writer in the early hours of the morning and the Headmistress of Laurel School during the rest of the day and night.  Her house is overrun with rescue dogs and tiny cats.  She is trying a “do it yourself MFA” in Creative Nonfiction by taking one online course after the next, ordering too many books to read about craft and too many memoirs to read in one lifetime, studying recently with Kate Hopper and Joelle Fraser, and taking a zen position about the loss of her shift key.

What Do You Love More?

July 18, 2017 § 105 Comments

Not even her best backbend

Before I was a writer, I was an acrobat. Not the kind that flips through the air–the kind who holds up other smaller, younger acrobats who look better in the same spandex costume. A “base.”

I loved it. I loved being the one who makes sure everyone is ready, calls the move, Hup!, then adjusts while the flyer holds still. Stay straight, tight and trusting. Don’t balance yourself, let me balance you.

I loved that I could lift men bigger than me and women in acrobat class who were also bigger than me and had spent years not letting anyone lift them because they felt “too heavy.” That I could grab someone the right size and move them through a basic routine right away, as long as they did exactly what I said. I got really good at giving directions, verbal cues, nudging with my toes, letting flyers know, I got you. You can trust me. You can fly.

My last and best partner was (and is) small and beautiful and flexible enough that even circus people admire her backbend and over-splits. A pleasure to lift, a joy to try new moves with. Between shows in Canada, we stood on a stretch of lawn next to a giant parking lot and worked on a new move, one that scared her, that she’d fallen out of before. “I’ve got you,” I said. “The only thing I can’t save is if you bend forward hard and fast–there’s not enough leverage to stop you–so use your hands if you start falling.”

She bent forward hard and fast and without her hands, and her head slammed into the ground. We got ice and a shady place to sit and she said, “I’m just so scared of that move. I want to do it, but…”

I said, “Well, when you decide you love doing the trick more than you love being scared of it, you’ll get it,” which was callous and hurtful, and she was indeed hurt, and unhappy for an hour until we did the show and our routine and my hands and feet told her again, I love you, I respect you, I’ve got you.

What I said was mean. It was also true. Acrobats must love the flight more than fearing injury or literal death. Not instead of fear–just more.

My writer buddy wants me to blog about going forward after bad feedback. About what it’s like to finally put out a piece you like, that your friends have given good criticism on and said “It’s ready,” and then receive literary magazine criticism so sharp and painful it makes you want to curl up and cry and never write again. Certainly, you never want to submit again. You may even start thinking that all the strangers who criticize and reject are right and the friends who read your work are only pacifying you, saying to each other behind your back, “We’d better not let her know how bad she really is.”

I think about writing on that topic, and I think about how many rejections I’ve gotten, and the painfulness of criticism not only by email and form letter and Submittable, but also in newspaper reviews of your self-written solo show, and to your face from people who are sober and sane but still need to say how much they dislike you. I remember that time I got yelled at on Dragon’s Den and cried and me being yelled at and crying made the network season promo and is still well-known enough in Canada that people come up to me on the street and say “Don’t let anyone shit on your dreams!” Or that time Howard Stern got an entire audience to stand up and boo me, personally, in my hometown. (Reality TV, good times!)

Why did I still perform? Why do I still submit work? Why do I write deeply personal essays and send them into the world to get back the stab of “Sorry this does not meet our needs at this time”?

Because I love being published more than I love protecting myself from being hurt. Not instead of–just more.

There are tricks to make it better. Every agent rejection after a request for manuscript pages gets a one-line “thanks for taking a look!” email. When I performed in theatres, I wrote paper thank-you notes to all reviewers regardless of number of stars. To even the guy who said my performance was meh, “Thank you for taking the time to share my show with your readers!” Writing back, saying thank you, I’m a person, makes me feel like a participant in the artistic dialogue, someone with differing taste instead of a victim of judgment.

And it does get easier. The more I submit, the more likely I am to feel a brief sting and move on, like brushing against the oven door. An hour later, I’ve forgotten. The more I submit, the less any one place feels like my “dream” venue or agent. The more likely I am to think, “Welp, sorry this wasn’t for you–who’s next on the list?”

In order to keep sending out work, I have to love being published more than I love not feeling shitty about rejection. Applying this idea to writers struggling with their own rejections is cold and callous and hurtful. I feel mean when I think it or say it. But it’s also the truth, and it’s a decision we all get to make:

Publication or not getting hurt feelings.

What do you love more?

 

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll be teaching a Self-Editing intensive and offering one-on-one feedback meetings at Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference, September 8-10 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Stylish Negotiations: How a Blind Writer Finds the Right Journals

July 14, 2017 § 11 Comments

Emily K. Micheal TEDx promo photo 9.2016By Emily K. Michael

Submission guidelines rarely make me angry. Because I seek publications that share my interests – ecology, feminism, disability, music – all the specifications can start to look the same. Most journals want a well-rounded submission, free from religious agendas, offensive stereotypes, and one-dimensional fables of inspiration.

When I find a publication that seems promising, I scroll through the journal’s “About” page and submission guidelines. Here’s where I can make some serious assessments. Journals lose my interest if they proclaim, “send us your best work” or “we only publish good poetry.” I won’t let my students use “good” and “bad” as standalone terms, so I hesitate to send my work to a journal that won’t express its own agenda in more vibrant language.

Among publications that promote the work of disabled writers, the guidelines evince a similar aesthetic. Here are excerpts from three journals committed to sharing the work of writers with disabilities:

“Writers with disabilities can submit poems on any topic. For topics unrelated to disability, [The Journal] will ask you to confirm that you have a disability upon acceptance. Non-disabled writers must submit work that relates in some way to disability.”

“Submissions may be either by an individual with a disability or anyone who is part of the community.”

“[The Journal] is a forum for people with disabilities to speak for ourselves. We hope that our allies will support this endeavor.”

These guidelines echo the common thread among disability-related publications: work by writers with disabilities or work about disability. While some journals open submissions to friends, caregivers, and other allies, others only want work by disabled people – presumably for a disabled audience.

The style of the guidelines matters. With lists of fussy rules and blocks of prescriptive reminders, a journal seems overbearing. When I answered a recent call for blind writers, the editor wrote to me, “Make sure to use plenty of vivid details.” I felt like a freshman in a creative writing class.

But perhaps I should have expected this kind of micromanagement. The guidelines for his publication read: “We want to hear first-person stories not merely about blindness, but about what it takes to survive and strive as a human. We want to establish a new venue for exploring direct experiences surrounding the often misunderstood and under-appreciated aspects of blindness.”

What fascinates me here are two concepts: striving “as a human” and “the under-appreciated aspects of blindness.” These phrases sound subtle alarms. Even before this editor reads my submission, I must prove myself “as a human.” This is a journal that wants human stories, not more-than-human, not nonhuman. It’s a journal devoted to personhood.

The “under-appreciated aspects of blindness” are the compensatory gifts of disability, cleverly disguised. In their very next paragraph, the guidelines instruct the writer: “The most important thing is that [the submission is] honest, unafraid, and rooted in an experience of visual impairment.” I put this line in conversation with the editor’s advice to “avoid talking about your diagnosis and focus on the experience.”

The editor wants blindness, but not my blindness. While I support the journal’s efforts to cast disabled people as more than their diagnoses, I don’t appreciate the reminders. If I choose to focus on medical details, that choice is not a shortcoming or a sign of my ignorance: it’s a rhetorical move with desired effects.

These guidelines are a reaction to a powerful threat hibernating in the presence of disabled artists – that we might dare to speak of our experiences without courage, that we might offer the nondisabled reader a few lines of fragmented, unpredictable reality. Against this threat, the guidelines erect new definitions: Our reality is now unreality. They won’t acknowledge our experiences or publish our work.

They want clean lines.

But the desire for clean, polished renderings of disability is not confined to nondisabled readers  – who receive plenty of blame for the bad attitudes we face each day. On another call for disabled poets, posted to social media, a writer asked, “What kind of poetry are you looking for?” And the editor offered a fabulous phrase:

“I don’t want microaggressions. I want good poetry.”

Now I know what the editor means: she doesn’t want poetry that whines or complains, poetry that fusses over the little irritations of each day. She wants something more than a poet’s note to herself – poems that would resonate with readers beyond the original writer.

But this statement erects a binary between “microaggressions” and “good poetry.” It’s as if the editor is not just critiquing submissions, but the inspiration for those submissions. As I look through my work, I should censor myself, interrogate each poem for a suitably elevated motivation. In forming the “good poetry” or the “courageous” depiction of vision loss required by these editors, I am supposed to rise above the everyday irritations of disability, distill my experiences into a fine, sparkling elixir.

In their syntax, these guidelines divide me from my sense of how writing transforms my experiences. I can summon up my exhaustion at the end of a long day of intrusive questions, my frustration with the pity of strangers who don’t bother to understand me, my loneliness and longing for other blind companions. The process of art may transform these feelings into something grander, something more transcendent. And it may not. Art begins with our mundanity.

As with the language of compensatory blessings, the editors avoid the word “inspiration.”  Perhaps they know that we’ve gotten hip to its real meaning. We recognize inspiration – the kind expected from stories of overcoming – as code for erasure.

But the unsuspecting blind writer can face other signs of erasure out in the open. A website called TheReImage offers a seemingly noble mission: “TheReImage will share stories focusing on all aspects of life. Each story will feature individuals with different degrees of vision loss, but rather than concentrating on that one aspect, we’re examining the emotions, feelings and experiences we share as humans.” Here is a website dedicated to stories of our shared humanity – doesn’t that sound wonderful? Finally, a publication that acknowledges disabled writers as people!

Again I see “as humans.” I am on edge.

In their submission guidelines, I find that stories should: “Provide a well balanced authentic perspective on living with vision loss. Focus the story on the human experience, not the vision loss. Promote public awareness and greater understanding of vision loss and the capabilities of people with vision loss. Be of interest to the sighted/general public.”

These guidelines hide a sinister contradiction. They encourage writers to offer a balanced, authentic perspective of “vision loss,” and they contrast this brand of authenticity with a “focus on vision loss.” So a story that focuses on disability, that explores some medical or anatomical concept, is therefore deemed inauthentic and unbalanced. Further down the page, The ReImage tells writers to, “Use the term ‘vision loss’ instead of blind or visually impaired,” and “Put the vision loss aspect in the background.”

Perhaps the most heartbreaking feature of these guidelines is the mandate: “Be of interest to the sighted/general public.” TheReImage wants to promote better stories of blindness, but not for a blind audience. They’re rallying against that dark threat again – the notion that we might dream of offering our own experiences, unfiltered through inspiration or courage. And they’re not just circumventing our stories, they’re actually renaming us.

Even though I have dozens of delightful experiences, I can’t write for TheReImage. I am resolutely a blind poet. Not a “writer with sight loss.”

These guidelines tell half a story, and it’s the half that many people want to hear. TheReImage claims to be giving us back our personhood – offering stories where the disability doesn’t overshadow the humanity. But in order to give us membership in their tribe, they must acknowledge that someone has taken it away. You can’t return a stolen vase if it hasn’t been stolen. So disability itself becomes the thief, and they conquer it with style.

TheReImage asks for balance and authenticity, yet it banishes the self-identified blind or visually impaired writer, forcing them to go by another name. What is authentic about having to rename oneself for  a “general/sighted public”?

These guidelines are not designed for my questions. They are not drafts but finalized decrees. I can’t place my trust in a one-sided conversation.

Editors, I am looking for dialogue, a mutual coming-to-terms. I am looking for textual empathy.

I have seen such empathy unfold in real time. In 2015, I responded to a call for women writers. The editors were creating a feminist anthology and seeking diverse and “differently abled” women. Because the project looked interesting, I told the editor that “differently abled” wasn’t a term that I as a disabled woman would choose for myself. I explained that disability wasn’t a dirty word and asked if she would include it in the call for submissions.

To my surprise, the editor immediately altered the language of the call and confessed her desire to use the appropriate term. She said, “It’s hard to know what’s preferred unless you’re in the group,” and I agreed. Ours was a brief exchange, a handful of comments and links shared on Facebook, but it represented a commitment to dialogue.

This commitment to negotiation is what’s missing from so many of the off-putting calls for disabled writers. An editor or panel of editors decrees what “version” of disability I am allowed to submit, and if I don’t comply, they’ll move on to a whole queue of submissions willing to barter for personhood on someone else’s terms.

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Emily K. Michael is a blind poet, musician, and writing instructor from Jacksonville, FL. Her poetry and essays have appeared in Wordgathering, The Hopper, Artemis Journal, The Deaf Poets Society, Nine Mile Magazine, Disability Rhetoric, Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics, BREVITY’s Nonfiction BlogAWP Writer’s Notebook, and Barriers and Belonging: Personal Narratives of Disability. Emily’s work centers on the themes of ecology, disability, feminism, and music. Find her at her blog On the Blink, and watch her TEDx Talk, “The Confluence of Disability and Imagination.”

I’d Like to thank the Staff for Inviting Myself to Open Mic

July 10, 2017 § 6 Comments

zz_candlerBy Pete Candler

Please, please, do sit.

[Wait for applause to die down.]

I didn’t get here by accident, you know. Get to being a writer, that is. If you thought I meant this place, whatever it’s called, well then, yeah, I did get here by accident. I was looking for the Mothlight.

People think that being a writer is so glamorous, but I want to tell you something: I drove myself here tonight. I parked the car myself. (Do they even have a valet at this place?) And then I walked myself from the parking lot.

Now since the emcee tonight apparently forgot to introduce me, I should probably tell you a little bit about myself. One thing I’ve learned from being a writer is that you can’t assume that people know or care who you are. So: I am a writer. I write fiction and essays and stuff. In the course of my career, my work has been turned down by a wide range of some of the finest and most illustrious journals in the land, including Poetry, The New Yorker, and The Sewanee Review. My occasional pieces can be found on award-winning websites like Yelp and TripAdvisor, and I am currently preparing a manuscript for rejection by The Atlantic.

You may think that being a writer is a whole lot of sitting around staring out the window, contemplating the sublime beauty and mystery of the cosmos, hobnobbing with other writers in white linen suits, swilling gin martinis with literary agents and high-powered editors from Knopf and FSG, but let me tell you something: writing is a lot of work. You have to read a lot. And write, too. You have to read stuff that’s already been written, and then try to write new stuff that other people won’t read.

I’ve had to read a lot to get to where I am now, standing before you. I read a lot of articles on how being a writer is the most miserable job anyone could dream of, so horrible that only a writer with a vivid imagination could think it up, and how you only ought to do it if you are really good at it or you have the drive to become so, or you basically enjoy suffering. Well, it’s pretty obvious one of those things applies to me, or I wouldn’t be up here giving a public reading of my work, now would I?

It’s not all fun and games, either. I mean, I’d love to ruminate on the beauty of the yellow-bellied sapsucker or the dung beetle all day, like anyone else, but there is work to be done. There’s a lot of research involved, too. For instance, I googled myself sixty-two times today.

You think googling yourself is easy? It’s hard to see all those nasty things that are not written about the stuff that you’ve never gotten published. People say—and I trust those people, because they say this sort of thing—that you should never read the comments online. Well I’ve learned my lesson the hard way. Once I had a brilliant article that was not published and the comments were so—well, I’ll be honest, they made me feel a little ill. There was no substance to them whatsoever.

I once had a fake twitter account set up in my name, and that was a challenge. Man. There were like four followers, each with a face like an egg, and the fake me didn’t sound anything like I would sound if I had ever published anything.

I read lots of articles too about how writing for a living is only for a select few, how most people who attempt it never make it to the big time and the rest toil away in relative or absolute anonymity, bearing up daily under the weight of soul-crushing despair. Well here I am, living proof.

And what’s more: writing is an exercise in self-knowledge. You learn a lot about yourself when you’re alone in front of a computer screen, staring at your rejections on Duotrope, which, as a bonus, is helpful for understanding the concept of infinity. For example, I learned today that my vocabulary is roughly 21,500 words, which doesn’t sound like a lot until you consider that that number includes words like “dilatory” and “obstreperous.” I also learned that my surname means “Fish Slayer” (or possibly “Weasel,” these things are not 100 percent accurate, you know?). On top of that, I discovered that I could identify 16% of the world’s famous works of art, 0% of the nine greatest opening lines in literary history, 100% of a lineup of Disney characters, and that if I were a mixed breed of dog, I would be a Shit-spaniel. My rapper name is Dead Honky, and I’m not really Nova Scotian at all. I learned that the first word I would read this morning would determine what I had for lunch. And do you know—lo and behold—that word was “rejection?”

But let’s be honest. That’s not why you’re here, is it?

[Do not look at people in the eye as if you actually want them to answer this]

Presumably you’re here to listen to me read some work of brilliance that I am going to lay before you like a votive offering, a sacrificial token of my religious devotion to art. But you’ll have to settle for the turn of phrase “a sacrificial token of my religious devotion to art,” which is kind of like a little work of genius right there, so I’d say you’ve already gotten your money’s worth. Because as for that work-in-progress, it’s complicated. Someone once told me that great works take time, and mine is taking lots and lots of time, so it kind of follows that it’s a truly great work that I’m sure you’ll be willing to wait to pay for. And another person once told me, just days ago—that doubt is an indication of your talent, and let me assure you, by that calculus, I am a fucking genius.

So, wait. Just wait. Come to think of it, I should have waited for the 10:25 slot. That’s a good time. People are just a little bit drunk by then and not falling over, trash-talking drunk. Just tipsy and loosened up enough to laugh or cry when they’re supposed to.

Anyway, thanks for coming out tonight. I have been here all week.

[Violent applause]

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Pete Candlers scholarly and creative work has been rejected by a wide range of some of the finest and most illustrious journals in the land, including Modern Theology, Poetry, and The New Yorker, which once returned an unsolicited manuscript (circa 1997) submission with no note or letter but with a simple but thorough slash through the pages. Candler lives in Asheville, North Carolina, where he writes fiction and essays. He is currently preparing a manuscript for rejection by The Atlantic. His twitter handle: @tweetcandler

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