Day One #AWP21 reflections

AWP logo on a colorful background with balloonsI’m attending this year’s virtual Association Writing Programs conference and sat in on 3 discussions yesterday.

Here are some brief reflections on that experience.

Advocacy discussions get a thumbs up

I attended the following:

  • Disability’s Influence on Literature: Realism As A Craft Concept, Sponsored by AWP

  • A Mind of One’s Own: An Asset-Based Look at Writing from Mental Difference

These were amazing discussions, filled with honest observations about the challenges that people with chronic/invisible illness and/or disability face not only in the larger world (because this is what we write about) but also in the literary world (because this is what we write about).

I felt heard and seen here… finally, people talking about the huge inequities that bely the “crip” writing life.

Biggest takeaway: If people who fit inside these communities practice solidarity by speaking out, speaking up, and demanding we serve as the primary narrators of our own stories (so many healthy, abled “normies” like to appropriate our stories, after all), we might have a shot.

We are living in a cultural watershed moment in the US (and maybe around the world) where COVID-19, gender equity, and BLM have aimed harsh spotlights on disparity across all of our institutions, including our arts, medical and educational sectors.

Look, y’all… it’s simple. If you’re healthy and functional in this moment, congratulations. But don’t rest for too long… tomorrow might be the day that all changes for you, and when it does change (and it will, because nobody lives a full life without physical, mental or emotional setbacks), you’re going to need our experiences, our guidance, our writing, our honesty. Life and Dr. Google do not provide the kind of playbook for living with “infirmity” that you’re going to need. Let us help you. Support us. We are here to help.

(Yes, I use “infirmity” in quotes because, frankly, the strongest people I know are also the ones with MS, mental health issues, missing limbs, deafness, IBS, and asthma.)

Yo, good health is temporary. It’s time the literary world let its artists tell ALL the stories, and that means letting the people living with these realities be first in line for that privilege.

Rah Rah discussions get a thumbs down

I attended the following:

  • Invincibles: Women Writers Publishing After 50

More of a “rah rah rah, look at what I did” panel, which was weird because cliched ideas about what it means to be a woman/working woman/mother abounded. Granted, these were the reasons behind the delays to publishing, but still. Really?

As a working mother who has mostly worked from home since the 1990s, I could not relate to these stories, told from the privileged space of academia.

Yeah, they talked about luck. I’ll give them that. And yes, luck is a thing in the publishing world. A lot of less-than writers get lucky. Of all ages. Of all genders. Meanwhile, a lot of great writers of all ages and genders fall through the cracks. It’s not an age or gender thing, in that sense: it’s a connections thing.

The women on this panel had interesting stories, all of them pointing to luck as part of their journey. Fair enough. But none of what happened to them would be possible for someone like me, without those connections (I’m speaking mainly of academia).

I’m sure the books by these women are great, and I harbor no grudges against them.

But should I have sought out that MFA? Nope, I’m glad I didn’t. I know plenty of women who thought that would be a golden ticket, but it hasn’t been. And yet this took up way too much talk time on the panel.

This panel seemed very “old school AWP,” in that it was more about self promotion and less about helping other women writers “of a certain age” move forward against known obstacles. I was hoping for something more invigorating but just got sad stories of regret.

I also can’t help but think that these stories might be confusing for younger women, or women like me who have pushed back at gender stereotypes (these writers clearly didn’t, and ascribed their late entry into publishing to this).

I mean, not all women self sabotage their writing lives, and plenty of women “submit like a man.” These often touted “reasons” for career obstacles don’t apply to all women and frankly, I’m tired of these narratives. They, in a sense, are a kind of victim blaming, a toxic belief that undermines the confidence of many women writers.

Meanwhile, the back seat of this panel was filled with chatter about the benefits of being an older writer which would have been way more empowering had they been pushed to the top of the agenda, given the deeply embedded and institutionalized paradigms about how a woman writer (of any age) should move through the world.

And the challenges of women without privilege should have been a much bigger highlight. Many women do not see their first books into print because of economic disparity. That is not on them. This oversight was a perilous mistake, if you ask me.

I didn’t leave feeling invincible as a woman at age 55 with my first book, and I felt like none of these panelists were invincible either. But I also couldn’t relate to them and, in fact, I left feeling like the unluckiest woman writer over 50 alive for not having their same good fortune and connections. For about 5 minutes.


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