Claire LawrenceClaire Lawrence: I was the middle aged woman in the third row from the back, worried that her hair and glasses weren’t cool enough for the writer crowd anymore, worried that she’d never have a book like all the people she went to school with (two top-ranked writing programs), worried about the rapid passage of time marked so clearly in everyone’s faces each time she goes to AWP.  I teach a four/ four load at a public university that wants me to care about assessing my students, not so much about teaching them anything. I have a ten-year-old, a five-year-old, and rapidly-becoming-dependent parents in another state. You could almost smell the desperation on me; sitting in that audience I was really feeling the competitiveness and AWP induced angst Steve Almond described in The New Republic.

Audrey ColombeAudrey Colombe: And I was the woman sitting next to her, marginally okay with how I looked, but desperate to get my stuff published just like CL (who I know from graduate school) while also failing miserably at a bunch of other things in life—like keeping up with my poet partner (she has a good job in another state, so we travel a lot) or my family (“Mom?  Remember me?”) or friends (where did they all go?) and getting enough sleep with my 3/3 teaching load and too many committee assignments and my duties as a fiction editor at a lit mag. The editor-in-chief of the magazine is old-school—but I am loath to say anything because he is otherwise, and in most things, a very good man. He sometimes does not speak up in situations of obvious disparity, in the same way that I have sometimes been loathe to speak up about yet another incident of sexism at my university. To balance out, I constantly ask women to submit their work to our magazine.

CL: The VIDA panel at AWP was a discussion of the three counts.  Since the first count, a few of the magazines are doing better, publishing more women.  Some are the same, some are worse. The situation is not really improving.  That’s what I got.

AC: Two men spoke first, editors of lit magazines we all know.  The first, Don Bogen, pointed out that his numbers, according to his own count, are very good—like “equal.”  The second, Stephen Corey, pointed out that his journal’s numbers were not good—he has been the editor for a very long time, and anyone who knows him or the journal would not be the least surprised. This editor also had some questions re: whether VIDA is really counting binders of…I mean numbers of women or numbers of pages written by women and etc.  (The questions of this ilk Katha Pollitt dispensed with later and quickly.)  I found this editor a perfect example of what the Vida numbers are all about.

CL: I was too mesmerized by his comb over to pay too much attention to him but I did feel as though he was up there as a bit of a straw man, and wanted to give him props in a weird way for doing that. But then a young woman journalist, E.J. Graff, spoke, and the point she made that resonated so clearly with me was that magazines would publish more women if more women wrote more, submitted more, were more aggressive about pushing their work and selling themselves to editors.  And here’s the bone I keep choking on: you have to believe in yourself enough to make that push.

AC: Or somebody has to believe, right?

CL: Middle aged women and their concerns are often invisible, you know.  I think that’s part of the socialization thing; we’re less decorative as we get older and therefore less valuable. There’s making art, and then there’s the act of asking someone to care that you made it.  The second one is so much harder.  Herein lie the silences. How do I believe that someone wants to hear what I have to say?

AC: I want to hear it, CL. And I think other women do, too.

CL: Why?  Because we’re women?  Friends?  Writers? (Almond says the only people who read our work are other writers. Is our audience even more narrowed by gender?) How I answer that question can lead to a lot of self-silencing, a lot of writing stashed in the attic or stuck in a drawer.

AC: Or put out, sent out, returned, revised, put out again—really, “put out” as in put-out-of-its-misery works so much better in my case.  When I pick up a magazine or look at favorite websites, I am always looking for what I don’t often find:  work by women who are writing about thought and experiences—I’m thinking Amy Fusselman’s “8.”  It’s rare.

CL: The women on the panel said act like the men. If someone gives you an assignment make the deadline no matter what.  If you pitch someone an idea, don’t crawl away with your tail between your legs if they say no, be ready with three follow-up pitches.  The woman bodybuilder I lift with always says “Grab your ladyballs,” if I say something looks too heavy.  The VIDA panel was for me the writerly equivalent.

AC: I sat there listening to all of these panelists and felt that I wanted to start a magazine specifically for middle aged women so we could not hear about tedious Dos and Don’ts.  When the two women on the panel who work successfully in the media (journalist, critic) insisted that women have to act differently, they reveal a blind side.  For instance, saying that women need to be more available and grab the jobs they sometimes say no to—well, I suspect those women say no for two very good reasons: one, they are completely overbooked because they are already expected to do more than any man in their working sphere and, two, they refuse to say yes anyway and then disappoint someone they’ve already promised something to.  Because we know those women are not saying no when they really do have the time and really can do a great job.  They already know–other people already know–that they do a really great job.  Over and over.  Also, women might not persevere like men do when they’ve been told no or been rejected for many reasons, including:

The number of words frequently used to describe women who insist;

The number of people who find those words easy to use;

The number of doors that shut once a woman has been described using one of those words;

The ease with which people repeat those words and ideas;

The amount of work a woman must do in order to overcome, move past, prove wrong, rise above or otherwise undermine the undermining that has taken place as a result of one ‘insisting event.’

CL: Then Pollitt said, stop writing about the “girly” things. This bothers me on a few levels.  Stephen Elliott made a great point in his post AWP Rumpus email: Column A is making art, Column B is selling it, and you shouldn’t let B interfere with the process of A.  If I try to make art for the male dominated marketplace instead of making art about what’s important to me, if I self-marginalize, am I selling out?

AC: Yes, Katha Pollitt (I wanted to hear what Katha Pollitt would say) kinda bitched on younger woman.  She complained that some “only want to write about dating and fashion and sex.” But perhaps we need to listen to, listen past, the middle aged woman from the audience (she had an accent—Australian?) who pointed out a problem in the categories used in discussion of men’s and women’s writing:  “Why are childrearing, sex, the domestic sphere, and intimacy all considered one small category of subject matter? Isn’t that what most people do all day?”  Those young women Katha Pollitt disparaged have had those things (sex, fashion, relationships) forced on them in very specific (meaning commercial) ways since day one.  The young women who write, they also think.  As a result of their socialization and thinking they’ve begun to realize some key things:

1) The socialization they have experienced was so limiting that their maps have few points of interest. They will have to create new points by bucking a system that wants them to stay in the box. We have to watch them fight their way out of the box—and assist when possible.  I’m sorry, but we owe them that.

2) The young women are in big sad trouble if they want to remain heterosexual because the age-appropriate men available to them are not typically asking the questions that the young women are asking–the young men don’t have to. Nothing about the system encourages it. Even if the young men were lucky enough to have parents who tried to get them to think otherwise, the young men have been socialized (also in the commercial realm) to expect attention, pleasure, advantage, and women.  The young men are not socialized to critique their own positions, to ask the young women questions, or to think about the things that young women are freaking out about.  In fact, they are taught that this particular line of questioning is a dead end.

The young women are lonely.

The young women were lied to.

The young women have every right to be angry and a little goofy until they can figure out what to do with themselves, how much to fight, where to give in, what help is available.

Frankly, are young women today any more likely than their grandmothers to have a satisfying sex life? Intimacy? A less stressful day?

CL: Yes, that woman who made the ‘categories’ statement was awesome.  She had bright red hair and looked as though she had wrapped her whole body in a giant blue scarf.  I heard her say that sex and dating and families are kind of the whole human experience, no? You want us to stop writing about that?  I thought that was such a great point.  I write about relationships (with my partner, my children, my family of origin) because they are the most important things that have happened to me.

AC: I never write about those things—at least not as they reflect my household directly.  I’m protective. Sigh.  Also, Cate Marvin got up and demanded that we do some things, too:  like write or call the editors of the magazines and newspapers we buy and demand more articles by women, about women.

CL: What if, instead of seeing ourselves as in competition with each other we worked together, men and women, as a huge cultural force for art making?

AC: How?

CL: At her reading, Cheryl Strayed called us a tribe.  What if we acted that way, collectively not individually?

AC: Oh, this scares me a little bit, because I’m not sure women did very well in tribes, either.  Although I did visit the public home of a tribe in Ghana where they explained an interesting structure. There was one powerful woman in the tribal hierarchy who was not the queen—it wasn’t family held, the power—and she got to choose the head man and she was the only one who could get rid of him.  She was chosen by a group of men, however.  And then she could never be replaced, so they had to choose carefully.  They also had a position in the tribe called a messenger—he told the people what the king wanted, had decided, etc.  The thing was, if the people didn’t like it, they would kill the messenger.  (Yes, this is where the saying comes from.) And here’s the rub:  the chief and the councils and that woman at the top would know when they should probably adjust their choices because the people had killed the messenger—they would get the message, so to speak.  It went both ways.  The job of messenger was appointed—you were told you were it.  And the thing is, you also knew that you better talk really, really carefully—to everyone–if you wanted to live.  They had a postcard picture of one of these messengers from the mid twentieth century.  What a scary looking dude.  I sent it to my dean.

CL: Point taken. At least the part about the women and the tribes.  Not sure about the messenger part. Does anyone care enough about what we have to say to kill us?

AC: Silence=death?

CL: Remember, we’re nobody.

AC: Exactly.

CL: The day after I got home I kept thinking about my responsibility to young women, both as colleague and as teacher – that’s the thing everybody seems to forget about AWP – most of us teach at universities as well and therefore do have some influence about the direction of our culture. Anyway, I bought this little tin of “Empowermints” (with Rosie the Riveter on the top) and as I walked around campus I gave one to a woman every time I heard her express a lack of confidence or silence herself.

AC: How could you tell when someone was doing that?

CL: Two of my female students were saying how much they dreaded oral presentations because everyone would be looking at them. But then I just started giving the mints to all of the women I liked. I think everybody thought I was a little crazy but eventually they got it – every gal could use a little empowerment, no?

AC: I went home and powerwashed the house.

CL: What a metaphor.

AC: And in defense of AWP (Steve Almond gets enough attention–I don’t understand why the hatin’), I did restructure a major writing project (after listening to several panels on novel writing) and got two new short stories started, and bought some books that are completely, it turns out, incredible—not your Barnes and Noble usual.

CL: I guess I’m still on my tribe kick. The AWP conference brings 12,000 writers together every year.  (That’s 6,000 more people than live in my small town, by the way.)

AC: I agree it’s intimidating.

CL: But, let’s say the women and some enlightened men start working together. Couldn’t we still get something done in a culture that largely ignores us artists?  It seems so, well, linear to see all the writers as a competitive pyramidal pecking order (though I do admit to getting drunk and dreaming a little of fame).  And, again, it can make you clam up really fast.  As in I’m not one of the A-list so why bother.

AC: I’m always bothering—I never stop writing, I don’t know why.  I try not to feel the weight of rejection, because ultimately I’m the one who has to measure what I do.  My inner critic is perfectly capable!  As I washed the house, I pondered a few possible titles to my new magazine. Freak Out? Middle Age? Middle Age Freak Out?

CL: I still think the magazine should be called “Ladyballs.” But I want to get back to the point of why I wanted to have this conversation with you.  What we decided after sitting together in the panel is that we needed more hustle, like Almond and Elliott (who I totally admire for the way they put themselves out there, which might be why I keep mentioning them).  But they’re guys; let’s say it’s a little harder for us as women to feel we deserve to be read, listened to, whatever.  The answer is what we’re doing right now: collaboration.  Encouragement.  It’s so much easier to try and think of getting someone to publish this strange little essayish thing when it’s both of us doing it together.  I also really loved the idea we had of emailing each other every Sunday evening about the week’s submissions:  what have you sent out, where?  Why aren’t you sending more?  What if all the women who came to the panel (or even the whole conference) started to do that? I was talking to one of my younger female colleagues, a Virginia Woolf scholar, about all of this and she said what we need is no longer 500 pounds and a room of our own but a common room.  A place for exchange (ideas, art, influence, whatever).

AC: Men and women, sure—I have less energy towards talking the guys into anything new. The women, I’m totally there. Let’s go.  Every woman has a Sunday evening.  Near the end of the panel, someone reminded the audience of the Audre Lorde comment, “Your silence will not protect you.” So true.  I’m writing and calling the editors of magazines, yes (I’ve done three so far).  Of course I’ll continue sending my work out, trying new ways of saying what I consider important or interesting—and I hope I won’t be horrified if something connects, because I tend to write what’s less certain. (I do think critically about my own work, while I pressure myself to say something new, to not complain endlessly, to posit alternative structures and ways of thinking.)  CL, your writing on your new daughter was some of the most real and important thinking on motherhood I’d ever read.  Your un-complicated mother-in-laws as well.  It’s many voices all at once to tell a story—this story about women writing women’s lives.  If I have to talk myself into it another day, I can assume that you are doing the same. Sunday night it is.

CL: Let’s make some noise!