Eleven years ago I sat at a table in a writing studio in downtown Kalamazoo, Michigan, rented by a professor I’ll call Mr. D, and watched as he read the personal essay I had just handed him. While he read, I discreetly took him in: his ironed slacks and turtleneck sweater, his coiffed hair and pouty lips. He looked like someone who had stepped off of the set of The Bold and The Beautiful, not like someone who spent the bulk of his days hidden from the public, presenting himself to the world through the words he put down on a page. I wanted him to see me as a graduate student who had devoted herself to her writing completely—even though I hadn’t yet—and regretted my day-old hair and faded jeans, as if they betrayed a lack of resolve. It was as if my careless grooming suggested a carelessness with which I regarded my life, or at least, my writing life. The differences between us went well beyond our appearances and were palpable, as had been our sudden and primal dislike of each other when we had first met weeks earlier in a coffee shop. Then, he had studied other patrons at nearby tables and paid little attention to whether or not I was listening to him talk about a novelist who I had never heard of. From the onset it had been clear to us both that he was a Writer and I was a Wannabe, and like a coyote catching a whiff of the blood of an injured gopher in a hot wind, he could smell my wanting and the fear of failure that came along with it. It was my fear, and my subsequent holding back, that got under his skin. He had zero tolerance for uncertainty. It was his arrogance that got under mine.
After a few moments he set my essay on the table, uncrossed his legs and ran his hand through his lush grey hair. “You have no voice,” he said. He said it casually, the way one might say, “Your shoe is untied.” The air went out of the room.
His writing studio was lined with shelves made heavy by the hardback books of literary giants, most of them men: Ken Kesey, Harold Brodkey, Norman Maclean, Ernest Hemingway, Vladimir Nabokov, Denis Johnson, Herman Melville. I watched, wordlessly, as he went to a bookshelf and plucked one—This Boy’s Life. “See here!” he said. “Here is a writer with a voice!”
The voice belonged to award-winning author Tobias Wolff, whose nonfiction I knew well. Voice, I understood, meant the personality on the page and the particular worldview that made an essay unique. Voice, I understood, was created through a writer’s style and word choices. Voice was everything. If you didn’t have a personality in your writing, you wouldn’t be read. You would be too boring, too indistinct, too ordinary. You would disappear, cast off into a sea of ineffectual writing. Wolff’s voice was anything but ordinary. I felt ruined: I didn’t write like that. I couldn’t write like that. Mr. D returned the book to the shelf and walked over to the professional pool table in the middle of his writing studio. I had heard that he was writing a novel about a famous pool player and sometimes invited students who he liked to play. I felt both relief and resentment when Mr. D made no such invitation to me. Still shaky from his critique of my essay, I didn’t trust my hands to steady and wasn’t prepared to fail again so publicly. He chalked the tip of a cue stick and then broke the fifteen balls in the center with a loud crack!, effectively signaling the end of our lesson.
I wish I could say that the right words—and the right voice—came to me later that night or even some evening during the next few months that I navigated the icy Kalamazoo roads to sit at Mr. D’s writing table, perhaps on the moonbeams that snaked in through the slats of the blinds in my apartment, but writing isn’t magic. It’s hard work. I spent the next few years in Michigan and the next several in Nebraska, writing, rewriting, failing, fearing, falling, getting up and putting one foot in front of the other and rewriting again and again before I finally understood that in order to find my voice, I had to stop holding back. I had to embrace the willfulness that had been welling inside of me for most of my life and during that first night I sat at Mr. D’s writing table. I had to unapologetically write what I was most passionate about, those things I was most afraid to say, like how many of the women I knew, some of them in my own family, had been taken for granted, taken advantage of, and abused by the men in their lives. How I wasn’t yet interested in getting married or having children, even after my mother complained to me on the phone that I had to speak up because my biological clock was ticking so loudly. How I was afraid of being alone in my apartment at night, afraid of who I might one day find hiding in a closet or under my bed, and didn’t understand where my irrational fear came from. And how all of the relationships I witnessed went through a continual loop of separating, abandoning, returning, and rejoining, a dizzying process that began to characterize my confused understanding of love.
During that time of struggle and doubt, I found myself turning to the stories of women. (This Boy’s Life was superb—is superb—but I wasn’t a boy. Where was This Girl’s Life?) I turned to Margaret Atwood, Maxine Hong Kingston, Gwendolyn Brooks, Paula Gunn Allen, Alice Munro, Joy Harjo, Jeanette Winterson, Sandra Cisneros, Nancy Mairs, Jhumpa Lahiri, Mary Karr, Anne Lamott, Vivian Gornick, Louise Erdrich, Kate Bornstein, Sue William Silverman, Zora Neale Hurston, Barbara Ehrenreich, Rebecca Solnit, and a different Woolf, this one Virginia—too many to name them all here. These women didn’t hold back. There was power in their words. They weren’t careful or polite with their readers, and they didn’t hesitate to challenge the status quo. Author Carolyn See puts it this way: “Every word a woman writes changes the story of the world, revises the official version.” These women and the others that I read give voice to experiences that have been marginalized. They explore what it is to be a girl, woman, mother, daughter, wife, lover, friend, outcast, mistress, person of color, first-generation American, first-generation college student, alcoholic, immigrant, queer, trans, manic-depressive, abuse survivor, person with disability, addict, and rebel, and reading them, I realized that their experiences are as universal and as socially, culturally, and politically significant as the experiences of the old, dead white guys hogging the space on Mr. D’s bookshelves.
These women writers showed me how to write daringly, unabashedly, about “women’s issues”—a phrase that is sometimes spoken pejoratively but should be considered an empowering alternative to the dominant cultural body of literature. As Maya Angelou wrote: “I’m a woman Phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, That’s me.” So I tested my newfound courage to write about my Grandma Keisner, a woman who liked the smell and look of natural human bodies (hairy armpits, yellow teeth, and “baths” in the lake by her house), and who left my grandfather when she began to see her life as a separate journey from her married life, corresponding with my grandfather only through the Personal Ads of the Omaha World-Herald. One such printed exchange read: Jim, I’m okay. Grace. And: Grace, come home. Jim. During their separation, my grandmother sat on park benches watching people walk by, wondering what possible lives she had missed out on. I wrote about my other grandmother, too, whose husband once left her and their six children behind in order to spend a week at a hotel with my grandmother’s best friend (my grandmother’s choice to take him back this and other times became a Gordian Knot of “Why?” that my mother and I failed to unravel). I wrote about my own mother, whose older sister drowned in the lake at Holman’s Beach, leaving my mother both afraid of the water and a true believer of ghosts. The story of my aunt’s death solidified my mother’s religious faith but filled me with dread: the Universe couldn’t—or wouldn’t—take care of all of its children. I write about me, who as a young woman living on my own for the first time after college, found myself yanking back the shower curtain in fear of finding an intruder waiting to rape or kill me or both. I write about my obsession with serial killers and a culture that fetishizes, romanticizes, and glamorizes the murder of girls and women. I write also about raising an only child, a daughter, our conversations about “human-made” versus “manmade,” and my anxiety of one day explaining to her the concept of “gender parity.” I write about the effects of the lizard brain on early motherhood and why I sometimes stay awake at night with thoughts of what I can’t control: Ebola, Amber Alerts, body fevers. I write truthfully about the physical and psychological landscapes of fear as they relate to women, and in doing so, I come to understand myself and my place on this earth.
Writing is still a lot of hard work, often full of self-doubt and struggle. The literary realm can be disheartening, continuing to privilege the voices of men. Sixty-five percent or more of publishing space in the country’s top literary journals and publishing houses has historically gone to men, as illustrated by the VIDA Count. The percentage of women writers of color being published or reviewed is even lower. While some publications are beginning to take the messages of balance in publishing to heart, others backslide. It matters that women continue to contribute to the stories that inform our beliefs and values and our understanding of what it means to be human. It matters that organizations like VIDA continue to support women in the literary arts and join in the conversation about women’s voices. It matters that we continue, because as the essayist Joan Didion writes, we tell ourselves stories in order to live.
The storytellers in my family have shared their tales quietly, often while we were doing “women’s work.” I stood, for instance, in my Grandma Keisner’s yellow-linoleum kitchen, with my hands in a soapy dishpan and with my grandmother standing nearby and dipping raw chicken into a bowl of flour, listening while she told me about suffering through two miscarriages and the reminder she still wore on a chain around her neck. I sat on my mother’s loveseat while she braided my long childhood hair and told me about growing up in poverty and my grandfather’s decision to take an unexpected litter of puppies into a field and shoot them in the head. I bent over in a roadside garden pulling snap peas from the vine, listening to stories of the waitresses that my grandmother once worked with, tales of women who couldn’t afford to feed any more mouths and found themselves pregnant after their husbands had left them, hurt them, or both. I dare to listen for women’s voices and women’s issues, my fingers hovering over my keyboard, willing and wanting to join the conversations started by the women writers before me. The conversations that have historically populated the literary landscape are necessary and good, too, but they aren’t the only way. They’ll never be the only Truth.
I don’t know if Mr. D was aware of the impact his words would have on me, but I am grateful. Adversaries can do much to inspire true grit. I see him now only when I look at the glossy author’s photo on the dustjacket of his memoir.
He is ageless and as arrogant as ever, bathed in sunlight, as if the picture was snapped while he was sailing in the middle of the great wide ocean on his yacht, but I don’t imagine joining him there, and not only because we still wouldn’t like one another, but because I no longer want to be on his boat. I’d rather steer my own course, as winding and unpredictable as that course may be, I’d rather sing my own songs and travel my own journeys and write my own stories, using my own voice—this voice of mine.
Author’s Note: This essay is an expanded version of a guest reading I gave at the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s 2016 luncheon for the Chancellor’s Commission on the Status of Women. The event honored Professor Virginia “Ginny” Lee Frank, who was a devoted supporter of women in the arts.
Jody Keisner writes and teaches in Omaha, Nebraska—smack dab in the heart of America. Her creative nonfiction and scholarly work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Threepenny Review, Brevity, Hunger Mountain, Brain,Child: the magazine for thinking mothers, So To Speak: A feminist journal of language and art, Literary Mama, New Writing: The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, Women’s Studies, and elsewhere. She is at work on a memoir-in-essays that explores that physical and psychological landscapes of fear as they relate to women.