The Privilege and Necessity of Writing

I want to engage with Kameron Hurley’s chewy and important essay on “The Privilege to Publish and the Power to Persevere,” in which Hurley considers writing as an activity that is supported by privilege.

Sometimes I think it’s because the only ones of us left in this business are the writers with safety nets. The writers who have another way to eat, and have the privilege, yes, privilege, of persevering even in the face of constant rejection. I’ve been aware at every turn that I had advantages others didn’t: middle-class parents who didn’t insist I get a real career. A grandfather who paid for graduate school in a cheap foreign country. No children of my own, or parents or siblings I had to care for. Medical debt, yes, but not enough to bankrupt me.

Writing as privilege is something I have considered deeply and repeatedly. Writers who need basic income to survive too often cannot take the time off work to finish a longer project. Many networking and professional opportunities are not available or harder to access without financial backing – e.g. con travel, an MFA degree, workshops such as Clarion, etc. However, I am also concerned that Hurley’s essay strongly focuses on both privilege AND success in terms of class (financial resources; financial gain). I believe that both writing and success should be considered intersectionally.

I could not write until my early thirties because as a twice-immigrant, none of my languages felt adequate – nor was my English “up to snuff” until fairly recently. I now tell my writers that immigrant and variant Englishes are not only ok, but welcome, and as an editor I welcome these Englishes and these writers with open arms, but nobody told ME this. My partner currently cannot accept payment for eir work due to visa limitations. E needs the income, eir writing sells, but being in the US on F1 (student) visa means e cannot accept payment for eir work. People who do not have visa limitations, who speak “standard” English (or the standard of the language in which they are writing), who are not immigrants, etc., have the privilege of not grappling with these issues.

Folks who are supported by parents or spouses do not need to worry about income as much as folks who have no backup. Folks who have a decently paying stable job often have an advantage over those who don’t. Those who are not caregivers may have more available time. Able-bodied people do not need to worry about writhing in pain after writing 500 words. So yes, there are definitely privileges/advantages that can make writing easier. I wish I could write without pain, and I wish I could write without worry that I’m neglecting my job. I cannot not prioritize my child, and I do not regret this. I wish I could stop constantly working. And even as a queer, disabled twice-immigrant who is also a caregiver, I have advantages other people may not have.

However, I think that positioning writing as a privilege does us a HUGE disservice by overlooking those of us who write without privilege. Every time we look, we see that there is a literature of the marginalized, literature of resistance and struggle, literature that persists due to the sheer necessity of voice, the voice that proclaims our existence, our vitality, our wisdom, our pain, or histories, work that creates and maintains communal ties that help us persevere despite overwhelming odds.

A prolific, sustained, acclaimed, mainstream-published writing career that focuses on novels is difficult to kick-start and maintain without privilege. Not impossible – difficult. Which is why we have poems, songs, oral narratives, tweets. We have doodles, graffiti, flash fiction. We have blog entries and communal calls for help and action, which are definitely narratives. A poet who can write a single incredible poem which will sustain a hundred revolutionaries is not less worthy than a writer who sold thirty novels to mainstream presses. For me (and for many), Nisi Shawl is a beacon of meaning, vitality, and power even though she has not sold thirty novels to mainstream presses. Amal El-Mohtar, another source of vitality, meaning, and support in our community, does not have a novel out.

I would like us to accept that success is not universally defined. Value is not predicated upon volume or sales, although in a capitalistic society it is too often the only yardstick by which we are measured. But it shouldn’t be. Let’s please not self-marginalize. Writing – voice – may be a privilege for the privileged, but it is a necessity for the underprivileged. We use our voices to combat our erasure and dehumanization. It’d be good if that also came with a consistent and sustainable income, but most often it does not. This is a problem, but it does not invalidate our endeavor.

Write because you feel you must write. Write as you can, how you can, when you can, as little or as much as you can. Voice comes in many shapes and sizes. For many us here, silence is a price too terrible to pay.

——–
Thanks to Andi Buchanan, Nino Cipri, Lev Mirov, and Melissa Moorer for their early reading and suggestions.

Perseverance and the editorial process

Charles Tan has kindly storified my tweets on perseverance, writing, and the editorial process. Today I saw a few people wanting to refer to this conversation in blog entries, so I have very slightly tweaked these tweets and am putting them in an entry format here. This conversation continues various conversational threads from #dontselfreject (also kindly storified by Charles), which I should also make into an entry here.

——

My life as a writer changed radically in 2010, when I decided to start my own poetry market, Stone Telling. I saw first hand how hard many of the submitters worked, and how many were rejected for reasons other than “this sucks.” I had to reject for many reasons, chief among them, the work did not fit my vision. I had, and continue to have in all my editorial projects, a very strong vision – and there are many, many pieces in every slush. Even as a beginning editor, unknown, editing poetry, which is perhaps less densely populated than fiction, I received a lot of work to consider for the first issue of the magazine. Some of it I wouldn’t publish for love or money, e.g. there were fatphobic and homophobic pieces sent to this fat, queer editor. Such work was in a minority. On the other hand, there was a lot of competent work that either did not wow me, or wowed me but did not fit my vision. Some work was good, but I felt the poet was not done growing yet. I sent personal rejections a lot. Some I would not send now. Let’s face it, rejection – even the kindest, most personal – sucks. It perhaps especially sucks when you’re starting out. Personal rejections, even sensitively worded, can devastate a beginning writer.

After reading for a few issues, I noticed a curious thing: some of those “good but not exactly there” poets submitted work again. Others did not.

What I saw in those submitters who tried again and again was courage. It was the courage I lacked myself as a writer. because, writing from my own gut and all too often about my own marginalizations, from a place of pain and struggle, rejections hurt me and taught me to self-reject. But my submitters, my Stone Telling submitters whose work I did not even buy, taught me courage to keep trying, keep working, keep improving.

Not everybody can do that. Mental health issues surrounding writing can be overwhelming, and all too often impossible to overcome. Rejection hurts. Having one’s most heart-wrenching, gutful work rejected hurts like little else. To say, “Everyone can do it!” – is ableist as well as unrealistic. Not everybody can, and if one cannot, it should not be a value judgment.

But – I want to tell you a story. We’d just accepted a poem which was pretty much perfect. I am not going to name the poet. This poet’s work was in the slush from Issue 1. Over & over this poet sent work to us and was rejected. Between 2010 and 2015, this poet sent in 17 submissions. Over these years, I saw them grow and grow. The work went from good to excellent. Some of the work we rejected sold elsewhere, and was nominated for awards. It was STILL not right for us, but it got closer and closer; and then it was perfect.

As an editor, I am so, so proud of this poet. As a person, I am so, so grateful for the lessons of courage and good cheer they taught me (in case you wonder, yes, this is a marginalized person.)

I couldn’t have done what they did. 17 times! I would self-reject.

Stone Telling submitters – and then, An Alphabet of Embers submitters – gave me courage and helped me understand how sending work out looks from the other side. Since 2010, I completed and sent out many more poems. While poetry became easier for me to submit after 2010, prose was still often a struggle. Reading for An Alphabet of Embers gave me a window into prose. I completed and sent many more fiction pieces after AoE, and I was at peace with the process. It became easier, even though rejection is still difficult.

I have been here since 2008. I have noticed a pattern. Some writers seem to emerge perfect and polished, and they sell and sell (though some of those people later burn out). Others – more often, I think – have a great story and sell it. Then, other successes don’t come. or don’t come as easily. For others, even that first sale proves elusive; they write and submit consistently, but do not sell. Very often, there is a long, hard slog between that first acceptance and the next one (or at all) – a long, hard slog of writing/learning, sending out and being rejected while watching other people sell and sell. That’s where many people self-reject, and even leave.

Frankly, yes, this long, hard slog is discouraging and demoralizing. “What’s the point?” I have certainly thought many times. I started in 2008. It is 2015 now and I sell a lot more than when I started. (My bibliography is broken down by years, if this is interesting). I sold no prose in 2009, and not for the lack of trying.

I have talked earlier about the myth of “rapid, youthful rise” which works for some, but is hurtful and demoralizing for many. Not everyone can keep slogging, not for everyone it’s meaningful even to try. But, as an editor, I have seen so many people grow. in the 5 years I’ve been editing, I’ve seen my repeat submitters improve – because writing/submitting usually teaches you something. Often improvement is slow, so that the writers themselves may not even notice it. Often you not only need to improve your writing, but to hit that exact right note with the exact right editor.

Personally, I prefer the slow method of growth because it taught me so much about the process; it also taught me so much about people, and it is people, always people, who are at the core of my endeavor as a writer and editor.

I want to address two frequent concerns. First, It seems that many people worry about annoying editors by submitting again and again. I do not think it is a danger, unless your work is offensive to that editor (e.g. you sent a homophobic piece out to a queer editor), or unless you disregard guidelines. So yes, please follow guidelines, and if you feature diverse characters, please do try to get things right. However, repeatedly sending work that does not offend but does not make the cut is NOT A PROBLEM. Editors want to buy excellent work, and not hitting bulls-eye from the get-go does not disqualify you. If an editor is telling you to submit again (including via a form), that means “please submit again.” There’s no trick in this.

I also want to briefly address the concern of falling behind. Yes, there are a few prodigies who probably have never felt behind – but many, if not most writers I talk to feel they are “behind.” I find this troubling. First, we cannot all be behind. Second and more importantly, there is something damaging and painful about the idea of ahead and behind. It’s as if there is this huge herd of writers all running in the same direction towards a judge with a little red flag, and maybe a rope. But we’re not a herd, there’s more than one road to run, not everyone is able to run, and there’s no ultimate judge either. We move at a different pace, towards different goals. Some of us must take breaks before we can move again.

I personally find comparisons to other writers, as well as envy, unhelpful, but I am not a jealous person, it is not an emotion I have. I am speaking as a person who walked a long, hard, frustrating and painful and demoralizing road between my first sale and today. I did not run my road. I walked it (stopping), and I am nowhere near done. I’m simply somewhere different from where I’d started. I like this place I’ve reached. Would I have liked to have an agent and/or a book contract by now? Yes, of course! But I am not “behind.”

There is a Russian proverb, dorogu osilit idushij, “the one who walks will manage the road.” If this road is for you, keep moving – keep moving when it is easy and when it is tough, take rest breaks when you need them, remeber that self-care is #1, but don’t self-reject. If the road is not for you, that’s completely legit. That’s not a statement about your worth, either. As always, please remember that I am only a single person and everything I say gets filtered through the lens of my own thoughts and experiences, so if what I am saying does not work for you, that’s absolutely legit as well.

Sale: “The Book of How to Live”

Michael Matheson has made a few announcements regarding Start a Revolution: QUILTBAG Fiction Vying for Change. This anthology was originally supposed to come out from Exile Editions, a Canadian publisher; it will instead become a crowdfunded anthology later in the year.

The new version of the anthology features my novelette, “The Book of How to Live.” I originally wrote it for this call, but at over 11k, it ended up being too long for the market, as Michael was only able to accept a limited amount of material from non-Canadians. When Michael went indie, he asked for the story back. It will be in very good company; I am especialy glad to see Amal El-Mohtar’s “To Follow the Waves” and Bogi Takács’s “This Shall Serve as a Demarcation” in this lineup. I love both stories fiercely.

“The Book of How to Live” is a Birdverse novelette set in northeastern country of Laina, and it is told by two queer women: Efronia Lukano, a peasant inventor who traveled on foot from the northern edges of Laina to study at the university, and Atarah-nai-Rinah, a Khana inventor who lives in the city. It is a story of academic and societal exclusion, finding one’s own community, nascent revolutions. It is the first story I’ve sold which is an explicit critique of Western-style academic establishments, but it is most certainly not the last.

I am happy with this for sale for multiple reasons, not least of them is the fact that I’ve sold three Birdverse novelettes in the span of two months, to appear in 2015. All of those pieces are queer (Birdverse is very queer), and all three of them feature autistic protagonists. “The Book of How to Live” has Efronia, an Aspie; “Grandmother-nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds” has Kimi, a minimally verbal autistic child; and finally, “Geometries of Belonging” features Dedéi, a nonbinary teen with speech and motor difficulties.

I am very happy that my Birdverse work is gaining traction. I hope you too will love these stories and these people and their world. I am most certainly working on more; there’s no end to these stories.

A Birdverse Novelette Sale!

I am thrilled to announce that I sold “Geometries of Belonging,” a wannabe novella (it’s 17000 words long!) to Beneath Ceaseless Skies. This story is told by Healer Parét, who is actually the father of Taem from “Held Close in Syllables of Light,” my first published Birdverse story (also at BCS).

Here’s how “Geometries of Belonging” is described on my Projects: Birdverse page:

Parét, a famous mind-healer, is asked to cure a young autistic patient – but his patient does not consent to be cured. Meanwhile, Parét uncovers a carefully wrought intrigue against his lord and lover. (consent, mind-healing, autism, non-binary and queer protagonists, D/s).

Parét’s would-be patient is, of course, Dedéi, the protagonist and narrator of “Two and Five Syllables” (better title TBA), a YA novella I am serializing on Patreon. It might end up being a novel, though.

Very, very pleased with this. And, it so happens, I might be in a position to announce some news of a similar nature in a week or so. Stay tuned!

Rhysling nominations

I am pleased to announce that two of my short poems have been nominated for the Rhysling award this year:

“Dualities” in Mythic Delirium

“Landwork” in Goblin Fruit

There are still a few days left to nominate poems for the Rhysling, so I am linking a post by Bogi Takács on Stone Telling poems eligible for the award. I hope you give them a look even if you are not nominating – so many wonderful poems in there!

Uncanny, Podcast, and a Birdverse Legend

Today, my poem “Archival Testimony Fragments/minersong” has become available for free in the second issue of Uncanny. I am very happy with this poem, a piece in the Boundless Universe; and it already garnered two positive reviews (that I have seen). Lisa at Over the Effing Rainbow writes:

The structure of this poem did, I admit, make me a little nervous at first glance, but my fear that I wouldn’t get it was quickly left behind because whether or not I got the complete message, this felt surprisingly – delightfully! – easy to follow. In fact, I was drawn in remarkably quickly, and I have to say that whether you’re an established fan of poetry or a dabbler like me, this is one you should give your attention to.

Charles Payseur at Quick Sip Reviews writes that it was “a good read with a unique style,” and supplies an insightful analysis of the poem. Here’s an excerpt:

It’s an interesting mix of voices, mostly the ship’s but with the voices from above, as well, the training instructions from the company that owns the planet and the voice of one of the miners who hears the voice calling out and decides to try and respond. In some ways this read to me as a poem about the power of history and workers.

There’s also an Uncanny Podcast with my poem as read by C.S.E. Cooney. I rarely listen to podcasts of my work, but I wanted to listen to this one and, knowing something about Claire’s extraordinary reading abilities, I knew it would be good. Then… I listened to it.

People, omg, if you like my work at all, you HAVE to listen to this one. OMG. What have I done to deserve this? Wow.

*ahem*

These are the moments which make everything worthwhile.

Also in the podcast is Amal El-Mohtar’s “Pockets,” which I love, and which has also become available to read for free today.

In other news, yesterday Birdverse Patreon update was that of the Starcounter of Keshet doodle. I am really fond of this one, and so I am posting it here. (Also, I probably should stop calling them ‘doodles'; they are drawings). This one refers to one of the many versions of the Birdverse creation legend; you can read more on the Patreon page, since this update is free. I’m pleased with my first month of Patreoning (January) – during which I posted 3 paid updates and 4 free updates, as promised. February is going to be the same – 3 paid and 4 free updates. You can get access to all the goodies for as little as 1$ per creation (3$ per month.)

starcounter

Strange Horizons poetry happiness and other news

The results of the Strange Horizons Readers Poll came out, and i am extremely happy to see so many of my favorite people and pieces represented.

In particular, the poetry slate looks like this:

First place: “You Are Here” by Bogi Takács
Second place: “Salamander Song” by Rose Lemberg and Emily Jiang
Third place: “Seeds” by M. Sereno
Fourth equal: “Una Canción de Keys” by Lisa M. Bradley
Fourth equal: “The rivers, the birchgroves, all the receding earth” by Rose Lemberg

I am incredibly happy that Bogi’s amazing “You Are Here” won, and I am also very very pleased with both “Seeds” and “Una Canción de Keys” placing.

In somewhat related news, Strange Horizons will publish my epic poem “Long Shadow” later this year. In 2014, I had no long poetry come out, which is extremely rare for me; but “Long Shadow” should compensate for 2014’s brevity, as this poem is about 3k long. It is also one of the favorite things I wrote in 2014, a poem in the Journeymaker Cycle that is set in a marsh. Here’s how it is described in the project page for the Journeymaker Cycle:

A child, an orphan born from a tangle of past wars, steals the souls of the unborn. The Journeymaker tries to find a solution, but there are no easy answers to be had.

I can’t wait to share it with you.

Meanwhile, the Birdverse Patreon is going strong with both chapters and doodles: check it out if you like goats (the goat is free; such is the nature of goats).

To my delight, the Birdverse stories made the Skiffy and Fanty’s Most Anticipated Things in 2015 list, as did An Alphabet of Embers (thanks, Shaun and Natalie!)

Birdverse Patreon! with doodle

Everybody knows that Mondays are evil, but I have a free doodle on my Patreon to cheer you up. It’s a Bird, PhD doodle!

I hope you like Bird, PhD! I came up with Bird, PhD because I have launched a Birdverse Patreon. There is no formal connection between the two, except that both are ultimately about my love of birds and of putting things into a BIRDlike format.

In short, Birdverse Patreon is about the shiny.

Here’s the description from the site:

For a while now I have been creating Birdverse: a fantastical, diverse, queer universe with a unique magical system. My novelette set in this world, “Held Close in Syllables of Light,” has been published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and my poem “I will show you a single treasure from the treasures of Shah Niyaz” appeared in Goblin Fruit and took third place in the Rhysling. I have two more Birdverse novelettes forthcoming in professional markets in 2015, and more on the way.

In 2015, I am committed to creating a collection of Birdverse novelettes and novellas for submission to a press. In addition to these pieces, I will be creating pieces of worldbuilding (such as in-world books and their descriptions, crafts, linguistic science), art, poetry, and other things that will only be seen by you. You will get insight into some of my process, updates, excerpts, as well as supporting small works.

The first thing I will be consistently sharing is a story of Dedéi, a non-binary gendered, autistic teen who escapes their abusive family and goes on to have adventures. Some of the themes treated in “Two and Five Syllables” are pretty heavy, but Dedéi’s adventures have an upbeat feel. I thought it would be cool to tell a story featuring an autistic protagonist which is not sad, but rather cheerful and determined. (Dedéi is not an Aspie; in our terms they would probably have a diagnosis of moderate autism.)

For January, I have scheduled 3 paid updates and 4 free updates: that is, four chapters, and three doodles. Next week’s doodle is about Dedéi and books. But if you like Bird, PhD, I can keep doing it! Some of the free things will be free for everyone, some will be backers-only.

My first milestone goal is to add a free-for-backers Wednesday update of a cheeruppy doodle.

Right now, for 1$ per creation, you can get all this (so January caps at 3$ a month, February also likely to cap at 3$ a month). The higher tiers come with postcards, AND a custom doodle. I’m planning to post maximum of 4 paid updates per month, and a matched number of free updates, so at the lowest tier you will pay max 4$ a month.

If you would like to see what the story and art are like, and later change your mind and want to stop donating or lower your pledge, absolutely no bad feelings whatsoever.

Thank you, as always, for being here and following my progress.

Spelling the Hours: open call

During the Kickstarter campaign and editorial work for An Alphabet of Embers, I have also been editing a poetry anthology, Spelling the Hours. Taking Sofia Samatar’s
Girl Hours” as a cornerstone, this anthology focuses on underrepresented and forgotten figures of science and technology. The anthology is a part of An Alphabet of Embers rewards, but it is very much its own thing, and will have its own life and distribution.

I have accepted some wonderful pieces for StH from solicited poets, but I have more space in this anthology. Therefore, I am opening Spelling the Hours to all submitters.

I am looking for poems focusing on forgotten figures of science and technology, broadly construed. I am interested in seeing work that focuses on PoC, women, queer people, trans people, disabled people, and members of other underrepresented groups. I prefer seeing work focusing on specific individuals. However, I will also consider thematically connected pieces that do not focus on a single individual. I will be paying on publication: 5$ and a copy of the chapbook. There is no minimum or maximum length; I welcome poems of epic length.

I REALLY want to see more PoC science and technology poems, both focusing on scientists of color working within Western-style academic paradigms (in the West and elsewhere), and historical non-Western science. There is a very rich and fascinating history of non-Western science and technology, and I would love to have more of this material in the anthology. As always, I welcome and support diverse creators and want to consider material from a variety of voices and perspectives. My latest editorial work includes An Alphabet of Embers and Stone Telling magazine (co-edited with Shweta Narayan).

If you are writing about a specific individual, I prefer to receive, together with your poem, also a paragraph of context/biographic information about the featured person. I am asking the accepted poets to provide a paragraph of context to their poems, and while this is not a requirement upon submission, it would nevertheless be a good thing to include.

You can send up to THREE poems for consideration during the submission period (in one email, or in separate emails). Submissions are open beginning now (January 9, 2015), and will close on March 15, 2015 OR when filled. I do have slots in this anthology, but it’s better to send things earlier rather than later.

Please send your unpublished poems to stonebirdpress@gmail.com; put “STH SUBMISSION: Your Last Name” in the title. Please do send a short cover letter. If you have credits, list up to 3-4 best credits; if you are unpublished, this is not an issue at all for me.

NO simultaneous submissions.

I will respond to all submissions within 60 days of receipt and/or by April 15, 2015, whichever comes first.

First sale and publications of the year

My first sale of 2015 is a small humorous poem, “Love me, Love my Belly,” to Love Me, Love My Belly zine published by Porkbelly Press. It’s a belly-loving event all around! To forestall questions: no, porkbellies are not kosher; yes, body acceptance is good.

In more serious news, my poem, “Archival Testimony Fragments/Minersong” is in the second issue of Uncanny. It shares a ToC with Amal El-Mohtar’s small, uplifting short story “Pockets,” which I love very much. “Archival Testimony Fragments/Minersong” will be available for free on February 3rd, but it is available to purchase right now. I am very proud of this poem, which I wrote as a part of An Alphabet of Embers backer rewards. It is a science fictional poem in the Boundless universe, about living ships, and corporations who hunt for their remains.

My poem “Scatter and Return,” written for Saira Ali, is out in the new issue of the Cascadia Subduction Zone. I am especially honored that my poem follows a powerful and important essay by Nisi Shawl, “Unqualified” – the essay that inspired me to start the #dontselfreject tag on twitter (storify of initial tweets available here). I hope to be able to write more about Nisi’s essay soon. The CSZ is available for purchase as a part of a subscription, and as a stand-alone issue (5$ print, 3$ electronic), and I would urge you to purchase this issue for Nisi’s essay alone. It also contains poetry by Sonya Taaffee and Mary Alexandra Agner, and Kate Elliott’s essay on Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein, as well as some great reviews.

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