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.