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.

7 Comments

  1. Lev Mirov says:

    Thank you for this timely and salient piece. Like you, I write through painful physical disability, and the pace and content of my writing reflects the constraints of my body. I am now so poor I am recognized by my state as in need of assistance (though being able to go to a state where I’d get assistance is, perhaps, a form of privilege), and have no familial support network. I am also a full-time caregiver for the only income-generator in my household of 2 (who is also disabled, but has commercially valued skills I do not). Writing is one of the only things I CAN do that generates me any money, because my life circumstances do not permit working outside the home or full-time freelancing work. I can’t yet generate a living income on my writing, but it is one of the only “hobbies” I can undertake to generate any income at all. If the standard of “successful” is “living off income” no, I’m not successful, but writing also gives me an emotional ability to take my circumstances and give them meaning, which helps me survive just as much as the prospects of future income. I know I am not the only person who sees writing as a sort of best/most viable of few options for meaning and prosperity when traditionally valued work is impossible. To underplay that many of us in the margins write not because life is comfortable in allowing us to do so, but because the discomfort of life leaves us with precious few other options of meaning is to discredit many who work hard to write as a survival mechanism.

    As you say, writing has been historically and continues to be a powerful tool for political engagement and change, and we call financially challenged writers who mobilize for social change “unsuccessful” at our own peril and loss. Putting the financial value of writing first in determining its worth is always a losing game. Writing that cannot feed you has value quite separate from what others will pay to publish or read it, and that writing is no less vital and life-giving than the royalties that pay for a medical bill, just different.

    Thanks again for sharing your voice with the world. It is very much needed.

    • bean-writer says:

      “Putting the financial value of writing first in determining its worth is always a losing game.”

      Very well put! And Rose, thank you so much for this post and for the one just before, as well. YES to your reminder that success comes in many forms, and that when it comes to our writing we all get to decide what that means.

  2. This essay belongs in the toolkit of any reviewer discussing short-form work.

    Some short stories and poems contain an entire novel’s worth of experience – because they must. Chronic pain, family crisis, economic insecurity alter time; writers who must contend with these conditions have relatively small segments of uninterrupted time in which to get their thoughts down, and comparably little time in which to revise.

    Reviewers/critics who assume a hierarchy of genres intentionally or otherwise replicate social inequity. The novel requires time, concentration, and freedom from external crisis. In sheer number of hours, it’s comparable to a special-purpose software project, and requires the novelist to take on roles as planner/project manager, researcher, as well as creator.

    The problem runs deeper yet. The American cult of “productivity” treats artists as machines. We are human beings. The same emphasis on constant production that marginalizes people with disabilities renders invisible the art that they create.

    And this ferocious focus on making more and more all the time takes a toll on all artists: repetitive stress (generally swept into the shadows) is the price of production for all too many writers. It’s not a new problem, either: as a former bodyworker, I read the correspondence of George Sand and recognized the symptoms of repetitive stress that rendered her unable to use her hands to write; several novel manuscripts are not in her hand, but that of the person to whom she dictated.

    Starting point for this comment was my conversation with the author on Twitter.
    https://twitter.com/RoseLemberg/status/568476626788483073

  3. Polenth says:

    Something I don’t like with these discussions is it’s assumed safety nets only exist for the middle and upper classes. As though supportive families don’t exist in the working class. Having a supportive family isn’t something everyone has for sure, but I don’t suddenly become middle class because I live with my parents. It’s the reverse really, as we all live together because it saves on money. One day my parents will no longer earn, and then it’ll be the money me and my sibling earn that pays the bills. This really isn’t that uncommon in working class families, where house/flat prices are too high for singles to live on their own, and few people have decent pensions.

    Which means I get fed and there’s enough money for extras, but there’s that constant worry that if I don’t start earning more, we could all end up on the street one day. My future looks very bleak, so I can’t not worry about that. It’s hard not to think about that. That’s not the same situation as a person who lives in an apartment above their rich parent’s garage.

    I write because right now, it’s the only way I have to earn money. However small those earnings might be, I have to hope it’ll increase one day, so I don’t have to worry as much.

    • Rose says:

      Thank you for your comment. You are absolutely right, both about safety nets and about people pooling resources. I need to be more consistent about mentioning this. I am alone in this country and my family is problematic, so I cannot live with them in any case. — Which is actually not uncommon, people who are poor and queer or trans often are hit the hardest when losing family support.

  4. […] Rose Lemberg on writing, privilege and marginalization […]

  5. […] essay “The Priviliege and Necessity of Writing” (this blog) will be reprinted in the 2015 edition of Speculative Fiction: The Best Online Reviews, Essays […]

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About

Rose Lemberg is a queer, bigender immigrant from Eastern Europe and Israel. Their work has appeared in Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Unlikely Story, Uncanny, and other venues, and has been a finalist for the Nebula, Tiptree, Elgin, Rhysling, and Crawford awards.

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