Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Meeting with Gods

Hey, remember that time I mentioned how Richard Blanco hated my outfit? It was really traumatic, guys. But the point is that I got to meet Richard Motherfucking Blanco. 

I was considerably lucky for many years. Due to some incredible work on the part of professors and administrators, excellent writers regularly showed up on campus at my undergraduate alma mater, and in grad school, the stakes were even higher. Right before commencement began for the summer 2012 MFA graduates, Nikky Finney turned to three of us and asked if we were nervous. Steve Almond once laughed at me for essentially revealing to two hundred people that I'd had a bad day in workshop during a q-and-a session. David Rakoff, may he rest in peace, was gracious enough not to guffaw when I asked him about the connection between comedy and pain.

I don't say any of this to brag, as in, "HEY, LOOK AT ALL THESE COOL PEOPLE WITH WHOM I RUBBED ELBOWS, HOWEVER BRIEFLY." I say it because I realize how invaluable these experiences were.

If you are ever able, go to readings and book signings. Ask questions of the authors, should time allow. You will learn so. freaking. much from them, even if you don't speak to them directly. Sometimes just watching an author read can teach you a great deal--for example, how best to present your work in public, or perhaps how to connect better with your audience.

And here's a secret: about 97 percent of the authors I've met are the nicest people in the world, so you don't have to be afraid of approaching them. The other 3 percent? You don't want to spend time with them, anyway. I promise.


Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Impossible Imposter

My parents and I are going to Las Vegas in March. This will be my first visit to Sin City (and Nevada in general). When Mom asked me what I wanted to do while we were there, I came up with one of my typical batshit ideas: I decided I wanted to visit the campus of UNLV and find out more about their MFA and Ph.D. programs in creative writing.

"Wait," you're saying to yourself, "doesn't she already have an MFA?"

Once every three or four months or so, I decide that I should go back for a second MFA. This is not because I enjoy being in school. In fact, there are few things I hate more than being in school. And it's certainly not because I feel like getting tossed around in workshops again. (Not to brag, but I only cried once during a workshop in all my years of education-getting. Those of you who know me know that I cry over everything, so this is a pretty big deal.) No, it's because I feel like what I have done is not enough. It's never enough.

As I said to my parents, "I don't think I went to the wrong school. [Lesley is the best, for real.] I just think maybe I should have studied poetry instead." Earlier this year, I mentioned that I've won a competition to have a chapbook published, and on my way to that point, I was also a semi-finalist for one prize and a finalist for another. But I'm terrified that someone is going to take these things away from me because they'll figure out what a horrible writer I am or--worse yet--everyone who ever reads it will think that I'm useless and don't deserve to be published.

This stems from something called imposter syndrome. And I have a severe case. Women, in particular, are susceptible to it. This is speculation on my part, but I assume artistic types have the most trouble with imposter syndrome, because our work is already undervalued and (some of us) feel like jerks whenever we manage to pull ahead of the pack. I mean, just read this list of actors/actresses/assorted others (including Don Cheadle, Meryl Streep, and Maya Angelou, of all people) who seem to suffer from imposter syndrome!

I'm working hard to internalize the notion that there is a difference between being realistic and giving in to imposter syndrome. For example, I want to stay grounded and remind myself that--at least at this point in my life--I'm not the kind of writer whose work is going to show up in The Paris Review or Poetry or even Passages North (thanks for rejecting me twice so far, and an extra shout-out to Northern for dismissing my grad school application back in '09). And there's a good chance I wouldn't be happy in a poetry program, anyway, partly because I'm not happy in school. Yet I also have to remember that Laura LeHew, Carlos Reyes, and Ted Enslin (!) have said some nice things about my poetry. 

Striking that balance is difficult, as are so many other things in life. Any time it gets too difficult, I have to remind myself that, to this day, Richard Blanco telling me he didn't like my outfit is still the worst thing a poet has ever said to me (to my face, anyway). But that's another story for another time. Meanwhile, I'll be over here trying to talk myself out of a second MFA. Who has that kind of time, anyway? I should be out in the world writing, instead.


Wednesday, February 11, 2015

This Is Why We Need Feminism

At my former job, I had to face both sexism and gender discrimination at various points in my career. It was a difficult way to live and work, and at the very end of my time there, the worst of it happened. Without going into detail, I will say that there was much discussion about a co-worker's alleged, shall we say, exploits, and my name was brought into the conversation.

I was furious because it is no one's God-damned business what I do--or do not do--with my vagina. I am an adult and I refuse to apologize for operating while female. The whole incident pushed me over the edge, to the point where I was sobbing in my parents' living room (because I was lucky enough to catch wind of this while I was still on vacation rather than in my office). This is it, I thought. This is what it is to be a woman.

Having lived with and mentored college-age women for five and a half years, being an aunt/Godmother to a little girl, and coming from a family full of strong ladies, I am honestly outraged that we are still operating this way in 2015. And this is not just a first-world problem; conditions are much worse for women in some other regions, notably Africa and the Middle East. In China, sex-selective abortions are still performed on the regular. Women in India have worked to rise up against rapists who are not prosecuted.

In the United States, we are dealing with those who would curb our reproductive rights, the continued existence of the glass ceiling, and a literary culture that strongly favors men, among many other large and small indignities. I'd sum it up thusly: this is bullshit.

As a former Girl Scout, as the kind of person who does what she wants, as someone who eludes categorization, and as a female (both by birth and identification), I have to say that I am sick and tired of having my life prescribed for me and suffering consequences--however intangible or small they may seem--because I happen to have two X chromosomes. Unfortunately, I have no plan of action in mind; because I'm desperately trying to find a job and keep up with my writing submissions, I am unable to start, or even join, a group that advocates for women.

What I AM able to do is support my fellow women (including the trans* ones, for whom life is even more difficult). Need a sympathetic ear? Feel free to contact me. Want to rail against the patriarchy for awhile? I'd be happy to nod in agreement. Desire a chat about professional issues with a fellow female professional? I'm your girl.

Stay strong, ladies. I know we've faced thousands of years of oppression, but if we haven't lost the battle yet, I have a feeling we never will.


Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Tyrrany of Maternal Inquiry, or, Another Childless Woman Appeals to Your Sense of Decency

There are two small children in my life: Niece, who is three, and Nephew, who is one. I'm terribly fond of them, even if Nephew slobbers on me thanks to teething, and even if Niece is an egomaniacal shitshow right now. This is the kind of stuff that happens at those ages. It's part of childhood. It's also part of what keeps me from procreating.

I've known for years that I do not want children. During high school, I babysat for a family around the corner. Their kids were great but I had no maternal instinct whatsoever, and this often showed in my work. The second-oldest child once approached her mother about my inattentiveness to the youngest child, which showed maturity on her part and illuminated my lack of interest in being around kids for more than half an hour at a time. In my first semester of college, the topic of children arose during a casual conversation and I told my eight or so compatriots that no, I did not care to reproduce. Some of the girls looked at me askance, while one (now a mother herself) supported me. This track record of mine may not be well-documented on paper, but in my own mind, it is clear.

One of my best friends is also staunchly against having children of her own. Her brother and sister-in-law have five kids between them, and like me, Maria is attached to her nieces and nephews. But I can't tell you the number of times we've lamented her brother's insistence that she will have children of her own someday or how often we've exchanged articles about women who are childless by choice. We share the frustration of living in a world where, even at our ages (she's 31; I'm 28), people do not trust that we know ourselves well enough to commit to the decision we've made.

As far as those articles go, some of them are heartfelt and some are hilarious. All of them ultimately make the same point: for a subset of the population, children represent a lifestyle choice that is unfulfilling and/or impossible to sustain. Personally, I have several reasons to abstain from child-rearing, including my own mental health, which I neglected so long that it became very problematic for me a couple of years ago.

In America, we're supposed to be enlightened, freedom-loving types. Yet if a woman dares to discuss her lack of progeny, she is likely to be badgered, often by family members but also by friends, acquaintances, and even strangers. Last year, my grandmother wished me a happy Mother's Day; when I asked why, she said, "You'll be a mother someday." I didn't have it in me to tell her that day would come only in an alternate universe. On the other hand, my aunt, who was childless by choice, gave me a great deal of support on this matter. It was nice to know that someone else was on my side.

I will admit that I have wavered on two separate occasions. Both times, I was in love, and we all know love does funny things to people. In the first situation, I convinced myself that I could handle it and my partner was worth it, but I had also convinced myself that 19 was a reasonable age at which to commit myself to a life with someone I'd known less than a year, so obviously my judgment was impaired. In the second situation, I had to work to remind myself that I had good reasons for saying no to kids. When the possibility of being with that man was negated, I was heartbroken, but also relieved: my hormone-addled brain settled down and I was able to examine--and reconfirm--my feelings about pregnancy and parenthood.

I'm grateful to have Niece and Nephew nearby. They give me an opportunity to address any nurturing instincts I do possess, which sentiment echoes what my aunt told me about spending time caring for my mother when she was a baby (they were separated in age by over a decade). But I'm even more grateful that I don't have children of my own--and that I have some reproductive freedom, although that is often under attack, as you may have noticed over the past few years. Birth control is as freeing now as it was when it debuted, and I thank the people who developed it.

So please: next time you think it's okay to harass a woman--or even question her--about her childless state, try to remember that those of us who actively choose not to become parents do have good cause for saying no to reproduction, and that it's none of your business what we do--or do not do--with our uteri.