Writing to Right the World

“I’m coming out with two books next year,” I announce, with pride but unable to keep a touch of defiance from my voice, in automatic anticipation of my interlocutor’s next question: “Who is your publisher?”

I’ve got my response down: “I’m pulling a Virginia Woolf—I’m publishing with my own press, Green Fire Press.”

Raised eyebrows, a nod that implies surprise and a touch of disdain. “Oh, so you’re self-publishing.”

No, not really. With a partner, I have created a publishing company that publishes high-quality work in alignment with its mission of encouraging positive sGreenFirePress-LOGO-vert-pen copyocial change and well-being. We have three titles in print so far, and my two books will bring our total to five.

Self-publishing has a bad reputation for a few good reasons.

First of all, self-publishing is often seen as self-indulgent, arrogant and vain (hence the old name, vanity publishing).

“Just who do you think you are, bypassing us?” the agents and big-publisher editors snap. “You know your book won’t pass muster with us, that’s why you’re not taking the traditional route.”

To which I would reply: I have the highest standards of anyone I know—as a publisher and an editor as well as a writer. Yes, it’s true a lot of dreck gets self-published, but that is not the case at Green Fire Press, where we will only publish books we believe in and work hard to make as perfect as possible.

The truth is that I have declined to explore traditional publishing because:

  • I don’t have time or energy to go through the whole get-rejected-by-25-agents game;
  •  I want control of the production of my book;
  • I know I will have to do most of the marketing myself anyway, so
  • I might as well reap the rewards of the hard work I’ve put in, by actually making some money every time I sell a book.

I published my first two books through traditional publishers. Neither paid any kind of advance. On the first, I literally never made a dime in royalties, even though the book sold fairly well (several thousand copies). On the second, the royalties were meager in the first couple of years, and soon stopped coming altogether, although the book remains in print and in frequent circulation in college courses.

Unlike Virginia Woolf, I do not have a husband or a trust fund income. I need to make money with the work I put in to my writing. With my next two books, if the books make money, I will too.

Creating a good book takes tremendously hard work and careful attention to detail, not only by the author but by the editor, proofer, designer, marketer and distributor. It’s a team project, and there are very few authors—maybe none!—who can successfully fulfill all these roles. Even Virginia Woolf had the faithful Leonard by her side, along with the whole Bloomsbury Group functioning as her marketing team.

At Green Fire Press, we have an outstanding team of publishing professionals working together to create polished, professional books. We’re part of the new “gig economy,” in that all the services offered by traditional publishers in-house are being performed at GFP by freelance specialists.

We could no doubt debate for a while whether this trend towards freelance publishing services is positive or negative—for the authors, for the publishing companies, for the freelancers, for the economy overall. As someone who has worked off and on as a freelancer or “independent contractor,” I know that it’s a precarious way to make a living, and I strongly believe that our tax structure and social safety net (ie, health care, unemployment, disability, etc) should be amended to support the millions of players in the new “gig economy” (for more on this, see the current issue of YES! Magazine).

But that’s a topic for another day’s column. Today I simply want to thank and acknowledge the excellent work of our Green Fire Press team in producing my two forthcoming books, What I Forgot…and Why I Remembered: A Journey to Environmental Awareness and Activism Through Purposeful Memoir and The Elemental Journey of Purposeful Memoir: A Writer’s Companion. As an author I feel in such good hands, and I am excited to roll up my sleeves and work on getting my new books out strongly into the world.

Not just to make money, although that would be nice. My memoir and writer’s companion book are both aimed at fulfilling my mission of “writing to right the world.” I write “purposeful memoir,” and I want to get more people doing that too, through my workshops, online writing circles, author coaching and editing and yes, through Green Fire Press itself.

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As I say in the Writer’s Companion, purposeful memoir asks us to look back at our lives in order to understand where we are now and to envision the future we want to create, not just for ourselves but also for human society and our beautiful, beleaguered planet.

If that sounds like something you want to do too, join me! In sharing our own experiences, we can help light the way for others, and come together to write our way towards the positive changes we want to see in the world.

The Berkshire Festival of Women Writers: Cultivating Creative Community

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Virginia Woolf famously said that women writers need a room of their own. True enough, but that’s not all we need. We also need a community to nourish and support us and cheer us on through the challenges of the creative life.

So many people seem to think that the playing field has been leveled for women; that the feminist movement can just pack it up now and go home.

It’s not true, not yet.

For most women, a writing study of one’s own is not an achievable reality. We’re lucky if we can set up a desk of our own in a corner of our own…and get to it at least once a week.

Let’s face it, most women who become mothers must juggle the demands of pregnancy, child-rearing and home-making with the pressure to contribute to the family income—and for writers, that often means having a “day job” that necessitates doing the writing on the side of everything else.

At the other end of our lives, we’re the ones taking care of our own parents, too. There’s just never enough time to fit everything in, and often our writing slips down to the bottom of the endless to-do list.

cfed82894ce77d5eb912cd5c3fe77346My mentor Gloria Anzaldua urged her working-class sisters to “Forget the room of one’s own—write in the kitchen, lock yourself up in the bathroom. Write on the bus or on the welfare line, on the job or during meals….When you wash the floor or the clothes, listen to the chanting in your body,” she says. Write “when you’re depressed, angry, hurt, when compassion and love possess you. When you cannot help but write” (“Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to Third World Women Writers”).

Before she died–too young–of diabetes complications, Gloria published several influential anthologies of women’s writing and worked hard to build a community that bridged all kinds of identities and differences.

She was a great inspiration for me, and when I founded the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers in 2011, I felt like I was carrying on her work, in my own corner of the world.

The sixth season of the Festival presents nine full days of readings, workshops, talks, discussions and performances featuring talented women writers from the Berkshire region and beyond.

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For me, this is not about art for art’s sake. It’s about activating women to recognize that we all have important stories to share, which we can cultivate by developing the confidence to speak our truths, and the community that will encourage us to write, write and keep on writing.

11010606_934650809911488_2830181057542873053_nAt last year’s Festival, Dani Shapiro shared what she considered to be the essential ingredient of a successful writing career like her own, and it was surprisingly simple. You have to put your butt in the chair and write, she said. Just do it.

Having this discipline is much easier when you begin to trust that there are people out there in the world who care what you have to say; who will listen and applaud and come back for more.

That’s why it’s important, even if you don’t consider yourself a writer, to turn out at community-building events like the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers. Come to show your support of the writers on the stage; come to be inspired; come to share in the camaraderie of lunching and brunching with a roomful of writers and the people who love them.

The Berkshire Festival of Women Writers happens but once a year, in March. That’s Women’s History Month, and also the month, in New England, when the sap starts to rise. Come take a taste of our creativity and feel your own creative vision rise in response.

Check out our schedule of events, and mark your calendar. See you at the Festival!

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Queer Visions of a Better World

Bradley Manning at work

Bradley Manning at work

The news this week that Private Bradley Manning had come out as Chelsea made me think first that truth is way stranger than fiction, and second that it makes perfect sense that one of the most courageous warriors of our time would be a queer woman.

Gloria Anzaldua, who has been one of my heroines since I first read her seminal work Borderlands/La frontera back in the 1980s, always insisted that queer folk have a special role to play in bringing about a change in human consciousness—moving us from the patriarchal mold of the past 5,000 years or so to what she called “a new mestiza consciousness,” a much more holistic, inclusive, planetary awareness.

Anzaldua extended Virginia Woolf’s famous statement, in her anti-war tract Three Guineas, that “as a woman, I have no country.  As a woman, I want no country.  As a woman, my country is the whole world,” giving it a new queer mestiza twist:

Gloria Anzaldua

Gloria Anzaldua

“As a mestiza I have no country, my homeland cast me out; yet all countries are mine because I am every woman’s sister or potential lover.  (As a lesbian I have no race, my own people disclaim me; but I am all races because there is the queer of me in all races.)  I am cultureless because, as a feminist, I challenge the collective cultural/religious male-derived beliefs of Indo-Hispanics and Anglos; yet I am cultured because I am participating in the creation of yet another culture, a new story to explain the world and our participation in it, a new value system with images and symbols that connect us to each other and to the planet.  Soy un amasamiento, I am an act of kneading, of uniting and joining that not only has produced both a creature of darkness and a creature of light, but also a creature that questions the definitions of light and dark and gives them new meanings.”

Because queer folk have lived in their own bodies this awareness of being more—more than meets the eye, more than can be limited by any label or category—Anzaldua believed that they would be able to lead the way towards a new human civilization founded not on dominance and subordination, not on hierarchies of value, not on black-and-white binary systems, but on synthesis and what she called “a tolerance for contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity.”

Some, like Anzaldua herself, would be called upon to become what she called nepantleras, boundary crossers and bridge builders who would go through the wounds and pain of traumatic life experiences to access courage and wisdom to lead others into a new awareness of human potential.

Chelsea Manning is such a nepantlera.

Several years ago, in a class I offered on human rights, my students and I watched, horrified, a recently leaked video called “Collateral Damage,” which clearly showed a group of American soldiers in a helicopter searching out and gunning down unarmed Iraqi civilians who were simply talking together on a quiet, sunny, bombed-out village street.

Still image from the Wikileaks Collateral Damage video--before the machine guns started

Still image from the Wikileaks Collateral Damage video–before the machine guns started

The language the soldiers used as they hunted down their targets was straight out of a violent video game, which is probably where they had learned the shoot-em up skills they displayed.  But this was no game.  Of the several men who lost their lives that day, one was a journalist on assignment for the Western media, armed only with his digital camera.

My students and I agreed that we needed to know that this kind of behavior was taking place under the banner of the American flag.  Keeping us in the dark about the reality of what was happening in Iraq, at the cost of enormous sums of taxpayer monies, was a violation of the rights of every American citizen in whose name this war was being fought.

Many obviously agree: the clip “Collateral Damage” has now been viewed more than 14 million times on You-Tube. Only because of the courage of Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange of Wikileaks, both now branded political heretics, did we find out this information.

imagesWe like to think that America is a free country, but it turns out that our freedom has very carefully regulated borders and boundaries.  We are free to dissent as long as we have a permit.

The World Wide Web knows no such boundaries.  It is truly a queer space, a space that has room for every kind of human activity and belief.  In exercising her freedom to circulate information on the Web, Chelsea Manning ran afoul of those who would try to dam the flow, controlling access to knowledge.

Some insist that it is essential that knowledge be controlled, in the name of national security, counter-terrorism, American interests, etc, etc.

It’s past time to start asking questions about whose interests are really served by restricting the free flow of information.

Are we going to become another China, where all individual freedoms are subordinate to the will of the State?  Has it already happened?

What all totalitarian states have eventually learned is that the more human beings are repressed, the more our will to resist is strengthened.

In this country, for the past few decades, our attention has been dulled by the opiates of the entertainment media, consumerism and drugs of many kinds.  A majority of us have slipped without even realizing it into a new form of labor bondage, in service to the almighty Bank, by whose credit and in whose debt we live.

During this time, the military-industrial-financial-media corporate conglomerates have grown huge and menacingly well-armed, to the point where it seems almost impossible that those of us who dare to imagine another way of living—another way of relating to the planet and to each other—might prevail.

We must not allow our vision of a better world to be limited by those who are currently in power.

We must insist on the freedom of the World Wide Web as a queer space for those who understand that “our country is the whole world.”

Chelsea Manning, I salute you!  You had the courage to shine a light into the dark corners of our government, no matter the consequences, and now you courageously step into the full measure of your own identity.

May we each learn to be so bold.

Who’s Afraid of Women’s Writing?

Last night I participated in a panel discussion on Virginia Woolf and Margaret Mead called “Who’s Afraid of Women(‘s) Writing,” with Bard College of Simon’s Rock colleagues Maryann Tebben and Asma Abbas.

We were talking about how women’s writing is often oppositional, representing an outsider’s point of view to male-dominated mainstream discourse, whatever the discipline.

One of the students in the audience asked whether women’s writing would therefore always be reactionary, simply responding to the dominant rather than staking new ground.

I have been thinking about that question all day, off and on.

What I answered at the time was that while women’s writing is often a response to the dominant discourse, it also goes off in its own directions, which are not simply reactions to the mainstream, but rather true departures.

Of course, all writing occurs in dialogue with other writers, so even a departure is part of a larger conversation.  But I do believe that women, as outsiders, have something unique to contribute to any conversation.

Indeed, it is staggering to think of how impoverished literature, philosophy, history and all the other disciplines have been (and still are) in cultures where women have not been allowed to add our voices to the chorus.

Worst of all is that so few people (read: men) even noticed our absence.

I can recall so many times when have I had to fight for the inclusion of texts by women in our General Education curriculum at Simon’s Rock, arguing with colleagues who could say, with a sad shake of the head, that it was just too bad that women had never written any great, canonical literature.  For the past 20 years, out of the 16 required texts in our Gen Ed canon, which stretches from Gilgamesh to Achebe, only three are by women–though as of this year, after much lobbying, the ratio has finally improved slightly.

First deny women literacy and keep those few who do manage to become literate tightly locked in the private realm.  Then look back over history and note complacently that, as Woolf has the “odious Mr. Tansley” tell the artist Lily Briscoe in To The Lighthouse, “women can’t write, women can’t paint.”

In our time and place, young women now outnumber young men in higher education, and no one would dare to argue that women are innately less intelligent and talented than men.

But still, women in the U.S. earn 78 cents on the male dollar, for a variety of reasons, including the fact that we still shoulder more responsibility for housework and child care even when we work fulltime.

Women are still valued more highly as ornaments and service workers than as autonomous creative agents, and we still have to struggle harder to make our voices heard, especially if what we have to say is not what the mainstream wants to hear.

In To the Lighthouse, Lily Briscoe worries that her painting will be rolled up and thrown under a couch to gather dust.  Today, women still seem to have less self-confidence than men, perhaps because we’ve absorbed the prevailing ethos that considers a strong woman to be a “ball-breaker” or a “bitch on wheels.”

As MaryAnn Baenninger, President of the College of St. Benedict, wrote in a recent piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education, studies continue to show thatwomen underestimate their abilities and express lower levels of self-confidence than their abilities suggest. Men overestimate their abilities and express higher levels of confidence than their abilities warrant. This difference arrives with them as first-year students and leaves with them as seniors. When I talk about this, or I hear researchers describe this finding, the audience always chuckles (boys will be boys, after all).”

Baenninger concludes that while American women “have access to just about every educational opportunity and every career…access doesn’t guarantee outcomes. A gendered culture, mostly in unconscious ways, limits women’s expectations for themselves and our expectations for them.”

In other words, our gender role conditioning as women too often tends to silence us, while amplifying the voices of our brothers.

Soon after the great poet Audre Lorde was diagnosed with the cancer than would eventually kill her, she gave an address at the 1977 Modern Language Association annual convention in Chicago, called “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” later published in the collection Sister Outsider.

In thinking back over her life, she said, “what I most regretted were my silences.”

“In the cause of silence,” she continued, “each of us draws the face of her own fear–fear of contempt, of censure, or some judgment….But most of all we fear the visibility without which we cannot truly live….That visibility which makes us most vulnerable…is also the source of our greatest strength.

“Because the machine will try to grind us into dust anyway, whether or not we speak.  We can sit in our corners mute forever while our sisters and our selves are wasted, while our children are distorted and destroyed, while our earth is poisoned; we can sit in our safe corners mute as bottles, and we will still be no less afraid.”

What we need to do, she said, is to “learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired.  For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.”

So many women today are still feeling the same fear and insecurity Lorde wrote about in 1977.  So many of us will go through our entire lives not daring to utter the truths we can hardly bring ourselves to acknowledge even in our most private thoughts.

In the same way that the richness of the Earth is diminished every time a species is lost, no matter how small and seemingly insignificant to the bigger ecological tapestry, the great canvases of literature, philosophy, science and all the other disciplines are impoverished and dulled when 50% of the population is not enthusiastically welcomed into the conversation.

Yes, we women can have our own conversations, outside the male-dominated mainstream.  There’s always “women’s writing.”  But what we should really be striving for is what Virginia Woolf called “androgynous writing,” where the masculine and feminine energies are brought together in a fecund explosion of cross-pollinating difference.

As Lorde put it so memorably in another of her important essays, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” “Difference must not be merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic.  Only then does the necessity for interdependency become unthreatening.”

Maybe there will come a time when interdependency and androgyny will be the accepted standard of gender relations.  Until then, we still need to meet periodically and consider questions like “Who’s Afraid of Women’s Writing?” and why? and at what cost?

 

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