Sunday, March 31, 2013

VIDA's Count -- Women and Ambition: A Discussion in Here, not out There.

When I look at VIDA's count -- the now famous breakdown of publication data of males versus females in various magazines -- I'm always immediately outraged. I start -- in my own head -- with a discussion about what these magazines are doing wrong, how bad it is for our culture, how damning it is to women writers. My mind naturally starts tearing into Open Letters and coming up with ideas for Tweet-ins... I think of all these ways to demand these publications realize their own sexist lens and work toward change.

But, eventually, things shift. And I stop thinking about the angry conversations that one establishment -- with a new brand of feminism -- is engaged in with another establishment that can't ever seem to get out of its own way.

Instead, I think of other conversations -- quiet, one-on-one conversations that happen late at night at kitchen tables across America and beyond. Conversations where a couple puts their heads together and tries to come up with ways to survive. These couples have to make money. They might have small children sleeping in nearby rooms amid the cloudy fog of humidifiers. They might have student loan debts and rising rent prices. They might be struggling with childcare and looming tuitions. They're worried. (This piece will continue for a while to be about women who are coupled up -- because they come from my own narrow personal perspective; but where I eventually land, an argument that begins within the woman writer herself, might be of some use more broadly? I don't know...)

Let's now say that the woman (or one of these two women, depending on the couple) is a writer. What every writer needs is time. This woman writer needs to be given time, and time costs money -- especially if the one taking the time is causing an absence that requires childcare. It feels selfish suddenly to need time to write.

But let's shift this a little. Let's say that the man is the writer here (or one of the men, depending on the couple). And this man needs time to write and maybe that time costs money. Does it feel selfish to need time to write for this man? Or does it seem like a wise investment that will eventually materialize into a publication in Harper's or into a reviewing gig for The Atlantic or a book that will be well-reviewed and make Publishers Weekly's Best Books of the Year list.

Well... Let's look at the data. A man actually, statistically -- based on VIDA's count -- has a better argument for deserving time to write. Statistically speaking, he's more likely to get published by big venues, be chosen as a critical voice for reviewing, and to be given review space for his book, once published. That is the data.

What helps women in these conversations? Other women writers one step ahead of them, being successful. Fact is, we have some incredibly financially successful women writers -- no one's beating Rowling anytime soon -- but still when it comes to those kitchen table arguments, these publications  and successes matter.

If this young woman writer lands a piece in The Paris Review, she and her partner have to realize -- damn, she's on her way! If those coveted spots go to men again and again, the women at those kitchen tables struggle...

And, listen, it's often not about the partner's urging and encouragement. That vindication -- those small early publications in literary magazines, the small grants and fellowships and awards -- these things matter to the writer herself. The woman writer's fear of selfishness starts within her -- or so speak my experiences. Do I deserve this time to write? Am I worthy? Is this a wise investment for our family? She comes to that kitchen table with more self-doubt than her male literary peers-- or so I've seen.

Op-ed editors have expressed this observation -- that when rejected with a kind note, a male writer will keep submitting and a female writer will take even the kind rejection as a final word and aren't heard from again.[Check out The Oped Project.] And when asked about how they achieved success, women are more likely to say that they got lucky or had excellent help, mentoring -- they cast the light elsewhere. Even when we earn it, we feel like we don't earn it. And too often, women quit before they really get started. [See Sheryl Sandberg's TED Talk.]

So what I really end up thinking about when I look at the VIDA Count is the nature of female ambition, which is an insanely charged topic. (I purposefully posted this piece on my own blog because I wanted to be clear that I'm writing, again, personally here.)

Every once in a while, I'll blank on a word. Sometimes the blanking on a particular word lasts for years. It's so persistent that I actually try to think of the word, recognize that it's THAT damn word and lock into a mnemonic device to call it up. In my late twenties, that word was ambitious.I literally could not recall that word. I was terrified of my own ambition. I was terrified of letting it remain dormant -- an engine churning with nowhere to go -- and I was afraid to actually use it, which seemed akin to selfishness. After I published my first book, I used my children to insulate myself from my own ambition. I could always say that I wasn't being ambitious for my own ambition's sake because I was really just trying to put food on the table for my children.

I still do this. It protects me from my own feelings of not really being worthy of time to write. Next year, my twentieth book will be published, and I am, in fact, the sole breadwinner for my family of six people, and I still worry about whether or not my writing is worthy of time.

Though I'm keenly invested in telling those around me how thankful I am for their support, I've also tried to stop when I catch myself saying I'm lucky. And I work hard to just say thank you when someone compliments my work instead of trying to divert attention. When I get a kind rejection, I've trained myself to go back for more. And because I've got a partner who is my greatest champion, I no longer have to gear up for kitchen table debates about writing time. It's my job and responsibility to write. No luxury feel to it now.

And yet, so often I still feel like that twenty-something-year-old with two babies and maybe a third on the way, and we're struggling to make ends meet... and I still sometimes (oftentimes) have to dig deep to believe in this work I do. It's my own battle. And when I hear about women being overlooked, it's hard. And when I hear about another woman who's broken through, who's garnering praise, and well-deserved admiration and readers, it's a jolt. It matters.

There's some larger discussion that my subconscious is always aware of -- gazing down those lists of prizewinners and bestsellers. Are women in the mix? Do our stories matter? Do our voices count? Even if VIDA stopped counting, the count goes on in my head -- it's been going on for a long time ... My hope for the next generation is that the counting can stop because women are in the mix. Women's stories do matter, and our voices count.

[Interested in supporting the artist behind what you've just read, click here for Julianna Baggott's latest novel.]