You know the story: the link pops up while you’re scrolling, but you’re not in a position to sit and absorb. Maybe you’re at your desk at work, or you catch it while waiting for a friend to meet you or the waiter to come back. Time and again I saw “On Pandering” shared by people in my social-media sphere. Twitter storms, Facebook epiphanies, blog posts, and think pieces responding to Watkins flooded my feeds. It was clearly a resonant piece. Time and again, I made a mental note to read it.
Time and again, I forgot.
Cut to yesterday afternoon, just about lunchtime. An email comes in from one of my favorite writing professors and authors. It is short and sweet, as if dashed off with some urgency between more consuming tasks. The subject line: "On Pandering" by Claire Vaye Watkins:
A student in my workshop sent me this link. It’s an important piece, I think. - R
To most, this might read as a mere suggestion; the “I think” might diminish the power of the declaration before it. For me, though, if this writer thinks something is important, it is. I opened the post at my desk and grabbed my sandwich. Within thirty minutes, I had devoured both.
I responded to her email in massive paragraphs, singing the praises of this piece (seriously, everyone, read it if you haven’t). I talked about how hard it hits, and how closely to home, as a young, woman writer coming of age in an MFA program. I remembered my first residency, my first workshops: the incessant name-dropping of old, white dude writers. Look to Hemingway and Carver for effective dialogue; look to Updike for setting.
I came into the program somewhat ignorant to the male literary powerhouses. Other students had the words of men already amplified in their minds; they were their "writers with the megaphones," as Watkins puts it. For me, the loudest voices were those of Oates and Plath and Morrison: dark, raw, vulnerable stuff that jived with my dark, raw, vulnerable experiences. These were the writers I watched.
At the time, I felt ignorant and amateurish because I hadn’t read everything Faulkner had ever written. I realize now that my canon of women authors was a shield, protection against an invasion of men-with-megaphones who would distort the way I write, edit, and read. And I realize that shield was forged slowly throughout my time as a student, in middle school, high school, and beyond, by a succession of one awesome English teacher after the next: all of them women.
In Ms. Collins’s seventh-grade Language Arts class, literature became a living, breathing thing: more importantly, it became something within reach, something I could aspire to create on my own. Writing leapt from a hobby to an outlet. I wrote poetry. Shitty, shitty poetry. It was a start.
In Ms. Taylor’s freshman English class, I learned about vignettes. I learned about Sandra Cisneros and The House on Mango Street. I learned that not everyone had to write the same way people had been writing for centuries. Cisneros’s voice in my head was loud and clear; I studied her ability to bring an entire world to life in a matter of pages: to make a few minutes in time sing with history.
In Ms. Adler’s sophomore English class, I delved into topics that plague the world, and the traditional literary canon. Sexism, racism, homophobia. We cried about injustice, laughed about Shakespeare.
In Ms. Dimaggio’s junior English class, I was introduced to Sylvia Plath. I remember her reading “Mirror” aloud to us. I had read the poem on my own the night before and struggled to understand it. But hearing it spoken was like a key in a lock, and something new opened in me. It remains one of my favorites. Because of Ms. Dimaggio, I understood Plath. I understood her darkness, and was able to articulate my own.
In Ms. Thibeau’s Creative Writing elective, my voice as a writer bloomed. I was encouraged to break away from the five-paragraph essay and do, honestly, whatever the fuck I wanted. There was no wrong way to write. I still carry that idea with me when I teach writing now.
As I began my MFA journey, I instinctively clung to the female author-professors in the program. My own history had shown me that they were the ones who could help me navigate the testosterone-fueled ego-fest alive in graduate writing programs. They, in turn, became the new women-with-megaphones in my mind: Rachel Basch, Nalini Jones, Kim Dana Kupperman, Eugenia Kim, Karen Osborn. They shared their own canons with me: writers like Elizabeth Strout, Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Patricia Highsmith, Virginia Woolf, Sarah Waters, Jeanette Winterson. They gave me time, old books, even a side job here and there.
Thanks to these teachers, these authors--these women--I have the courage to take the megaphone myself every once in awhile. Sometimes it’s on the page, when I tell my story without judgment or pandering. Sometimes it’s in a workshop, when I call out a male writer on his flimsy props of female characters. And sometimes I only realize I had the megaphone after the fact, like the time I ran into a former student, and she thanked me for introducing her to Sylvia Plath.
In the fight for equal representation and respect in the world of literature, lady-to-lady mentorship is key. These women helped me forge a shield I carry even now, and now it's my turn to help forge those of others. Gaslighting be damned. We have a duty to each other.