Elitist Construct

Dear Karen,

Long before my first book was published, long before I had even written it, I struggled with finding a way to put words on paper and have them become a story. Part of my study was to read a lot, and write of course, but also to go to as many readings and conferences as I could manage. At each conference or reading I sat in the audience and listened to someone introduce a writer. Each introduction included a list of degrees as well as published books and awards. I always despaired at this point in the program. A degree was what I did not have and knew I would never get, and because of this I would never be one of these writers standing at a podium.

If I bemoaned this to someone I was often told, “It’s never too late.” But it would always be too late for me, because I found going to school, any school, way too difficult. I couldn’t handle being around that many people. I couldn’t squeeze my body into the too small desks. I couldn’t tolerate the long hot suns of the buzzing florescent lights.

And besides the folks to whom I bemoaned my lack of education were missing the point. I didn’t want to go back to school to learn anything. I just wanted a degree, something to hang on the wall, something that could get said if I was ever introduced at a writer’s conference, something to prove I was part of the club.

Years later I finished my first novel and I got it published and I found myself behind the podium at a conference. Prior to this particular moment I’d largely kept mum about my background, and how I made my living. But this time I was so intimidated by the other writers I was appearing with that when it was my turn at the podium I thought I may as well stand here naked. I couldn’t feel any more vulnerable, or any more exposed by simply telling the truth about who I am. In fact telling the truth would feel good, because it is harder for me to act and lie than to be myself. So before I began my reading I told the audience that I had never been to college and that I made my living by cleaning houses and working in a grocery store. After the reading a beautiful, kind woman came up to me and took my hands in her soft powdery ones and said, “Never apologize for what you do.” She was a stark contrast to the writer who sought me out later that evening during drinks at the bar.

He sat next to me that night and said, “Good reading. But why did you tell them you never went to college? Why did you tell them about your job?”

“Because it’s true,” I answered.

“But why tell them that?”

Because it’s true,” I said again.

“But why do they need to know?”

Again, I insisted on the truth of it. Finally he lowered his glasses on his nose and peered over them and said slowly, as if speaking to a very dense child, “What I am trying to say is that no one is interested.”

I was so taken aback that I couldn’t reply. In fact I was so taken aback that the rest of the evening was a blur. I know we all had dinner together. I know I stayed sober while everyone else got knee-walking drunk, including the man who’d spoken to me earlier. “Nice reading. But why…?”

I didn’t want to talk to him. I never wanted to talk to him again. I was fuming at what he’d said and as I boarded the bus to leave the country club we’d dined at and be returned to the hotel, I strategically sat all the way in the back. I reasoned it was unlikely that a drunk would be able to navigate the narrow aisle to the back of the bus. I was right. The man plopped himself in a seat at the front. At the hotel I got off the bus and headed to my room as fast as I could. The next day I flew out of there, and that afternoon I was on my knees cleaning someone else’s toilet.

This was one of the most disheartening moments in my life as a published writer. The whole thing was demoralizing. What was said to me, and the fact that I still cleaned houses, and that I still worked in a grocery store. What was the point of building a writing life in which I was supposed to hide the truth about myself?

It took me many years to realize that when someone tells you that your story doesn’t matter, they are telling you that you don’t matter. “Your story isn’t like mine, and therefore it’s unimportant.” Isn’t that the way of history? To squelch some voices while raising others to the roof?

I tell you all this because I too have heard it said that the writing life is an “elitist construct,” but let me tell you, I never heard this trendy little epithet when I was cleaning houses for a living and simultaneously promoting my book. No one in the literary world patted me on the hand and said, “Don’t worry, dear. The writing life is an elitist construct anyway.” If I heard anything at all about my life as a house cleaner and as an “uneducated” writer, it was this: Don’t tell us about it. Don’t let us know that you’re not one of us. You’ve made it into the club. Don’t rock the boat. Pretend. Make us comfortable.

During my first book tour I could not help but reach out during a cocktail party and straighten a picture on the wall, or plump the pillows and smooth the upholstery when I got up off the couch. “OCD much?” another guest said to me. “Nope,” I answered. “I clean houses for a living. I can’t help it really. It’s just my training.”

Every time I let on that I was a house cleaner, I could feel intense discomfort in the room, in my host, in whoever thought they were talking to a brilliant writer only to find out I was really a maid masquerading as a writer. Even though I still fumed over it, I also insisted on mentioning it if the opportunity arose. By God, I did not become a writer in order to lose my voice.

“Make us comfortable. Don’t press the class issues in our faces. We’re just here to have fun, to celebrate your writing.” But you can’t celebrate my writing without knowing where I’ve been and what I’ve given up for it.

Fast forward: Now my job is writing and teaching. And now I hear that the writing life is an elitist construct. But it doesn’t feel so very different to me, because it seems to me that the phrase “elitist construct” is an intellectual construct meant to make some people comfortable. Saying this makes someone seem like they are painfully aware of the class divide, but no amount of throwing it around changes anything. Where are the workers at the conferences? Where are the workers when the writers gather at the bar? Where are the workers at the fancy-ass cocktail parties? I tell you where – they’re in the kitchen sticking the shrimp on skewers, or they’re circulating the room silently filling the wine glasses held aloft, or they’re turning down your sheets and putting a mint on your pillow.

Here’s what I see: I see writing and writers put on a pedestal, the same way that motherhood is put on a pedestal. Motherhood is held up as an ideal of womanhood, yet no real support is given for the birthing and raising of a child. It’s expensive. It’s painful. It’s heartbreaking sometimes. Everyone wants to coo over the baby, no one wants to provide affordable childcare.

Writers are revered in a similar way. Very few of us receive any sort of dependable support. Many of us are working our asses off trying to make a living. Most of us are piecing it together as we go. We deserve the occasional free meal, the occasional free drink, the occasional free book. Is this an elitist construct?


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6 Responses to Elitist Construct

  1. Rosemary says:

    This is interesting, and I can relate but also want to share another side. I’m a poet, and I wonder if that makes a difference in audience or community. When I first started writing, I felt inadequate. I was shy and became a workshop junkie, attending all kinds of writing weekends and sometimes weeklong seminars. I was surrounded by published poets when I had not published a thing and was debating the MFA route or not ( I eventually did). But as I read the bios of other poets, I saw a myriad of jobs–waitress, auto mechanic, insurance agent, to name a few. Maybe I stumbled upon those brave enough to be honest, maybe I disregarded all the academics who were/are also poets. But I took great relief in knowing there’s no ONE way to be a writer, except to write. I am sad you’ve had negative comments re:your way of earning a living. I’d be the one in the audience to be thrilled to hear the authenticity and would take joy in knowing that writers do, and should, come from a variety of bakgrounds.

    • admin says:

      Thank you, Rosemary. I too believe that there are many ways to be a writer. I wish I’d rubbed against more folks who had the job descriptions you mention when I was first published. I wrote an entire book about my experiences cleaning houses – I call it my “coming out book.” I just wanted it out on the table. I was tired of people saying to me that they wouldn’t mention it in their articles on me, as though I needed to be ashamed. I do think writing has become much more university focused over the years.

  2. Pam Van Dyk says:

    there is something about the “published” writing community that I have never been able to put my finger on until I read your post. Specifically, it is the idea that published authors make up a “club”. I agree. Maybe it’s because I feel as if I am constantly standing on my tip toes and jumping up and grasping at it. It’s my new glass ceiling, it’s exhausting, and it still seems so very far out of reach for me just now. Nevertheless, I want in!
    I have a Ph.D. It required many years of graduate school, (six to be exact) along with my sweat and tears to achieve, and I’m proud of it, I really am, but pushing up on fifty years of age, I find that what I really want to do is write fiction. It leads me to ask, what if I had taken those six years and all that brain power to practice writing instead of pouring over textbooks and plucking away at statistical software? It’s hard to say now. What I can say is that my degree has afforded me many opportunities, and it has taken away others. I appreciate that you offer a graceful alternative and an example to those who don’t have the resources, inclination, or desire to pursue a college degree but do have something important to share with the world. Thank-you.

    • admin says:

      I’ve come to realize that there really is a club, and there really isn’t a club. Sometimes it’s a just a whole bunch of people who know each other.

  3. Pam says:

    Hi Nancy,
    To thine own self be true. I think the key point of your story is that we need not apologize for our lives however we may have meandered, ventured, explored or held on by our fingernails.

    I am a recovering academic and have been advised, particularly by women it seems, to deny that I have a PhD. I guess men just internally make the sign of the cross or flip me the bird, or whatever makes them feel powerful. Not that I feel powerful or threatening or more entitled to anything. The degree is not a free pass on life and for the most part the training thereunto only serves to circumnavigate heart-tugging narrative. I gotta unlearn what I done been taught.

    The key to good story telling is telling a good story. Degrees be damned. Thank you for the reminder.

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