I began my writing career as a seventh-grade hack, crafting customized pubescent bodice rippers for the girls I desperately wanted as friends. Back then I didn’t worry about whether or not I belonged at the Grown-up Writers Table, I just wanted to sit and drink Diet Coke and eat Cheetos with these girls in the lunchroom. Writing was not an identity; it was a tool to manipulate people into liking me.
My classmates, teachers and parents all recognized me as a writer from my second-grade More Mice Co. comics through my 10-year-old spiritual doggerel and teen special-snowflake-feelings freeverse. But decades later, even though I write for a living, I still suspect I’m a fraud.
Last month, I attended the annual Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) conference and book fair—three days of 550 readings, panel discussions and pedagogy talks. Imagine 12,000 writers day-drinking under florescent lights perceiving, all at once, how little they matter to the publishing industry. Jockeying grad students, older writers tripping over their own vanity. Widely published writers, professors and those who want to be, all gathered to obsess about the written word, network, and have breakdowns in bathroom stalls. This year there was even a panel: “In Case You Think You Don’t Belong Here: Imposter Syndrome and AWP.”
My people did not go to conferences, traditionally. I am still trying to decode the language of business casual. But as a white, middle-class published author, the external signals say I do belong at AWP. So why do I also always feel like an interloper?
Part of it is that I’m a woman. Recently a male agent rejected my book about religion and puberty, saying that it needed a woman to represent it. Economist Kate Bahn, in an article about high-achieving women’s experience of Imposter Syndrome, describes it as a “twisted version of the Socratic Paradox: the more you know, the more you feel you know nothing.”
So what if no one in my family had college degrees when I was a kid. So what if I got pregnant instead of an MFA. So what if my first “published” writing was porn reviews.
Wandering the LA Convention Center, I stumbled into a poetry comics reading where I discovered that my impulses to draw crappy cartoons and assemble weird found poems from OK! magazine are not unique to me, or a waste of time. This panel was composed almost entirely of young women who formed their own presses and make the work they wanted to read.
Giddy with validation, I exited the conference center and got into a long line for coffee. While waiting, I ran into fellow Seattle writers Anastacia Renee Tolbert and Daemond Arrindell, who told me about a reading of African women poets that had changed the way they understood words working on the page and in our mouths. The reading hadn’t even been on my radar.
In that moment I realized that I’m visually represented everywhere at AWP—white ladies in eyeglasses abound. Yet I walk around fairly oblivious to the privilege that got me here, worrying over what I lack because I am not part of academia. Perhaps I am looking in the wrong spaces for inspiration and validation.
Thanks to Daemond and Anastacia’s recommendation, I caught a reading and discussion of Cave Canem, a fellowship for African American poets. California poet/librettist Douglas Kearney’s performance forged new neural pathways in my brain as his work turned and turned on itself. I found myself laughing then cringing, terrified and rapt. I didn’t know comedy and profundity could play off each other that way, or that surrealism and the middle passage belonged together, that a poet could voice the multitudes, literally, in caricatures of painful stereotypes. Who gave him permission to do this? Probably no one. Probably he did.
A few days after AWP, I was back in Seattle, visiting a 6th grade classroom at Washington Middle School where I’m a writer in residence. The nimble minds of these young writers leap like mountain goats: tenacious, fearless, quick. I was working with H, a confident and hardworking 11-year-old poet, who is a homeless, Muslim, brown girl. When I asked her what she likes about writing, she told me she loves the color turquoise and even though she can’t paint her room that color, she can write a poem that is that color, and paint the inside of her mind turquoise. She writes that color is “the things that move inside you / the color of that tiger.”
How vital it is for a student like H to go to a conference and see Warsan Shire, a young, Kenyan-born Somali-British poet, up on the podium, to know that she belongs there. And for me to go to AWP and see a poet who published herself on Twitter and Tumblr, who was not necessarily handed validation from white guy professors, but who made work anyway and believed in it.
No writer needs to wait for permission. To paraphrase author and activist Rebecca Solnit, maybe what we need is not more counseling. Maybe what we need is a revolution.