I’m risk-averse, at least financially. My mother felt trapped in a bad marriage by her lack of education and her sense that she couldn’t earn a decent living. I remember thinking as a child: come hell or high water, I WILL have my own salary, health insurance, retirement fund. I will never have to sit and swallow it while a man puts me down, mocks what I don’t know and can’t do.
There’s no such thing as perfect safety in money or anything else, but tenure’s about as close as I’m going to get: I have a job I love, a fair amount of freedom in what I say and write, and even a little fund for annual conference attendance. This year I spent a big chunk of the latter at the AWP in Boston, an 11,000-person conclave of writers blowing all kinds of crazy smoke. I had several gigs to perform. One of them was to describe modernist poetry performance for Iris Jamahl Dunkle’s very rich panel, “Shaking the Burning Birch Tree: A Celebration of Amy Lowell.” Another was to interview Rafael Campo for a magazine. A third was to emcee a panel I’d devised with the distinctly risky title of “Career Suicide.” As I said to the well-populated room, I had worried for months that audience members would rise up and berate me for being too flip about one word and too serious about the other—that is, using suicide as a metaphor for risks that are typically less apocalyptic, and for implying that writers should think in terms of “career” at all. After all, publishing and professorships are in some ways pretty tangential to the difficult and important business of getting the words right. Isn’t conceiving of writing as a career the beginning of a whole mess of problems?
I did register a number of people grimacing painfully when I told them the name of the panel, but no one stormed out. Instead, we had a pretty good conversation; I’m still pondering what we said and what we left unsaid. How much is any one of us willing to reveal, really, when the room is full of current and future readers, editors, and grantors? Talk about career suicide.
What we did say: a big topic was the risk inherent in switching or bridging genres. Lawrence Schimel has some particularly compelling stories about how writing gay poetry and erotica has been an obstacle to publishing children’s fiction under his own name in the US, but a useful credential-builder in Spain for the same enterprise. Place was a major theme, too. Luisa Igloria described leaving a thriving career in the Philippines for a position in the US where her previous accomplishments seemed to weigh little. She and Lawrence spoke movingly, too, about how marriage laws and cultural understandings of gender make a big difference in a writer’s life. Ann Fisher-Wirth told us about leaving a prestigious job where she was unhappy and eventually creating a career that fit her needs and talents just right. There were similar stories from the audience: sometimes, if you’re stubborn enough about what you want and/or what you feel compelled to write, you survive the hostility and resistance to make a decent place for yourself. We talked a little about physical risk, some about financial risk, probably most about reach and reputation. We broached the topic of the astounding generosity I see in many writers, but probably didn’t address it sufficiently: for example, editorial work, university service, or outreach to underserved populations make it difficult to get your own writing done but can make the world better. There’s so much to say about risk, really. It encompasses everything from how you word the first line of a poem to how you live on earth.
I like to bloviate about myself as much as any author, but I genuinely did call this panel together to hear what others had to say rather than dispense pearls of dubious wisdom. My own genre experiments were certainly on my mind, though. I’m thrilled by the good reception so far of The Receptionist and Other Tales, starting with those blurbs from sf writers I’ve never met but have adored for years, and peaking recently in a great review by Sally Rosen Kindred in Strange Horizons and a place on the Tiptree Award Honor List. I’m unequivocally proud of the book. But I do see now how a genre change can jeopardize the audience you’ve been building instead of, or in addition to, expanding that audience to include new readers. When I tell poets and editors about the venture, some of them just get this look, and I know they won’t even read the first page. I wonder about the implications for future reviews, grants, and opportunities.
But you know, while I’m scared, I’m not the least bit sorry. The creative dangers of this project have started conversations I’m enjoying wickedly. They’ve also somehow authorized more risk-taking in my new writing: I’m a little more likely to leap before I look.