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Woman Spreading

Dear, dear WU friends,

It has come to my attention that I’m going to have to let this column go for awhile. I’m swamped and overloaded and I’m not giving this blog the time it deserves.

So, I’m going to finish the year, and then take a sabbatical.  I’m not sure how long I need—but at least until next fall.

For this month, when I very nearly forgot again that I had something due, I leave you with a talk I gave at the WFWA in September, on Spreading Our Legs.  

Love,
Barbara
PS I do read male writers, by the way (just read Overstory) and I love you guys, too.  This was a rallying cry. 

 

Keynote for Women’s Fiction Writers Association, September 2019

I’ve been binging Harlots, a show about 18th century harlots on Hulu.  About halfway through the first season, I noticed something.  The women who had power and knew it sat with legs akimbo beneath their long skirts in a position we now call “man-spreading.”   

It really struck me, and when I noticed it, I kept seeing it and then thinking about it some more.  These women were taking up space.

I thought about it again when I was on the plane on the way here. A very skinny old man kept bumping my leg. He was in the middle, and I swear he wasn’t any bigger than a grasshopper, but he couldn’t seem to help himself from man spreading into my space.  It was really getting on my nerves.

Taking up space.  As if it belonged to him and he didn’t have to worry about my thoughts or feelings on the issue.  Because he probably didn’t even NOTICE. He’s just been taking up all the space he wants for his entire life.  He hasn’t had to fight for every inch of it the way most of us have.

On another plane ride this week, I watched On the Basis of Sex, the story about Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s first gender-discrimination case.  I cried all the way through it—that she was denied so many things and worked so damned hard, and it wasn’t fair, but she just kept swinging.  And now she’s there, fighting for all of us, and fighting to stay alive so she can do this one last thing.

When I first started writing, the books that we are here to celebrate didn’t even exist. Women’s fiction.  It just wasn’t a genre yet.  This was the mid-eighties, and there were a handful of women novelists writing big sagas or glitz, but the vast, varied, beautiful genre we have created did not exist.

I remember the moment that I understood that I wanted to write for women.  I was living in a bungalow with my husband and two little boys. I had a couple of cats and a dog and a big garden and I loved to feed my family fresh vegetables I’d grown.

I was learning to make jam, and that summer, the plums were beautiful.  I made a big batch of plum jam and lined it up in quilted glass jars to cool on the counter.  I was thinking about my great-grandmother, and my grandmother, who never canned a thing or sewed a stitch in her life, and about my mother who’d found great joy in domesticity.  It struck me that what I wanted to write about what THIS, about my own life, about being a mother and being a daughter and being a woman in this particular place in time.

It occurred to me that I wanted, very clearly, to write for WOMEN.

It also occurred to me that I had no idea how to do that.

There was no market at that time for women’s fiction.

It’s easy to think, when you’ve not yet seen your work in print, that every writer who is publishing was….I don’t know…BORN published or something.

It’s hard for all of us. Every last one of us has to fight to see our work in print, and then to stay in print.

I’m a published author who was once aspiring.

I wanted to be a writer from the day in fifth grade when I finished the book I was reading and then read the bio in the back, and thought, SOMEBODY, An actual person, wrote this book.  It’s a JOB.

And if that’s a job, why would you do anything else?

I studied journalism in college because my father, who knew I wanted to write novels, feared for my security.  I was fairly good at it.  I liked the work, talking to people, getting their stories, but it was always just a stopgap.   I wanted to write fiction.

I tended bar through college, and one afternoon, I overheard a reporter I adored tell her friend that one day she was going to quit her job and write the great American novel. My heart stopped. She was like, old, maybe 40, and I knew in that instant that she was never going to quit the paper.

It was a moment of absolute reckoning:  if I did not write books now, I would never do it.  I went home and asked my husband if he’d give me five years to sell a book.  I was just about to graduate. I had a job lined up at the paper where I interned.  We were finally going to have some money and some security.

But God love him, he gulped and said, “Okay.”

And let me say, I wasn’t going to go write for myself.  I burned to publish. I had no desire whatsoever to write in my garrett all alone. I burned–still do–to communicate ideas, thoughts, dreams, hopes to others. Communication is not completed until there is someone on the listening end. I was determined to figure out where I should be writing, and just kept trying venues: literary short stories, articles, novels, science fiction, “mainstream”novels.

It wasn’t until I had the revelation about plum jam that I understood that I needed to write for women.  I looked around, and realized—oh, romance.

Our market, this market, women’s fiction, came directly out of women writers, many of them who began in cozy mysteries or romance, creating a genre that suited them.  A lot of my contemporaries are the writers who started making that happen.  Writers like Diane Chamberlain and Emilie Richards, Kristin Hannah—who wrote a bunch of romances before she started writing women’s fiction, by the way—Susan Wiggs, and Susan Mallery (who’s started out with me in Special Editions, in case you didn’t know that).

What did exist, for all of the women writers trying to get a foot in the door, was romance novels.  I read a lot of them, and what I realized that the romance novels I read were about women. Women’s lives. Women’s view of the world, of falling in love.  Women winning. Straight contemporary romance was a little more narrow than the canvas I wanted, but I thought maybe I could work with it.  I could tell true stories about women and relationships and domesticity within romances.

Talk about taking up space! Romance novels were taking up a lot of space in the eighties and nineties.  So much space that it started really pissing off the male literary establishment.  Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of women found a voice in writing romance novels for that hungry machine.

I don’t know the statistics of before and after, but it would be a great, feminist study—how man women wrote before romance novels? And how many are writing now?

I do know that there has never been a genre so virulently, furiously despised as romance.  Why is that do you suppose?  Because they’re terrible? Because they’re “unrealistic”?

Of course not.  There are bad romance novels, of course, just as there are bad literary novels and bad mystery novels. People don’t barf over entire genres the way they do over romance.  Could it possibly be because romances were written by and for women, mostly edited entirely by women?  Probably.

They were taking up a lot of space and the male literary establishment was not pleased.

But back to that struggling working class woman who wanted so desperately to be a writer.  Even when I realized that romance would probably be a good place for me to write, AND it would pay me, it was still a struggle.

It always is.

Sometimes, I despaired. Sometimes, I cried a lot over it. Sometimes, it was hard for me to believe enough to keep the naysayers from undermining me completely.

The things that kept me going were a lot of the same kinds of things I hear other writers saying: I had something to prove:  I wanted to prove to my father that writing novels was a good thing and could support me.  I wanted to prove to my mother that I was a writer for real.  I wanted to prove to my sister that I could finish something. I wanted to publish so  that everyone would stop looking at me like some pathetic weirdo, and see that I was about something.

Some of you, on your road to publication will be asked to make sacrifices, without ever knowing what the outcome will be.

In 1988, I’d been seriously trying to publish for three years.  There was a depression on in Pueblo, where I lived at the time.  The steel mill industry had collapsed and the city was in dire straits.  My ex was shagging pizzas to keep a roof over our heads.  I was taking care of my boys and working in a bowling alley—and all the time, I had that journalism degree that would have kept us comfortably in diapers for the children and probably many other luxuries.  But I knew, absolutely, that if I worked for the paper in the daytime, I’d never write my novels.   And I also knew the one thing I couldn’t bear in life was not giving it everything I had.

In 1988, I was close to despair.  We didn’t have a telephone, and I was driving an ancient pickup truck and I knew we couldn’t hang on much longer.

But it was also the year of half-yeses. Maybes.  let me see it agains.  Many of you are probably enduring a year just like it—you know you’re close.  You can smell it, sense it, taste it.  RIGHT THERE.

It’s when they stop saying no with form letters and scrawled notes at the bottom of your query.  When you start getting some constructive criticism and encouragement. When they say, “I liked a lot of it, but not enough to buy it.  They say, “Rewrite and I’ll take another look.”

It’s a contest win and a promising note from an editor.

And another rejection.

Agony.

It’s a friend making his first sale and you’ve been writing longer.  Agony.

It’s you writing longer than anyone else you know and you know people are sometimes whispering behind your back at chapter meetings, “Why does she keep GOING?”

The answer is: because you have to.  Because it matters.  Because if you believe long enough, you will break through.

In 1988, my husband said to me one night: I don’t think we can keep on like this much longer.

My father said, “I know you believe, honey, but maybe some security wouldn’t be such a bad thing.”

Marge, the cook at the awful, 12-lane bowling alley where I slung beers for steel workers who never tipped, said, “People like us don’t have dreams like that.”

(As I wrote this part of the talk, my eye started to twitch.)

But every day I walked my son to school, and I would say to him, “One of these days, there’s going to be a letter in that mailbox that says, “YES barbara samuel, we want to publish your novel.”  He believed me, and so I believed a little more.

Two days before Thanksgiving that year, my boys and I had the flu.  I mean, really had the flu. My father showed up at the door.  I didn’t have a phone, so my submissions all had his number on them, and he said, “An editor from New York called and she wants you to call her back.”  I knew they didn’t just call for no reason, but I was afraid to get my heart broken again, so we all just piled in his car and drove over there.  I called her, Amy Yael Inman, her name will forever be carved in my heart, like my first love, like my children, and she said, We love the book and want to publish it.

When I came down the stairs, Ian, my five year old came over and put his hand in mine, and said, “Mommy, they said yes.”

And let me tell you, every published writer in this room will tell you that really is one of the great moments of your life.  It’s WORTH working toward.  Never forget that.  Never stop imagining it.  Never stop believing in it.

Ten years after that, a lot of women writers started breaking out into what was then called “single title contemporary”.  Many of them still had a central romance, but more and more, they also included other themes and stories. I’d written twenty category novels and seven big historical romances, but when I saw what was happening with single titles, I really wanted to try my hand.

I had and have a very multicultural life and I ached to write stories about all the people in my life, so I wrote In the Midnight Rain, which is the story of a woman going to east Texas to find out the story of her dead mother.  It was a love song to my husband’s family and to my Texas family and to the blues and music and secrets about mothers and grandmothers, and about vocation and how it makes or breaks you.   

It was a very successful book, much to my astonishment.  My romances were often too much about the woman’s journey to truly succeed as romances.  In finally being able to write the story I wanted to write, in a genre that really didn’t have a name yet, I found the chair that fit just right.

And I sat down and man-spread my legs. Oh, it felt so good.

==========

Part of this journey for all of us, is finding our authentic voice. Finding the truest things about our own beliefs in order to offer them to the world.  That’s not always easy in a world that is filled with noise, one that bombards us with a thousand ideas a minute, and asks us to take a stand, constantly, on everything from politics to what color a dress is on the Internet.  Weigh in! The world says.

But that is not the way to authenticity or to finding your truth and your voice.  Finding your voice and your truth are the way you will write your best work and connect with your own particular readers.   

What do you believe in?

In one of my classes, a student posted a beautiful paragraph declaring her beliefs.  It was based on the speech by Keven Costner, in Bull Durham, when he said so famously “I believe in long, slow kisses that last three days.”

So we all did the exercise, and these are some of the things I came up with:

I believe words can change the world, truly, and the right sentence at the right moment can turn a life from despair to progress.

 I believe I was born to write stories, and that’s the main reason I’m on the earth this time around. I don’t think that necessarily entitles me to great riches and fame, but it does grant me a certain cachet of eccentricity, and that’s almost as good.

I believe in travel, in wandering far shores to discover all my bullshit and my earnestness and honor.  I believe in earnestness.

I believe in beauty. Beautiful songs and beautiful skies and beautiful days and beautiful pears and beautiful pillows.

I believe God loves me and everybody else, even the people I’d personally leave out of the Love Everybody Commandment, like certain politicians and  Idi Amin and my ex-lover, and She wants me to succeed and help others to succeed and She uses my hands to do Her work, so when I’m being pitiful and awful, I’m not really doing Her work.

———————

What do you believe in? 

In terms of writing, my writing and your writing, I believe in passion.  I believe that passion and vocation are the voice of the divine within you.

I believe there is a lot more good luck in the writing game than there is bad luck.

I believe in showing up and in staying present, living in this moment.   

I believe that love really does conquer all, and that means beginning by loving yourself and honoring who YOU are.

I believe that we are all here on the planet to carry out our own particular tasks, and that we are so unique, so incredible, so particular that it couldn’t possibly be an accident that we are here, that we burn with the desires we have.

I believe we are so much more mighty than we ever imagine.

WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE IN? Do you believe in yourself?

Even if you don’t, that’s ok.  I believe in you.

I want to read your stories. I want to read all the stories women write, from every culture and every country and continent and every possible kind of experience from all the women in the world. Frankly, I don’t care about the men’s stories, and I almost never read novels written by men because I don’t care right now.

I want to know what it’s like for you. I want to know what all of my sisters are thinking. I want to sit next to you and listen as you tell me your stories.  All of them, the good ones and the bad ones and the ones you love the most and the ones that hurt almost too much to tell.  Please write them.    

As a teacher and speaker, my call is always the same: to tell you, over and over and over and over and over again:

You are unique in all the world.  You are here on this planet, in this time, in this place, with these hungers burning in you, for a reason.  You have work to do, and if you do not do your work, it might not ever get done.

So, however hard it is, whatever obstacles you face, keep writing.  I need to read your stories. Let’s take up a lot of space and heal this world. 

About Barbara O'Neal [1]

Barbara O'Neal [2] has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life [3], which landed her in the RWA Hall of Fame and was a Target Club Pick. She is a highly respected teacher who also publishes material for writers at Patreon.com/barbaraoneal. She is at work on her next novel to be published by Lake Union in July. A complete backlist is available here [4].

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