#CripLit chat: disabled writers, ableism and the publishing industry

I’m way way late to the Aug 29 #CripLit chat, because I got caught in between hostels in NYC without internet access. This was good for my actual writing, which is what I’m working on, not good for social media engagement. Which, whatever, screw social media, but this is a good chat, and I have Thoughts. And in the interest of not flooding my timeline with disconnected tweets, here they are:

A1: I write SF/F, and have published a few things in semi/pro markets: Elegy for the Green Earthrise; Fishhook. Pretty much all my writing deals with disability-related themes like ‘bodies: what are they?’ and ‘what does healthy mean, really, when you get down to it?’

I also run (along with some other great women) a SF/F writers group that does study halls, critique groups and open mics in Seattle.

A2: I suppose I became a writer twice: when I started telling myself stories as a kid (when I was twelve I was determined to be an actual dragon), and then after I was injured and came to terms with the fact that I’m permanently, catastrophically disabled and will never work a conventional job. That’s when I put my mind to actually finishing stories and trying to get them published.

A3: It’s hard for me to tell exactly how ableist the publishing industry is. There are stories I’ve written and sent out and gotten feedback from editors along the lines of ‘this is a cool story but we’re meh on the ending.’ And the ending is an ending where the protagonist stays disabled after the central conflict of the story is resolved, because I hate the message that if you don’t get better then you’ve fucked up somehow. Health is not a reward you earn for overcoming your opponents. So anyway though, maybe my stories are just not good enough in other ways, or not what the editors need at the moment. I’m still learning and becoming a better writer. So… when there are so many other reasons for rejection, I tell myself it’s probably not ableism on the editor’s part, and work harder to get better. But realistically there’s probably some ableism there.

A4: I am not a social model devotee. My main barrier to participating in any industry, as a disabled person, is my disability, the facts of my body, not the structure of society. No matter how great the publishing industry gets, there’s never going to be a world where I can do any one thing for even three or four hours a day. I’m always going to be slow, physically and mentally.

That said, there have been more than a couple times where my writer friends have been able to participate in things like conventions, or Clarion West, or MFA programs, and it’s striking to me just how far out of my reach participation in formal avenues for improving my writing are. I simply am unable to travel to the city, sit in air-conditioned conference rooms for hours, keep track of lots of people in a big, noisy space, walk the distances around a convention center, etc. And Christ, don’t even get me started on the way the poverty that comes with being disabled is an insurmountable barrier all on its own.

A5: Was I expecting barriers? I don’t know that I was expecting anything. Actually, no, I started writing with the idea that my stories were all going to be about queer people. I expected that that might be a Thing, but haven’t found it to be, really. I’ve never been in a situation where there was a practical barrier to my accessing a thing that I was able to, like, contact the organizers and have them fix and then things were fine. I’ve encountered barriers like: I know I won’t be able to attend more than one or two scheduled things a day at a convention, so it would be a waste of limited funds, so I don’t bother to sign up.

A6: Join a critique group and get serious about hearing critique of your work and taking it into account when you revise your writing. Learning to honor feedback has been the most important part of my development as a writer. I think every writer has to have a certain audacity. We all believe that we have something important to say, otherwise we wouldn’t be writers. But other people may have very valuable insights that will make your work better.

A7: There’s two layers to being a professional writer. First, you have to write publishable (so, competently written and appealing to a large audience) work, and write it well. Second, you have to be your own marketer, which can encompass everything from going to conventions and networking with other writers, to running an entertaining social media account and building followers, to going on tour and doing readings and signings. Writing well is its own kind of challenge, but because it’s done in your own space and time with your own tools, it’s one of the most adaptable forms of work. Marketing, not so much. And it’s the marketing that makes you a professional, isn’t it.

A8: If I knew the answer to this, I feel like I’d be a lot more successful, geez. I don’t know. Start small? Start in a way that makes sense for you, whether that’s going to local events in familiar venues like your local bookstore, or reaching out on twitter or other social media. If you’re in Seattle, I try to make sure all our North Seattle SFF Writers meetups are accessible! and if there’s something in particular that would make it easier for you to attend that I haven’t done, I’m totally happy to work on it as best I can — which means if I can figure out how to do it for free, I will. We literally do not have a budget.

A9: I haven’t done an industry survey or anything, but I feel like there’s a lot of fiction out there, first of all, by able-bodied authors and without any disability anything in it. Beyond that, there’s a lot of depiction of disabilities that are manageable — they don’t ‘ruin’ the story. So you get people with cool scars, the kind of autism that makes you a brilliant scientist who tells quirky nerd jokes, maybe some of the kinds of injuries that are what I think of as ‘Weird News’ injuries: someone gets a brain injury and suddenly has hemispatial neglect but no other lingering symptoms of injury!

Like, in real life, you get in an accident and not only do you get weird neurology, you also get intense pain that never ever goes away, you get fatigue, you get inability to focus or manage emotions, you get all the related mental deficits like inability to stay awake, inability to process language, inability to make decisions, anxiety, nightmares, etc. And on top of that you have your physical symptoms: loss of range of motion, scarring, weakness, numbness, tingling. All at once. I never ever see that kind of disability in fiction, because it sucks and makes it so you actually can’t do things. But I would like to see it, because that’s my reality, and I want to believe that I have a story worth telling. So, it would be nice to see that sort of thing published and promoted. Even nicer if its written by people with firsthand experience of that kind of disability. (Even even nicer if that person is me. Buy my novel manuscript, is what I’m saying.)

A10: Disabled people are likely to be telling stories that are unfamiliar to you as an able-bodied person. Just take some time to listen. I think you’ll find the value in what we’re saying if you just slow down.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Joanne Rixon’s story.