"The most notable fact our culture imprints on women is the sense of our limits. The most important thing one woman can do for another is to illuminate and expand her sense of actual possibilities."
- Adrienne Rich (1929-2012)
Like many, I mourned the death of Adrienne Rich last week. I've read plenty of her poems over the years in classrooms and at home. But my clearest memory with her words is an afternoon I spent with her collected essays, Arts of the Possible (W. W. Norton, 2001). I'd found a review copy floating around the offices of my first job, as an administrative assistant at the national headquarters of a collegiate honor society.
I was 22. I was standing at the Xerox machine. Our annual Senate elections were coming up, and we needed bios of all the candidates to circulate among voters. I'd been instructed to gather the bios from the Marquis WHO'S WHO books. This was before the days of digital database text. So for each candidate I'd flip through indexes to figure out which year/edition he could be found in (all but one was a man), angle the oversized 30-pound edition of Who's Who onto the scanner bed, approximate the right reduction size, clip and line up chunks of text to hide any page breaks, and then make a clean copy from my Frankenstein of paper to be collated in alphabetized packets. It took over four hours.
The task was mind-numbing, but Rich kept me company. Each time I hit the green button to illuminate the scanner bed, I'd steal a minute to read a page or three. On top of my job, I was earning an MFA in poetry by taking three-hour evening seminars at American University. I was following Rich's advice: “You must write, and read, as if your life depended on it.” And it did. My body was trapped in a boring gray office, wearing practical shoes and an Ann Taylor sweater set I'd seen on several other women in Dupont Circle that morning. Yet my mind was tightrope-walking at the edge of the universe. Here was a woman with strong opinions, insightful ideas, and ferocity in tone. I wanted to be like her.
A few days ago I was at a literary festival where we had a roundtable discussion on writing. I am unfiltered when it comes to talking about the business side of publishing, whether it be a story of how I got lucky or how I worked my ass off. A fellow author suggested that to bring three books out in five years must mean I draft all the time, but I'm no graphomaniac. What I am is a peculiar combination of stubborn (I admit) and versatile (I hope).
So here's what I told them, and what I'm telling you: Let go of your genre.
On the eve of turning 30, I got the chance to write a memoir. For a few years after that I would say "I'm a poet who has a memoir." Now, in 2012, I am learning to introduce myself by saying I am a writer.
Expand your sense of actual possibility. Don't say you're a memoirist, a romance novelist, a formalist. That just gives a reader the chance to put you into a slightly smaller box. That just gives an editor an excuse to say No. And who knows? Maybe the only reason you're not an essayist is because you haven't tried writing an essay yet.
At the time of reading Arts of the Possible, I thought of myself as a poet getting to know another poet. But Adrienne Rich's voice is genre-less. It has the force of water: seeking the crack in every stone, bubbling up through the soil, vital, clear, fluid. She didn't just dive the wreck. She was the river. Hell, she was the tidal wave. When she had something to say in verse, she said it in verse. If it fit better in a speech or a letter or an essay, so be it. The point wasn't poetry or prose; the point was having something to say. She didn't say "write poems as if you're life depended on it." She said Write.
Tuesday, April 3 marks the paperback release of DON'T KILL THE BIRTHDAY GIRL: TALES FROM AN ALLERGIC LIFE, which PEOPLE magazine described as "A sufferer's witty, sobering account of living with life-threatening food allergies."
In this book, I am truthful about how I've handled my allergies (deadly, lifelong) at my best and my worst, in hopes of an honest conversation. I believe Adrienne Rich's dictate that "When a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her." I also look beyond my story by examining the cultural history of allergies in America, the latest science of treatment, and social challenges to who navigate the world with dietary restrictions. Because food isn't just sustenance--food is a way we bond.
Broadway Books is giving away two copies of DKTBG to members of the SHEWRITES community. Interested? Leave a comment below. I'd love it if comments included a sentence or two about a way in which allergies affects YOUR world, OR a way in which a woman expanded the "sense of actual possibility" for your writing life. That could be as simple as passing along a beloved book or a few words of advice.
Entries will close at midnight (EST) on Tuesday. Two winners will be selected at random, and we will update with an announcement on Wednesday morning.
GOOD LUCK~and thanks for sharing this exciting day with me!
SANDRA BEASLEY is also the author of the poetry collections I Was the Jukebox, winner of the 2009 Barnard Women Poets Prize, and Theories of Falling, which won the 2007 New Issues Poetry Prize. Her honors include a DCCAH Individual Artist Fellowship, the Friends of Literature Prize from the Poetry Foundation, and the Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award from Poets & Writers, Inc. She lives in Washington, D.C.