• Sandra Beasley
  • On Adrienne Rich, Letting Go of Genre, & Celebrating the April 3 Paperback Release of DON'T KILL...
On Adrienne Rich, Letting Go of Genre, & Celebrating the April 3 Paperback Release of DON'T KILL THE BIRTHDAY GIRL (Book Giveaway!)
Written by
Sandra Beasley
April 2012
Written by
Sandra Beasley
April 2012

"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.

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  • Sandra Beasley

    CONGRATULATIONS to the winners, who each get a copy of Don't Kill the Birthday Girl in paperback:

    Olga Godim

    Stephanie Nuss

    Please message me with a mailing address & we'll get those books in the mail. Thanks to all who commented!

  • Sandra Marchetti

    I remember sitting in a small used bookstore in Charleston, SC reading Adrienne Rich's Sources.  I forgot what space I was in.  When I "woke up," I bought that book.

  • Olga Godim

    I have lots of food allergies,but I suspect they are not as much to food really as they are to harmful chemicals most our food contains nowadays. To lessen my problems, I never eat anything from a box or a can, always prepare my food from raw products and drink only filtered water. It helps.

    As for genre - I don't know. I'm a journalist and I've written one mainstream novel (unpublished yet), but most of my fiction is genre - fantasy. I seem to be unable to let it go. Even when I want to write mainstream, some fantastic element worms its way into my writing. I guess I'm stuck. LOL.

  • Pamela Olson

    I like the idea of letting go of genre -- partly because my book (Fast Times in Palestine) doesn't fit neatly into any one genre, and this was a big hurdle to getting published for a long time. (I just got a publisher last week, after four years of trying.) The book is, essentially, a memoir, but it's also a travelogue, a star-crossed love story, narrative journalism, and a colorful introduction to Palestinian culture and history.

    So many editors said the same thing: "I loved the story, loved the writing, but where does this fit? I don't know how we'll market it."

    I didn't try for any genre. I just wrote what I felt needed to be written. And hopefully the publisher who finally took a chance will be able to market a good story with good writing! Isn't that what it's really about?

    As for allergies, I never had any in my life until I moved to New York. Now I can't eat dairy without getting painfully congested, and my skin and sinuses get dry even though they didn't in California or Palestine. I'll have to stay here for a while for various reasons, but my body apparently can't wait to leave.

  • Stephanie Nuss

    Allergies used to consume my life. I was getting 3 allergy shots weekly and ironically after I stopped them, I felt better without them yet I still had many allergies. I too go on walks and I live out in the country where most of the allergens I am affected by are located but I've found that daily Allegra helps and I avoid the foods that do bother me which are only a few thankfully. I'm glad that I have not let allergies get the best of me like I did when I was younger. I am now a young adult, graduating from college in May and ready to see what the world has to offer. I am also a collector of many books (I'm in the process of building a library) in which my friends and family turn to when they need a good read and I love it. Reading lets me forget about things like allergies and enjoy a great imagination fueled by a spirited author. However I do love reading about things I should know more about like allergies since I've been blessed with them. I look forward to hopefully adding Sandra's book to my collection as well as spreading it around to friends and family members who also suffer from allergies.

  • Carol Clouse

    I like the letting go of genre thing . And allergies actually sent me in the direction of slowing my breathing and doing a gentle meditational walk every morning, which is when amazing things come to me!... So I keep a pad and pen nearby!

  • Laurie A. Jacobs

    I love the idea of expanding our horizons as writers. Thanks for setting another example of how it's done.

  • Evelyn N. Alfred

    I'd like to win.

  • Bonnie Auslande

    Rich and Woolf (gosh, and Dicksinson too) come to think of it are sisters in my personal pantheon! Thank you, Sandra, for this post, and many paperback returns of the day (wait, block that metaphor)--congratulations to you!

  • Sandra Beasley

    If you're interested in receiving a FREE copy of the paperback edition of DON'T KILL THE BIRTHDAY GIRL: TALES FROM AN ALLERGIC LIFE, all you have to do it leave a comment! (If you're not a member of SheWrites, make sure we have some way to get in touch with you.) The winners will be announced here on Wednesday morning~