Sunday, September 18, 2011

Disabled Writers Need Not Submit

This started out as a simple, short gripe. Unfortunately, someone came along, during the two hours I was writing it, and expanded on my point.

My original point was this:

Apparently it's not challenging enough to be a writer with multiple, disabling chronic illnesses that prevent you from working full-time (or really, even part-time) or taking assignments that involve going anywhere or reading anything (especially reading it with comprehension or retention) or doing things by, you know, deadline. And obviously you can forget about being able to go to classes or writing groups or conferences or workshops.

But that doesn't mean it's impossible, right? It's only almost impossible. (It's the American way!) So, there's hope.

As someone who somehow manages to be ridiculously optimistic while giving everyone the impression that she's a complete pessimist, I continue to look for writing opportunities. Whenever I look through calls for submissions, I always skip over the fellowships and artists-in-residence listings, because those require you to go somewhere (a college, a retreat center, etcetera), and there are so, so, so many reasons why that would be impossible for me, it's not worth listing.

Be that as-it-shouldn't-be, there are also calls for anthologies and magazines, and writing contests. These are all game -- normally.

Lately, I've been on a flash fiction tear, so when I saw a post about Esquire Magazine's flash fiction contest, I decided to enter it. I read through the rules, and came to this:
Entrants must be available to attend and participate in the workshop in New York City on dates and at locations to be scheduled by Sponsor and Aspen Writer's Foundation if selected as a finalist and to attend and participate the 2012 Aspen Summer Words if selected as the winner. Once chosen, finalists must confirm their attendance with details of travel arrangements on or before October 17, 2011, otherwise another finalist will be selected.
Does Esquire have any idea of the number of people they've just eliminated from even entering? This includes people (mostly women) who can't leave their kids behind (the prize pays for plane fare but not childcare!) and people whose jobs don't provide that kind of flexibility (the prize does not cover time off from work).

It also includes lots and lots of disabled people. Everyone with multiple chemical sensitivity. Everyone who has an illness that requires frequent or on-going treatment at a specialized clinic or hospital (dialysis, cancer treatment) at defined intervals. Everyone who is confined to home or bed by physical illness. People with various types of mental illness, such as agoraphobia or various other anxiety disorders, and on and on.

Really, I'd like the organizers to change the name of this contest to the "Esquire Flash Fiction Contest for Writers Who Can Travel." Catchy, no?

Not that this is new. When Peggy Munson, who, like me, has severe MCS, CFIDS, and Lyme disease, was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award, I was excited. In part, this was because she's my friend, and even though I wasn't able to read her book, I know she's a phenomenal writer and deserved it. I was also excited because, since she could not be physically present at all the various Lammy events, I naively thought that the organizers and the rest of the GLBT literary establishment might have to absorb the tiniest bit of awareness about these illnesses.

Instead, what happened was that Peggy sent a DVD for one of the readings, and the organizers chose not to play the DVD, even though they'd advertised her as reading, and it had been in the plans for the reading. It turned into a nice brouhaha about censorship of femmes (as not real lesbians), of genderqueerness (because some of her characters were not identifiably one gender or another), and of the invisibilizing of people with disabilities.

Since that time, it has been my secret desire (now revealed!) to get my work into a big enough arena that nondisabled people would have to care about remote access. (Or even, to remotely care about access.) That, if what I did was a big enough deal, they would basically be forced to create access. (See what I mean about being ridiculously optimistic?)

Usually what happens when my work is published in an anthology is that the editor and/or other contributors set up readings. I email them and tell them I'd love to participate, but that I can't travel due to my disabilities and ask if I could participate by speakerphone or other remote means. Usually the response I get is:

(Shh. That's the sound of silence.

Sometimes they say that they will try, and then it doesn't work out. Sometimes they just flat-out say no. The only readings I have given remotely are those organized by me or someone else with a disability.

I have actually given readings by speakerphone -- and answered questions that way -- and by audio tape. I have set up readings for people (such as Peggy) by DVD. Peggy and I co-wrote a piece for a reading that was read by one of the other writers, since we were both too sick to attend. We heard that it went over very well, in large part because the person reading it did such a terrific job.

Once, I was to attend a reading by speakerphone, but the speakerphone didn't work. I had sent ahead a tape and player of my reading because I never know if my voice will work day-to-day anyway. But I wanted to take part in the discussion (which was terrific). Thus, during the discussion about the book, someone passed a cell-phone to whomever in the audience or among the readers was making a comment or asking a question so that I could hear what was being said. Everyone else, who wasn't speaking, tried to be very quiet, and everyone took turns. The entire room participated in creating access, and the overwhelming comment from everyone was how much they enjoyed that -- that the phone became like the "talking stick."

By now, there are even more ways to communicate from a distance, using the internet, so you would think there would be even more openness to access, right? Well, ironically, while I was writing this post (I promise you, I had no idea this would happen), a friend of mine who teaches disability studies at a university asked on Facebook, "When you cannot be present at a conference in person, what is your favorite way to get information about it? ... Facebook? Twitter?..."

She had started her note by particularly asking her "DS people." I assumed DS meant disability studies, and this clearly seemed to me to be a disability access question. Several people replied, including one who said that presenters should definitely not Skype in because it's "boring," "ridiculous," and "complicated." She added, "Nobody's that important.... If you're sick, stay home."

It turned out that this conference is about disability, which I don't think that commenter knew. I'm sure she wasn't thinking about people who are sick all the time, who stay home all the time, like me. I'm sure she wasn't intending to be hurtful and offensive. Probably, if I asked her, she would say, "I wasn't thinking about disabled/chronically ill people. I didn't mean it like that." (Since this just happened, she might very well post an apology or explanation, but she only said what most people think.)

So, let's assume that, like most people, she will respond by apologizing and saying, "I wasn't thinking." That is the problem. People usually don't "mean it like that," but it doesn't much matter, because it still means they don't think about us at all -- that we exist, that we have something to offer, even if we can't join them in meatspace.

Nobody has to say, "I wasn't thinking," because they don't have to think . . . about disability. About us. That's what ableism is about. That's what privilege means: not having to think about what you don't struggle with.

The Esquire contest is for a 78-word piece of flash fiction. Here, off the top of my head, is mine (which I obviously won't be sending them):
John Esquire finished reading, dropped the paper on his desk, and threw his hands in the air.

"My God!" He shrieked, waving the manuscript. "This is the best story, without doubt!"

"Really?" His waifish underling minced over, nervously tugging her skirt. "What's that note attached to it?"

"Please note," she read. "I'm ill and cannot travel."

"Fuck that," John crumpled the paper. "Nobody's that important," he said, earning two points as Virginia Woolf's submission landed in the trash.
P.S. I thought I wasn't getting any comments, but someone emailed me that she did comment on my last blog post, but it didn't show up. If you're having trouble commenting, please let me know. Mention it in the comments!


  1. Interesting thoughts, I think with skype and other communication technologies these issues could be overcome with a minimal amount of effort on the part of the organizers.

    I don't agree that prizes should include child care etc and I can understand why the publishers are looking for warm bodies to meet with people at a convention but I can't see discounting a great story just because the body behind it might not be able to make the journey and stand before the crowd. if nothing else have someone else fill in. hell create a new category of people not attending who nevertheless contributed.

  2. I love your story, by which I mean "I love the snarky commentary on a horrible social reality," not the fact that so many John Esquires exist all over the writing world.

    (Disabled queer here from reading ALL THE THINGS people commented to The Bloggess in the wake of the PantyJose debacle. Pantyhose -- talk about things not accessible to all of us....)

  3. Hi Antonio and Gwyn,

    I only just saw your comments now! I thought I had this blog set up to alert me to reader comments, but apparently that is not working.

    Gwyn, thank you! Yes, sometimes a little snark goes a long way. ;-)

    Antonio, it was actually teh suggestion that people Skype in that led that person to go off about how awful and boring it is to have someone present by Skype and that "you're not that important, stay home."

    My point was not that a literary contest should provide child care. My point was that requiring entrants to be able to travel (and to travel to all events in all locations at the times specified without necessarily getting much advanced notice) is excluding many writers.

    This is part of the problem with the relationship between literature/publishing and corporations today. Finalists and winners have to attend events held by the corporate sponsor, even before the Colorado writer's colony part, also featuring the name of a corporation in the retreat's name. It's about pushing products and brand name merging (Esquire with their corporate sponsor), and not really about the people. The fact that writers are people, with lives, seems to get lost in the shuffle.