backlash · empowerment · writing

Writing Alone Together

Last week, Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (CWILA) launched our third annual Count. I say “we” because though I have had the privilege of working with the organization for two and a half years, this is the first time I have participated in the Count launch as the Chair of the Board. In the month leading up to the Count launch things were very busy. Last week, they were very intense. Emails were flying back and forth, my phone was a-buzz with text messages from Board members and people on the editorial teams. I was working to finish my essay on the risk of writing about and as a woman in a public forum. I zipped around Halifax on my bicycle rushing from task to task–teaching, grading, freelance work, regular life things–feeling a state of exhilaration.

I also felt really alone.

One of the things that I have realized about my own work–and here I mean that work that is in addition to academic work and the work that (doesn’t really) pay the bills–is that it is contradictory. Almost everything I do, from writing with the fine folks at Hook & Eye to chairing the board of a national non-profit with more than four hundred members, is collaborative. It is also incredibly solitary. Take, for instance, the fact that Aimée and I wrote together for this blog for two years before we met in person. Similarly, I have never met a few CWILA Board members in person, though we do meet via Skype on a monthly basis. But this isn’t a post about the ways in which social media and technology isolate us. There are plenty of those around. Technology can be phenomenal, of course. CWILA couldn’t function without access to software that allows the Board to meet despite the fact we are located in Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto, Halifax, and Innsbruck. No, what I was thinking about as we launched the CWILA Count and I looked around for people to celebrate with in person, feels a bit more complicated than simple isolation.

As I watched CWILA’s Count circulate (but not go viral… flagging inequity in a generative way isn’t trendy enough to trend, I guess) I was also watching the Internet unleash wrath against women again. Tanya Tagaq. Emma Watson. Emily Gould. These are all very different women who have experienced disproportionate and public backlash for their taking their own public stances. And that was just in the last few days. What I found myself thinking is this: how does one strike a balance between the hyper-useful publicness of web-based writing and collaboration and the ways in which, when it comes down to it, one is still alone. I don’t mean in the knock-Virginia-Woolf’s-room-and-a-salary alone, I mean something much more pernicious.

Let me try and get at it this way: when Hook & Eye first launched in 2009 we had a monthly column entitled “This Month in Sexism.” It is still one of our most-viewedpages, despite the fact that we had to pull it after only a month. Why? Not for lack of submissions, I can assure you. No, rather we received scads of submissions that began with the caveat “do not publish.” The submissions were coming, but the people sending them in didn’t want them published because they feared being recognized. It seemed to me that what we were providing was a safe space in which to articulate “this happened to me,” but that there wasn’t a safe space to publicly say “this happened. These things are happening.” And that’s one of the thorny problems with microaggressions, isn’t it? It is usually easier to absorb, ignore (is that really possible?), and get on with the work than it is to call out the issue.

Chairing the Board of CWILA and writing with Hook & Eye affords me the forums in which to think about how to usefully address microaggressions against women and other others.  But that thinking can only get activated together.