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Writing and silence: under the skin.

I had a lovely time at Picocon last weekend. It really is an excellent convention: enthusiastic, lively and full of energy and imagination. I'm very grateful to the committee for having me back. I enjoyed talking to them, too, and the joint panel I did with Ian MacDonald.

Even so, I came away anxious. Here's why: in the questions part of the panel, someone asked us both about gender and power and external pressures and how that intersects with writing. And I found myself saying, "I let them silence me. I let them cut off my hands."

This is the language that Requires Hate used regularly about writers, particularly white women, that our hands should be cut off or broken. And I understand where that comes from, I really do. The damage done by cultural appropriation and misrepresentation is incalculable. I believe to the core of my being that writers -- and especially white writers -- have an absolute responsibility *not* to appropriate, to misrepresent and distort and abuse the culture and lives of others. I do not believe I as a writer have any right whatsoever to help myself to the cultural property of others. It's wrong.

But when I answered that question at Picocon, I wasn't thinking specifically about cultural appropriation. I was reacting out of instinct and fear. Because what my 6 years as a published novelist have taught me above all else is to be frightened. There are those out there who will consider this a good thing, for good reason (there are too many white writers already, and the British have too much space). I was reacting to the internalised voices that tell me I have no right to write. But suddenly I was using the language of violence in this context.

Those voices have been with me a long time. Many writers are riddled with doubt about their writing. It seems to go with the territory, as well as being a product of each writer's particular experiences. They began, as far as I can remember, at university, when I first met the concept of the Important Unpublished Male Writer. Up to then, I'd written in mainly female space and felt safe enough -- I was young in my fanfic circles and the women in their 40s upwards who populated it were wonderfully kind and supportive. My mother was enthusiastic and always encouraged me to write. I had a couple of supportive English teachers, too (thank you, Mrs Parnham and Mr Buck). It was something I did, something that was mine, something I enjoyed and valued.

My Cambridge writing group contained some lovely people, but it was structured around the talent of men. I learnt fairly fast that I would never quite be good enough, because no woman could be. The published writers who were discussed and approved were all men: the women writers were spoken of with a faintly patronising air. They were a bit.... soft, weak, lesser. My boyfriend of the time all but patted me on the head and told me it was sweet I tried to write. I learnt to be silent about writing. When I found wider sf fandom, the atmosphere was exactly the same. Women were not expected to write, and if they did, they should be quiet about it. Selected women were okay: Bujold, McAvoy, Cherryh, but they weren't quite.... There was always a knot of men who were loud and ready to explain why a man would have been better.

I was born before the 1973 Equal Opportunities act. My formative years were in a context in which I officially inferior. My education continued that, even after the law changed. My experiences in employment continued it. As an academic -- and I am a good scholar -- I was nevertheless Not As Good As A Man. And writing.... Everyone knew what my writing was like, without reading a line. Syrupy, conservative, romantic, weak, slush. By 25 I knew I wasn't good enough and never could be.

I learnt to keep quiet. To this day, I hate to talk about my writing and feel deeply unsafe doing it. And then the internet got involved.

I have a bad habit of recalling and internalising negative comments. Fan space and university space had enough of those already. The net.... The second I was published, my writing became public space. Now, there are good things and bad to that. Published books belong to their readers and I am fine with that. The inside of my head, though... I wasn't ready to have that handed over to the world. I'm not talking here about regular reviews. Those are part of the profession, and academic reviews can be much harsher than fiction ones. I've had years of dealing with those. No, the problem was the people who demanded access to my thoughts or told me they knew them better than me, for all sorts of reasons. Some meant well. Most, however, spoke out of existing social and cultural assumptions.

Women aren't quite the same as people.
Women are inherently dangerous.
Women's thoughts, like their bodies, must and should be policed for deviance, and wrong thinking.
Women are public property.
Women have no right at all to any space that is not accessible to anyone at all who wants to see inside there.

I've learnt that, as an Anglo-Welsh woman, I have no right whatsoever over my native cultures -- they belong to the higher social classes, to men, and, alas, to many Americans and I have no right to mind. because that minding is in itself inherently evil.
I've learnt that even as an adult, I must never, ever, speak back to those who are more important than me, because they have more rights than I do.
I've learnt that every word I write is simultaneously both utterly worthless (because female and older female to boot, urgh, disgusting) and subject to complete and utter policing, because without having read a line (sometimes) complete strangers can judge me just because they want to.
I've learnt that it's true, I have no right to write, because I might be in someone else's way.
I've learnt that I should cut off my own hands. As far as RH is concerned -- and as I've said before, I bear her no animus at all in respect of myself, though I am very unhappy about how she has acted to others -- she doesn't need to police me. I've internalised the message. I need to be silenced.

Which leaves me precisely where? I don't know. There are days and weeks on end when I feel like I should stop writing altogether. There's hardly a day at all on which I feel safe to write. I used to feel it was okay to write just for myself, that I could if necessary go back to that private space and give up trying to be published. Now, I don't know. A Fire of Bones is under contract. I'm struggling to get a 100 words a day and I feel the book is worthless. This blogpost feels to me like the unsafest thing I can say, and yet I feel obliged to say it.

And the language I use of my writing has been turned against me. I am sitting here waiting to cut off my hands..

(Metaphorically.)

Edited to add: FFA, if you see this, there have been weeks when your comments have been one of the few things holding me together as a writer.

Skirt of the day: denim.

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Comments

( 160 comments — Leave a comment )
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suricattus
Feb. 20th, 2015 07:45 pm (UTC)
I wish I had words that were useful to you, here.

I worry, and I stress, but I seem to have been dosed with a confidence/arrogance (depending on how one judges it) that keeps my hands moving despite the mallets, and trying to imagine the anxiety you describe makes me want to build us both a pillow fort and never climb out.

But I will say - as a reader, as an editor, and as a writer, that your words are important, that your stories are not the smashing weight of a hammer but the quieter cut of a scalpel, able to cut into tumor and lift it out to be seen. And those are words that we need more of, please.
la_marquise_de_
Feb. 20th, 2015 07:47 pm (UTC)
Thank you, Laura Anne. I find your courage and confidence hugely inspiring, in fact, and that is a big help in itself. I wrote this partly to see if saying it aloud might help me break out of it. I want to finish this book, if only for Sheila and for all my kind supportive friends.
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ms_cataclysm
Feb. 20th, 2015 07:48 pm (UTC)
Your hands and the work of your hands are beautiful.
la_marquise_de_
Feb. 20th, 2015 07:49 pm (UTC)
Hug.
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princejvstin
Feb. 20th, 2015 07:55 pm (UTC)
I...don't have any words, save to say that I always welcome reading and hearing yours.
la_marquise_de_
Feb. 20th, 2015 09:04 pm (UTC)
Thank you, Paul.
rozk
Feb. 20th, 2015 07:58 pm (UTC)
I'll ring
mevennen
Feb. 20th, 2015 08:07 pm (UTC)
I always think I'm good enough. I think we're all good enough. My response to RH and her ilk, is, as you know, that they should go fuck themselves. I won't be silenced and I hate it that my colleagues feel they should be silenced. Please keep speaking.
history_monk
Feb. 20th, 2015 08:24 pm (UTC)
Yes, exactly.
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marina_bonomi
Feb. 20th, 2015 08:08 pm (UTC)
I wish I could say something good and useful to you, I can only say that, without your writing, I would be poorer.
la_marquise_de_
Feb. 20th, 2015 09:56 pm (UTC)
Thank you.
mizkit
Feb. 20th, 2015 08:08 pm (UTC)
My heart breaks for you, Kari. I love both you and your writing (you must know how much I love your writing, musn't you? how much I admire the things you do that I can't? Utterly; that's how much.), and I desperately wish there were things I could do to change the pressures of the world and culture that weigh so heavily on you. All I really can do, though, is offer love and support, and you have those from me. *hugs*
la_marquise_de_
Feb. 20th, 2015 09:06 pm (UTC)
Ditto. Much, much love.
beth_bernobich
Feb. 20th, 2015 08:15 pm (UTC)
You are one of my heroes.
la_marquise_de_
Feb. 20th, 2015 09:06 pm (UTC)
Goodness! I'm astonished and flattered.
ex_catherin85
Feb. 20th, 2015 08:28 pm (UTC)
I'm coming out of a year and change where anxiety and stress have made it hard to write (a first for me). I think that since I wear my anger much closer to the skin than I believe you do, based on our conversations and your post, I channel it in a different way and draw energy and inspiration from it. I find it much harder to deal with other stuff, like anxiety, in a positive way, possibly as a result. For what it's worth, I think being angry with someone like RH is completely valid, since that person, whoever they are offline, said and did some deeply shitty things to a number of people, including you. Bearing in mind that RH may well be none of the things that person claimed to be (POC, Queer, female, etc.), but is very definitely a bully,I hope you can evict that voice from your head. In the meantime, you're saying important things and I'm rooting for you to continue doing so.
la_marquise_de_
Feb. 20th, 2015 09:58 pm (UTC)
I'm so sorry you've had a hard year. I hope this one is better.
I struggle with anger. I feel angry a lot, but I never know what to do with it, with the result that I spend a lot of time being stressed and anxious....
I do believe that RH is a queer woman of colour. She's been consistent about that for 10+ years. And I do believe that women of colour have every right to express anger and frustration about racism and inequality. I struggle to know how to handle the violent imagery she uses, though.
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martianmooncrab
Feb. 20th, 2015 08:48 pm (UTC)
having been too tall, too loud and not ass kissing enough my entire life, its always better to be yourself, and not someone made up of the pieces of everyone elses expectations. Its tiresome and frustrating. I think of the people who have multiple personalities, constantly shifting between who they need to be to survive and protect the core personality who is ususally sleeping to avoid hurt and pain.

You are a good writer, when someone like RH gets up there and starts bashing and belittling anyone and everyone that isnt RH, well.. RH is a destructive entity, and should be treated as such.

la_marquise_de_
Feb. 20th, 2015 10:00 pm (UTC)
I am also too tall. It's a pain.
And yes on the business of not trying to please everyone. I am so bad at feeling I'm allowed to be me!
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sartorias
Feb. 20th, 2015 09:06 pm (UTC)
Thank you for speaking up.
la_marquise_de_
Feb. 20th, 2015 10:00 pm (UTC)
Than k you for being you. You are another inspiration to me.
ex_hrj
Feb. 20th, 2015 09:09 pm (UTC)
I wasn't kidding when I said that your book (Grass King's Concubine) was the best thing I read all last year. I want you to keep writing because there must be more like that inside.
la_marquise_de_
Feb. 20th, 2015 10:00 pm (UTC)
You are very kind. I'm so glad you liked it.
rachelmanija
Feb. 20th, 2015 09:11 pm (UTC)
I want to read your words. They are important to me.
la_marquise_de_
Feb. 20th, 2015 10:00 pm (UTC)
Thank you.
(Anonymous)
Feb. 20th, 2015 09:14 pm (UTC)
Women's thoughts, like their bodies, must and should be policed for deviance, and wrong thinking.

This is so very true. I haven't submitted anything for publication because I'm afraid of being judged for Doing It Wrong, just as I don't wear a swimsuit in public for fear of Looking Wrong.
la_marquise_de_
Feb. 20th, 2015 10:01 pm (UTC)
I sympathise, I really do. But I hope you are able to take that risk. The more voices the better. Very good wishes to you.
helivoy
Feb. 20th, 2015 09:16 pm (UTC)
You know where I stand in the RH matter. One of its few upsides was that I got to know you and the other friends who watch, sleepless, from the bastions.

The internalized critics are the hardest to gainsay. At their best, they keep us grounded. But they can also bury us alive. And they're much harder on women, who are raised on begrudged, stingy leftovers from the banquet table of fame and approval.

If we fall silent, who will sing?

Edited at 2015-02-20 10:02 pm (UTC)
la_marquise_de_
Feb. 20th, 2015 10:02 pm (UTC)
That is very good point!
And yes, friends make so much of a difference.
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