When I went to RWA National in July, I got one message loud and clear, even if it was never expressed quite this bluntly:
Never badmouth a fellow romance writer or her books. Ever. No exceptions.
Yeah, I can see how that's a good policy for RWA to promote. And I've tried to abide by that.
At the same time, there seems to be a reward for being compliant with the No Dissing rule. In every speech I heard in Orlando at RWA National and at NJRW's "Put Your Heart in a Book" conference last week, there was at least one point where the speaker referred to her dearest RWA friend(s). Women who had been there for the speaker during divorces, the death of a spouse, bad reviews, professional successes and set-backs. Women the speaker couldn't have done it without.
I get the impression that's the quid pro quo for the No Dissing rule: You won't be alone.
I understand the concept. I've joined an organization with thousands of members who share something with me -- my love of romances, at the very least. Two thousand people attended RWA National; even a regional conference like NJRW attracts over 400 writers.
But what's supposed to be a reward for following the No Dissing rule turns out to be, for me, just more work.
We're getting close to the "It's not you, it's me" part.
Here's what happened at NJRW. The speakers were dynamic, the workshops were really helpful (seriously -- better even than the ones I took at RWA National), and the venue was great. But on Saturday afternoon, a famous writer (a woman whose name I recognized and whose books I've read) asked me, "Are you having fun?"
I had to think about that. I knew the answer, but was this a situation where I should lie? For whatever reason, I told her the truth. "No. I'm not having fun."
And I wasn't. I was learning a lot, and I was doing the stuff I needed to do (querying agents, networking, etc.), but it was work, and not the fun kind of work.
My inquisitor wasn't happy with my answer, which she took to be evidence I was depressed that I wasn't (yet) successful as a writer. "You need to stay positive, keep in the moment, remain focused," she insisted.
I turned to her. "It's like that line in the movie, 'What we have here is a failure to communicate,'" I said. "I've said nothing to suggest I'm not staying positive, keeping in the moment, etc. I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing, but it's not fun. It's work."
I pretty much shut up after that. Oh, other than telling Famous Author that she appeared to be 23, which must have sounded really snotty coming from me but which was, ironically, a true statement. She has really pretty long blonde hair, and she looks very youthful. But I wouldn't blame her for being offended; overall, I was not polite to her. And I'm sorry about that.
What I couldn't explain was that just being in the same place with 400 other romance writers is, for me, not fun. I'm supposed to feel energized, released from the solitary nature of writing. I'm supposed to enjoy the sorority of women (because while there are men in RWA, really, it's about the women), who love and care about each other, help and support one another, and truly wish for your success as much as their own.
Okay, so here's where I tell you that it's not you (all of you reading this who are fellow writers -- or are women), it's me. I'm damaged. Put me in a room with a hundred women -- hell, put me in a room with ten women -- and I'm at Def-Con 5. At the end of an all-women meeting recently, I noticed one person and thought, "She looks nice." Then it hit me: she was the only one who hadn't said anything.
I come by my distrust naturally. I have a sister, and my 50+ years with her does not serve as a template for a healthy, supportive relationship with another woman. Rather the contrary.
Which should be the end of this post. So sorry, RWA members. I apologize for failing to appreciate one of the best things my annual dues affords me: instant admission to the Sisterhood of the Breathless Pants. I'm sorry I was rude to the Famous Writer (and former Pep Squad member?). I regret not being able to show the right spirit, like joining the let-down-your-hair; so-great-to-get-caught-up events like Saturday night karaoke in our slippers.
The last line was going to be: It's not you, it's me.
And then I read this: a publicity piece about Kelly Valen, the author of The Twisted Sisterhood. It's a book that grew out of this article in the New York Times, which begins,
MY life’s greatest sorrow stems from my inability to feel close to other women. At 41, I’ve cautiously cultivated a few cherished female friendships. But generally I feel a kind of skittish distrust and discomfort when dealing with most women, particularly women in packs.
Apart from the part about cautiously cultivated friendships, I can really relate to what she's saying. I too am nervous about women in packs. Like you find at an RWA conference. And in Romlandia, our corner of the Internet.
Incidentally, read Valen's story -- it's hard not to feel for what she went through.
She literally joined a sorority and got kicked out in the most painful way imaginable. She is in a position to compare the cruelty of men (she was raped) with the cruelty of women, and she knows which scars are worse.
I don't have any of that. My fears are not the result of trauma at the hands of women in college or grad school. But because of what I did go through, I'm guarded around women quite specifically, and I think that's because a small but significant number of women are capable of cruelty to other women. I've seen them do it.
More specifically, I've seen women exclaim their feminist ideals and then stab another woman in the back. I've compared this to someone insisting that "it's all about preventing cruelty to puppies and kittens," while keeping a dog on a four-foot length of rope in the backyard because otherwise he barks too much. What's the defense, that's he's the only dog in the world who deserves to be mistreated?
By being so guarded, am I missing out on wonderful relationships with great women? You bet I am. I know there are a lot really special women out there, women who would do anything for their friends. If I met such a woman one-on-one, I might be able to see how special she is. But I tend to miss her in a group because I'm too busy avoiding the rare woman who thinks it's okay to be mean.
Part of this dynamic is the insistence that we women have to stick together to oppose institutional sexism, to fight for equal rights and commensurate pay, to protect each other from the savagery of men. And it's all true: we have to do all those things. But why are those efforts mutually exclusive with complaints about the cruelty of women against women?
I wonder sometimes if the women who scream the loudest about the necessity of a united female front are the ones who can trash another woman and feel completely justified about it.
So, yeah. It's me, all right. But it's also us. We are complicit by not taking a stand against both the cruelty and the insistence that women can't complain about other women.
I think if I saw more self-policing, I might feel better about my membership in the Sisterhood.