Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Sisterhood of the Breathless Pants

N.B.  In a few paragraphs, I'm going to offer a cliché, "It's not you, it's me."  Please know when I write that, I mean it sincerely and without a trace of irony or sarcasm.

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.


  1. You were at NJRW?? I came on Saturday!

  2. You sound like you could use a hug...

  3. Classic: Face of niceness, petty motivation underneath.

    My mom always warned me in HS not to trust another girl's opinion on clothes (& boyfriends).

    Clothes: if you looked nice the girl would say the opposite... if she thought she wanted the dress she'd tell you it'd look bad, and in something bad she'd tell you that you looked great... b/c she wants to look better than you always (she might not even be aware of it).

    Boys: He's great but tells you to dump him b/c a) she wants him b) wants you to be miserable like she is. He's terrible but tells you to stay with him b/c a) she's afraid of you single b) likes to be in the better relationship c) wants you to be unhappy like she is.

    Sisterhood is great when it's real... but judging the real from the fake can be hard.

  4. Janet W: I wonder why it would be offensive to say that it was work ... it sounds like a real high wire act, always being "on" and networking and absorbing. And doing it all while probably being judged on that whole female looks/how she's dressed scale too. Not sure why it would be insulting to say someone looked 23ish ... but you're probably a better judge of how it was received.

    So would it all have been better if it had been more professional and by that I mean, less underlying message of "sisterhood"? I don't have a sister so I may be missing some of this.

  5. To quote from the RWA website: "The mission of Romance Writers of America is to advance the professional interests of career-focused romance writers through networking and advocacy."

    Writers are constantly being told to act like professionals. To my mind, a professional conference is about work, not fun. What other profession expects conference attendees to have fun?

    I think this boils down to the membership of RWA being predominantly female. We all have to be nice to each other, yada, yada.

  6. Coming to you from Jessica's Read, React, Review. I don't think you were rude to the "famous" author, nor did you "dis" her (I don't think RWA has formally defined dissing but it probably involves repetitive badmouthing of an author's actions or book).

    It would seem that you responded honestly and acted naturally within the bounds of professionalism. The world would be boring if everyone was Suzy Q Popular.

    That being said, RWA is about networking. Just imagine if the majority of imagine if members did not engage basic decorum.

  7. >What other profession expects conference attendees to have fun?

    Actually, I think a lot of people find conferences in their profession fun, but they can be challenging and hard work too.

    Very interesting piece!

  8. Seems to me the many cliches about henhouses apply well.

  9. A couple points:

    1. I was rude to Famous Author, although the transcript of our encounter might not convey that rudeness. I find the social side of RWA to be work. Maybe it won't be quite the same sort of work if/when I'm published. But for now (and in particular two weeks ago) I'm my working really hard to learn my craft, perfect my manuscript(s), write a book in 30 days for NaNoWriMo, and still be a good citizen of both real world & virtual Romlandia.

    I'm pretty sure Famous Author got more than her fair share of my fatigue with the schmoozing part of an RWA conference.

    2. I acknowledge that rudeness now, publicly, because it helps me to do a better job next time. With just a little tweaking to my body language, I think can avoid being unpleasant to Famous Author in the future, or any other former members of the Pep Squad. I owe it to the innocent RWA attendees not to look at them like they're bugs. Just saying...

    3. What really strikes me is how little I feel like the kid with her nose pressed up to the toy store window. I've always envied other girls their friendships, and even tried hard to fit in. Now, not so much. I suspect that's because of two important things.

    First, I will always be more afraid of the mean girls (real or imagined) than I will be attracted to the popular girls. Those aren't mutually exclusive groups; one or two popular people are quixotically nasty to the "have-nots" of the world.

    Second, I've learned over the years that all my friendships are established in one-on-one settings. It would be lovely if all of us who, at bottom, felt quirky and a bit square-peg-in-round-hole wore a special decoder ring so we could recognize each other, but we don't. I make friends, but it's never been with anyone I met in a group.

    So there's hardly any incentive for me to work harder to tap into the social networking power of RWA. That leaves professional networking . . . and we're back to how that's actually work.

  10. Thanks for the nod and interesting discussion. Really hope you enjoy the book - let me know what you think!

    Wishing you happy and healthy friendships. Best Wishes,

    Kelly Valen - The Twisted Sisterhood


Hi. This is a moribund blog, so it gets spammed from time to time. Please feel free to comment, but know that your comment may take a few hours to appear simply as a result of the spam blocking in place.