At a recent book event, I talked with a wonderful teacher and mentor who was emceeing. I congratulated her and gushed about her many accomplishments including a New York Times contributing column, a recently published and acclaimed essay collection, and her forthcoming book. In her typical graciousness, she gave me a smile that said it wasn't necessary for me to enumerate a long list of her coolness--she was quite familiar. And instead she turned the focus on me, asking how things were going--my current writing projects and any publishing prospects. She then talked to me about a panel opportunity next spring for which she believed I'd be a strong contributor.
Quite excited about the experience, I thanked her for thinking of me. And she responded with something rather interesting that has since stuck with me:
"I'm leaving the door open behind me."
She explained that another woman-writer had done the same for her and now she was paying it forward, as it were.
This significantly moved me. It got me thinking about how women have been historically and biologically regarded as natural nurturers, yet society conditions us to be ultra-competitive in ways that leave us feeling insecure and unproductive. I decided to pursue this phenomenon and asked my community of women writers to share their stories of support (or lack thereof) by other women artists.
The responses I received were mostly very positive: so many of us have been given opportunities or advancements in our careers because of another woman. Editors who helped them publish their work tended to be women which is significant when we look at the discouraging fact of white male editors tending to publish white male writers. Thanks to the work of VIDA and other efforts to get more women published, trends are slowly shifting.
In MFA programs, the iterations of feeling isolated and misrepresented are also firm in the responses I received. For women writers of color, these challenges are even more pronounced. Notably, one poet told me she had difficulty finding a female mentor due to what she perceives as other women regarding her as self-reliant and independent. These strong traits, she discovered, were miscontrued as her not needing support from other more accomplished or experienced women writers.
That raises a compelling point: do we perpetuate pernicious attitudes that keep us from reaching out and supporting each other? Do we shrink from positive promotion of another woman's work because in some distorted view of the matter we think that gesture somehow reduces a chance for us to be successful? It seems irrational to think this way, but where this stems from is actually quite logical: Men don't have to compete against women for writing spaces and publication. They simply don't.
Yet, women are forced to compete against men, and simultaneously against other women. It sounds like some apocalyptic battle, but it reinforces how we need to combat an exclusionary and disriminatory establishment in a way that still uplifts women. Women should not be the casualties; we should be side by side on the frontlines. Suspending the trite war analogy, I've come to appreciate when I elevate other women writers--like my mentor does for me--I'm strengthening our movement to change those still-hard numbers in publishing. When I pass along a link for a contest or a publishing contact, or when I merely take time to read and congratulate a peer's work then share it on social media, I'm doing my own creative spirit much good.
So as my writing aspirations continue to grow and materialize, I'll remember to keep the door open behind me.