When my husband left for basic training, he told me about day zero. It’s a day where everyone gets completely submerged into the military life and nothing exists outside of it. You’re pushed your hardest, you’re sleep deprived, you’re completely at the mercy of your drill sergeants.
As I stood outside the book fair doors, waiting for 9 a.m., that’s kind of what I felt like. Sharks were all around me just waiting to put some toe out of line. Out of this sea of well spoken, casual chic-ly dressed mob, one of them was bound to call me out, to make me drop and do push ups because I my mind had gone completely blank from any and all literary knowledge.
So I left.
I took a breath. I took a few minutes to regroup myself, bought over-priced Starbucks, and headed upstairs into the warm, quiet comfort zone of the meeting rooms where panels and readers were being held. And as if you couldn’t have already guessed, I made sure the first panel I went to was “In Case You think You Don’t Belong Here: Imposter Syndrome and AWP” put on by Samantha Dunn, Jessie Carty, Aubrey Hirsch, Margaret Lafleur, and Carmen Machado. Instead of focusing on feeling like an imposter in a very male-dominated industry (more on this later), they focused on feeling like an imposter in terms of networking. Carmen Machado, a woman whose resume I could only dream of having four years from now, shared a piece of wisdom that stuck with me throughout the rest of the panels:
“Everyone is fighting their own battles of insecurity.”
This discussion was rounded out fully with Samantha Dunn’s understanding of status as being conveyed through invitations, and that many of us feel that we are on too modest of a rung in society to be convicted to do anything or to network/make new friends with writers at the conference. This was something I definitely was feeling prior to coming to AWP but now, as I sit in the lobby of my hotel, surrounded by people talking, decompressing, sharing memories from their day, I feel on a very deep level. I came to AWP by myself and, outside of the amazing people at Alternating Current and my incredibly sweet roommate, I know no one. I follow them on Twitter, sure, but (and while the women on the panel did say this was a good conversation starter), I don’t feel like I can approach the people I follow without feeling like a super stalker.
This panel should’ve made me feel less alone, less isolated, but in a way I felt more isolated. My own version of imposter syndrome doesn’t necessarily stem from writing; so many people have asked me what I write and I’ve been able to answer confidently. But it’s more to my introverted-ness and how, even now, I feel crippled by my social anxiety. I mean, as I write this, I’m sitting across from Dinty Moore, a personal writing hero of mine who I met earlier in the day. Instead of re-introducing myself, I’m typing away at my laptop glancing around the lobby bar looking for anyone else who looks familiar — whose time I might not feel like I’m wasting.
You’d think in all of this that I’d have nothing positive to say about my first day of AWP, that I’m miserable, overwhelmed, and re-thinking why the hell I came all of the way out here. The thing is, my second panel made my entire trip perfect. It’s not even that I learned anything new about myself, but this panel, even more than the one about imposter syndrome, gave me the confident boost I needed to explain what I write by saying this:
“I write literary fiction, but I’m moving more into creative nonfiction, especially personal essays.”
My second panel was “To Hell and Back: Trauma and the Transformational Arc in Personal Narrative.” Janice Gary opened with an explanation of who Audie Murphy was, and how big of a military hero he was. How he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, how he grew from orphaned farm boy to the war hero who single handedly held off Nazis during World War II. What Gary also spoke of was how he slept with a pistol under his pillow, how he was plagued with nightmares from what he saw during the war, and how a diagnosis, PTSD, came after Murphy’s life ended.
Our society loves this: the transformative arc, the trauma that comes from war, and how heroic it is. But they say nothing about the domestic wars, the wars that Survivors wage every day. From here, Gary told her own story, the story of the source of her trauma and how the “wars of trauma continued to carpet bomb [her].”
The theme of the panel itself wasn’t just about the transformative narrative, and how trauma is “the most powerful transformational arc,” but how women need to be brave enough to come forward and tell their stories. That yes, memoirs are seen as “self indulgent drivel” when they come from women but these needs to fucking change.
Marilyn Bosquin’s story was about her mastectomy, and while I couldn’t relate to this loss of a physical body part, I was completely moved by the deeper theme of the personal trauma of the female body. After all, isn’t that what sexual assault, or an eating disorder, is? Bosquin wrote how she showers in the dark, with only candlelight because:
“Candlight dims the edges of what you see when you look down.”
A truth like this might be found in fiction, but I have yet to read a book that has created the same visceral reaction personal essays and memoirs have. And once Melissa Febos got up to the podium, I knew – just knew – that personal essays and memoirs were what I needed to start focusing on. Febos’ advice was focused on, as expected from a VIDA board member, telling us — we Survivors — that we need to own our stories. That we needed to “transform [our] secrets into art” and that this bias against memoirs is something that is sexist, and intended to get women to shut up.
And we can’t. We shouldn’t. We do need to own our stories. We don’t need to hide them in between the lines of fiction so that it makes our readers comfortable. We don’t need to shut up and pretend like bad doesn’t exist in the world, that bad things don’t happen. Because, at the end of the day, the purpose of memoir isn’t about revenge. It’s about understanding what’s happened to us, what’s happening in the world, and how we can work through it.