Barbara Stanwyck’s black belt on The Big Valley.
Early on in my writing life, which for me was in my forties, I wrote a thinly disguised as fiction piece about a woman who needed to make immense changes in her life and how she was going to build the courage to live through the consequences. The story explored themes of independence and isolation, of disability and desire. The woman used a wheelchair. She was a lesbian.
It was unusual for me to have feedback from people whom I thought of as “real” writers, and as I was becoming more serious about writing, this lack of access to knowledge was exasperating. It seemed impossible to make what I wanted to say work on the page. I’d read Dorothy Allison and yearned to write dialogue as effectively. How did Alice Walker structure a story like that? I wanted to twist the reader’s brain like Joanna Russ. And Beloved—it was absurd to think I could ever lift my writing into such rarefied layers of the atmosphere. But I wanted to try. The next step, it seemed to me, was to show my work to people outside of my friendly hometown lesbian writer groups.
A writer I knew—who was a college professor and had actually been published—offered to take a look at my story. She read my piece and told me having a character who was both disabled and a lesbian was too messy, too complex for a short story. She thought that since there was no tension or plot development around being a lesbian, I should leave that part out.
Here it was, right in my first foray into a wider (straight) writing world: lesbian erasure. My lesbian-feminist self was outraged. I thought, Not enough lesbian content—I’ll show you lesbian content. I added a part about my character noticing the hands of a waitress at Shoney’s. How strong the fingers were, how competently they handled the heavy plates. Her thumb gripped into the sweaty glass of ice water like a rock diverting the flow of a creek. I dyked up that story all over the place. I even gave my character a Barbara Stanwyck obsession and had her fantasize about the thick black leather belt Ms. Stanwyck wore cinched above her jodhpurs on The Big Valley.
My story became a crowd-pleaser. I’d read it at gatherings and get all sorts of laughs and accolades, which I liked. I didn’t, however, like that my double-down defensive reaction to the feedback meant the original story had been derailed. Disability and desire were still there, but the exploration of independence versus isolation was gone. Each time I read the story, I mourned. And I knew right then that I had lost something as yet unknown to me.
I kept searching out places and people who would teach me. If there was a nearby reading or book signing, I showed up and asked too many questions. I audited a fiction writing class at our community college. I discovered the world of writing residencies and conferences. Some offered scholarships, and when they didn’t, I stole from my house-repair savings account to pay the fees. It was at these residencies and conferences that I learned about literary journals and discovered you could submit your work to them.
The first time I ever received a personalized rejection, the editors of the journal included a full page of feedback about my short story (another thinly disguised as fiction piece). I was thrilled—I’d received a rejection notice with handwriting on it. This was the first time I’d ever seen so many words written about my writing.
The writer skips over too many places in the story that seemed to ask for more when a woman is dealing with life from the vantage point of a wheelchair … What about useless legs trailing behind her as she swam? Maybe there is the bigger point here that a person without the use of her legs doesn’t focus on these things, but even if she doesn’t focus on these things, for some reason I have to see them.
What did he want? Was my character, a woman successfully swimming by herself deep in the Florida backcountry, supposed to have a self-hating monologue about her body in order to satisfy some unnamed, highly suspect need in the editor? I had recognized since childhood the dissonance between my reality and what other people assumed, but this was the first time I’d been told so clearly that my take on my own life wasn’t enough, wasn’t valid, wasn’t publishable. The thought of bridging that chasm by pandering to prejudiced notions of disability disgusted me. At the same time, I wasn’t willing to be kept from submitting my work out into the world. And a few months later, once I’d finished ranting about the terrible wrongness of that feedback, I reread it. This time, I noticed another paragraph. He wrote about how I didn’t give enough attention to making each scene work toward a central theme. There it was—the piece of advice I needed. I took that sentence of feedback and used it to propel my writing forward.
This is how I continued. At a workshop, other writers were shocked that I didn’t “reveal” that my character used a wheelchair until three paragraphs in (which was when it naturally appeared in context). They complained they felt tricked because an important, central detail had been left out. One of them literally sputtered in frustration, spit flying over our papers. It was as if I was supposed to announce the wheelchair in the first phrase of the first sentence. At that same workshop, another writer showed me how to make a graph to keep track of my submissions to journals. I still use it. And another taught me about nuance in introducing characters.
When I finally dropped the veil of fiction and started writing personal essays, people were somewhat less likely to tell me I was wrong about my own life. (And the fiction I did write became stronger.) But the obsession with my legs continues. Readers, editors, and even the staff in doctors’ offices have tried to convince me that I don’t have feeling in my legs, even though I do. No matter what the theme of my essay or story—lesbian love, wilderness exploration, mother-daughter relationships—it seems everyone wants me to include more about my legs. I’ve never understood that. Why would I think about my legs all the time? Sometimes my legs are a part of the story, so a legitimate point can be made that I should write more about them. But then the next sentence of the critique will offer up examples of how I can do that. Useless continues to be a frequent descriptor offered. Other suggestions have included atrophied, flabby, and withered. The next paragraph of feedback is often something about how these omissions are signs that I’m not delving enough into my life, that I should “dig deeper,” that I’m not writing in as honest a way as I could. I can deal with ignorant and disrespectful words, but now I’m being told I’m a dishonest writer. Fuck you, I think.
I’m a regular person. I have bad hair days and nothing-fits-right days. And this-bra-makes-me-bulge-in-weird-places days. When-did-I-get-that-new-age-spot days. I’ve had bad legs days, too, though they have never once involved the words withered or useless. My bad legs days are better described by how my foot puffs up above the line of my shoe and how my socks always wrinkle around my ankles.
I’m determined that I will not allow other people’s prejudices or ignorance keep me from the knowledge of writing craft they have to offer. Better description, digging deeper, writing honestly—all of these directives, when not being used as an attack on a writer’s self-awareness, are very good bits of advice. An editor’s examples of how I should specify my language can be terribly flawed, and yet they lead me to finding the piece’s other limitations. Even the straight-up, blithely unaware ableist comments are valuable—they clarify the cultural context in which I’m writing and publishing.
I’ve learned, whenever possible, to ask of writers more accomplished than I am, What is the next thing I need to learn to make my writing better? The late Maggie Estep told me, “Well, your dialogue sucks.” She was right. I studied dialogue. Another writer told me (not in the context of my legs) that I stopped short emotionally. She said I should write at least the next sentence. It has made my writing better. An editor stabbed a pen at the next to last chapter and said, “Here is the end of your novel. Get rid of everything after.” And I did. There is great joy in getting criticism unmuddied by confusion about disability.
I don’t know what would have happened had I been a young writer taking classes. My grades might have depended on responses to writing prompts that demanded my “most shameful moment,” “biggest fear,” or “worst family dinner.” Long months of my childhood were spent in hospitals where my body was not my own, and as a result, I avoid anything that mimics the experience of unwanted poking and prodding. The young me wouldn’t have known it was okay to lie and that no one could make me tell them anything. I would have learned to survive by being quiet and outwardly compliant. Perhaps I would have quit. I’m proud of my boundaries; when I say, I will tell you this but not that, or, I will tell you that but not in detail—it’s liberating. And it’s honest.
It’s been a quarter of a century since my story about Barbara Stanwyck and the Shoney’s waitress. The parts of that original story that were erased have always echoed within my personal essays, short stories, and novels. I’m a better writer now than I was then. These echoes have become through lines that explore loneliness, power, desire, and the body’s connection to the natural world. The forty-year-old writer I was then is contained within who I am now, and what was lost can be reclaimed.
Sandra Gail Lambert is a writer of both fiction and memoir. She is the author of A Certain Loneliness and The River’s Memory.
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