The Feminists and Me

Back when I was in graduate school, I one day noticed a help wanted sign posted on the announcement bulletin board (since these were just the proto-days of the internet, it was an actual, physical bulletin board). The Women’s Studies office needed an office assistant. Women’s Studies! Well that sounded like a friendly place to work. I imagined an office full of chatty, supportive women. So I headed on down to the Women’s Studies department and found an elderly, ghostly thin woman behind a desk. I told her I was interested in the job. Did I have experience? Why yes I did. I’d had any number of office assistant type jobs in college. I was hired on the spot. In retrospect, her eagerness to hire me so quickly should have been a warning sign, as no one lasted long in the Women’s Studies department.

The Women’s Studies office workers consisted of me, the elderly lady, and a white girl with dreadlocks who, like her elderly counterpart, was also bone thin. The dreadlock girl invariably wore the same outfit of black jeans and a black tank top; she was so thin the jeans had to be held up with a thick black belt. She spent her time in the office quietly arguing on the phone with her boyfriend (since these were the proto-days of the internet, cell phones were also rare). She confided to me in private that he was abusive and had spent time in jail for hitting her. The elderly woman spent her time on the phone with kosher butchers, eateries, and her husband planning the details of dinner that evening. During the day she snacked on pre-sliced bell peppers that she kept in a ziplock baggie in a desk drawer. She ate them at regular ten minute intervals, and advised me that they increased calorie burn.

The three of us were ruled over by the Women’s Studies chair. She was a hulk of a woman who looked like a football player with boobs. She wasn’t there often, but when she did appear she was full of demands, criticisms, and condescension. She piled us with impossible and pointless filing and organizational tasks, and liked to summon us– me especially– into her office to pick up things from the floor. Once she summoned me to her office and told me to pick up a piece paper that lay on the floor two feet away from her.

One of my duties was to field calls from prospective Women Studies majors. I was to obtain their name, address, and phone number, so a tidy informational packet could be sent out. Without fail, every last woman who called (and it was all women) was unbelievably rude and nasty on the phone. “You BETTER get my address right. Send me that packet IMMEDIATELY. You understand what IMMEDIATELY means don’t you?”

A few weeks into my employment I was informed I’d be setting up, and cleaning up, for a presentation in another building. Keys in hand I ventured to the designated room and set up the chairs in neat rows. Turning to refreshment duties, however, I found a broken coffee maker and broken can opener (the fruit juice was in cans). I called the office in mild panic, as the audience was set to arrive within minutes.

“The coffee maker’s broken?” said the elderly woman with feigned surprise.

“And so is the can opener,” I replied.

She told me to go up and down the hallways to other departments begging for use of their coffee makers and can openers, which is exactly what I did. Several departments later I’d only procured a can opener, so I gave up on coffee and poured the juice into paper cups.

Then the band of feminists arrived, including a women’s studies professor who, like the department chair, had an attitude the size of Mount Rushmore. She was furious over the lack of coffee and the lack of variety in desserts (I’d been given a single bag of cookies by the elderly woman). I explained that the coffee maker was broken and the cookies were all I’d been supplied. Somehow the women survived the unimpressive refreshments, and they settled into chairs to listen to the lecture about the oppression of women. I took this as my cue to quietly wait in the wings, so I took my book, sat off to the side, and read as the lecture droned on. When it was finished the professor made a beeline for me.

“Why didn’t you participate?” she hissed, clearly furious.

“Excuse me?”

“No one said you could just sit there reading. You should have participated.”

“Participate how? I’m not in Women’s Studies. I’m here to set up chairs.”

“You need to understand there’s a hierarchy here and you’re part of it.”

Whoa…. this was too much for me. Had I fallen down the rabbit hole? But instead of a magical fantasy world, I was surrounded by a bunch of crazy bitches. By this point she’d raised her voice such that the other feminists in the crowd stared at us uncomfortably.

“Look, I was told to come here, set up chairs and food, then put the chairs back. No one said anything about participating.”

“It was disrespectful to sit on the side reading.”

I decided then and there to cut my losses. “You know what? I’m three months pregnant.” When I said the word “pregnant” the professor flinched back like a vampire faced with a cross. I placed my hand instinctively over my abdomen, where my now teenage son was residing. “I don’t need this kind of stress. I’ve never dealt with such nasty people in my life. I’m done!” and I walked out of there, leaving the feminists to stack their own chairs.

I’ve occasionally wondered where all those women are today. Is the elderly lady still living, if so is she still munching bell peppers to stay scrawny? Did dreadlock girl break up with her boyfriend? Did those nasty professors ever get what was coming to them, or did they continue to stomp through life like bulls in china shops. All I know is– I’m glad I escaped.

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Advice for Writers

My husband has worked on the business side of publishing for many years; after years of overhearing his work conversations, I believe I’m semi-qualified to offer the following advice to aspiring writers.  Some of this advice applies to artists/ illustrators as well (especially #2). However, allow me to point out the proviso that I am neither a publisher, nor a writer, myself (unless message boards count).

1) NEVER tell a publisher you have a “magnus opus” or a “huge” body of work to show them. They’ll assume you’re nuts and not worth dealing with.  If you do have a magnus opus, extract the best chapters or storylines and submit those (but don’t reveal it’s part of a magnus opus, until if and when they show sincere interest!).

2) If you’re over the age of 28-30ish, and are truly talented, but your success has been hampered by alcohol or drug abuse, be prepared to fake a credible cover story as to why you have not achieved success (make up a fake illness, a non-dramatic crisis, you were busy raising children, etc.).  If a publisher sees very high quality writing or art cross their desk, yet the person is 30+ and unknown, they will immediately assume that person has a substance abuse problem and thus is not worth dealing with.  This is especially critical if you’re looking for work that involves deadlines.

3) Write commercially and track trends.  If vampires are popular, write a vampire story.  If talking pigs are popular, write a talking pig story.  Watch bestseller lists and browse bookstores, paying close attention to the display tables. Publishers pay $10,000 per spot on those flat tables at Barnes and Noble, so you can assume any books placed in the premium spots are trending and worth imitating.

4) Look for ghost writing or anonymous writing opportunities.  Oftentimes publishers will “reverse write” a book, where they come up with the idea, then hire an unknown writer to churn it out. This is less glamorous than publishing your own idea, but it will pay, and afford you some resume-worthy writing experience.  It might even behoove you to send writing samples to editors with a cover letter stating you’re looking for ghost writing opportunities, and you’d be happy to write any ideas that might be in development.  Keep in mind that if the book is a hit, the title to the intellectual properties is still held by the publisher, so you will see little, if any, profit.

5) Submit to smaller publishers; they’ll be less likely to blow you off.  The larger publishers have so much volume crossing their desks that it’s easy to be lost in the avalanche.  If you’re an extrovert, don’t be afraid to cold call editors after you’ve submitted work– but don’t be annoying about it.

6) Be open to different formats and artforms.  Don’t overlook comic books; a comic book script is short, and if high quality can attract the attention of a comic book publisher.  Even if your script isn’t made into a book, you might be tapped for a future project.  Try your hand at screenplays, fiction, nonfiction, and so on.  If you typically write for young adults, try writing for adults.  Try your hand at a self help or instructional book.  Don’t lock yourself into any single format or genre of writing.

7) Be wary of length (see #1).  Anything over 200-300 pages will raise eyebrows.  Most readers don’t want huge volumes anyway (Harry Potter notwithstanding).

8) In general, avoid looking weird and unstable when approaching a publisher.  If you are weird and unstable, do your best to tone it down.  Dress conservatively and don’t say anything ridiculous.

9) Ride coattails and write parody.  Keep an eye on what movies are in production, that will hit movie theaters years from now, and write a similar story and shop it around with a note that the related X movie will be coming out.  Parodies can include character names and plotlines without violating copyright laws, which allows you to feed off the name recognition of the original property.

10) Write for pre-existing captive audiences.  Sci-fi, vampires, and evangelical christianity are good examples of this: built-in audiences that so love the genre or topic, that they will gladly give an unknown a try.  This is especially good if you’re self publishing online.

11) Write erotica for women.  Erotica sales have skyrocketed ever since the introduction of e-readers.  Women can now buy soft porn without embarrassment, and the numbers indicate they’re gobbling it up.

12) Write romance for women.  Romance is the #1 selling genre in the United States (if not worldwide?), and the majority of the romance readers are women.  Women, in general, buy more books than do men.

13) If all else fails, self-publish electronically, but be careful about disclosing your self-publishing past to a real publisher, who tend to see self-publishers as losers.  The exception to this is if a self-published author has managed to attract a large fan base; then a publishing house will be happy to work with him or her.

14) For cold submissions, try something outrageous (but not offensive) that might catch the publisher’s eye.  Publishers tend to see a lot of the same stuff, so if you can produce something unique, bizarre, yet high quality, it might receive more eyeball time than the typical fare.

15) Don’t despair when you read about publishing going the way of the dodo.  While the internet has demolished paper journalism, book sales are still thriving, and if anything, are simply being augmented by ebooks (which, of course, is still a form of being published!). Remember, people thought VHS would mean the end of movie theaters, but people go to the theater more than ever, in addition to buying, renting, and streaming films.  It’s your job to keep an eye on the kind of books that are selling: 50 Shades of Gray, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid have sold untold millions of print and electronic copies, and have made their authors fabulously wealthy.