If It’s Not Privilege, Then What Is It?: On Writer Privilege

So yesterday, after twenty-four years of struggle, I sold a novel.  (Read about it here, pre-order it here, if you like.)

Let’s be honest: That took perseverance.  I wrote for hours a day, writing on vacation, writing on my birthday, writing when I was recovering from heart surgery.  I went to critique groups to get better feedback.  I networked online so I could find better people to give me feedback.  Out of any given day, you can point to at least an hour and say, “Ferrett put in his 10,000 hours.”

Except.

* I was lucky enough to be healthy, so I didn’t have to deal with days torpedoed by chronic pain issues or going to doctors or filling prescriptions.

* I was lucky enough to have a sedentary, work-at-home job.  Yes, some of that’s career choice, but I went to college for seven years on scholarships and my parents’ dime, and they were rich enough to buy a PC back when they were super-expensive so I got familiarized with computers about ten years before the curve.  I happened to be born male, so people just sort of assumed I could be good at computers.  Now, I work hard at being a programmer – but there’s also a lot in my background that enabled this career choice.  If I had to work an hour away lugging crates at a warehouse, my writing time would be cut into by exhaustion and commutes, rendering me less productive.

* I was lucky enough to be wealthy enough to go to the Clarion Science Fiction Writers’ Workshop after I got accepted, which costs thousands of dollars.   (As witness this less-fortunate soul raising the bare-bones $3,600 it’ll take him to attend this year.)  It cost me probably $4,500 after all was said and done, and that’s a lot of change to just plunk down.  (Viable Paradise is less expensive, as it’s shorter, but that’s still $1,100 plus travel.)

* I was lucky enough to have a good enough job that they gave me the leave to go away for six weeks, though I was so hot to trot that I would have quit if I’d had to.  Thankfully, they were gracious as they usually are.  Thankfully, I had the financial cushion to be able to walk away if I needed to, and a family supportive enough to deal with my absence for six weeks.

* I was lucky enough to have friends who told me about things like Clarion, and conventions, and what to expect from publishers.  I didn’t go hunting for writer-friends; I happened to have a few who I ran across in town.  If it wasn’t for a friend telling me about Clarion that year, I wouldn’t have heard of it, and you wouldn’t have heard of me.

* I was lucky enough to have wise parents who modeled secure, sane marriages for me, so when I found my wife – who has been wise, supportive, and a stanchion of my writing career – I was smart enough to not destroy the relationship.

Now, none of those gifts take away from my tremendous drive.  And they don’t mention things like, say, my chronic depression, which does in fact take away from my production time.  But those are all advantages that were, in some fundamental way, given to me.  Yeah, I had to work efficiently to keep my job, and yeah I had to be lovable enough to keep my friends, and yeah, I had to be talented enough to get to spend all that money on Clarion – but in all those issues, I had a huge boost from forces beyond my choosing.

It was hard enough getting this damn novel sold.

It would have been even harder if just a few circumstances had changed in my life.  Maybe impossible.  If I’d had young children and a wife with a job at 7-11, going to Clarion probably wouldn’t have happened.  If I’d been incapacitated by chronic back pain for three hours a day, my writing time would have been affected.  If I’d run with a different set of friends, that whole “Clarion” thing – the event that restarted my career – would have zipped on by.

I call those privileges.

And Brad Torgersen (he of the other first novel happydance) said that in the military, privileges are things you earn.  Which may be true.  But I don’t know a better word for those quiet advantages.  “Gifts” don’t seem right, because frankly, me walking around healthy isn’t really a gift, it’s just something I feel most people oughtta have in a sane world.

But whatever you call them, I acknowledge them.  Yes, I worked hard to break through.  Super-hard.  But despite all that effort I put in, it could have been harder.  And writing is such a challenge to get write, requiring such focus to hone, that I don’t think it’s a surprise that a lot of writers are white males who come from middle- to upper-class homes. They’ve got a whole societal structure geared around supporting them.

And again!  Like me, that doesn’t denigrate their effort.  There’s a zillion middle-class white guys, and the majority of them suck at writing because they either don’t care or didn’t put their time into the craft.  Anyone who hauls their ass across this finish line has done something significant.  But there are others who had additional hurdles in front of them on that track, and I think it’s intellectually dishonest to wave that aside.

I guess that’s why privilege is such a difficult concept to express: it feels contradictory, on some level.  It’s You did do something really difficult, but it could have been harder.  And nobody wants to hear that they had it easier than others… particularly when they fail.  Particularly when “privilege” is not a singular power-up that magically erases all difficulty, but a bunch of small factors that can often cascade into greater things.  Particularly when some people only have certain privileges (a decent income, good physical health) but lack others (like my depressive fugue-states chipping away at my mental health).

But that doesn’t erase the concept.  And when I look at my achievement?  I’m happy.  I wanted to publish a damn novel, and now I will have, and I put in my 10,000 hours to get here hard-core.

Yet when I look at society and all the things I’d like to fix, there’s a bunch of people who never got what I did.  I’d like to give it to them, if I can, or just plain make coping with those issues easier.  And I refuse to erase that reality by claiming I’m a self-made man or somesuch.

I had a lot of help.  I had a lot of advantages.  I did a lot of fucking work.

Those concepts are not mutually exclusive.

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