Because screaming at Trump on a TV screen at the gym while pedaling an elliptical machine wasn’t helping, I got in my car and drove 628 miles to Lexington, Kentucky, to attend the Kentucky Women Writers Conference. For five days—as I crossed the lush, late-summer landscape of Pennsylvania and West Virginia in my Subaru, and then cut through the Daniel Boone National Forest to Kentucky—the only male voices I heard were those of the cast of “Hamilton” played on repeat for eleven hours, auto-tuning my untrained tenor voice as I sang along at top volume.
Though my mother’s coal-mining, moonshining people settled along the Pitman Creek in Pulaski County, Kentucky, in the early 1800s, I was geographically and culturally out of my element on I-70 and I-64 West. I couldn’t find NPR anywhere on the car radio. Though I knock back Sriracha sauce without a whimper, Big Shake’s Hot Chicken medium heat, called “Stop, Drop and Roll,” made me weep. I chose the slow lane, drove the speed limit, and let people cut in front of me—because doing so freed me from the eastern stereotype telegraphed by my license plate and membership stickers, if not from my awareness of myself as a woman driving alone through the woods, glancing nervously at her gas gauge. The thrumming of my anxiety during this painfully long and demoralizing election season was the sound of my tires pushing road on the way to the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, the KWW Conference home and feminist life preserver in a rising sea of misogyny.
Here’s the part where I reflexively temper the words “feminist” and “misogyny” by reassuring you that I love my husband of 31 years, that I admired and emulate my late father, and that I greatly benefitted from the wise and generous guidance of male professors at Bryn Mawr College and in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. It’s true: the benevolent influence of Chris Mills, Russell Mosier, Matthew Yarczower, Clark McCauley, Robert Boswell, CJ Hribal, and Charles Baxter helped shape and sharpen my literary voice. I hear their encouragement even now—part praise for my expressive style, part provocation to expand the reach of my writerly concerns—as I draft this guest blog for the Gloria Sirens.
And while true, saying so is strategic; I want you to keep reading, to hear me out through the not-so-polite part that follows. Because as Monday’s presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton made clear, the truth isn’t enough when you’re speaking while female.
Like most women, I have learned how to dress to be taken seriously: wear something conventionally pretty but not too sexy, style my hair and put on makeup to score social power, stand up straight and pull back my shoulders to signal authority, smile so I’m perceived to be approachable. Ho-hum. It’s old habit by now to act as if my entire life is being performed on a split screen that captures my reaction to being taunted or dismissed or shut down by a bully with permission to access his anger as authority.
But as a writer, I worry about how training my voice to be heard translates into prose on the page.
After all, speaking while female is like learning to sing by matching pitch to male power: lowering my voice by taking a breath and relaxing my throat, controlling volume so I don’t sound too aggressive, slowing down so I communicate calm and composure even when I’m furious—especially when I’m furious—and changing my pitch to switch instantly from serious to enthusiastic or warm or human, while I fend off the infantile rant of a man who feels disrespected because I disagree with him, or vengeful because I call out his lie, or abandoned because I can’t nurture his fragile ego while I’m trying to do my job twice as well for two-thirds of his pay and half of the respect he commands.
At midlife, I’m no longer wondering if this happens to most women, but rather, taking account: how much goes unsaid because women are preoccupied with rehearsing, with arming and defending ourselves, with wasting our allotted time watching men and waiting for men to pause for breath so we can break in and ask only not to be interrupted again?
I went to a women’s college—and contrary to popular belief, the experience was less nurturing than centering. At Bryn Mawr, I learned the freedom of breathing air filtered of gender expectations; of being able to forget, for once, that I was female; of turning my gaze outward, away from my practiced performance of femininity. Point of view is everything; at the center, you can see well enough to question what you see—and to ask if the story you’ve been told is true or false or in dire need of revision.
So. I went to the Kentucky Women Writers Conference to get re-centered. And not surprisingly, it worked.
There, in that unfamiliar, familiar place, I heard spoken word recording artist Ursula Rucker give voice to pain and power, poet Lisa Russ Spaar riff on denial and desire, memoirist Mary Karr recount her spiritual conversion, and novelist Danielle Dutton (who promotes women authors through Dorothy, a publishing project) challenge participants in her workshop on “Stories in Place” to pay attention as a radical act. I bought all their books and read them hungrily in my hotel room instead of turning on CNN—thereby blocking the voices that bombard us with information and analysis that not only doesn’t help us solve our problems, but urges us to blame others and oversimplify.
And as I read in my room, lo and behold: the whole landscape changed before my eyes, from hostile to hopeful, as I listened to the fresh ideas and intelligent voices of these literary women, who are thinking deeply about how best to live in these tense times.
Elizabeth Mosier is the author of The Playgroup (part of GemmaMedia’s “Open Door” series to promote adult literacy), a novel, My Life as a Girl (Random House), and numerous stories, articles, essays, and reviews. Her work has appeared most recently in 50 Women Over Fifty: A Celebration of Established and Emerging Women Writers, 1966: A Journal of Creative Nonfiction, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, The HerStories “Voices” project, The Dock: Hayden’s Ferry Review, Cleaver, Creative Nonfiction, andThe Philadelphia Inquirer. Her essay, “Believers,” was selected as notable in The Best American Essays 2015. “The U-Curve,” her column on midlife, is regularly featured in the Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin. A graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, she has twice been named a finalist by the Pew Fellowships in the Arts, has received fellowships from The Millay Colony for the Arts and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and a work-study scholarship to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. A seven-year volunteer technician for the Independence National Park Archaeology Laboratory, she is at work on a collection of essays on archaeology, memory, and home. Learn more about Elizabeth here.