A cosplay-loving orc, a Nigerian Muslim tucked behind a hijab, an ex-secret service member, and a transgender woman huddle around a table to get to work…
I’ve typed this with the realization that it sounds like a set up for a joke, but it’s not. It’s actually my writing critique group, and a testament to one thing I believe our profession can claim without hesitation: We have the most inclusive and diverse occupation of all time.
Independent studies have shown that MLS (Major League Soccer) wins the prize for sports, Rutgers University wins it for colleges, and Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation wins it for companies. Forbes has noted the most diverse industries on a whole are health care, hotels and catering, and business, though acknowledges each has it’s own limiting factors. For instance, manual labor within an industry tends to be male dominated, geography can affect the employee pool, educational requirements do the same, and the closer to the top of the pyramid you get, the less diversity you see.
So, what of writing? We’re notably absent from the studies, the statistics, the scientific evidence. Can I claim with any authority that when it comes to diversity within a specific profession, ours carries the day?
Well, consider this…
Geography. You can write, and succeed at writing, from anywhere. Even prison. Case in point: Henry David Thoreau, Nelson Mandela, O. Henry, Miguel de Cervantes, Martin Luther King. They all wrote something noteworthy behind bars.
Age. James Arruda Henry holds the world record for being the oldest formerly illiterate author after he published his autobiographical essays at 98 years old. The renowned French poet Arthur Rimbaud had his most prolific years during his teens.
Disabilities. As far as the physical limitations of the job itself – there are very few. Homer was blind from birth, Agatha Christie had dysgraphia, Lord Byron had epilepsy and a clubfoot, Christy Brown had cerebral palsy. Consider the best selling memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Jean-Dominique Bauby, who suffered from locked-in syndrome after a massive stroke, wrote the book by choosing each letter read aloud by a transcriber with a blink of his only functioning eye. 200,000 blinks in all.
Education. It has merits, but it’s not a prerequisite. Harper Lee dropped out of college, Faulkner dropped out of high school, Mark Twain only made it in academia until he was twelve, H.G Wells, eleven.
Even the one thing that should limit us – our ability to use language – cannot stand in the way if we’re persistent. The list of famous dyslexic authors is too long to inventory here, but includes names like Fitzgerald and John Irving.
In the end, what’s this all mean?
Anyone can become a writer. Nothing — not your location, disabilities, age, or education — can keep you from it. To join this profession, you need only be alive with a story to tell.
As for those at the very top of our industry — the best sellers, the prize winners, the published, the personalities – they have slipped past the gatekeepers to get there. Discussing the diversity fallout from the publishing industry goes beyond the scope of this post. NPR took a stab at it recently in Lynn Neary’s article, To Achieve Diversity In Publishing, A Difficult Dialogue Beats Silence. She’s right; it’s time to talk.
On paper all publishers want is something well written. In my rose-colored glasses wearing way, I like to believe that our profession’s diversity is reflected in what comes off the press, though I know that’s not always true. When it’s not, there are organizations like VIDA and the We Need Diverse Books Campaign to highlight it, and I’m grateful to them.
What I do know, glasses or not, is this: the written word is not a gender, a nationality, a color, a sexual or religious preference, or a beauty contest. Once we type our story out, it is free from us and whatever societal stigma we carry. In the slush pile, on the editor’s desk, shelved at the bookstore, sandwiched between two clip-out coupons in the newspaper — we are nothing more than what we’ve written.
And what we write has the ability to resonate with something that is common across all of mankind. Our human emotion. Our very own humanity.
This profession is the most diverse and inclusive because by its very nature it allows us to be equals. Perhaps we’ve been overlooked by the statisticians because when they glance at us, they only see ink and paper.
But then again, this is what I love about writing.
And this is what I love about my critique group.