This is no. 94 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
In 1985 I was part of a fat radio program on an International Women’s Day broadcast in Boston. Cat Pausé, a fat studies scholar who is writing about the history of fat radio and podcasts, recently told me that the show and its predecessor in 1984 were likely the first ever fat-positive radio programs. During the show I read my poem “Lifting Belly Again,” which includes excerpts from Gertrude Stein’s astonishing erotic lesbian poem “Lifting Belly.”
From the beginning of my life as a writer, I was ambitious, trying to write work that would offer readers the kind of intense experiences that the books and poems I loved most had given me. And from the beginning, the fact that I wanted to write about fatness and queerness meant both that my work immediately had an audience within my communities, including an extensive network of feminist and queer publishers, journals, and bookstores, and also that it was met with a consistent stream of rejection from mainstream publishers. (This didn’t change even when I wrote Spider in a Tree, a novel about the eighteenth-century preacher and slaveholder Jonathan Edwards.)
In the early nineties I was in a lesbian writers group with Sally Bellerose and Janet Aalfs, among others. We decided to form a micro press to publish a chapbook that included work by everyone in the group, and then went on to publish one chapbook by each of us. Mine was Belly Songs: In Celebration of Fat Women. The cover art was a gorgeous drawing by my brother Don Stinson of me wearing one of my mom’s hand-me-down slips. We fundraised and sold advance copies to help pay for the printing. I traveled to conferences with a backpack full of Belly Songs. Sometimes I sold a few. Sometimes I sold out.
What this generated for me as a writer wasn’t money, or at least not much. It was freedom. I wasn’t writing looking over my shoulder, half-frozen with fear about what was marketable. I considered my readers thoroughly and tenderly, but I also scared myself and took plenty of risks. (See, for instance, that Calvinist preacher.) For writers, knowing that they can take publication into their own hands is a source of power.
I want writers at every point of their career to know that they can do this. It is possible to write work that no one except you and a few other pockets of literary adventurers have even dreamed of wanting to read. If the work exists, it will find its readers, or some of them. You, the writer, can help make sure of that. If it is never written, it will not.
There are many models for radical, small-scale indie publishing. I think of Radix Media, a worker-owned printer and publisher, which offers the Own Voices Chapbook Prize and recently announced a new Graphic Narrative Collection. Gavin Grant and Kelly Link of Small Beer Press published two of my novels and produce the zine Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. The website describes the zine as “an Occasional Outburst, an arrow shot into the future, a harbinger.”
The writing I love is unpredictable and specific. It has sentences that are snowdrifts or mud-wrestling matches or swap meets. It leads me, the reader, more deeply into life. Whether or not it is marketable is a question that can be dangerous to its creation, so I say yes, it is. If you make it truly and well, you can sell it. Enough of it to keep the work alive in the minds of at least a few readers. Extraordinary things come from that.
Susan Stinson is a writer, editor, and teacher. She is the author of four novels, including Spider in a Tree (Small Beer Press, 2013) and Martha Moody (Spinsters Ink Books, 1995; Small Beer Press, 2020). Her writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Curve, Lambda Literary Review, Seneca Review, and Kenyon Review Online. She is also a recipient of the Outstanding Mid-Career Novelists’ Prize from Lambda Literary. Born in Texas and raised in Colorado, she lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.