It was lunchtime. I was at a day-long picture book workshop, and at the break a group of us sat down to eat together. I hadn’t met any of them before, so we introduced ourselves and started making small talk. Then, the inevitable question arose:
“What do you write?”
A logical question, considering we’re all attending a writing workshop. But a loaded one – for me, anyway. In my experience, if I say, “I write LGBT-themed books,” I get one of two responses. Usually, people are excited and interested. But sometimes the response is stark, uncomfortable silence. Picture book writers tend to be white, female, heterosexual, and middle-aged, a demographic that could swing either way in terms of LGBTQ acceptance. When I give that answer, I’m simultaneously preparing myself for any possible reaction – much like LGBTQ kids and young adults do when they’re coming out to their parents.
The other issue with the what-do-you-write question is this: Saying “I write LGBT-themed books” isn’t a complete answer. I’ve written lots of stories that have absolutely nothing to do with the LGBTQ community – and they don’t fit neatly into some category or genre. One story is about weaning from breastfeeding. Another is about Humpty Dumpty getting fixed. (That’s called a “fractured fairy tale,” where a traditional fairy tale is told in an entirely different way.) I’ve written stories about cats, dogs, roosters, seagulls, and toes. (The toes story is one of my favorites.) Sometimes I write stories because I want to infuse some deeper meaning into them. But often I write stories just because they’re fun to write.
So often people have to market themselves in order to be successful. If a person is looking for a job (or looking for a publisher), they’re told to develop a thirty-second “elevator pitch” that quickly summarizes who you are and what you’re all about. It’s part of a larger process commonly referred to as “personal branding,” which is how you package yourself as a marketable asset. The book Think and Grow Rich, originally published in 1937, first introduced this idea – later, the 1980s book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People used the concept of “visioning” to modernize this idea. Hundreds of studies in business, marketing, communications, and psychology have been conducted on the power of personal branding. If I were to brand myself, I could say, “I am a community college professor and author who specializes in LGBTQ issues.” That’s a short, sweet elevator pitch.
But just like the what-d0-you-write question, that pitch doesn’t even come close to telling the full story. Labels and categories rarely do. When people ask, “What do you write?” I don’t have a quick, easy answer that is complete and honest. When people ask, “What do you do?”, my elevator pitch doesn’t tell people that I’m a licensed psychologist (who currently doesn’t practice), a mom, a crafter, a crazy cat lady and chicken keeper, a swimmer and lover of the ocean, an obsessive scrimper and saver – and lots of other things. If anything, my elevator pitch allows people to pigeonhole me into a category. It encourages stereotyping.
No wonder so many people in queer communities have resisted being labeled, categorized, pigeonholed, or elevator-pitched. Labels can help us find each other and form communities. Labels can also help others understand who we are – to a point. But they don’t tell the whole story. When I’m asked, “How do you identify your sexuality?”, I don’t have a quick, easy answer. If I say “bisexual,” which is the most technically accurate term, I’m aware that a particular vision of bisexuality is likely to get conjured up – and that vision might not be who I am. If I say “lesbian,” that matches my long-term relationship status, but it doesn’t acknowledge the fact that I’ve had relationships with men (and potentially could again in the future, although I’m quite happy with my partner). The fact that I don’t look “bisexual” or “lesbian” (most people who know me will tell you this) complicates things even further. I don’t have an elevator pitch that conveys a “sexuality brand” – and frankly, I don’t think I want one.
Alison Hearn, a professor of Media and Information Studies at Western Canada University, has written many articles about self, identity, and branding – and essentially what she says is this: When we engage in self-branding, we’re constructing a “narrative of the self” (which may or may not accurately reflect the real self). This narrative comes from what she calls an “outer-directed” form of the self (giving people what they want, in the service of capitalism), rather than an inner-directed self. This is not a new idea – many classic theorists, including Carl Rogers and D.W. Winnicott, talk about the “false self” as the society-conforming personality. If you think about it, this is the opposite of what feminists, anti-racism activists, and social justice advocates have been working towards – creating space for our true, authentic voices and selves to be heard and seen. The idea of an outer-directed self is not new – many classic theorists, including Carl Rogers and D. W. Winnicott, have identified the “false self” as the society-conforming personality. It’s not something that people in radical social justice communities want to participate in, I’d say.
I’ll end with a funny story. During lunch at this picture book workshop, when I shared more details about the kinds of things I write about, someone said to me, “You write great stories! They just aren’t a good fit for what mainstream publishers are looking for.” I laughed and said, “Even my stories are queer!” And then I realized: That’s my elevator pitch. I write stories that speak to people, but they don’t fit neatly into a category or niche, which, ironically, is often how my queer identity plays out. If I’m going to have an elevator pitch for my writing, that is one that’s subversive enough for me to live with.