Emily K. Michael
Submission guidelines rarely make me angry. Perhaps because I seek out publications that share my interests –ecology, feminism, disability, music, language–all the specifications can start to look the same. Most journals want a well-rounded submission, free from religious agendas, offensive stereotypes, and one-dimensional fables of inspiration.
When I find a publication that seems promising, I scroll through the journal's "About" page and submission guidelines. Here is where I can make some serious assessments. Journals lose my interest if they proclaim, "send us your best work" or "we only publish good poetry." I won't let my students use "good" and "bad" as standalone terms for evaluation, so I hesitate to send my work to a journal that won't express its own agenda in more vibrant language.
Among publications that promote the work of disabled writers, the guidelines evince a similar aesthetic. Here are excerpts from three journals committed to sharing the work of writers with disabilities:
"Writers with disabilities can submit poems on any topic. For topics unrelated to disability, [The Journal] will ask you to confirm that you have a disability upon acceptance. Non-disabled writers must submit work that relates in some way to disability."
"Submissions may be either by an individual with a disability or anyone who is part of the community."
"[The Journal] is a forum for people with disabilities to speak for ourselves. We hope that our allies will support this endeavor."
These guidelines echo the common thread among disability-related publications: work by writers with disabilities or work about disability. While some journals open submissions to friends, caregivers, and other allies, others only want work by disabled people–presumably for a disabled audience.
The style of the guidelines matters. With lists of fussy rules and blocks of prescriptive reminders, a journal seems overbearing. When I answered a recent call for blind writers, the editor wrote to me, "Make sure to use plenty of vivid details." I felt like a freshman in a creative writing class.
But perhaps I should have expected this kind of micromanagement. The guidelines for his publication read: "We want to hear first-person stories not merely about blindness, but about what it takes to survive and strive as a human. We want to establish a new venue for exploring direct experiences surrounding the often misunderstood and under-appreciated aspects of blindness."
What fascinates me here are two concepts: striving "as a human" and "the under-appreciated aspects of blindness." These phrases–nestled in a larger block of text–sound subtle alarms. Even before this editor reads my submission, I must prove myself "as a human." This is a journal that wants human stories, not more-than-human, not nonhuman. It's a journal devoted to personhood.
The "under-appreciated aspects of blindness" are the compensatory gifts of disability, cleverly disguised. In their very next paragraph, the guidelines instruct the writer: "The most important thing is that [the submission is] honest, unafraid, and rooted in an experience of visual impairment." I put this line in conversation with the editor's advice to "avoid talking about your diagnosis and focus on the experience."
The editor wants blindness, but not my blindness. While I support the journals efforts to cast disabled people as more than their diagnoses, I don't appreciate the reminders. If I choose to focus on medical details, that choice is not a shortcoming or a sign of my ignorance: it's a rhetorical move with desired effects.
These guidelines are a reaction to a powerful threat hibernating in the presence of disabled artists–that we might dare to speak of our experiences without courage, that we might offer the nondisabled reader a few lines of fragmented, unpredictable reality. Against this threat, the guidelines erect new definitions: Our reality is now unreality. They won't acknowledge our experiences or publish our work.
They want clean lines.
But the desire for clean, polished renderings of disability is not confined to nondisabled readers–who receive plenty of blame for the bad attitudes we face each day. On another call for disabled poets, posted to social media, a writer asked, "What kind of poetry are you looking for?" And the editor responded with a fabulous phrase:
"I don't want microaggressions. I want good poetry."
Now, here's where I long to put on my English teacher badge and stride into the fray. I know what the editor means: she doesn't want poetry that whines or complains, poetry that fusses over the little irritations of each day. She wants something more than a poet's note to herself–poems that would resonate with readers beyond the original writer.
But this statement erects a binary between "microaggressions" and "good poetry." It's as if the editor is not just critiquing submissions, but the inspiration for those submissions. As I look through my work, I should censor myself, interrogate each poem for a suitably elevated motivation. In forming the "good poetry" or the "courageous" depiction of vision loss required by these editors, I am supposed to rise above the everyday irritations of disability, distill my experiences into a fine, sparkling elixir.
In their syntax, these guidelines divide me from my sense of how writing transforms my experiences. I can summon up my exhaustion at the end of a long day of intrusive questions, my frustration with the pity of strangers who don't bother to understand me, my loneliness and longing for other blind companions. The process of art may transform these feelings into something grander, something more transcendent. And it may not. Art begins with our mundanity.
As with the language of compensatory blessings, the editors avoid the word "inspiration." Perhaps they know that we've gotten hip to its real meaning. We recognize inspiration–the kind expected from stories of overcoming–as code for erasure.
But the unsuspecting blind writer can face other signs of erasure out in the open. A website called TheReImage offers a seemingly noble mission: "TheReImage will share stories focusing on all aspects of life. Each story will feature individuals with different degrees of vision loss, but rather than concentrating on that one aspect, we're examining the emotions, feelings and experiences we share as humans." Here is a website dedicated to stories of our shared humanity–doesn't that sound wonderful? Finally, a publication that acknowledges disabled writers as people!
Again I see "as humans." I am on edge.
When I travel to their submission guidelines, I find that stories should: "Provide a well balanced authentic perspective on living with vision loss. Focus the story on the human experience, not the vision loss. Promote public awareness and greater understanding of vision loss and the capabilities of people with vision loss. Be of interest to the sighted/general public."
These guidelines must be the work of a skilled craftsperson: they hide a sinister contradiction. They encourage writers to offer a balanced, authentic perspective of "vision loss," and they contrast this brand of authenticity with a "focus on vision loss." So a story that focusses on disability, that explores some medical or anatomical concept, is therefore deemed inauthentic and unbalanced. Further down the page, The ReImage tells writers to, "Use the term 'vision loss' instead of blind or visually impaired," and "Put the vision loss aspect in the background."
Perhaps the most heartbreaking feature of these guidelines is the mandate: "Be of interest to the sighted/general public." Here we have a website that claims to be working against the stereotypical image of blindness. TheReImage wants to promote better stories of blindness, but not for a blind audience. They're rallying against that dark threat again–the notion that we might dream of offering our own experiences, unfiltered through inspiration or courage. And they're not just circumventing our stories, they're actually renaming us.
Even though I have dozens of delightful experiences, I can't write for TheReImage. I am resolutely a blind poet. Not a "writer with sight loss."
These guidelines tell half a story, and it's the half that many people want to hear. TheReImage claims to be giving us back our personhood–offering stories where the disability doesn't overshadow the humanity. But in order to give us our dignity, our membership in their tribe, they must acknowledge that someone has taken it away. You can't return a stolen vase if it hasn't been stolen. So disability itself becomes the thief, and they conquer it with style.
TheReImage asks for balance and authenticity, yet it banishes the self-identified blind or visually impaired writer, forcing them to go by another name. I ask, what is authentic about having to rename oneself for a "general/sighted public"?
These guidelines are not designed for my questions. They are not drafts but finalized decrees. I can't place my trust in a one-sided conversation.
Editors, I am looking for dialogue, a mutual coming-to-terms. I am looking for textual empathy.
I have seen such empathy unfold in real time. In December, I responded to a call for women writers. The editors were creating a feminist anthology and seeking diverse and "differently abled" women. Because the project looked interesting, I dared to comment in response. I told the editor that "differently abled" wasn't a term that I as a disabled woman would ever choose for myself. I said that disability wasn't a dirty word, and would she consider altering the call for submissions?
To my intense surprise, the editor immediately altered the language of the call and confessed her desire to use the appropriate term. She said, "It's hard to know what's preferred unless you're in the group," and I agreed. Ours was a minute exchange, a handful of comments and links shared on Facebook, but it represented something more powerful: a commitment to dialogue.
This commitment to negotiation is what's missing from so many of the off-putting calls for disabled writers. An editor or panel of editors decrees what "version" of disability I am allowed to submit, and if I don't comply, I won't be admitted. They'll move past my firebrand submission to a whole queue of writers willing to barter for personhood on someone else's terms.