In his commencement speech to the class of 2011 at the University of California-Berkeley Journalism School, Robert Krulwich encouraged students not to wait for recognition from the bastions of journalism, the major institutions and corporations. Instead, he said:
I want you to just think about this: Think about NOT waiting your turn.
Instead, think about getting together with friends that you admire, or envy. Think about entrepeneuring. Think about NOT waiting for a company to call you up. Think about not giving your heart to a bunch of adults you don’t know. Think about horizontal loyalty. Think about turning to people you already know, who are your friends, or friends of their friends and making something that makes sense to you together, that is as beautiful or as true as you can make it…
…You will build a body of work, but you will also build a body of affection, with the people you’ve helped who’ve helped you back.
And maybe that’s your way into Troy.
There you are, on the beach, with the other newbies, looking up. Maybe somebody inside will throw you a key and let you in… But more likely, most of you will have to find your own Trojan Horse.
And maybe, for your generation, the Trojan Horse is what you’ve got, your talent, backed by a legion of friends. Not friends in high places. This is the era of Friends in Low Places. The ones you meet now, who will notice you, challenge you, work with you, and watch your back. Maybe they will be your strength.
Last summer, I came back to Pittsburgh from an editorial internship in New York feeling confused, as if the compass holding strong at North had begun to quiver, and spin. For the first year of my MFA I was steady-focused on “making it” – on getting published in important places, on getting noticed by important people, on success as defined by esteem from above. I was aiming straight up, up, up. But when I got close enough to glimpse inside the institutions and the success I idolized I was surprised by their narrowness.
This is not to say I came to respect them any less, or that my craving for success as a nonfiction writer – success defined by recognition, esteem, and publication in traditionally lauded forms and places – diminished; instead, my definition of what it means to write and be a writer broadened, and my awe of the greats was checked, adjusted. And then the VIDA count came out, and just as it seems that the second I learn about something like, say, guerilla marketing, I begin to see it all over the place – it becomes a motif where previously I hadn’t noticed a thing – the lack of women in publishing began to creep up everywhere. In magazine articles, in anthologies, in graduate courses, in my day-to-day life, in my reading. And this combination – an increased awareness of the lack of women in publishing and of the narrowness of traditional definitions of success, traditional institutions – led to Vela.
I feel a deep ambivalence about what the current explosion of digital forms means for writers, but I am also intensely grateful to be coming of age at a time when writers have other options: we don’t have to take the conventional path, or only the conventional path, and we don’t have to work only with what major institutions offer or accept. We can strike out, and we have.
As Tom Bissell put it recently in an interview with Harper’s, there are two types of writers: those who help other writers, and those who don’t.
Vela has become a space for the former, and looking back on our first year, it is this that stands out the most. I’ve been thrilled with the quality of the writing, but I trusted in Amanda, Molly, Simone, Lauren and Eva from the beginning. What has emerged as a brilliant surprise is how much we’ve come to collaborate. And not only in terms of reading and editing one another’s work, but in terms of supporting one another’s careers, helping one another through periods of doubt or frustration and celebrating each other’s breakthroughs. We’ve become a community, and perhaps this connection, this support and the fruits it bears, will be our way into Troy.
But what I’ve discovered this year is that there is more than Troy: the Peruvian Andes; the Utah desert; Oaxacan revolutions; awakenings in Fort Jackson, South Carolina; wind horses in rural Nepal; weddings in Cambodia; the support and shared purpose of five fellow women writers.