Spotlight on LGBTQ AWP Panels: Having it All: Writing and Solo Parenting

In the lead-up to AWP 2019 we’re highlighting a few LGBTQ panels that we think you’ll enjoy. Make sure to get out your planners, calendars, or apps and add these to your schedule!

Emily Withnall is a freelance writer and editor. Her work has appeared in the Kenyon Review, The Rumpus, and Lunch Ticket, among other publications. She is working on a book about domestic violence and hydraulic fracturing. Emily is the queer solo mom to a tween and teen.

Sam Tetangco, our LGBTQ Writers Caucus President met up with her via email to ask her about her upcoming panel.


Sam: How did this panel come to be? Why do you think this is an important conversation to be had at this year’s AWP?

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Emily Withnall

EMILY: Having it All: Writing and Solo Parenting” is Friday, March 29 from 9-10:15 a.m. in B115, Oregon Convention Center, Level 1. The panel explores the challenges single parents face when juggling writing with the responsibilities of family. The panel will seek to offer insight and advice on how to remain productive in one’s writing as well as address the ethical questions parents face when writing about their lives.

This panel came to be when one of my fellow panelists, Melissa Stephenson, proposed it. We are both single parents and writers living in Missoula, Montana, and we have had many conversations about the unique struggles we face as a result. We will also be bringing our own perspectives about this experience to the panel. As a queer woman, I have often struggled to find community with other parents and as a queer writer, it is often similarly difficult to find a community of other queer writers — especially in Montana. I think that all of these topics are important ones to wrestle with.

No matter what your situation is, parenting is HARD. We can all benefit from hearing each others’ failures, triumphs, and insights.

Queer parenting and single parenting are not as visible as they should be and both experiences/identities can add significant challenges and barriers to the writing and publishing world. These challenges are economic, social, and political and can often (but not always!) render invisible queer parents, single parents, and queer single parents like myself.

I know that many queer people are able to create family and community to help with child raising, but that feels out of reach in a place like Montana.

Sam: This sounds like a great panel — and an important one. Queer parenting (and the intersection this holds with writing) feels like a conversation that has been missing. Does your own writing and the writing of other panelists also focus on similar topics?

Emily: Yes, some of my writing focuses on being a queer parent. I recently had an essay about the challenges of being a queer single parent in a rural place republished by RISE Magazine. It first appeared in the anthology “Greetings from Janeland: Women Write More About Leaving Men for Women” (Cleis Press, 2017). As far as I know, the other panelists don’t identify as queer but their writing does grapple with the challenges of being both a writer and a single parent. Although women often carry more of the load when it comes to childcare within a relationship, single parents have to somehow find a way to write with zero help. In bigger cities, I know that many queer people are able to create family and community to help with child raising, but that feels out of reach in a place like Montana.

Sam: As for the panel itself, what kinds of people do you think should attend (do we need to be queer parents to be able to engage with the topic?) and what do you hope people will take away from it?

Emily: I think all parents or people who someday want to be parents should attend the panel. The focus is on single parenting and writing, and while I will certainly bring my perspective as a queer single parent, I think most parents will be able to find aspects of our stories that they’ll be able to identify with. No matter what your situation is, parenting is HARD. We can all benefit from hearing each others’ failures, triumphs, and insights. In my ideal world, parents — and especially single parents — would not be so isolated and unsupported. We can slowly change this if we reach out, talk about our experiences, and build community. And literary communities are especially important for us writers!

Queer parenting and single parenting are not as visible as they should be and both experiences/identities can add significant challenges and barriers to the writing and publishing world.

Sam: Your panel description talks about ethical dilemmas a parent faces when writing about family. Do you think these challenges are greater for queer parents (and/or solo parents)?

Emily: I think questions about privacy and ethics are ones all writers grapple with. I can’t speak for the others on my panel, but for me, as my kids have gotten older I’ve become more and more cautious about what I share about them in my writing. I won’t write my kids out of my essays because they are a central part of my life, but I also won’t tell their stories. I am not sure that these ethical dilemmas are any different for queer or straight parents, but I do think that queer parents are more likely to exercise more caution when it comes to writing about things like their kids’ gender or sexuality. I’ve been outed before and it’s not something I’d do to my kids. In some cases, however, single parents of all sexualities have to think carefully about what they share in writing about their kids or their kids’ other parent if they share legal and/or physical custody of their kids. I don’t have a book out yet and have navigated this in published essays by avoiding the use of my ex’s name. I know of some women writing about domestic violence who have had to have their books vetted by legal teams before publishing.

Queerness does so much to inform a writer’s perspective.

Sam: Thanks so much for your time! One final question, a sort of keep paying it forward type of thing — any queer writers out there that you recommend?

Emily: Yes! Off the top of my head, Roxane Gay, Samantha Irby, Melissa Febos, Tommy Pico, Maggie Nelson, Allison Bechdel, Audre Lorde, Elizabeth Bishop, Mary Oliver, Danez Smith, Paula Gunn Allen, Dorothy Allison, Carmen Maria Machado, Jaquira Diaz, Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor, and Rachel Carson. They don’t all write about being queer, and I’m not sure any of them are single parents, but I always feel that queerness does so much to inform a writer’s perspective.

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