Social Class and a Writing Conference

People meeting and writingThough not all writing conferences are expensive, many are. A number try, essentially, to take money from those who can afford it to subsidize those who can’t – a worthy policy.  But one still tends to meet more wealthy people than poor at a writing conference.

Last summer, I attended one on the East Coast that featured a creative nonfiction workshop. We sent our writing ahead to fellow participants before the conference. I read the first one and thought, “Yikes! This person’s mother was president of Phi Beta Kappa at Harvard! She could just call up a professor there and arrange a meeting. Oh dear, these people travelled the world on a regular basis!”

Another piece revealed someone who came from generations of successful business owners. It mentioned designer names and addresses unfamiliar to me. I felt a little anxious.

Checking My Assumptions

I’ve learned to be mindful, however, rather than automatic about my class assumptions. I’ve had experiences of clicking with people whose class backgrounds were so elite, as I learned later, that they blew my mind (but did not hurt the friendship). So I know that class does not determine connection or connectability.

Still, a little remnant of class fear floated around. What is this fear about? I asked myself. Is it that someone will attempt to belittle me once they know I’m not rich? Do I really care what that kind of snob thinks? They don’t have any power over me – unless I give it to them. Is there anything demeaning to poor people in this piece? Not really. I’ll give these people a chance first.

Of course, the poorer one is, the less wealth it takes to raise class anxiety. At one time, someone who owned a ranch house and two cars and vacationed in Florida seemed intimidating. But now, I had enough money to go out to eat with my classmates. I wasn’t living on an absolute shoestring at the conference. The poverty I divulged in my piece was in the past.

Where and how did I imagine this fatal class humiliation would occur? And wouldn’t I be perfectly capable of responding with dignity? I decided to be curious. I decided to wait and see.

It was disheartening to realize that poor people have to live in a world where those most likely to publish – to be heard and read because they have the privilege of pursuing an art that offers little financial reward and the time to write – would know nothing about them.”

Surprising (Dis)Connections

On the first day, the person whose background had seemed the most rarified talked about her concern about being elitist, and I saw that though she came from an elite background, she actually made efforts to “get out of the bubble” she acknowledged she had grown up in. She sometimes shopped at WalMart just to mingle with everyday people and learn. She was a very likable and thoughtful person, and I felt comfortable with her.

What surprised me was another writer’s reaction.

Ironically, I had thought this person would be the one I’d connect with best, because both our pieces dealt with the suffering of animals. Instead, in a spot where I had mentioned that my family always had old cars with shot brakes or mufflers, battered doors, wrecked shock absorbers, she had scribbled, “Why? How?”

I was nonplused. Was it really possible she did not immediately guess such cars came from poverty? What other reason could there be? A sarcastic reply came to my mind: Oh, we were just a bunch of irresponsible deadbeats who drove around in wrecks because…because why? I couldn’t think of a reason. Even deadbeats like to drive the best cars they can.

The Invisible …

Over the next few days, I puzzled over this event. It was distressing to realize that someone could be so insulated. It was disheartening to realize that poor people have to live in a world where those most likely to publish – most likely to be heard and read because they have the privilege of pursuing an art that offers little financial reward and the time to write – would know nothing about them. One wonders, how much more invisible are those with limited class privilege who also don’t speak English or are people of color?

… Raising Our Voices

I was grateful that voices from a variety of backgrounds do speak and write knowledgeably and compassionately about class. More than ever it seemed evident that if we want a democracy, class education is a necessity, not a luxury.

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