Eve Bridburg’s 2023 Women’s National Book Association Award Speech

Eve Bridburg’s 2023 Women’s National Book Association Award Speech

GrubStreet’s Founder and Executive Director, Eve Bridburg, was recently honored with the 2023 Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) Award. This prestigious award is given every two years to a living American woman who has made exceptional contributions to the book industry beyond the scope of her profession. The following contains Bridburg’s remarks on the occasion of receiving the 2023 award.

I am honored to accept this award tonight on behalf of GrubStreet and all of the wonderful people and writers who have shaped and built it. So much labor goes into creating a place like GrubStreet, and much of it is invisible. With this award, I’d like to recognize two groups that don’t get enough recognition. I want to acknowledge the extraordinary contributions of our board members past and present – good to see many of you here tonight – who have volunteered countless hours, contributed to our vision, connected us to key stakeholders, and donated their skills and money. and I want to shout out our incredible staff past and present – and especially tonight, those who support our programs from behind the scenes, working hard to ensure that everyone gets paid, events get marketed, we’re hitting our fundraising goals, the doors get locked up at the end of the night and that the garbage goes out. We couldn’t do what we do or be who we are without all of us laboring together.  

GrubStreet, like the WNBA, was founded for those who felt excluded or daunted – in our case – by MFA programs and the publishing world at large.

It’s a great honor to be recognized by the Women’s National Book Association, an organization which came into being in 1917 – before women could vote! – because women were excluded from joining bookseller associations. The majority of our students identify as women, and over the years, they have published novels, nonfiction books, essays, and poems with strong female characters and perspectives on everything from how our culture continues to tolerate sexual harassment and even rape to the lack of access for people living with disabilities to important yet under-appreciated historical figures like Lucy Stone and so much more. 

GrubStreet, like the WNBA, was founded for those who felt excluded or daunted – in our case – by MFA programs and the publishing world at large. Tonight I want to share some of our history and my own story, making the case for building more such places across the country and globe. 

The Backstory

In the mid-1990s, Jeff Bezos had only been selling books out of his garage for two years, self-publishing was still considered shameful, rigorous writing programs were mainly taking place in gated and expensive universities, and you had to be published or vetted to join groups like PEN New England and other writing associations and clubs. 

This was the context when I got into a well-known writing program on a teaching fellowship in my mid-twenties. Before then, I had been doing a lot of odd jobs trying to find myself – working in environmental nonprofits, farming, managing bookstores in foreign lands, traveling, and writing. When I got into graduate school, I wasn’t as sure of making my life as a writer as my peers were. I hadn’t been writing stories and devouring books since I was ten or eleven. I hadn’t kept journals. I was extroverted, unlike most of my introverted writer friends.  I had found books later than most – in the last years of high school and college when life threw me real challenges, and they helped me grapple. It wasn’t until I was excruciatingly bored at entry-level reception and data entry jobs in my early twenties that I started writing stories and poems. and if I’m honest, a big part of my motivation involved flirting with a man I traded pages with. 

I thought getting into a good writing program was a sign, an indication that I should take my writing more seriously. That I had talent. I was nervous and excited. The first sign of trouble came in the form of a long letter from the director of the program promising advice about “writing and life.” The advice was mainly a very long list of NOs. Don’t use too many adjectives. Don’t write satire. Don’t write from subjective points of view. Avoid writing about people’s feelings or thoughts or dreams. Don’t write like Virginia Woolf. Avoid large abstract nouns (Toni Morrison should have known better)… and on like that. Some of the advice was geared toward classing us up, making us more sophisticated and polished. We were instructed, for example, not to pronounce the final “e” in forte and not to chew gum. 

On the very first night of the very first workshop, I remember sitting in a circle with my peers, nervously making small talk, waiting for this scary and thrilling journey to begin. How would it start, I wondered. The answer came in the form of the professor entering the room, unloading his heavy satchel on the table with a thud, and slapping down three stories. He looked at each of us in turn, while asking: did any of you think any of these were any good? The answer he wanted was clearly: no. I had one thought as my stomach sank: thank god I don’t have a story in that pile. 

Humiliation and being demeaned were considered part of what you had to fight through if you were serious about your craft. 

My professor was maybe an extreme example, but the way he approached teaching creative writing was standard operating practice in many of what were considered the best writing programs in the country in the nineties. There was the Western canon, considered the highest measure of excellence, and the well-known, overwhelmingly white male writers directing and teaching in these programs. Women writers were largely temporary visitors, on contract, hired for one or two classes. These men picked winners and losers, they opened the gates or they didn’t. and in many cases, humiliation and being demeaned were considered part of what you had to fight through if you were serious about your craft. This atmosphere mainly shut me down. I managed to write one story I liked and the first draft of a novel, but mainly I left the program feeling uncertain about whether to continue.

Our Story

When I graduated, I did what all my peers were doing and started teaching composition at a local college. I hated it.  I also wanted to continue to explore my own writing with others so I convinced my friend Julie Rold to teach creative writing classes with me, in Brookline, where I was living at the time. I put $400 on my credit card to print flyers advertising our two fiction classes, hung them on trees around town, and then went home to wait for the phone to ring. 

We didn’t have any idea who would show up. Eight brave souls joined us. They were talented and committed writers, writers who either didn’t have the time or the money or the interest in MFA programs or who felt intimidated for a variety of reasons about breaking in. Most of our students were women, many of them having given up on writing earlier in life. We realized with those first eight students just how powerful it was to share work on equal footing in an atmosphere of support and affirmation instead of shame and diminishment. I don’t like the term “safe space,” but we were aware that we wanted our students to be comfortable being vulnerable and taking risks and to know that they would never ever be mocked. We also didn’t believe we had the right – and we absolutely didn’t have the authority – to be paternalistic or to cast judgment. Our students would tell us what their goals were, explain their visions for their work, and we would support them as best we could. 

We didn’t know – and I’d argue no one does – what any individual writer was or wasn’t capable of producing with hard work, support, and feedback. The most satisfying thing I hear to this day from students is this: I never knew I was capable of producing something this beautiful. I never knew I was capable of finishing a book-length project. I never knew –  fill in the blank – until I tried and was sustained by this community. 

We didn’t know – and I’d argue no one does – what any individual writer was or wasn’t capable of producing with hard work, support, and feedback.

Despite early tangible successes like book deals and magazine publications, in those first years, people inside and outside of the literary community would ask me: Are your students even any good? The implication being that anyone who was working on their writing who wasn’t vetted by a known party – a university, a publishing house, a journal – who hadn’t competed for a spot, couldn’t possibly have real talent or be legitimate. I often left those conversations feeling the sting of shame while also wondering: what is so threatening or worthy of judgment about a room full of people taking time out of their busy lives to explore their imaginations, to process their lives, to create? Why should such activity be limited to a chosen few?

It wasn’t long before I started hearing from students who told me that GrubStreet classes had transformed or even saved their lives. I didn’t really believe it at first. But the stories kept coming. Students told me that it had to do with not feeling alone, being heard and understood, healing, processing, and the social trust and new friendships they felt with others. Students who never would have gotten to know one another in any other context often form deep and trusting relationships when sharing creative work, which always means being vulnerable and often means revealing layers of themselves they keep guarded in other spaces. 

It wasn’t long before I started hearing from students who told me that GrubStreet classes had transformed or even saved their lives. I didn’t really believe it at first. But the stories kept coming. 

As the years went by, I found myself more and more committed – and creatively fulfilled – by community building and expanding our organizational range. While my friends and colleagues got up early to write fiction on Saturday mornings, I was the oddball writing strategy about GrubStreet as an organization, occupied by questions about our future and what we’d build next. I got interested in self-publishing and what it might mean for us as educators. Going to self-publishing conferences was a wake-up call. The conferences I attended were incredibly racially and ethnically diverse. Unlike mainstream conferences. Unlike our conference. Unlike our organization. I started talking to community members about this problem, and one of our students – a wonderful biracial author – who volunteered to help with our efforts told me plainly: GrubStreet is known in communities of color as a place for white people.

That hit hard, but I appreciated the honesty and needed to hear it. 

For so many years, I had regarded us as a welcoming space, an alternative to places that were gated and exclusive. We had grown wildly over 15 years, our students ranged in age from 13 to 99, and our course catalog was among the most expansive in the country. and we had proven our approach worked. Nurturing the talent of anyone who came through our doors, unvetted, had led to publishing success for many.

As true as that was, it was also true that we hadn’t actively engaged communities of color. At that point in our history, the wonderful benefits that were coming out of our existence for writers – jobs, book deals, powerful social and professional networks – weren’t equally benefiting the diversity of writers across greater Boston. In fact, we were perpetuating the same inequity found in publishing at-large and in Boston’s arts community. 

Deepening Our Mission

The image I started to see was that of a theater packed to the brim with writers in the audience. GrubStreet was shining its light on only half of the room. How could we light up the whole theater? 

Remedying this inequity became my biggest priority. We spent a few years trying various things without moving the needle. We realized that getting serious about diversity and inclusion would mean rewriting our mission. We placed removing barriers – social, financial, and cultural – at our core to ensure that we were putting our writing education within easy reach of everyone interested. Changing our mission meant changing our financial model. and doing both of those things and being real about this change would come to mean and require so much more, more than I can share tonight. The work has been challenging and deep. I have learned so much and continue to learn about my own biases and about how distorted the white lens can be. On an organizational level, the biggest revelation we’ve had is recognizing how, despite rejecting its culture and the closed systems, we still carried many structures of the traditional university model forward with us. It’s been liberating and exciting to continue to whack away at them further. 

The image I started to see was that of a theater packed to the brim with writers in the audience. GrubStreet was shining its light on only half of the room. How could we light up the whole theater? 

Change is difficult, and sometimes I hear whispers that we care more about diversity than excellence – as if those things are mutually exclusive when the opposite is true. Or I hear that some white-identifying people no longer feel welcome when, again, the opposite is true. We are focused every day on ensuring that writers from all backgrounds and income levels find what they need to thrive as artists and individuals and that they are treated with respect and dignity.

We’ve never been more excellent as an organization by every measure. Our instructors are better trained, our student ratings are at their highest, and the curriculum is more expansive, exciting, and dynamic. We still teach craft, of course, but we also make space for history, culture, identity, and politics. It’s all on the table. Instructors teach diverse texts with traditions from all over the world. We firmly believe that when writing students are exposed to more ways of creating, they are more able to find their own singular voices. They are more artistically free to be themselves without worrying about any “right” or “wrong” way of doing things.

I applaud all the arts spaces in the country that are building inclusive spaces for artists and writers, and I would argue that our culture would be healthier and our democracy stronger if we could scale our collective cultural work. 

Places like GrubStreet hold enormous promise to ensure that the writers shaping our culture and telling our stories – which in turn shape public perception, public policy, and so on –  reflect a true cross-section of the people who live in our world. With a stage on the waterfront, we can now amplify those voices and convene conversations around books and the beautiful, challenging, and funny universes contained in them. 

Places like GrubStreet hold enormous promise to ensure that the writers shaping our culture and telling our stories – which in turn shape public perception, public policy, and so on –  reflect a true cross-section of the people who live in our world.

Places like GrubStreet also hold the promise of building social trust across difference. Given the loss of trust so many of us feel in our institutions and the real and perceived divides found in our rapidly evolving culture (evolving too quickly for some, not quickly enough for others), we can’t afford to give up on each other. To my mind, the stakes could not be higher. Books are being banned. History white-washed. Inclusion efforts attacked. There’s a total assault on facts. Hate speech and white Christian nationalism are on the rise. I don’t think it’s overstating the case to say that liberal democracy is at risk.  We are desperately in need of human-to-human connection and conversation — even when it’s hard.  

Thank you, again, to everyone at the WNBA for this award. and thank you to all the people I’ve had the honor of walking hand-in-hand with as we’ve built this wonderful community together.

At the risk of being pedantic, I’d like to leave you with a few words of advice for writing and for life loosely based on the guidelines we now share with our students to guide them in our workshops. 

  • Commit to engaging across differences with curiosity and a desire to learn and grow
  • Be a help, not a judge
  • Give people and yourself the grace to speak in draft form
  • Practice cultural humility, remembering that your cultural lens isn’t universal 
  • and finally, most importantly – Don’t be a jerk

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