An unexpectedly good time
On meeting my fellow Substack writers
Last week I went to a gathering for Substack writers and had, frankly, a lovely time. Somehow, I found that while I had been expecting to find it interesting, I hadn’t been expecting to actually enjoy myself - and yet, I really, really did.
Notwithstanding some still-needed post-pandemic adjustment to actually meeting actual people, I was surprised by my own surprise that I was having fun. Meta-surprise, if you will. So, naturally, I thought about it on the way home.
So often people are wary when they say hi to me. I’m used to it and pretty skilled at putting them at ease (when they’re open to trying). But there’s an extra layer to it at ‘work’ events, where people just aren’t expecting somehow who looks or sounds or moves like me. They do a little startled face when they see me, and who can blame them? Our industry is hardly known for it’s diversity.
And yes, that did happen at the Substack event. I was, after all, the only visibly disabled person in the room. I don’t really blame anyone for that initial surprise; I am not what they have been conditioned to expect. The real measure of an encounter with a nondisabled person is how quickly they recognise that their surprise is unfounded and move on, and whether they talk to me like (in this situation) a fellow journalist rather than a child who is playing at adulthood. Overwhelmingly, the Substackers were genuinely much more interested in my work than in working out what the deal with my body is, and almost all of them listened well enough to understand my speech despite the absolute racket of noise we were in. Perhaps it is a sad indictment of society that this is worthy of note, but still, it made for a nicer evening than I’d envisaged.
There’s also often a weird moment when I tell people that I write about disability. There are three possible responses, which, in descending order of probability, are: a slightly awkward acknowledgement that we need more disability coverage before a hasty subject change; a properly panicked and stricken look because they don’t want to ever say the word “disability” (especially not to a disabled person, the horror); or a perfectly normal conversation about writing and journalism and whatever. Somehow, and very unusually, almost everyone at the Substack event plumped for the latter.
I think this is because of the nature of Substack itself. The platform gives writers a space to not only cover but make money from material that wouldn’t make it to big publications, either because it’s too personal or a bit niche or simply not “newsy” enough. It encourages writers from all walks of life to tell the stories they want to tell, not just the ones they can get commissioned, and so has a diversity of experience and plethora of perspectives not seen since the heady days of naughties blogging (RIP). This is certainly what drew me to the platform and I heard the same thing from others in the room last week. I think that meant that I was in a group of people for whom the idea of writing about disability as a disabled person was the most natural thing in the world. Legacy media, take note.
I don’t think Substack on its own can change the face of journalism. We should still focus on getting papers and magazines and broadcasters - those with cultural power - to tell more diverse stories and hire more diverse writers. But Substack can give us a space to try new things and prove that they work. A small step, maybe, but a vital one. It was nice to be in a room full of people who believed that journalism and nonfiction storytelling can change for the better and were actively working to make that happen.
See you next week,
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Links of the week
Just one this week because everything else is you-know-what-related, but it’s a corker; combining history, international relations, and fantastic in-person reporting.
‘Who do the Benin Bronzes belong to?’ - The Atlantic