It’s a strange time to be an American woman. Our reproductive rights are under attack as never before. Inculcated monogamy is seriously discussed as a solution to incel violence, another kind of attack on our right to choose. Yet more female candidates are running for office and getting involved in politics than ever before. Once untouchable icons like Bill and Harvey have fallen, but Donald has remained.  On the big screen, remakes with female stars replacing characters once male are all the rage; meanwhile, most of us still get paid less for doing the same jobs.  Paradoxes abound. With that in mind, it’s a pleasure to encounter Alyssa Waugh’s work, which exemplifies the phrase “words of encouragement.” 
Professor, publisher, editor, writer, and activist, Alyssa is finding ways to bring people together. Her Sexual Assault is Not Your Fault campaign was a profound and community-building response to an academic’s flippant message warning women to realize the danger as if a victim is more to blame than the attacker. Her Positive Reflections project again brought together a community to deliver messages of encouragement in bathrooms where women stare into mirrors contemplating how to best camouflage our faults. While these were focused on a college community, her latest project, I AM STRENGTH, brings community through social networking.
I AM STRENGTH is a anthology by and about what she calls Everyday Superwomen. As a fledgling small press, her Blind Faith Books will issue what will hopefully be the first in a series of compilations bringing to light inspiring experiences happening around us all the time that don’t get the attention they deserve. With the success of Tiffany Scandal’s compilation Nasty! and of the national tour that grew up around it, it’s easy to envision a similar fate for “I Am Strength.” Submissions are welcome until midnight June 25, 2018. Learn more about how to submit here.
This is the sixth in my series of interviews about creative people using social networking as a direct way of reaching both content creators and new audiences.

Blind Faith Books logo

Tamra Lucid: What inspired you to name this anthology I AM STRENGTH?

Alyssa Waugh: Women are made of strength. I have never understood where the idea that women are “the weaker sex” originated. I’ve seen men break down over a relationship, and I’ve seen women hold it together. I’ve seen men fly into a rage after being rejected, and women remain composed no matter what is thrown at them. I’ve seen women lift heavy things effortlessly that were giving men trouble. In my experience, women have super speed, can be in two places at once, and always know what to do in any situation. Women take charge. They’re just superwomen. You have to be in order to work multiple jobs, go to school, and to excel in every aspect of life no matter how hectic, difficult, or tragic things get. Like J.K. Rowling said, “women have the ability to juggle nineteen jobs before breakfast.” 

“I am strength” is also a little daily reminder I give myself. Whenever I have a big presentation or just a stressful, busy day ahead of me, or have something unpleasant to do, I try to remind myself “You are Wonder Woman. You can do anything.” I want women to be able to look in the mirror and say “I am strength,” and think, I can handle anything. 

What do you mean by Everyday Superwomen?

My friends and I love reading and discussing books about strong women. So we read books by Hillary Clinton, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling, Sonia Sotomayer, Gloria Steinem, and Madeline Albright. I have a book about the daily struggles of being a woman with personal essays by famous celebrities and well-known authors. We learn about Alice Paul, Ida B. Wells, Irena Sendler, Harriet Tubman, and all these women that have left their names on history in one way or another—people who are either going to have an automatic bestselling autobiography if they decide to write their memoirs, because they’re already famous, or someone whose name you can Google and find out all about them.

For this anthology I wanted stories from women you can’t just Google and learn their stories. I wanted to hear from sisters, mothers, daughters, teachers, firefighters—your everyday heroes who aren’t ever going to have a documentary made about them, but whose stories are just as important. 

It’s important women and girls out there understand you don’t have to be the first woman ever to be nominated for president of the United States (though, that is badass) but you can be strong and make a difference and be a role model for young girls just by sharing your own story of strength. You’ve learned hard lessons. You’ve gained a lot of wisdom. Someone else can learn from your experience. So these will be stories about different kinds of strength that women possess in a variety of situations, all day, every day, whether it be physical, emotional, intellectual, mental, spiritual, whatever. 

As a teacher, I get these personal narratives sometimes about someone escaping from an abusive marriage, or a girl having to tell her parents she’s pregnant at 16. And I’m just always thinking, how many great stories of strength are there out there that need to be told—that deserve to be told—and that someone needs to hear? There’s someone on the other side of the world who needs to hear your story to understand they’re not alone. That’s the magic of writing. You can read something from 100 years ago and relate to it. You can write something today that someone will read in 100 years and relate to it. And I always discuss with my college students, one of the most significant problems we have trying to identify with other people’s plight, whether it’s refugees, immigrants, girls being prevented from getting an education, a woman dealing with an unwanted pregnancy, whatever—there’s no teacher like experience. And if we haven’t experienced these things ourselves, it can be difficult for us to understand. And if we don’t understand, we can’t help—we may not want to help or think it’s even necessary. Here’s the thing though: we can’t all magically wake up in Malala Yousafzai’s body and realize what it’s like to be a target of the Taliban. So what can we do? Read. Read her book, understand what she went through—that’s how we learn to empathize with our fellow humans. That’s how we live lives and experience things we otherwise would never be able to. Tell stories and read stories. It’s that simple. You don’t need any money or fame to write. You just need something to write with and something to write on. You don’t need to be a powerful person to write, but writing can give you power. That’s all I’m trying to do. Give women a platform who might otherwise not have one, and make sure their stories reach a wide audience. 

What kind of response has I AM STRENGTH inspired among potential contributors? What’s it like having to do choose between stories that must all be moving?

The response so far has been amazing. Every time I hear the ping on my phone signaling a new submission e-mail, I open it immediately, and I read it no matter where I am or what I’m doing. I’m not doing any editing then, or making any decisions at that point; I’m just reading these incredible stories that are coming in. It’s like when there’s a good book series and you can’t wait for the next one to come out so you can read it. I can’t wait for the next story to come in. Some of them are sad, but each one has this stipulation of finding strength even in the hardest times, so they’re all really inspiring. 

But, like you said, it makes it really difficult to choose, and the deadline to submit is still more than a month away. I haven’t received one story or poem so far that I haven’t wanted to include in the anthology. I’m just going to have to choose the best of the best. I’d love to be able to do a series of these kinds of anthologies. Maybe if this one is successful, and we get enough material, we can do that.

The one thing we haven’t received much of yet, is art. If any artists are reading this, send us your feminist art or your art depicting strong women! 

What plans do you have for I AM STRENGTH beyond publishing the compilation as a book?

Two thirds of the proceeds from the book sales are going to charities that support women and girls. One third will benefit No Means No Worldwide, whose goal is to create a rape-free world, and one third will benefit Girls Inc., an organization that aims to inspire all girls to be smart, strong, and bold. 

I’ve always thought society could benefit from having classes in school right alongside sex ed, health, and everything else, that try to teach young men and women about life: what a healthy relationship looks like compared to an unhealthy one—not just how to have safe sex, but how to treat your partner: teach that consent should be freely given and enthusiastic, it can be revoked, she can’t give consent if she’s too drunk to stand, etc. If you don’t have a good teacher, or a parent explain things to you in a helpful way, you could just be stumbling around in the dark as a teenager, learning as you go. The problem with that is you learn by making lots of mistakes, and those mistakes can be harmless or devastating. Anything that can cut out a tragic situation for someone is a good thing. If I could use this platform to further educate or at least support other programs that seek to educate about these issues, then I feel like I’m using my skills and education in a small way to help make the world a better place. 

What inspired you to start Blind Faith Books?

Blind Faith is something my managing editor and I, who met and became good friends in grad school, had been kicking around for a long time. We’d say, these other people own small, independent presses. They’re doing what we want to do. How hard can it be? If they can do it, we can do it. We’re smart. But for a long time, we never approached it in a serious way because we were both adjunct professors at various area colleges. We were lesson planning, grading, teaching creative writing workshops, or copy editing all the time. We were making no money. There wasn’t time to learn how to run a publishing business. We had gotten a crash course in publishing in grad school, and that was it. We had focused mainly on the teaching track because that was more practical. It seems people always go with practical over passion. 

So one day I was sitting in my car in the parking lot of the community college in my town watching the sun rise, thinking about spending the rest of the foreseeable future waking up while it’s still dark outside, scraping ice off my windshield, teaching the same introductory writing lesson over and over, 5 times a day, semester after semester. It’s not that teaching isn’t rewarding, but it’s also often thankless and frustrating, it’s extremely hard work, and the pay is low. But the biggest thing for me is, when I’m teaching, I’m helping other people create something. I still wanted to create things. I’d always been a writer and I often missed being a student. I’d find myself wishing I was taking my own class—wanting to complete the assignments I was giving my students. 

But I have all this student loan debt. Like everyone else, I have bills. I was trying to buy a house at the time and having a hard time trying to get a mortgage piecing together an income from all these different part time jobs. And I was trying to save every penny so I could become independent and not be living with my parents into my thirties.  So there wasn’t really room, time, or money for a risky new endeavor—one that might not ever succeed or make back the money I’d have to put into it. 

But that one day, watching the sun rise, and having a few minutes before my 8am class started, I decided to listen to the end of the song playing on the radio before going in. It was “Congregation” by my favorite band, the Foo Fighters. And there’s this one part where Dave sings “you need blind faith” and then asks “do you have blind faith?” And I remembered watching this episode in their Sonic Highways documentary where they wrote this song, and thinking about bands, and artists in general, and how what probably separates the great ones from the ones who are still unknown, is blind faith. If you have blind faith, you’re going to go out there and make a name for yourself, and it’s GOING to work. Failure is not an option. That’s how people without blind faith think. They make backup plans (like teaching) and inevitably fall back on them rather than pursuing their passion and fulfilling their true purpose. I feel my purpose in life is to write, and use my writing skills to help others and make a positive impact on the world. That’s what I feel I’m meant to do, and that’s what I’m trying to do now with this book. 

So even though it was maybe irresponsible and reckless, I got every book I could from the library about small businesses, and publishing, and I learned about finance and marketing and law, and did it all while still getting my lesson planning and grading done, and maintaining relationships, (because I am strength!) And of course, then I had to name my press Blind Faith Books, and I wanted to make sure we represented stories that demanded to be told with less emphasis on the technicalities of submissions that many literary presses fixate on, and more focus on the stories themselves. I published a book of my own short stories as the sacrificial lamb to complete my learning experience. It was a compilation of short stories, most of which had already been published elsewhere, but I reserved the rights. However, I’m still sending things out to other publishers. I think that’s important for a writer to do. But I do love the freedom Blind Faith has given me to produce projects like I AM STRENGTH. I can do it my way, the way it’s meant to be, having complete control over everything from the book cover, to the layout of the stories, poems, and art inside. It’s extremely hard work, but I’m so excited to be working on it. 

What did you learn working at Etruscan Press?

The editing side of things. I’d always been a writer, making my own books out of construction paper since kindergarten, being editor of my high school newspaper, and later submitting to and winning writing contests, and getting stories published. I enjoy copy editing for Etruscan because it allows me to see a work of writing from the other side. It helps me edit and proofread my own work because it keeps those skills sharp through constant practice. It helped me learn the process a book goes through from acceptance to publication. And being on the publishing side of things helps me remember, when I’m back on the writing side, how many submissions these publishers receive, and how many of them are great. Don’t give a publisher a reason to push your manuscript aside. Get a professional editor. People often want to skip that expense because they don’t think it’s necessary. They want to make money from their book, not put money into it. But editing is so important. You can’t afford not to have an editor. We’re the last line of defense, making sure everything is squeaky clean before it goes to print. You don’t want any ugly typos or grammatical errors mucking up your beautiful work of poetry or prose. 

What has teaching writing taught you about writers?
Teaching is a constant reminder that writing is a process. Students often come in with this anxiety about writing and this irrational need for it to be perfect as soon as they put it down on the page. And a lot of them have trouble starting an assignment. So when I teach, I emphasize the long process from prewriting to drafting to revision, and the idea that writing is never perfect; it just gets good enough to hand in or to publish. The only difference between students who do well in my class and students who do poorly is whether they put the effort into all the steps in the writing process. Those who do well participate in all the prewriting, drafting, and peer review activities, hand their essays in, and then revise them to improve their grades. Likewise, the only difference between a successful writer and an unsuccessful one is that a successful writer finishes projects and revises them until they’re publishable. 

You’ve written books and stories in the Sci Fi, Horror, and Fantasy genres. What do you like about those genres?

From a writer’s standpoint, I think those genres, particularly Sci-Fi and Fantasy, raise the stakes. “Literary” fiction deals with relationships, philosophies, societal issues, human interactions, and what it means to be human. Sci-fi and Fantasy do all that too, but with the added bonus of supernatural elements. So on top of a struggling society or relationship, or both, aliens might be coming to destroy the world, or erase all memories of you from the mind of the person you love. 

And they’re just fun. Growing up, my mom, my brothers and I liked to watch Star Trek, Star Wars, and the old Wonder Woman show. I still like all that stuff—space operas and superheroes. It’s just fun. Some people think you can’t get as much out of genre fiction as literary fiction, but it’s just not true. And I love literature, don’t get me wrong. I love Dickens and Fitzgerald and Julian Barnes. But I also love Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, and J.K. Rowling, and have gleaned just as much insight about society and human nature from those authors as I have Hemingway, and often had much more fun on the journey. 

It might seem like this nonfiction anthology is a bit of a leap from what I normally write, but if you read my Sci-fi, Fantasy, and Horror stories, there are usually strong female characters. My stories usually have a point to make or something to say about the ways women are treated or viewed. A lot of stories in my Hell’s Laughter collection are about the importance of being a strong woman, or about the horrors that befall women, even if they are strong.  It’s just done in a more allegorical way with the stakes raised. 

Positive Reflections mirror photo by Rebecca Thompson

What inspired your Positive Reflections project?

This was something I’d seen variations of before. I’d see a window sticky on Amazon that said “hello gorgeous” that you put on your mirror. I also saw, on Facebook, a high school do something similar once. So that idea was always in the back of my mind. And all the while, teaching at King’s, there would be days before I had to deliver a particularly difficult lesson, or maybe I was being observed that day, and I’d fix my hair, outfit, and makeup in the mirror and then tell myself that little mantra: “You are Wonder Woman! You are strength!” And that’s something we’ve all done or seen—the woman putting herself together in the bathroom mirror, putting her game face on before she goes back out to face the world. 

There was one time I heard crying in the stall next to me, and I wondered what was going on in this girl’s life that she would have to be strong through. Did she lose someone she loved? Was someone in the hospital? Was she going through a bad breakup? Did she just receive some bad news? And at the same time, she’d be dealing with trying to keep her grades up, and working, and whatever else. And I know we’ve all been in similar situations. And if you’re in public when going through something like that, the bathroom is where you go to compose yourself, take a moment, then put yourself together and get back out there. It’s where you go to splash some water on your face, and go back out into the fight, refreshed. And sometimes, as a woman, it really does feel like you’re going into battle. You’ll be deflecting catcalls, and sexual harassment, and people underestimating your intelligence, or assuming you’re a secretary rather than a professor. Wouldn’t it be great if the last thing we saw in the mirror before leaving the bathroom was a positive message of encouragement? Some of the ones we got when we left dry erase markers in the bathrooms, and which are now being made into fixtures of the mirrors were: “Don’t forget your crown, Queen! You’ve got this!” ‘You are beautiful. You are brilliant. You are strong.” One of my favorites was “Warning: Images in the mirror might be distorted by unrealistic societal expectations of beauty.”  Because, even with all those other struggles aside, body image is such a significant source of self-esteem for so many women. It’s important for women to remember that looking pretty is not the currency we must pay in order to exist in the world. We can spend our valuable time and energy trying to “fix” what we perceive is wrong with us, and we can shed tears for what we can’t fix, or we could use that time and energy to learn to love and accept ourselves exactly the way we are. And in my experience, that’s a much more worthwhile endeavor. 

What inspired your SEXUAL ASSAULT IS NEVER YOUR FAULT posters?

Another adjunct professor and good friend of mine brought to my attention a troubling quote on the front page of the college newspaper. It was an article about upcoming Super Bowl parties and the student asked a sociology and criminal justice professor what students should do to stay safe at these parties. And the professor said, “Sexual assaults are quite common in and around colleges and universities, mainly because students do not make themselves aware of what’s going on within the community. They may feel safe, and let down their guard, and don’t take precautions to prevent sexual assault.” 

Immediately upon reading it, this quote is so problematic. This other teacher and I were furious that it was on the front page, especially at a time when students are still relatively young, and many are still apt to believe that whatever authority figures (who they look up to and respect) tell them, must be correct. Here’s a person in a position of power and influence at the college blaming victims for getting sexually assaulted by letting their guard down, and placing responsibility on victims to take precautions instead of placing the accountability where it belongs—with the assaulters. There is only one way to prevent sexual assault and that is to not assault anyone. It is not your fault if you are wearing a short skirt, if you have had too much to drink, or if you let you guard down. It is only the fault of the person who assaulted you. That professor should have used that opportunity to send a message to would-be rapists that they are solely responsible for their actions, and not to assault another student no matter how much drinking/partying is going on. 

I not only wanted to present information on how to report sexual assaults and where to get help in a way that was easily available to students around campus, I wanted to emphasize in big, bold, red letters: SEXUAL ASSAULT IS NEVER YOUR FAULT. I designed and sent them to the head of Women’s Studies at the college, and before long they were all over campus.