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The Courage to Write

Millicent Fawcett, British writer and
major activist for women's suffrage


“It is always a thrilling risk to say exactly what you mean, to express exactly what you see,” wrote the marvelous author Patricia Hampl. Each sentence we write boldly asserts, This is my viewpoint and I believe it worthy of utterance.

That takes courage, especially for women constantly defined as “other,” with its implication of inferiority. The enduring phrases “doctor” and “woman doctor,” with its analogues, remind us of our secondary status. And we’re too often complied. Research shows that women in work meetings speak only a third as often as men, and when we do, our contributions are often ignored, interrupted, or later ascribed to male attendees. The creative terms “mansplaining” and “manalogue” refer not only to men’s practices, but also the corresponding habit of women to yield.

To put out our ideas publicly—in writing—requires a constant act of will, refuting our training in deference. Yes, we must remind ourselves, My words, my insights, have worth. Others may have written about similar topics, but what I have to say, from my unique vantage point, has value. There is no one like me. If I don’t express this thought, this image, who will?

Every time I struggle through the second or fourth or tenth draft of a book, reaching that point of exhaustion when I want to give up, I agonize: Why bother? What do I really have to say that matters? Writing, especially long magazine articles or books, is like a marathon. When I hit Mile 20, it takes huge discipline and resolve to power on. Those nasty voices, springing from some great collective unconscious, whisper: This book is a disaster. The characters are flat. Who cares about the protagonist? No matter how many drafts you write, you’ll never pull it off. Why not give up now, go sit in the sun and read a really good book.

Shut up, I have to answer. I have this passion to write for a reason. Everyone has a story to tell, probably many stories, and I’ve developed the skill to tell mine, in fiction, memoir, biography, and essays.

After twenty-five years of professional writing I understand that every word I write for publication opens me to scrutiny. Yet so does living. After all, the outfit I wear to the reception, the behavior of my children, my spouse, the look of my living room and front yard, all open me to the opinions of others. Yet live I do, even if accompanied sometimes by anxiety.

And write we must, if our souls call us to move our pens across the paper or our fingers to pound the keys. The rewards of our courage are exquisite when we feel the heft of one word falling perfectly against the weight of another, or when roll the rhythm of a sentence into the exact cadence we wanted. When I allow myself to stay in those pure moments of writing, forgetting the world outside with its judgments of “good” and “bad, then focus delivers its own reward.

For we are writers. Writers write, and when we do it wholeheartedly, an unmatched satisfaction is our reward. Write your truth, whatever it is. Someone, probably many someones, will cherish your words, grateful that you cast aside your fears. As Audre Lorde wrote, “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”

So embrace your courage, polish your words, and “Let your little light shine.”

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