How To Be A Better Writer

I get away with things because I write. An ability to write well is power — to lead social change, to challenge assumptions and disrupt the status quo, and to validate your own feelings when other people won’t.

Writing is important to the feminist project for several additional reasons. Historically, writing has provided an outlet for women and marginalized people who had talent but were not eligible for other public roles because discrimination — and to an extent that continues today.

Writing is a way to share experience and theory, imagine alternate realities, and learn from one another. I’ve been saying for years that I believe it’s a radical act each time a woman tells the truth about her own life. Often those radical acts feel more comfortable in written form.

Recently I attended a networking event where a young woman shared that she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do after college. I asked about her interests and she said she liked to write. I encouraged her to keep pushing herself in her writing ability — it would serve her well no matter where life took her.

In that spirit, I’m offering my tips for how to be a better writer:

Read. Read books, newspapers, magazines, blogs, lyrics, Tweets, manuals. Read promiscuously. Read outside your ideology. Challenge yourself — I read Ulysses at the gym, sob — and enjoy your teen lit without shame. Buy women authors, because feminism. Just read.

Write. The way to be a writer is to write. If you say that you want to be a writer, you’re either procrastinating or speculating. Anybody who sits the fuck down and writes is a writer. The way to become a better writer is to keep writing.

Give yourself permission to be yourself. This is at least as much life hack as writing tip, but don’t try to be other people/writers! Do not worry that you do not have their perspective! You have your perspective. It matters and you deserve to share it.

Identify your narrative arc.  It can be helpful to crystallize in your mind what drives your writing. Over a decade ago I realized that one of my chief aims as a writer is to expose uncomfortable truth. I believe acknowledging things we’re not supposed to talk about takes power from oppressive systems and redistributes it to individuals. Plus honesty feels great and helps me sleep. Not all of my work fits in the uncomfortable truth category, but I do find it helpful to remind myself why I do this work. In a few words, why are you doing yours?

Do not try to sound smart. If you’re writing to be understood by smart people, you’re lost on the side of a bad road. Make it excruciatingly easy for people to understand what you’re writing. Save the fancy words for standardized tests. (You’re still taking those? I’m sorry.) Do not assume people know the basics of your topic. Organize. Clear, concise, thorough — you win.   

Most descriptive language should go away. Adjectives and adverbs mostly dilute meaning. For that matter, be ruthless in cutting words from your drafts. Say what you mean, and say it with fewer words.

Find your weaknesses. One year I resolved to stop using the word “just,” which was all over my speaking and writing. Are you awkward with commas? Identify your crutches and work on them. Which brings me to my next point:

Invent challenges for yourself. I’ve done so many fun things over the years to keep my writing fresh. Poem-A-Day competitions with friends, National Novel Writing Month. Trying to write a screenplay (holy fail). But the best challenges I invented to directly attacked my weaknesses. For instance, I recognized that in my fiction, my characters sucked. So I took a whole month where I forced myself to write a new character every day. Some days it took the form of a poem, an article, a press release, a speech, a flip book, or more often a short story.

Dabble in other kinds of writing. I’ve taken spoken word poetry classes, fiction writing classes, and workshops on placing columns. Getting out of your lane strengthens your voice in your primary writing arena. It shakes up your thinking and it’s fun. 

Find editors who hate you. Actually please don’t seek out anyone who hates you. But the good editors are the ones who will challenge you to make revisions that make you roll your eyes in irritation. I have learned the most about writing from people who redlined me to tears.

Laugh at your old writing, and celebrate your resilience. I have successfully completed one novel, and that’s the only successful thing about it. It’s so bad I want to present myself to the jail a few miles away to show I’m sorry. I read grandiose things I used to write and cringe. I’ll probably read this post next week and do the same. Life is growth. Keep moving. Thank goodness.

Keep at it, and encourage others to do the same. I was in love with someone who showed me his writing. It was so bad! (To be clear, I’ve loved folks who showed me writing that was intimidatingly good, so please give yourself the benefit of the doubt in the event you’re an ex-lover perusing the blogs I am now writing, at age 35, late on a Friday night.) Yet he was so vulnerable. I didn’t know what to do, so I encouraged him on the few good parts of what he was doing. He actually got a lot better.

We should be so gentle with ourselves. Treat yourself like someone you love — encourage the areas that really work, and turn off the critic that focuses on the shit surrounding it. Coax the good stuff out and rely on what you learn from people who edit you to prune the rest.

Keep writing and you will get better.

The Feminist Utopia Project

I am a writer.

When I started calling myself that, I wore black and flew to Green Bay to write excruciatingly parallel, AP Style directions to dairy processing plants in rural areas — the kind where you need to observe that eventually there’s an unmarked, winding hill behind the railroad you should follow.

Now I get to write about the thing I am most passionate about in the world: feminism. So I’m super stoked to share that I’ve contributed a chapter on (what else?) body positivity to a new book called The Feminist Utopia Project, edited by Alexandra Brodsky and Rachel Kauder Nalebuff.

You should read this book, because instead of presenting feminist concerns as a list of what’s wrong or terrible, there are 57 utopias blown out in all their shining glory. I went to the launch party in New York City the other night, and was tickled magenta to share a microphone with my fellow contributors imagining things like teen moms having a space at school to breastfeed their infants, and without having to cover nipples (Gloria Malone, who dreamed that up, is just one of the amazeball contributors).

Someone handed me a card to fill out when I walked in the room, so naturally I said:

In my feminist utopia we eat all the amazing things and love every bite!

This reminds me of eating muffins out of a basket on the worst kind of windshield-scraper morning in Wisconsin, when I dreamed of a much bigger world and giving my damn all to making it happen. The fabulous thing is we can all do that.

You Should Start A Feminist Blog

How do you be a writer? You write. How do make change? You speak up. And that, my friends, is why you should start a blog.

The written word is an intensely powerful thing, and it plays an important role in social change. Especially for feminism. Writing can be a more accessible way to reach people who are undecided about or opposed to your point of view; while they might automatically tune you out if they see you on a street corner with a clipboard, or outside a statehouse with a bullhorn, your written words are more approachable and give you a chance to more fully explain what you mean. (Although please know that more direct forms of activism like signature gathering and physical demonstrations are also useful and effective, and they belong in your activist toolkit, too.)

In addition to making your views on political issues more accessible to a general audience, writing can be an easier way to share more personal narratives if you are so inclined. I’ve said this before: I believe each time a woman tells the truth about her own life it is a radical act with the power to change society. It transforms others, and it transforms you. The baggage we carry as a result of sexist bullshit — including but not limited to internalized shame we might feel for having imperfect lives, bodies, relationships, class status, desires, you name it — loses negative power over ourselves and others when we dare to acknowledge it out loud. Oppression feeds and breeds on your silence.

I am routinely asked how to start a blog. The best thing to do is start. There are a variety of platforms that will let you build your site for free. I’m partial to WordPress because I’m used to it, it provides fairly sophisticated yet usable data on who is reading your stuff, and because they have been so kind to feature my previous posts on Michelle Obama and my late, great dog on their Freshly Pressed hub, which got me exposure to tons of new readers who didn’t get here through the traditional feminist channels. That said, I also use Tumblr for my other blog, white guys doing it by themselves, and when I hit the jackpot and got featured on their homepage I gained more than 7,000 followers in a few days, many of whom like to reblog pictures of white men running the show (every show). There are other platforms, of course. When picking your platform, think a bit about what you want to do on your site. Are you going to be doing more in words or images? What are your goals for your site — who do you want to reach, and how? Is reblogging important to you? Think about what platform better suits your needs.

Once you get that blog going, be sure to promote your posts on your various social media accounts. Also, however, be sure to invest the time to read other people’s blogs and as you are so moved, comment upon and share their work. One of the best ways to build readership is to engage in organic and authentic conversations with others — especially over their ideas.

Many people who ask me about starting blogs are currently involved with organizations that have blogs of their own. If you have a chance to write for those, great. By all means do. My advice is still to start and have a blog of your own as well, because — and this is important — no organization, even a great one that you love, deserves a monopoly on your precious and unique voice in an era of modern feminism that needs you just as you are. I look back and remember the tears streaming down my face as I closed the predecessor to this blog around the time I was elected to be a vice president of the National Organization for Women in 2009; in some ways that moment presaged why I chose to leave more than three years later. It is always the right time to say the right thing, and when you have your own platform, you can hit publish whenever you want.

If you do paid writing work, you should still have a blog of your own. While it doesn’t pay and may not get you the same exposure as published works in other publications, a blog is still an invaluable career tool in supporting your ability to get those paid opportunities. In addition, it provides folks with an easy way to contact you. Finally, a blog of your own allows you to write those things that are so important or personal to you that you don’t want an editor tinkering with it. (This is not a bashing of editors; editors make my work so much better and I love them!)

Another thing: Having a blog of your own means you don’t need to approach, count on, or wait for other people to say what you think. I get many requests to write about issues, and while I enjoy that and take that feedback seriously, my first response is almost always: You should write that! Seriously, the more voices the better.

Starting this blog that you are reading now is among the best professional decisions I’ve made. Yes, it’s not for everyone — if you work in a field where you can’t be an out feminist, I get it. But even in that scenario you can start a blog under an avatar.

Do you have more tips for starting a blog? Questions? Thoughts? Or just want to promote your feminist blog in the comments? Then, please, by all means, comment away.

Keep Beloved: Banning Books About Rape And Slavery Won’t Help Affluent White Boys

Today’s Washington Post brought the headline “Fairfax County parent wants ‘Beloved’ banned from Fairfax County school system” above a photograph of a white woman with her arms crossed inside what appears to be a very tony home.

It seems last year Laura Murphy’s son had nightmares after reading Toni Morrison’s book Beloved, an important yet difficult story about race, rape and slavery. Now she wants the entire school system to ban the book. The article goes on to quote her son, Blake, presumably also white and affluent, on reading Beloved during his senior year at Lake Braddock High School in Virginia:

“It was disgusting and gross. It was hard for me to handle. I gave up on it.”

Quoting straight from the article:

Currently, students can opt out of books assigned in class that they find uncomfortable to read. But the policy should be stricter for books with mature themes, Murphy argues.

Laura Murphy tried and failed to get the book dropped entirely from the AP English curriculum, after bringing the matter to the superintendent, the school board and the taxpayers who subsidize their time. Today she is working to have  the entire state of Virginia change reading policies to mirror “family life” (sex ed) policies in which parents are able to receive notice before certain topics come up, and remove their children — some of whom may be legal adults — from the class.

And with that, it’s all here in this real-life story: Race, class, privilege, elitism, sexism, sexuality taboos, rape culture, male dominance, control, the power of omission, science taboos, ignorance, euphemisms, ‘family values,’ religious right policy frameworks, censorship, fear of ‘the other,’ teaching slavery in a former slave state, public education in the suburbs versus public education everywhere else, the promise of an elite Advanced Placement program most frequently realized by those who don’t have the largest issues paying for four years of college.

It is a perverse twist on a scene from Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird  that made me uncomfortable, and never left me, where the tattered books from the rich white children are sent off to the poor black children. In that I read a juxtaposition of good intentions and/or a ‘desecration is appropriate for certain people in certain contexts’ mentality on one side, and a longing for better conditions on the other. And no difference in essential humanity between the two, just unquestioned customs and the accident of what body you were born in.

What I’m saying is that as a child in an affluent, primarily white suburban public school system, I read To Kill A Mockingbird and began to think about race and racial privilege in a more critical way. It was life-changing. Continuing to push myself into more of that discomfort is a lifelong process. That lifelong process began by reading a difficult book about race in public school.

Rather than use the space of this post to ridicule Laura Murphy and Blake Murphy and those who believe censorship is a good idea, or that the real experiences of oppression should be sanitized, or that whitewashing history will help everyone to sleep better, I’m going to observe instead the power of the written word and specifically fiction to further realize the promise of a democratic society.

It is in reading the immersive stories of others that we learn empathy for those we are segregated from, those with less than us, those with different experiences than us, those with more resources than us. Emotions are important, yes, but this is what democracy and pluralism are all about. Rather than insist everyone be the same, we all need to know how to work together. Further, by learning about injustice, creating a language for injustice, having a framework to talk about injustice, we can help unravel the secrecy it requires to continue.

Toni Morrison is one of the best novelists alive today. For Beloved she was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. This bizarre story in Virginia feels almost like something she would write into one of her novels, so that we might embrace a little more fear and learn a little more compassion.

I Read Banned Books Woman Reading Image