A woman in my writing group said she wanted her writing to change the world. Right away, I knew that was possible. I remembered Nelson Mandela's speech for instance, written by Marianne Willliamson; the words of Martin Luther King; and the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh. I thought of poetry like Mary Oliver's Wild Geese: "Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination..."
I also thought of "writing to change the world" in another way. As we observe the world inside us and around us, we are also changing the world. In becoming aware of who we are and how we affect and are affected by people and events around us, we are conscious and in tune. With all these mind deliberations and imaginings on the subject of saving the world through words, I was pleased to hear Mary Pipher had written a book on the subject. Reading Writing to Change the World affirmed my belief that stories and the written word are healing and necessary.
As a therapist and a writer, Pipher's listening and observational skills are especially acute. As she points out, "Psychotherapy has a great deal to teach us about making connections and fostering change." Very often, we can label people different from ourselves as "other" and set out to proclaim our way as the only way. "A writer's job," Pipher says, "is to tell stories that connect readers to all the people on earth, to show these people as the complicated human beings they really are, with histories, families, emotions, and legitimate needs. We can replace one-dimensional stereotypes with multidimensional individuals with whom our readers can identify."
Pipher's advice is gentle and understanding, yet firm. If we are to proclaim our stance on something, there probably will be people opposed. To approach the subject, we need to relate to the people opposed so as to find some common ground. I kept thinking of Pipher's words in relation to my own city, where downtown residents were opposed to a breakfast program in their neighbourhood. As I composed a letter to the editor of our daily newspaper, I wanted to put a human face on the individuals who could use a free meal and some companionship to begin their day. That heart opening was natural to me. It was the opposing neighbours I needed to find the common ground with, and that common ground, I realized, was fear.
"Writing to connect is 'change writing,' which, like good therapy, creates the conditions that allow people to be transformed. Its goal is not to evoke one particular set of ideas, feelings, and actions, but rather to foster awareness and growth."
Therapists have been described as purveyors of hope. Pipher sees change writers as purveyors of hope as well. Fostering awareness and growth is really key to this book, and when you think of it, key to our own writing life—for ourselves and for the people who read us. One of Pipher's suggestions in her chapter, "Know Thyself," is to take inventory of "your own early lessons about the world, your hopes and fears, your life themes, even your sense of calling" so as to think about how you came to be who you are today. She shares her story of being the oldest child "in a big, complicated family." Pipher is like the mentor you may not have had, encouraging you and reminding you that your particular life experiences mean you have something to say that no one else can. She offers assignments to help you find your voice. And she poses the question... What needs doing that only you can do?
"The Writing Process" is described in Part 2 of the book, wherein Pipher shares tips for getting started. It's all very helpful advice and reassuring to writers. You're not alone in having to face your internal critic for instance. She also discusses getting organized, doing research, and conducting interviews.
Part 3 is all about calls to action. It describes the approaches you can take to get your particular message across most effectively, whether it's in the form of letters, speeches, personal essays, blogs, music, or poetry. I was reassured and inspired by this book, even more so as I made my way through it again to write this review. "The finest thing we can do in life," Pipher says, "is to grow a soul and then use it in the service of humankind." What a beautiful call to action.
Mary Pipher, Ph.D., lives in Lincoln, Nebraska, with her husband, Jim, near their children and grandchildren. She is the author of seven books, including the New York Times bestsellers Reviving Ophelia, The Shelter of Each Other, and Another Country. Her work has been translated into more than twenty-five languages, and she has lectured to groups and conferences around the world. Dr. Pipher is interested in how American culture affects the mental health of its people; her writing has been influenced by her rural background, her training in psychology and anthropology, and her years as a therapist.
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