Old Dominion University M.F.A. Creative Writing Program student Wendi White attended the 2012 Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) national conference in March. She queried a diverse group of women writers on how they have navigated the rocky waters of composing a writer’s life. She spoke with women authors of varying genres and ages about the empowerment strategies they have used to break through the barriers that women writers still experience. These conversations also explored what is needed for women to make continued progress in the profession.
For writers there are three roads that wind toward truth: reportage, lyric imagery, and narrative. While all these roads traverse different landscapes, at their best, compassion for our shared humanity is the destination of each. So though there is great variation between nonfiction, poetry and fiction’s relationship to “facts”, in the end they are all ways to push the pen beneath the surface of experience and ask, “What does this mean?” Pablo Picasso put it this way, “Art is the lie that tells the truth.”
This past March, I had the honor of discussing how writers come to speak their truth with three very accomplished women authors: the nationally acclaimed poet, Dorianne Laux, award winning novelist and short story writer, Bonnie Jo Campbell, and journalist and author of a bestselling memoir, Janine Latus. Though they each write in a different genre, there were striking commonalities across the three conversations; an indispensable teacher, a pivotal text or artist, and an experience that emboldened them to say what they had to say.
In my conversation with Dorianne Laux, a poet whose pitch perfect voice and deep reserve of empathy caused Philip Levine to compare her to Walt Whitman, I asked her what sparked the writing fire in her soul. Without missing a beat, she revealed that Bertol Brecht held that place of honor. She fell in love with drama in high school, studied it in college, but eventually became disillusioned with how actors were always, well, acting. Then she read and saw Brecht’s work, recognizing that he was doing something very different. “I admired how Brecht was speaking his personal truth.” To this day, the power of such truth telling informs her writing.
But being inspired by Brecht was not enough to launch her poet’s journey. At this point, Laux was only writing poems in private. It took that alchemy of necessity and good fortune for her to publically proclaim herself a poet. As a single mother, Laux was waiting tables and felt she needed to return to school to be a good role model and provider for her daughter. She recounts how she chose her academic field: “I am naturally lazy, so I knew I had to pursue something I love. I decided to take English classes because I enjoyed writing and thought maybe I could be an editor or a journalist . . . do something practical with my life and get job writing.”
It was in her first composition class that Laux met the poet and teacher, Patricia Traxler. After being assigned poems to compose, Laux’s professor responded by saying “You know you really excel at the poem, you should write poems.” So Laux recalls,
“I took poetry classes and eventually studied with Steve Kowit, a wonderful poet. He introduced me to all the women poets, and world poets. I didn’t know there were women my age that had children and were writing poetry . . . After I found out about the whole thing . . . the readings in the bookstores, got my first poems published in local magazines, then I realized I wanted to be a poet. “
And though recognition of her talent and knowing that other women in similar circumstances were undertaking a poet’s life helped Laux imagine a life of verse, it was the political courage that poets like Carolynn Forche and Sharon Olds displayed in addressing state violence, racism and family violence, that convinced her of a writing life’s worth.
“I was a single-mother. I was a waitress living in a border town who had seen a lot of domestic cruelty, and who had seen a lot of political cruelty. Forche had the courage to go down to Central America and Olds was so outrageously honest even though she grew up with so many family secrets. (After reading their poems, I understood) people can tell the truth . . . Quietly, in a darkened room with one light on a person, just saying what they have to say.”
Bonnie Jo Campbell, a writer of stories of people and places at the margins of society, took a similarly roundabout route to being a writer, although she confessed,
“All my life I wanted to write but I never let myself. I didn’t want to be involved in something I saw as cruel and competitive because I thought I didn’t have a chance. What does a little farm kid from Michigan have to say? I am pretty tough, but writing makes you very vulnerable with all you have written out there in the world.”
Like Laux’s flirtations with editing and journalism, Campbell could not imagine herself as a novelist, and so she got two undergraduate degrees in other fields: one in philosophy and one in mathematics. She was on her way to a Ph.D. when a math adviser, who knew she still wanted to write, suggested she take a class with author Jaimy Gordon. Like Campbell, Gordon outlines the human condition through the narratives of people and places that have fallen on hard times. After reading Campbell’s work, Gordon told her, “You have what it takes,” and having someone that Campbell so admired value her as a writer, provided the final push she needed to call herself an author.
It also gave Campbell permission to tell the stories of outsider women: circus performers and the struggling inhabitants of Campbell’s native Kalamazoo for example. In our conversation, I asked why so many of the characters in the her short story collection, Women and Other Animals, are souls just eking out an existence or living on the edge and Campbell responded:
“I want to take the reader to the dark side to show what true resiliency looks like. My women are not victims. They are facing dire and desperate circumstances, but they are survivors. Interesting stories are not about victims but survivors.”
That there is something inside of us that can rise up whole after shattering abuse, that after betrayal and loss, our capacity to love and speak that love can redeem us, certainly makes survivors worthy protagonists. This a literary truth mirrored in the non-fiction work of writers like Janine Latus.
In her New York Times Bestselling memoir, If I Am found Dead or Missing, Latus shares the story of her sister’s murder and her own experience of sexual and relationship abuse. When I queried her about her motivation to reveal such difficult personal stories, she replied:
“I wanted to write a book as important as Are you There God? It’s me Margaret?, by Judy Bloom. It exposed something nobody was talking about. It was so revolutionary then. If you can write, you can make people consider things they would never have thought of before.
I couldn’t save my sister Amy, so I wrote my book to save the other Amys out there. I wrote it because as Harriet Tubman said, ‘I saved a thousand slaves. I would have saved a thousand more if they knew that they were slaves.’ I did it to create a wedge so dangerous behavior in the beginning of relationships would be recognized.”
And speaking these truths about her sister, herself, and her family’s history took immense courage, but Latus knew she had to tell these stories because they epitomized the dynamic of abuse she wanted to expose:
“I wrote (about what happened to me)so people would recognize the abuse in their own lives and turn to each other and say ,we need to talk.”
And it is one thing to tell your own secrets but quite another to tell the stories of your family. Latus called negotiating these waters the one of the most difficult parts of her project:
“Everyone but my father read my book before it was published and almost all of them supported me because they are so incredibly brave. It was also helpful that a magazine article I wrote for Oprah, “All the Wrong Men,” had recently come out and my family members were told by their colleagues that our story was their story too. My family understood the impact the book could have because of the way people responded to that article.”
So with Latus, as with Laux and Campbell, it was clear that chance to make a positive difference made telling a personal truth worth the risk. The act of writing is important, but it is the reader who ultimately concerned the women I interviewed. They write to touch another person’s life through literary truth telling, and if their words are “the best words, in the best order,” these women believe that the world might be better off for their breaking the silence and lifting their pens.