As a writing coach through the years, I’ve often found that women in particular struggle with having a voice—and with feeling empowered to get their work out into the world. I myself spent years battling my inner critic about my own memoir Don’t Call Me Mother, believing that the world would judge a story about three generations of dysfunctional mothers, that it was a domestic story and therefore not important in the world’s eyes. When I started writing, memoir was not a “thing” and fiction was king, so it’s lucky for us memoir writers that the world has shifted to be more welcoming to our stories eagerly awaiting the inside stories about our lives. We learn from others’ stories about ourselves, and take these profound lessons to hear. And the world still offers profound challenges and blocks that women struggle with.
My colleague and co-teacher Brooke Warner presented an inspiring keynote at the Story Circle Conference that addresses many of the issues that women struggle with. It was worthy of a standing ovation by the audience, so I want you know what she said to encourage us all.
First, she talked about how lucky she was to have been raised to believe in herself and her ideas. Many of us in the audience had grown up with the messages that we should stay silent, or mute our expression. Particularly, we often feel we have to be careful about saying or writing anything that might offend, hurt, or make someone uncomfortable. Brooke told us about her passion in championing women to publish during her eight years as Executive Editor at Seal Press. She was happy to be exposed to the huge variety of women’s stories, but came to realize that only a small percentage of the stories she loved could be published in the publishing environment that’s developed over the last decade. She began to think about a press that would publish women’s voices based on the merit of their writing and not their brand or platform—and She Writes Press was born in 2012. This year the press is celebrating multiple winners in the IPPY, Ben Franklin, and Next Generation Indie Book Awards.
Brooke became aware through her experience and research to the degree to which women writers have been silenced. Messages from society and our upbringing, both subtle and overt, affect our ability to claim our stories and get them out into the world.
Brooke cited statistics about women and publishing, pointing out the huge gender bias in publishing for women, and particular memoir. Women are less likely to be reviewed, less likely to win contests, and less likely to resubmit after receiving a rejection. Women tend to take rejection harder—and these statistics are sobering. Men are 5 times more likely than women to resubmit if their piece has been rejected. We need to change that!
Well-known writers such as Elizabeth Gilbert, who wrote Eat, Pray, Love, have been subjected to the bias against memoir. Gilbert likely received less accolades for her novel, The Signature of All Things, as a result of writing Eat, Pray, Love. Mary Karr, in her book the Art of Memoir, dedicated one chapter to discuss how Katherine Harrison was attacked for her book The Kiss.
We need to be reminded of our passion and motivation to write and to express ourselves. For some of us, including me, the story has been chasing us and won’t leave us alone. We need to write the book we couldn’t find in the bookstore. If it doesn’t exist, write it! We write to understand ourselves and our families, or to help someone who will benefit from our life lessons. There are many reasons to write, and reasons not to become discouraged.
“We have to keep saying yes, our story matters!” Brooke said.
Brooke offered 5 C’s that can help us stay inspired to write our stories.
- Community—we write our stories in community and we need the support of community.
- Commitment—we need to keep the commitment to ourselves and our story—and stay committed to getting our story out in the world, to share it with others through publishing.
- Championing—we need to champion each other and all writers by supporting, reading, and reviewing each other’s work.
- Claiming your work—we have to claim our right to write and publish our stories. No one will do this for us.
- Courage—it takes a lot of courage for us to dig deep and reveal our stories, and more courage to publish.
Brooke ended by urging us to take the time to get our stories written and to get past the fears and critical voices we carry. We have to champion ourselves and take the risk to be seen and heard. We need to write, and keep writing! We can change the world with our stories.