Writing As Protest and Therapy: Writing Can Save Us and the World

12/20/2017 04:19 pm ET
Writers protest in Trump’s America, marching with PEN America’s “Writers Resist” banner, January 2017.
PEN America, https://pen.org
Writers protest in Trump’s America, marching with PEN America’s “Writers Resist” banner, January 2017.

I don’t like to separate the acts of reading and writing from one another; for me, it is difficult to have one without the other, or to do one without the other. For example, Francine Prose taught me a lot about reading as a writer and writing as a reader (that is just one example). But for the purpose of this one article/blog post, I will focus more on the act of writing.

I have been studying and writing about how LGBTQ people need positive depictions of themselves in order to survive in their homophobic and transphobic societies; they need to view, read, and write their existences into history and reality; and writing allows LGBTQ people to express their true selves, and to transform, save, and empower their own lives. These are political acts of survival. These are political acts of reading and writing. It is important, transformative, empowering, and political for LGBTQ readers to see their identities, voices, lives, and sensibilities in all aspects of culture, society, and daily life.

I have moved beyond the idea that writing is only expressive, or that the purpose of writing is to express oneself, or that the best thing about writing is to express oneself. I’m actually not very interested in the traditional ways of using writing for expression as much as I am extremely interested in writing as a political act or an act of rebellion, protest, power, and making of history. In the United States, for example, certain identities, voices, and bodies are more politicized than others, or certain identities are only politicized while others are not at all. For example, the LGBTQ identities, voices, and bodies are constantly politicized; therefore, LGBTQ writing is an audacious political act in how it chooses to write its own existence and history, and how it chooses to present itself to the dominant heterosexual culture.

I keep returning to the following three quotations for motivation for my work: 1) “I write to imagine things differently—and in imagining things differently perhaps the world will change.” --Terry Tempest Williams; 2) “I write because to form a word with your lips and tongue or think a thing and then dare to write it down so you can never take it back is the most powerful thing I know.” --Natalie Goldberg; and “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” --Zora Neale Hurston.

In 1999, I took a course on the teaching of composition for my Master of Arts degree in English. That was when I was introduced to Natalie Goldberg’s books, writing, work, and contributions to the study of writing. We used Goldberg’s method of writing practice, and since then I continue to view writing as a never-ending process, a journey, and a meditation with oneself and others, but especially and most importantly with oneself. I prefer the creative writing workshop model as an approach to, technique for, and theory for writing and the teaching of writing. I have been teaching college-level composition since 1999, and when I teach writing, whether composition or creative, I use Goldberg’s methods and books, and the creative writing workshop model. I did the same when I taught writing at the high-school level.

I’m not a naïve idealist, but I honestly do think that writing can change and improve the world: the consistent injustices in the world. And I believe that writing can improve a person’s life. For many years, I have been studying and working with writing therapy and bibliography. Both have evolved in the United Kingdom to become legitimate and respected fields of study, and it is quite sad that both are not well known and used in the United States. I think that writing can be used as a form of therapy to help people cope, heal, thrive, and survive. LGBTQ readers and writers have documented how they used writing to cope with the stigmas of living as LGBTQ people. The act of writing has even kept some LGBTQ people from committing suicide. Amber Dawn’s memoir, How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir, which is written in prose and verse, is about Dawn’s past as a sex-worker in Canada, and her realization that poetry did in fact save her life by preventing her suicide or homicide. She reminisces on her years as a sex-worker, and how poetry helped her to transition from a dangerous career as a prostitute to an award-winning writer. Dawn identifies as a queer lesbian, and explains that she is one person of the LGBTQ community who needed literature to improve her life. She explains how the act of reading and writing poetry, and earning a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing/Poetry, literally changed her life because it kept her from committing suicide or being the victim of a homicide. As a sex-worker, she was made to be ashamed of herself by the society in which she lived; therefore, she discusses how suicide is a common way for sex-workers to deal with their shame.

And years ago, “Paul” (let’s call him Paul), one of my high school students in my creative writing class, revealed to me and the entire class that he was going to commit suicide because he was gay and didn’t want to tell his parents. However, what kept Paul alive was all of the poems that he wrote. Paul’s revelation also allowed me to connect him with the school’s psychologist for help.

At academic conferences, I have presented papers on the use of LGBTQ writing in classrooms as a form of social justice: 1) “You Go, Gurl!: How GLBTQ Literacies Create Social Justice in the Classrooms and Beyond” at Teachers College’s 2014 Winter Roundtable Conference; 2) “You Go, Gurl!: How GLBTQ Literature Creates Social Justice in the Community College Classrooms and Beyond” at the Transitions and Transactions II Conference at the Borough of Manhattan Community College; and 3) “The Death of the Study of Literature for Literature’s Sake: A Queer Analysis and Manifesto of the Purposes, Uses, and Transformative Powers of Literature and Writing” at the Transitions and Transactions III Conference at the Borough of Manhattan Community College.

Years ago, I took a course on the politics of English education. One of the most memorable ideas—one that I will never forget and will continue to use in my own work—was Theodore Adorno’s idea that certain groups or communities of people do not take literature—reading and writing—for granted the way that other groups do. His example was how literature and the political acts of reading and writing were means of survival for many Jews during and after the Holocaust. He explained that literature was not a privilege or luxury for Jews, a marginalized and oppressed group of people, and for other groups of people because of certain identities, whether ethnicity, race, gender, class, and sexuality. Thus, my idea is this: LGBTQ people cannot—and must not—take the political acts of reading and writing for granted.

The act of writing LGBTQ literature was transformative and empowering for me—cathartic, too—in my epistolary poem, “Gay 101,” which was published in the anthology, Gay City: Volume Two, in 2009. When I wrote the poem, I imagined that a young LGBTQ person wrote a letter to another LGBTQ person—maybe older, maybe wiser, but definitely in a position to help the younger LGBTQ person, especially with the young LGBTQ person’s attempts at suicide. I then imagined that the experienced LGBTQ person wrote a letter back to the young LGBTQ person, delivering hope, advice, and compassion, and addressing it “Dear Suicide Attempt” because that was the salutation on the first letter.

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