by Mary Pipher
Riverhead Books, 2006
My friend Linda Avery called me from a bookstore in California and said, “Have you read Writing to Change the World? Go! Buy it now!” Or words to that effect. I did and she was right. This is a powerfully encouraging book for those who believe that writing can be transformative able to transform us as well as others.
You may recognize the name Mary Pipher as the author of Reviving Ophelia. Trained in both psychology and anthropology, Pipher has long been interested in how American culture affects mental health. In this book however – she is calling all writers to find their Voice and use it to make a difference.
That’s the main point of the book. But what made my friend Linda tell me to go out and buy the book now, is what Pipher says along the way. She encourages the writer who doubts themselves, to believe, to beat back the discouraging question we too often ask: “Who am I to write?” A terrible question that has the power to silence us which could be not only our own loss but the world’s as well.
Pretty grandiose you might be thinking. But truly, unless we try, unless we put pen to paper or finger to keyboard, who knows which of us has the power to speak – at a local level even – and preserve a woods, keep the water unpolluted, rally for a carbon tax to enter the city, persuade someone to vote for a candidate who will care about universal education beyond high school. Or even more profoundly, tell us their story in a way that makes our own burden or grief a little lighter because we learn others share it.
The first half of the book calls us to the power of writing and belief in ourselves as writers (entitled “What We Alone Can Say.”) The second half of the book addresses writing craft (“The Writing Process”) though I thought she barely skimmed the surface of the topics she covered. Perhaps this is because Pipher is primarily a psychologist and not a teacher of writing.
There are great quotes interspersed throughout the book – meant to rally us to write. She opens with one from James Baldwin: “You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world…The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way…people look at reality, then you can change it.”
And there is this one, by Tobias Wolf: “A true piece of writing is a dangerous think. It can change your life.” True words for the writer as well as the reader.
Go – buy the book – believe! (And write!)