This post was written by Chelsea Jones who teaches the course, Writing for Disability Activism.
What are “narratives for activism”?
Narratives, as many of us know, are stories. And stories sometimes have a traditional structure: a beginning, a middle, an end. Though many stories come from traditions that transcend this structure. Narratives for activism are stories that are continually re-thought, re-told, re-assigned meaning, and brought to our attention often for the first time. They can be about anything, because everything has the potential to be a good story. Our challenge rests in the process of writing.
For example, activist narrative can tend to take on a tone of response writing. This works two ways: the first way emerges from people who feel silenced; the second way emerges when marginalized people have been hyper-represented in mainstream culture — “they have not been disregarded so much as they have been subjected to objectifying notice in the form of mediated staring” (Couser, 2013, p. 457). We can think of people who, whether as individuals or as part of a larger community, have rarely had control over their own images and representations; those who have been written for or about. Narratives for activism, then, can be acts of responsive self-expression and self-reflection; often they are a retort — intentional subversion of traditional misrepresentations, including the story form (Couser, 2013, p. 457). Sometimes activist writing comes about in response to a question imposed on many people: “What’s wrong with you?” — or like-minded, companion questions such as those writer Harilyn Rousso includes in a poem titled “Close encounters with the clueless,” published in her 2013 memoir, Don’t call me inspirational: A disabled feminist talks back (p. 17)
Close Encounters with the Clueless
What’s wrong with you?
You’re so inspirational!
Were you born that way?
Are you sick? Is she sick?
Is she, you know, slow?
Or drunk? A bit too much chardonnay, perhaps?
You’re so courageous.
If it were me, I’d never leave my house.
I’d wish I were dead.
If you could choose, would you be normal?
I mean, even though you do so well.
Do you live with your mother? Do you work? Can you have sex?
Have you ever had a boyfriend? Was he a cripple too? Or a saint?
What a shame — such a pretty girl.
You’re so brave.
Aren’t things better now for the handicapped? (p. 17)
These are the kinds of questions, and statements, and feelings that people are called to account for — often to complete strangers, and narrative for activism can be a way of speaking back (Couser, 2013, p. 458).
Life writing is another form that allows people some degree of control over their own narratives (Couser, 2013, p. 456). Glancing backward into Western histories, at least, we discover a crescendo of autiobographical forms in the twentieth century alone: slave narratives (Couser, 2001); worker’s literature (Pollard, 2012); narratives of polio (Couser, 2013); stories of HIV/AIDS (Casey House, 2011); cancer narratives (Karpinski, 2010); and a relatively recent blooming of crip literature. To “crip” a text refers to reading and writing through a disability lens (Bartlett, 2013), or, to borrow the words of poet Jim Ferris, to center reading and writing on those bodies that are off-centre, apart from the norm “where there is even more to feel” (2007, unpaginated).
Writing and publishing
But how do we get stories out into the world? Narrative seems to only require that one have a life considered worth narrating, but next come the challenge of writing and publishing such a life (2001, p. 78). The tools and technologies involved in writing are not available or accessible to everyone. Here I speak about everything from software to literacy skills (particularly English and Internet literacy skills) to memory, spare time to write, a reliable data plan for Tweeting, a knack for detail, and an insider’s understanding of what makes a publishable story or what it takes to go viral. Further, many are only allowed access to success through publishing on the condition that their stories conform to certain themes: inspiration, overcoming, and themes of triumph over adversity (Couser, 2001, p. 79). Mary Louise Pratt describes this type of story-ing as “instances in which colonized subjects undertake to represent themselves in ways that engage with the colonizer’s own terms” (in Couser, 2001, p. 88).Writing narratives for activism, then, means becoming familiar with the representational systems that structure our understandings of who certain people are, the very systems that sometimes deny the multiplicities of human identity in favour of feel-good stories (Garland-Thomson, 1997, in Dolmage, 2014, p. 31). If we choose to write seriously, we first have to ask ourselves how comfortable we are, or are not, fitting our work in with publishable standards.
For some writers, the point of writing is to share their craft, to expose their stories to the world. For these writers the online publishing world opens doors, where fan-fiction reigns, self-published books galore, and where digital space is large enough to fit forms we haven’t even yet imagined. On the other hand, writers also face new gloom as publications fold. This country sees its publications in a palliative state, writers, like other artists, are being asked to work for zero cents per word, and the last decade has been one devoted to conversation about how newspapers are dying painfully slowly. But amid these politics of writing, novelist and journalist Susan Orlean assures us:
No one ever says that storytelling is dead. …if anything stories and storytelling are thriving like they’ve never thrived before (Orleans, 2014).
So stories are still erupting, because the world keeps turning. Orlean urges us, as writers, to move past the simple matter of delivering information as if we were each a living Google search on our topic of interest. Instead, as writers, we are to pull ourselves into the emotional experiences of life, and to help story these experiences for others; to lead people through the affective spaces of thinking more deeply about something “they didn’t think they wanted to care about” before your narrative came along (Orleans, 2014, unpaginated).
On the other end of the spectrum, some writers don’t care about publishing. For some, writing carries the characteristics of exploration, healing, and picking away at curiosities; we learn about ourselves through writing, and for some people that is enough. And that’s great, too. To find out what kind of writers we are, we must ask ourselves: Who is the audience? Am I writing for myself or for others? Or both? Another way of asking this, is: whose terms do I engage with when I’m writing?
How to get started?
These questions, though, get us a bit ahead of ourselves. Where does writing narrative for activism begin? Well, writing can begin anywhere, because everything everywhere has the potential to be a good story. Sometimes we are triggered to write because of wonder, other times we need to write our way through the ordinary or the extraordinary. Some people are longing for self-representation, and some people are working in effort to represent others. The ladder requires a deep attentiveness to the politics and ethics of representation, and a willingness to settle for not knowing everything.
Everyone writes differently; there is no one, proper way to write. As Janet Burroway explains, “The question is not, ‘how do you get it done?’ but ‘how do you get it done?’” (2010, p. 1-2). Writing is like painting or baking or anything else that one person cannot do the same way as another, so in my opinion, it’s best to start off understanding that even if you’ve never written before, your writing will be unique, and there’s no reason not to keep it that way; no reason not to make what’s yours your own.
The novelist Toni Morrison describes talking to another writer about rituals, routine, and building a singular process.
I, at first, thought I didn’t have a ritual, but then I remembered that I always get up and make a cup of coffee while it is still dark—it must be dark—and then I drink the coffee and watch the light come. …. And I realized that for me this ritual comprises my preparation to enter a space that I can only call nonsecular . . . Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make the contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage in this mysterious process. For me, light is the signal in the transition. It’s not being in the light, it’s being there before it arrives. (1993, unpaginated)
How do we enter this mysterious process? I have also heard writing described as hypnotic, meditative. Whatever the feeling, there are a great many writers who discuss the importance of committing to ritual in order to achieve this sensation, not only when we begin the practice of writing, but as we carry on with it throughout our lives. To make writing routine is to teach your body, your mind, how to tap into those moments — those bursts of story. Ritual also helps build stamina, so that if you are called upon by yourself or by someone else to write something significant you have practiced. A writer needs to practice writing the way a musician needs to practice an instrument — certainly I do not know anyone who can pick up a violin for the first time, or even the tenth time, and play a perfect song without knowing scales, mistakes, and audience just as I do not know of a writer who can pick up a pen and write a perfect story without drafts, mistakes, general practice.
For my own practice, at the moment, I like to write the way I like to run: casually, in the morning, when the air is crisp and my mind is still a bit zombie-like and I haven’t had time to tally up a frantic, mental to-do list for the day before I’ve even had a chance to have a cup of coffee and oh-no now I’m running late and how come I can never find a matching sock and where’s my metro pass and this and that everything else. Often, though not always, a blank page is a welcome gift before all that. Both writing and running call on me to make time to train, so when it’s time to write a story or run a race I don’t get overwhelmed or lost.
However, routine isn’t easy, and it doesn’t guarantee a great writing experience. Morrison also describes how her work and her children drove her writing habits: writing in between shifts, writing in the short heavy-eyed moments of the night when her children (finally) slept, trying to record her thoughts on a tape-recorder on the way home from work and learning that that was a disastrous idea for her process, and so on. This is the practice. The practice of learning how to teach yourself to write.
So don’t go into the practice expecting to pen the next great Canadian novel just because you tried. At first, don’t aim for anything more than what writer Ann Lamott calls “the shitty first draft”. And even if you get that far in when you’re beginning, believe me, you’re on fire. Because beginning is so tough, Lamott asks writers to notice the voices stopping them from beginning to write: your parents, perhaps agonizing over your confessional narrative about growing up alongside them (of all people), your friends who offer you a thousand better things to do on this writerly Friday night, your favourite writer who might find you as bold and articulate as a houseplant. Lamott suggests this exercise, as is written up in her book Bird by Bird:
Close your eyes and get quiet for a minute, until the chatter [from all these voices] starts up. Then isolate the voices and imagine the person speaking as a mouse. Pick it up by the tail and drop it in a mason jar. Then isolate another voice, pick it up by the tail, drop it in the jar. And so on. Drop in any high-maintenance parental units, drop in any contractors, lawyers, colleagues, children, anyone who is whining in your head. Then put the lid on, and watch all these mouse people clawing at the glass, jabbering away, trying to make you feel like shit because you won’t do what they want [or what you want] … . Then imagine there is a volume control button on the bottle. Turn it all the way up for a minute, and listen to the stream of angry, neglected, guilt-mongering voices. Then turn it all the way down and watch the frantic mice lunge at the glass trying to get to you. Leave it down, and get back to your shitty first draft. A writer friend of mine suggests opening the jar and shooting them all in the head. But I think he’s a little angry, and I’m sure nothing like this would ever occur to you. (1994, p. 27)
Writing is nitty-gritty tricky stuff. Some days, it too much to bear. After 20 years of meditative writing practice, Natalie Goldberg confesses that she skips her practice some days — but on the days she plays hooky, no matter what, she goes to her notebook, and she writes the word “skipped” (2010, p. 43). For Goldberg, it is a matter of being in touch with the notebook, being in touch with process, and training her body daily to acknowledge that writing is one of its gestures, whether she’s good or bad at it.
So first, we learn to write. We learn to write without a topic. We learn to freewrite, to trust first thoughts, to surprise ourselves (Goldberg, 1986). Writing narratives for activism is a later ritual where we confront an audience outside of ourselves. When that happens, I suggest we start by confronting the informed stranger. The stranger who knows a thing or two about your topic, but has never stopped to consider your angle. Write to the person who asks that nasty question — “What’s wrong with you?” — think about it, let it ignite a little flame as Russo does in her poem.
Until then, don’t over think it. Be gentle on your writerly self. Narrative for activism is not about being the best writer; it’s about being engaged in the ongoing practice. I invite you, today, to simply work on shifting into the practice in order to open yourself to the possibilities of writing narrative for activism.
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