Writing to Change the World, by Mary Pipher, is part autobiography, part writing instruction, and all inspirational. This is a heartening book, one that doesn’t just instruct but also reminds writers of all kinds and all degrees how powerful our stories are, and how essential it is for us to tell them. And Pipher makes it clear that a story we write – in a poem, a letter to the editor, a blog post, a book or a speech – might only budge a single reader a tiny millimeter in her thinking – but like the air displaced by a butterfly’s fluttering wings, that small movement can have a profound effect. Pipher cites The Diary of Anne Frank as an example of how even the diary of a twelve year old girl can reverberate through the ages.
Pipher asserts that “All writing is designed to change the world, at least a small part of the world, or in some small way perhaps a change in a reader’s mood or in his appreciation of a certain kind of beauty.” This is heady stuff – and a good reminder of our responsibility, as writers, that there is an audience on the other side of the page.
The book is divided into three parts. In the first, What We Alone Can Say, Pipher says that life assigns us our causes, and she provides some stunning exercises to help her readers find their stories – and their voices. This section also includes Pipher’s early autobiography, describing the influences that led her to become an agent of change long before she became a professional writer.
Part Two is The Writing Process, which Pipher compares to swimming: diving in, swimming along, and cooling off. Pipher suggests that more people have the talent than the temperament to be writers. Writing talent, she says, “is basically observational skills and verbal facility.” But the writing temperament “includes the ability to tolerate ambiguity, handle intensity, wrestle with self-doubt, take risks, and accurately assess criticism.” And that’s not all: In addition to poverty, loneliness and anguish, Pipher says, “we also must be able to motivate ourselves to keep going in the face of the world’s total indifference.” Is there anything in the world that’s harder?
I don’t know, but Pipher makes it clear that there’s nothing in the world more worthwhile. And her training as a psychotherapist shines here, as she explains the importance of recognizing the difference between what’s important and what’s urgent, encourages her audience to be bold, wrestle demons, find support – and keep going. There’s an entire chapter on the psychology of change.
Part Three, Calls to Action, gives some nuts and bolts advice about how to write effective letters, give good speeches, write moving personal essays and post effective blog content – all in the name of improving our human condition. I wish I’d read the section on speeches before I had to give one recently. Now I know how to do it better.
Since a lot of the writing I do is aimed at just this: changing the world through stories on the radio, columns in the newspaper, and novels, I found Writing to Change the World informative and encouraging, and I highly recommend it to writers of all stripes, from the novice to the professional, and to writers of all genres – poets, novelists, essayists, bloggers, playwrights and letter writers. This book reminds all of us of the importance of what we do – What power! What responsibility!
And one more thing: the book is chock full of the most fabulous quotations about writing and social justice set apart in shaded boxes and good for a quick pick-me up simply by – well – picking the book up!
Deborah Lee Luskin is the author of the award-winning novel, Into the Wilderness, and a commentator for Vermont Public Radio. In summertime, she’s also a gardener, beekeeper, chicken-wrangler, gardener, and sculler.