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Writing Women’s Lives by Susan Meyers

Posted Mon, 4/02/2018 - 7:00am by  |  Category: ,

In the United States, women buy statistically more books than men—but publish fewer books, win fewer literary prizes, and get reviewed with far less regularity.

Similarly, women account for only 10% of op-ed pieces that are published nationally. Why is this? How can women be so active in the literary world, yet so many fewer stories and opinions are published by and about women than men?

These questions aren’t new ones; and in fact, there are several contemporary (and ancient) authors who have something to say about it. So, why does it matter that more women begin to write—and share, circulate, and publish—their stories? Here are a few key reasons:

Women have always been telling stories—but haven’t always been remembered for them.

One of the first recorded storytellers in the West was Aspasia, in Ancient Greece. Never heard of her? You’re not alone. Only recently have historians begun to uncover and compile evidence of her life. Chances are, though, you’ve heard of one of her students: Socrates. What eventually became known as the “Socratic method”—a way of teaching lessons through curiosity and storytelling—was actually invented by Aspasia, a woman who mentored Socrates in his approaches to logic, though left no writings of her own.

If you don’t write your story, someone else will.

If you write memoir, you might think that what you’re doing is telling a story of your life, but renowned memoirist Patricia Hampl says it’s so much more than that. “What is remembered becomes reality,” she explains, meaning that there’s power in history—and in writing. This is part of the reason why it can feel so good to tell stories about our lives, but Hampl says it’s about so much more. If you don’t take the time to reflect on your memories and make sense of your past, someone else may do it for you.

Stories are powerful—but only if there’s more than one.

Stories are powerful—not only in terms of history, but also imagination. In her TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story,” Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explains how confusing it was to grow up with only British examples of stories. No one in the stories looked like her, talked like her, or had her experiences. Finally, because there were no stories that were her story, she began to write her own. The truth, she says, can only be revealed when we can hear many stories at once.

Silence isn’t just an absence.

Writing can be wonderfully cathartic—but only if you do it. To have a story and not tell it, memoirist Leslie Jamison points out in her recent book, The Empathy Exams, isn’t just a matter of silence: It’s a matter of pain. Even worse than getting hurt, she says, is not saying anything about it—because it is only through telling the stories of what’s happened to us that we begin to understand it. And it’s only by sharing those stories that we can begin to heal.

We must write the “future” that we want to live.

Finally, writing is powerful—not just in terms of looking backward, but also for looking ahead. Writing, says author and critic Carolyn Heilbrun, can help manifest things: It can create a vision for what we want to become. “Women must turn to one another for stories,” she believes, because a community of stories can help us imagine new shapes for narrative—and for life. As she argues, we have to write the future first, before we can begin to live it.

Find your storytelling community in my new upcoming class Writing Women’s Lives. Learn more about these histories, write your truth, and get your story out into a world that needs it.

For more information on gender parity in publishing statistics, check out the VIDA Count.


Susan V. Meyers earned an MFA from the University of Minnesota and a PhD from the University of Arizona, and she currently directs the Creative Writing Program at Seattle University. Her fiction and nonfiction have been supported by grants from the Fulbright foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, 4Culture, Artist Trust, and the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, as well as several artists residencies. Her novel Failing the Trapeze won the Nilsen Award for a First Novel and the Fiction Attic Press Award for a First Novel, and it was a finalist for the New American Fiction Award. Other work has recently appeared in Per Contra, Calyx, Dogwood, The Portland Review, and The Minnesota Review, and it has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.