Not far from where I live now is a school with an MFA program that had, at one point, a marked focus on social justice. When I first saw it, I scoffed. “Ugh,” I said. “As if! You write because you’re driven to write, not because you have an axe to grind!” At the time, the friends I said this to nodded, or said “Riiight,” and I went on blithely, never once guessing that maybe they were indulging my statement, or maybe just indulging me.
I really did believe that we are driven to write; that whether or not you feel the need to address social justice came second. Sometimes, I still feel like this. Recently, I have penned everything from essays on mailboxes to essays about my dad reading me a poem in my native language, and none of these was written with an eye on social justice.
It would not be inaccurate to phrase what I believed another way: “Politics has no place in my art.”
But I’ve realized something very important in the past decade or so since I first claimed that social justice should come second to craft, and it is this: If you have a tool, you could use it to help build the world you want to see. If you have another vision that others don’t have access to, you could use this tool to help others to see that vision. And finally, the world we live in – both the intellectual world and our physical world – only exists because of the people we hear from.
In other words, to quote the founders of the OpEd Project, an educational program that aims to diversify the voices we see and read in the world of commentary, “The story we tell becomes the world we live in.”
And yet – the theater of the world is political. Everything from the way nations are responding to COVID-19 to the murder of yet another Black person is political. For writers who are affected by these things – hello, everybody – suddenly, the lens of politics gets slapped on to what we do, no matter how badly we want to pretend it doesn’t exist; no matter how badly we want to retreat into what we want to see as our safe cocoon of wordplay.
This month, I want to encourage you to step out of your comfy writing corner and reach out. This is a difficult task: Writing is a cozy activity, and I rarely want to use it to address things that feel uncomfortable. Some of this is because the stakes feel really high – if I am going to put my beliefs out there in the world, be risky about coming forward, I would prefer to do it at my website or at my Medium account, where there is a smaller chance it will get discovered and therefore piled on by people who might disagree.
I think some of you probably feel the same. Or, worse, you might feel like you don’t have anything to say that would be of interest in a wider world that is concerned with things you don’t see as being connected to your personal craft.
For now, I want to ask you to entertain the idea of stepping into this potential discomfort. I don’t just mean if you’re a writer of color or otherwise marginalized; I mean whoever you are. Why? Because if you are getting this magazine, you are looking for a way to make your voice heard from the pulpit of the page, and writers can forget that there are avenues out there beyond literary magazines and the eventual books you will write. There are newspapers. And magazines. And all of them are looking for fresh voices, for fresh opinions. Newspapers, in particular, want to hear from their public, on their op-ed page.
You know that page. It’s the one with headlines that may seem very weighty and whose bylines all seem to be people who are experts in one thing or another. But I have a secret for you: Most of these op-eds are, ultimately, written by people who have either a lived experience with something, work in the fields they’re writing about, or are just interested enough to do the research. And the breadth of topics covered is wide. From the past week’s op-ed headlines alone: “Farmers of Instagram,” “Sheltering Mom, for her safety and mine,” “Preaching to pain.” My first-ever op-ed in a national newspaper covered baseball peanuts. And a second I submitted was about the Taiwanese-American diaspora – but it pivoted around my relationship with my parents.
What I want to encourage you to do this month is this: Recall something that’s sparked your passion, something that has interested you or that won’t stop burning a hole in your creative pocket. I don’t care what it is, as long as it matters to you. Then I’d like you to write an op-ed, and I’d like for you to send it some place, so that some other people might hear your voice.
By now, you are goggling at the page. You are thinking I am batty, because some of you have never penned an op-ed before and don’t believe you would know how to. I am betting you have already done something very similar, though. Think of the last time you had a conversation about something close to your heart. First, you made an argument. Then, you lined up some evidence to back up that argument, maybe two or three pieces. And then you went, and you made a nice little closing that hopefully made room for people to walk away from the argument feeling curious. That is pretty much an op-ed, right there. Now, you just need to commit it to the page.
Don’t know where to start? Well, you probably started the conversation about the thing you really cared about because you had an experience or you had some knowledge that you wanted to pass on to someone else, right? There. That’s what’s called a lede. It’s the beginning of every single op-ed. It is the thing that makes people sit up and take notice.
I’m asking you to do this, to entertain the idea, because a diversity of voices is important. Because most of you probably also have another job that you are good at or have a lot of lived experience behind you or have a wide and generous curiosity behind your desire to write in the first place. Or probably all three of these things.
There is another aspect to this: If you are writing here in America, no matter what stage of writing you feel you have reached; no matter the size of your readership – to put words down on paper is to speak to an audience of people who have long read majority-white writers; heard majority-white voices; seen majority-white stories and lives played out on television and in movie theaters. Our very laws and society are built by people who are majority white. Some of you may say, “Well, that makes sense – if a nation is majority white, why wouldn’t the stories that are told reflect that viewpoint?”
I would answer you this way: The subject at question here is not one of quantity – it is a question of whether or not these same people in power also believe in superiority of one color over another. For a long time, the people in power believed that white was better. In some circles, they still do. And so white people’s books got published over Black or brown people’s books. White people’s movies got made over brown or Black people’s movies. And so I would add that it is time for white writers to listen to, and read, Black and brown voices. We are writers. We know that reading is by far one of the most pleasurable ways to get to know people we are unfamiliar with. Let’s take this time to do that now.
Now, more than ever, the beliefs and convictions of a group of people who have long gone unheard are needed. A national dialogue is of utmost importance, especially if that dialogue takes place in your community’s newspaper.
The more people we have speaking out with a diversity of voices and experience, the better. The more op-eds we can give editors to choose from, the better. Don’t let your writing live only in journals and drafts. Let your lived experience and your interests be seen as something that matters to you – and that therefore should also matter to others.
Yi Shun Lai teaches in the MFA programs at Bay Path and Southern New Hampshire Universities. Her book Pin Ups is forthcoming from Homebound Press in September. Visit her at thegooddirt.org.