The Writing Life: Writing the Revolution

Beautiful young African woman in smart casual wear writing something down while sitting in restaurant

Did you know that Pride and Prejudice was published anonymously? It is one of the first true novels written in English, it remains one of the best and best-beloved novels written in English, and it was written “By a Lady,” who did not so much as put her own name on her own work. (Jane Austen also got ripped off financially, but never mind that.)

At the time the novel was being invented (they did not spring fully formed from Mark Twain’s head but were painstakingly invented by women), writing was not a career for women. Women did not have careers. Women were supposed to be modest, demure, polite, invisible, and anonymous. “A woman’s name should appear in the newspaper only when she is born, married, and buried.” There was not really such a thing as a famous and respectable woman; famous actresses were assumed to be prostitutes and famous politicians were freaks of nature. Respectability and obscurity went hand in hand for women of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

When one early woman writer published her book, the frontispiece was printed in red ink, “to signify the authoress’ blushes” at having done such a shocking thing. Books by women were accompanied by humblebragging forewords, claiming that the authoress would never have dared to publish her little scribblings, but her friends and family simply begged her to, so she acquiesced to their incessant demands. When Frances Burney was presented at court, the King said, “Miss Burney, why on earth did you publish this book?” She panicked and stammered and told the plain truth: “Your Majesty, I thought it would look well in print.” My goodness, your Majesty, I don’t know why I, a woman, have the same desire to publish that a man might! Beats me! I’m stumped!

Writing, and admitting that we are writing, and claiming our identity as artists, is a subversive and revolutionary act for women and other marginalized people. Saying, “I have a story to tell and it is worth telling” is a small revolution but it works. “I’m going to talk and you’re going to listen” is a strategy that changes our lives and changes the world. It’s not a glorified diary entry. It’s not “Mommy’s little project.” There is nothing little or unimportant about telling stories and listening to them, about respecting each other and ourselves as creators and tellers of the human story, about demanding respect for our art and our work.

For us, the cleaners of windows and sweepers of floors, the signers of permission slips and bakers of cupcakes, the pickers and packers and inventory handlers, the people who load trucks and deliver pizzas and paint nails, this is the revolution: believing that our stories are worthwhile. Believing that someone might be interested in our secret inner lives, our ideas beyond what’s-for-dinner and change-the-baby. Believing that we deserve respect and attention as artists, not as cogs in the capitalist machine or as accessories to our partners and children. To have an identity beyond “Mrs. Charlie’s mom” or “Second Assistant Janitor, Grade 4B.”

This is the revolution and the pen is mightier than the sword. Take up your pen, and tell your story.