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Life Arts    H2'ed 2/5/11

Mary Pipher: Writing to Change the World

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My guest today is author Dr. Mary Pipher. Her best known book is Reviving Ophelia, about eating disorders and other conditions to which adolescent girls are particularly vulnerable.  Welcome to OpEdNews, Mary. I'd like to talk with you about another of your books: Writing to Change the World: an inspiring guide for transforming the world with words [WTCTW].  Where did the idea for that book come from? 

photo credit: Angie Shields

I have written all eight of my books with a specific goal in mind. I have wanted to help readers understand the point of view of others, to care for them, and to eagerly act for their benefit.

I  have tried to open people's hearts and expand their moral imaginations to wider circles of people, whether it be teenaged girls or refugees.

In my current writing project, I  am exploring Americans' psychological resistance to climate change. My goal is to help us accept and deal with our emotional and cultural issues concerning this frightening topic. Only then can we act effectively. 

My writing is a very specific kind of writing, that is neither self-help nor propaganda. I have had some success with it and I wanted to encourage others to give advocacy writing a try.  Many people have the heart for change writing, but not the skills. I wanted to contribute what I could to the competency of letter and op-ed writers and to public speakers. I believe that, to quote Molly Ivins, "The first job of the informed citizen is to keep his mouth open."

If we do not help each other and our planet, who will?

Good question. You utilize a construct of Martin Buber's which demonstrates two very different types of relationships and world views. Can you talk about that for a moment?

Martin Buber distinguished between I-it and I-Thou relationships. In the former, other people were simply one dimensional tools for achieving one's own goals. For example, the beautiful woman was a sexual object, the clerk in the store was simply a coffee dispensing machine. They were "its" with no intrinsic value of their own. I-Thou relationships are those we have with others when we perceive them as being as complex and worthy of love and respect as we are.

In all my writing, I argue that society only works when we seek and teach others to seek I-Thou relationships with all living beings. I also think that, when we relate to the world as a Thou, we live much more interesting, challenging and love-filled lives. I believe that the essence of improving society is changing I-it relationships to I-Thou ones. An ideal society includes all living beings in its circle of caring.

That's a powerful frame. You've been writing for a long time now. How and when did you first discover your voice?

I began to write seriously in the late 1980s, over 20 years ago. I tried everything--poetry, op eds, NPR commentaries, fiction and personal essays. Gradually, I discovered what worked best for me. I liked writing that produced cultural results and improved readers' lives.

I worked very hard to simplify my writing and to make my writing and my speaking voice congruent.  I am a plain straight-forward Nebraska woman and I wanted my prose to be like me. Voice is a very complicated concept. I would define it as a realization of one's most authentic self. When I found my voice, I felt it allowed me to share everything I knew in a way that connected deeply with others.

Finding my voice was ten-year process and, in the interim, I produced a lot of dead, prissy and obfuscatory writing. In WTCTW, I talked about another aspect of voice--learning what you alone can say. That is also involved a long process of discovery.

You hooked me. How do we learn what we alone can say? How did you learn it?

When I was asked to teach in a summer writing program, I had a moment of panic. I was not a writing teacher; I didn't have a degree in English, and I was not literary. I asked myself, "What is it that I can teach about writing?   As I pondered that question, I realized I had a method of writing that involved being a psychological/cultural observer, then telling people's stories, and then helping readers discern their meanings. I used my method of writing to advocate for certain causes and groups. I had a unique way of writing that I felt was worth sharing.

This first question led me to another question-- what was it I alone could write? What made me different from the many other writers out there? I realized that my voice was shaped by many things-- my genetics, my early childhood experiences, my role as a big sister, my life themes of loss and the search for love, my era, my education, and my adult experience as a mother, teacher and therapist.

I had a particular point of view on the universe. Only I grew up with one passionate hillbilly grandmother and one well-educated Puritanical rancher's wife/grandmother. Only I worked for my mother who was a doctor in  Beaver City, Nebraska in the 1950s. Only I sat with my brothers and stared at a plate of rattlesnake my dad had fried for dinner. Only I wept, on a dock in San Francisco, for Otis Redding the night he died. Only I was with my son when he caught a trout in Yellowstone with a Jake's Spin-o-lure.

Alex Haley said, "Every person's death is like the burning of a library." I encourage you to ask yourself, "What books  are in your library of self and how can you share them with others?"

[Fried rattlesnake? Really?] Where did the social activism come from?  And what was your first foray?

My activism came from many sources. My mother was a strong moral force in my life and she made it clear that my job was to help people.  She was a doctor who treated everyone in our county, whether they had money or not. Both she and my father gave money away whenever they felt that it would be helpful. 

As a girl in rural Nebraska, I witnessed plenty of cruelty on the school yard and in other places. I heard racial epithets and slurs against Jews, even though most people in my little town had never met anyone Jewish.

I saw animals mistreated.

I was a sensitive kid and I did what I could do protect other people and also animals. I reacted very strongly to books about prejudice such as The Dairy of Anne Frank and To Kill a Mockingbird.  When I attended the University of Kansas in 1965, I met some students who were marching for civil rights. I eagerly joined them. Later, I transferred to UC Berkeley where I met many activists. I feel fortunate to have come of age during the late 1960's when my generation had so much faith that we could change things.

After college, you saw the power of words first-hand through your work for Amnesty International. Was that the first time your activism and your writing came together? How did it feel?

I loved the work for Amnesty International's Urgent Action Network. We wrote very specific letters to achieve specific results. Sometimes I heard from people I had helped.

But, I have been a lifelong activist. During the years I had children at home and worked full time, writing for AI was about all I could manage. Most activist are young or old. We are the ones in this culture with the energy and time to be socially active.

But look, I think you are really asking, why am I an activist?

The heart of activism is moral imagination, something I am writing about in my new book. I define moral imagination as possessing a compassionate understanding of point of view.

Here is an example of what makes an activist. Sometimes, one event is sufficient. Suzy has worked all of her life as a human rights activist. She lives in Nebraska now, but she worked in El Salvador at the time of the revolution and has spent many years as an educator in Africa. She comes from a small homogeneous town in Nebraska. One night when she was looking at the stars with me, I asked her what made her such a firebrand for justice. She was momentarily puzzled by the question. Then she remembered something.

Every year on Memorial Day, her family visited their relatives in the cemetery to place peonies on the graves.  All of the graves, save one, were of white people. The other grave was that of an African-American girl who died while her family was traveling through the area. When the little girl was dying, her father walked into the main square and begged the doctor to care for her. The doctor refused and told him that only whites were allowed inside the city limits.

The girl died that night and the father returned to ask if his daughter could be buried in the cemetery. After some discussion by the town elders, her parents were allowed to bury her in the local cemetery, but far from all the graves of the white people.

Every year when Suzy was a girl, her grandmother brought an extra bouquet of peonies and she gave it to Suzy. She said, "Take these flowers to that little girl's grave. Everyone needs flowers on Memorial Day." Suzy told me," I think that is what got me thinking about race and inequality. I just never stopped."

photo credit: Angie Shields

What a story! You see words as connections and writers as connectors. Your stated goal for Writing to Change the World was to "[make] our world one connected tribe."  Can you expand on that a bit, please, Mary?

When I say "connected," I do not mean connected via the Internet which can foster what Martin Buber called I-it relationships. No, I mean we are connected by a common desire to truly understand each other's points of view.  We are able to see each other as complicated, multi-faceted and worthy of I-thou relationships.  Thich Nhat Hanh has a good phrase for what I mean. He says we "inter-are." Connected to me also implies that we are willing to exert effort to understand others and that, when we do understand them, we want to act intelligently for their benefit.

My writing is an attempt to increase readers' moral imagination. I believe that writing should be good for something.  That doesn't mean it has to be advocacy writing, but It does mean that good literature contributes to our understanding of the world. A poem can help us see the grandeur of an insect or a flower. A song can celebrate romantic love.  However, my favorite writing helps us open our hearts to  all living beings.

For example, I really like Edwidge Dandicot's novels about Haiti or Dale Eiseler's Anton, a novel about a boy who was a German in Russia during a time of great persecution. I  have always read crucible stories about people whose backs are up against the wall.

I think those stories reveal a great deal about both the individuals involved and about our human capacities for good and evil.  I just read Unbroken which is popular right now and I am reading The River of Doubt  about Theodore Roosevelt's journey deep into the heart of the Amazon Basin. These kind of stories teach us what humans will do to each other and for each other. They enable us to imagine circumstances that, hopefully, we will never face.

You write about the connection between doing and believing.  What do you mean and what relevance does that have for writers, social activists or anyone, for that matter?

The antidote to despair is to go to work. Let's take an example from my work with climate change. I meet three different sets of people in this work. There are climate change deniers and minimizers; there are people who know the facts and are in deep despair; and there are people who know the facts and are working hard to do what they can to heal our resplendent green and blue planet. I have been in all three groups, first as a minimizer, when I just tried not to think about the issue and focused on other causes.

Then, last summer, when the facts were such that I could no longer escape the gravity of the situation, I fell into deep despair. I spent a few days immobilized by sorrow.I cured myself of my despair and hopelessness by going to work. That is always what helps me the most.

I organized a group and began to work on a new book called The Green Boat
The happiest people are those who face the facts then do the best they can to make things better. They need not be cynical and they don't feel hopeless.  They see evidence everyday that they are making things better.

So, whatever your worthy cause, I urge you to action. Good intentions do not change the world and they do not ward off depression for very long.

What is it about stories that makes them so powerful and effective in bringing about change?

I have met many of my readers and I've made thousands of speeches. I can tell you with great certainty that what people remember are the stories. Stories have been with humans since the beginning of time. Stories made us humans over the course of what Joanna Macy calls "deep time." Stories are what still make us human. They are the basic building blocks of culture. Good stories produce healthy humans and healthy cultures. That is our job as writers -- to tell these kinds of stories that help.

Stories are powerful for many reasons. They are rich in sensual detail. They speak directly to the emotions. And they reach both sides of the brain. Stories are not right brain or left brain: they are whole brain. They integrate complicated information from all over the brain in ways that form meaning and pleasure. Think of the Chicken Little, the Boy Who Cried Wolf, or the Three Little Pigs. These stories stick.

Stories have the power to open hearts, change minds and inspire action. They can be very simple. The way I select my stories is by noting what stories inspire strong emotions in me, especially I note what makes me cry. Generally when a story deeply moves me, it will move others.

Before we wrap this up, I'd like to share two more stories from the book that I particularly liked.  You recount a conversation with your grandmother at the end of her life. You kept asking her if she'd been happy.

She grimaced, then answered, almost angrily, "Mary, I don't think of my life that way. I ask, "Have I made good use of my time and my talents? Is the world a better place because I have been here?'" [p 14, WTCTW ]

Second story:

Indigenous people in Australia thought they were the tongue for the body that was the land. Their duty was to speak for the soil, water, plants, and animals. Because of how they conceptualized the world and their role in it, they were good caretakers for all of the life around them. [pp. 11-12, WTCTW]

Imagine if all of us were able to adopt such a worldview. Is there any doubt that the quality of our lives would be much improved? Thank you, Mary.

I've liked your questions.

I'm so glad to hear that. As you might have gathered, your book really resonated with me. This was a treat. 


Mary's latest book: Seeking Peace: Chronicles of the Worst Buddhist in the World, April, 2010. A memoir which I highly recommend.

Mary's website
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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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