Wednesday, August 24, 2011

More Writing Lessons from "The Help" (Part 4)

Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for AmericaThis past weekend I attended a great writing workshop in Norman, OK (sponsored by the Pioneer Library System). I was fired up by all of the speakers, including Rilla Askew and Mel Odom (I missed the songwriting and poetry workshop by Nathan Brown, but I have a friend who has notes!), but the day started out with the inspiring bestselling author, William Bernhardt. My ears perked up when he started to talk about the importance of storytelling, because I knew that the next Excuse Editor blog post had to do with that subject.

Mr. Bernhardt reminded us of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin. By telling an emotional story about the problem of slavery, Stowe's book fueled the opposition to the practice, and to the South. Legend has it when President Lincoln met Stowe, he said, "So this is the little lady who wrote the book that started this great war."

What if Stowe would have stayed silent?

Lesson Four: Your Writing Matters

In "The Help," Skeeter asks Aibileen, "Don't you wish you could change things?" Since that chapter is told in Aibileen's point of view, we know she thinks that is the stupidest, most naïve thing Skeeter could say. And yet, as the story evolves, the women involved in writing this book begin to understand how important it is to try. Staying silent was the society's blindfold, many people could not see the problems right in front of them, all around them--unless somebody spoke up.

But it was a dangerous time. Speaking up or acting out could get you killed. However, it was the injustice that fell upon too many of their own that inspired many of the maids to help with Skeeter's book. It took courage to trust that the stories would be anonymous, but they started to offer to talk after Yule May was sent to prison. Their stories would matter.

Another reason your writing matters? Because it is unique. Elaine Stein, the editor character in "The Help", knew Skeeter's story idea was different, because it had not been told from that point of view. Reporters had covered the stories: the violence, the calls for civil rights-- but that had been from the outside looking in. Skeeter wanted to let the world feel the stories from the people living them.

The ability to connect with an audience matters. Each of us are separated from everyone else, and in a way, live worlds of our own. Others can't automatically know what we are thinking, they can't understand how the world looks from our eyes. The only way we have to share that, to try and express ourselves and create some kind of order in this world, is to communicate. Sometimes it is difficult to say the words. Sometimes it's impossible to look into someone else's eyes and share pain or joy.

Aibileen didn't have the tools, at first, to verbally communicate with Skeeter about her life as a maid. Instead, she used her gift for writing to pour her heart out. Because she had written her prayers out for so many years, her heartfelt expression was accustomed to find itself in the written word. The pages Aibileen filled gave a perspective to Skeeter's idea that would not have been available otherwise.

They came together and created something that mattered. More on that next time...

Do you believe your writing matters? Why or why not?

Happy Writing!


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