Writing To Change The World:
An Inspiring Guide For Transforming The World With Words

Mary Pipher

The rescuers will be those people who help other people to think clearly, and to be honest and open-minded. They will be an antidote to those people who disconnect us. They will de-objectify, rehumanize and make others more understandable and sympathetic. They will help create what philosopher Martin Buber called I-thou relationships for the human race. p. 5

Good writing facilitates the making of connection in a way that inspires openheartedness, thinking, talking and action. All totalitarian governments achieve their ends by frightening and isolating people, and by preventing honest public discussion of important matters. p. 7

The difference between happy people and unhappy people is that happy people have found a use for themselves, like a good tool. Barbara Kingsolver. p. 11

Nothing dollarable is safe. John Muir. p. 12

Trying to be happy by accumulating possessions is like trying to satisfy hunger by taping sandwiches all over your body. George Carlin. p. 12

Writers are either polluters or part of the clean-up team. p. 14

Propaganda invites passive agreement; change writing invites original thought, openheartedness and engagement. Change writers trust that readers can handle multiple points of view, contradictions, unresolved questions and nuance. p. 23

A few years ago, I visited a market on the Burmese border. It was a profoundly unsettling experience. I walked past frightened, impoverished people hawking Leonardo DiCaprio beach towels, dried fish, Nike knockoffs and counterfeit cigarettes. Old women with no teeth sat behind piles of peppers or rice. Listless children with dead eyes lay on ragged blankets behind their parents’ stalls or sat watching shoppers walk by. A skinny teenager was apprehended by soldiers, beaten and thrown into the back of a black van, his mother running after him, screaming, pulling her hair. Everyone in this tawdry market seemed almost comatose with inertia and grief. Gradually, I realized the underlying cause of what I was witnessing: the total absence of hope.

However, one man was different. He squatted in the gutter, almost naked, selling children’s magic slates. As I walked by, he quickly scrawled on his display pad “Freedom From Fear,” which is the motto of Aung San Suu Kyi, who is the daughter of a former leader in Burma. A Western-educated exile, Kyi returned to Burma to work for the restoration of democracy. And while she currently is under house arrest there, her ideas have kept hope alive for the citizens of that beleaguered country.

I looked at the words the man had written on the little plastic slate and then into his eyes. He smiled at me — a fierce, desperate smile — and then he quickly erased what he had written. This man had almost been silenced. But he made a leap. He dared to make a connection with a westerner. He used heroic words to carve out a magic-slate-sized piece of freedom, which he then shared with me. I have never felt more honored and more humbled. When I think of the man with the magic slate, I write for him. p. 30-1

When I researched The Middle Of Everywhere, I asked refugees to write I Am From -type poems as they struggled to find themselves in a new country and language. They followed a formula with each line beginning with I am from. Writing this kind of poem is a way to to experiment with identity issues. The poem must include references to food, places and religion. You might want to give it a try. p. 34

Zulus sum up the need for human connection this way: A person is a person through other persons. p. 63

In his essay, The Call To Service, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. encouraged civil rights workers not to stereotype or label their adversaries as rednecks, crackers or fools. p. 92

I like to think of writers as the steady ones saying, Breathe deeply, stay steady, we will make it if we help one another. p. 98

As Joe Hill said just before he was executed for his union activities, Don’t mourn, organize. p. 101

Yet all religions seek to evoke times when true believers are fully present, open to the universe and filled with awe. p. 106

I interact with people all the way through the writing process. I advance hypotheses, then conduct interviews to verify [I really think she means test here. JH] them, then develop more sophisticated hypotheses. p. 129

For example, in Postville: A Clash Of Cultures In Heartland America, Stephen Bloom visits a small Iowa town to learn how rural midwesterners deal with a large group of Lubavitchers, one of the most orthodox and zealous of Jewish sects. Bloom arrives with certain perceptions and leaves with very different ones. With outsider’s eyes, we learn as we go, and readers learn along with us. p. 136

She said the most compelling letters were handwritten and heartfelt. p. 177

Politicians pay attention to personal stories about the impact policies have on voters. They also are influenced by letters of appreciation. Many politicos said they choke up when they receive thank-you notes. I inferred from this that gratitude is in short supply for people in public life. p. 177

I will look forward to the time when I can return to my sanctuary, to this cathedral of writing I have built. At my desk, my breathing slows down. I dissolve into the writing. p. 239

There are two ways of resisting evil: engagement and disengagement, attachment and detachment: action against it and contemplation despite it. In his dark era, Milosz was the master of this complication, this salvation, of consciousness. p. 241

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