By STEPH AUTERI
For Montclair Local
“All Write Now” reflects the writing life. Steph Auteri is a full-time freelance writer and editor who has written for the Atlantic, the Washington Post, Pacific Standard, VICE and other publications. Her memoir, “A Dirty Word,” is due out in October 2018. She is a member of Montclair’s The Write Group. For more, visit stephauteri.com.
While I’d always wanted to be a writer, my career was not quite what I’d dreamed it would be when I found myself — in my late 20s — writing listicles for online magazines on the top 10 ways to boost your libido and how to plan a wedding without losing your soul and your sanity. Sure, writing clickbait for cash was paying my bills. But it was also burning me out.
I struggled at the time to determine what I should be writing about instead. But when I branched out and began writing pieces on women’s health, depression, gender disparities and more, it occurred to me that I could use writing to break the silence around topics with which others felt too afraid to engage.
Eventually, I stumbled my way into a job writing academic articles for sexuality professionals. The gig taught me a lot about how to connect to public health issues and initiatives, and sparked a curiosity about sex ed policy that persists to this day. When the job ended, I didn’t want to stop reporting on these issues. Taking a job outside of my comfort zone had showed me how my writing could be a form of advocacy in the areas about which I was most passionate. Finally, I was doing work I could be proud of.
We all want to do good in this world. But in searching for ways in which to do so, it’s easy to feel powerless and overwhelmed. In the past few years, I’ve signed up for multiple e-newsletters containing social justice action steps. I’ve donated money to nearly 20 charities and non-profit groups, I’ve attended marches, and of course, I’ve voted. But still, I’ve felt useless.
In raising awareness around important issues however, and in pinpointing action steps and educating readers, I feel slightly less useless. Because while I may not know how to lead a social justice movement, at least there’s this. This, I know how to do. I know how to write.
One morning last summer, I drove over to the Drew University campus to teach a group of 30 or so teens how to use writing as a tool for advocacy. My one-hour workshop was part of a summer creative writing intensive for teens run by the Writers Circle, and was adapted from an 11-week class for adults I had taught in the past. The point of the workshop was to help students pinpoint the issues they were most passionate about, and to then show them the various forms of writing they could use to build awareness around a cause. The brainstorming and writing exercises had them cooking up fantastic ideas around issues of mental health stigma, body image and more. Teaching that workshop helped me believe that maybe, just maybe, our future was in good hands. Their enthusiasm was infectious.
A few weeks ago, I went back to Drew, this time to teach for a full week. Because we had more time to dig in to this sort of writing, I shared lessons I’ve learned on how to effectively bring about change through writing. Among those lessons are:
- How to Analyze Your Audience: Because it can be nearly impossible to win over your most unwavering opponents, it can help to either focus on keeping your fellow advocates informed, or using your writing to raise awareness around an issue for those who are on the fence.
- How to Use Stories to Help Readers Connect to an Issue: Stories tend to grab more attention than facts and figures. They make an issue tangible—something readers can connect to and care about—rather than abstract and amorphous. If you can make a reader feel empathy for a single subject, they’ll better understand the larger issue.
- How to Avoid Antagonizing Your Audience: It can be easy to fall into an “us vs. them” mentality. But how can you effect social change from less of an adversarial standpoint? Everyone has a reason behind their behaviors and actions. It’s the writer’s job to find out what those reasons are, and what we have in common that we can connect on.
In a previous column, my writing colleague Melissa D. Sullivan explored the question of why we write at all. For me, that question is tied to another one: What type of writing can I do that actually makes me proud and fulfilled? For me, that means writing with intention. Writing to effect change, even if only for one person.