How Women In Literature Taught Me To Write Fearlessly And Purposefully

by Lindsay Wallace

Growing up, I was obsessed with memoirs, creative nonfiction and personal essay collections.

I dove headfirst into books about self-exploration, breakups, human suffering, sexual exploration and addiction. I particularly loved female authors who were telling their stories through their feelings.

Authors like Joan Didion, Anne Lamott, Cheryl Strayed, Elizabeth Gilbert, Marya Hornbacher, Sylvia Plath and now lesser-known female writers, like Chloe Caldwell, Leslie Jamison and Roxane Gay.

I lovingly refer to them as my literary mothers because it’s through them I found my inspiration to write.

I found Didion and Lamott in used bookstores, and their works appeared at crucial moments in my life. I found Didion's thoughts on writing to be profound: We don’t necessarily write what we know, but write to figure out what it is we don’t know.

This spoke to me because I have always found writing to be an act of self-introspection and self-discovery.

I don’t know what I want, love, or fear until the words flow from my bones to my wrist.

Didion demolished the notion that women write from a place of sensibility and instead, displayed that women write from the heart, in a heartbreakingly honest fashion.

Likewise, Lamott changed me both spiritually and as a young writer.

In her book "Bird by Bird," she calls every writer to action, reminding us to have the courage to be honest, real and meaningful in our work and to get away from writing in all its glorified forms.

Beyond teaching us how to write, she also teaches us how to live.

She weaves such insight and simplicity into her stories and most of what I’ve learned from her in this regard is that in every story you write, there will be a moment of grace and quiet joy.

Don’t forget to write that, too.

The first time I read Cheryl Strayed, I was sitting on the couch next to my now-ex-boyfriend in our two-bedroom bungalow with a slight breeze coming in through the window.

It was July, and for the first time since we started dating, I was beginning to find myself incredibly bored with him and our mundane lifestyle.

I had just come off a hypomanic episode, one marked by extreme hyper-sexuality, and felt a kindred spirit with Strayed when she wrote, “I sucked. I f*cked. Not my husband, but people I hardly knew, and in that I found a glimmer of relief.”

I kept my hypomanic episode hidden, mostly out of shame and fear, until I read Strayed.

I had no idea women could write so ardently about sex and still hold their heads high. I had never gone there in my writing and Strayed showed me I could.

During Elizabeth Gilbert’s tour for "The Signature of All Things," I went to a book signing in Milwaukee. Someone from the audience asked what advice Gilbert could give to an aspiring writer and her answer stuck with me.

She said,

“You have to show up and do your part in the creative process. It isn’t always going to be easy but when it’s difficult, that’s the time to keep going. Take it seriously. And don’t sit in your pajamas all day.”

From Gilbert, I’ve also learned to not put the pressure of being a paid writer on my shoulders.

Very few authors or writers are able to do this full time, so you must do anything and everything you need to do in order to pay the bills. If it means being a waitress, be a waitress.

If you pressure yourself to do otherwise, eventually, you'll no longer write for the sole intention of sharing.

Hornbacher, Plath and the lesser-known female writers, like Caldwell, Jamison and Gay, taught me that most of the time, we are writing about ourselves.

We can’t write about ourselves without delving into the relationships that have molded us into who we are; this includes the relationships we have with our parents, siblings, lovers, ex-loves, dead grandparents, best friends and ourselves.

Everything we write about — non-fiction or otherwise — stems from the relationships and experiences we’ve endured.

They mold us, inspire us and make us profoundly relatable to the masses.

I have found that the biggest takeaway from these female writers is to take the emotional risks that are necessary to be able to share your personal story. Examine your own relationships. Dissect your own life.

Find tone and clarity in your voice so you aren’t the heroin or the victim, but the objective observer.

Be shameless in your work. Write with ferocity and honesty and undue concern about others because it will add a deep level of raw beauty and clarity.

Write for the very basic goal of sharing and nothing else.