When women write, it’s a fem­i­nist act


“Words can be like X- rays if you use them prop­erly – they’ll go through any­thing.” So said Al­dous Hux­ley, au­thor of Brave New World. He’s right; words are pow­er­ful.

Of course, that power can be used for good or harm. The act of writ­ing can change minds, hearts and hu­man his­tory. It can cre­ate a more beau­ti­ful, equal and free world, or a more blink­ered, cruel and di­vi­sive one. Like any tool, we pick it up and use it for our de­sired out­come.

The theme of this month’s DIVA magazine is fem­i­nism. As I pon­dered what to write about, I kept re­turn- ing to this thought: Writ­ing is a fem­i­nist act. Women’s voices need to be heard. Our sto­ries, our lived ex­pe­ri­ence, our po­lit­i­cal and so­cial opin­ions carry weight and can make a huge dif­fer­ence to the sta­tus quo when we ex­press them.

Since I started this col­umn last year, many of you have mes­saged me say­ing that you are writ­ers too. Fan­tas­tic! In your emails, you asked for tips on how to im­prove, and to know whether you were alone in find­ing writ­ing an up­hill strug­gle. So, I thought I’d re­spond to that in this ar­ti­cle. I’ll also bring in the wis­dom of two other DIVA colum­nists – Heather Peace and Eleanor Margolis – to share their ad­vice.

Cur­rently, most of my work- life is spent at my lap­top, typ­ing. I’m in the mid­dle of fin­ish­ing a book for Harper Collins; a me­moir about my jour­ney of com­ing out. I also write here at DIVA monthly and for a few news­pa­pers and web­sites. I’m learn­ing a lot (mostly the hard way, via mis­takes!) so am glad to pass on any ad­vice that has helped me.

Firstly, I think it’s cru­cial to dis­pel the myth that writ­ers have an easy life sit­ting in cof­fee shops, chew­ing on pen­cils and drink­ing end­less lat­tes. In my ex­pe­ri­ence, and for 99% of the pro­fes­sional writ­ers I know, it’s damn hard work. Im­mensely re­ward­ing and life- giv­ing too, but re­quir­ing se­ri­ous el­bow- grease.

Know­ing that it’s tough for ev­ery­one can help. That way, when you find it im­mensely frus­trat­ing, you know you’re not the only one. Writ­ing is a labour of love. Go into it with your eyes wide- open fully ex­pect­ing this and you’re more likely to stick it out long- term. It’s def­i­nitely a marathon not a sprint.

The scari­est part can be the blank page or blank screen; when you need to blog, or write a book

chap­ter, or pitch to a news­pa­per, but the ideas have all dried up. Heather Peace says: “Com­ing up with the ini­tial idea is my least favourite bit. And sit­ting down to start is hard. But once I’m in the flow and my idea be­comes more solid, I re­ally en­joy writ­ing the ar­ti­cle.”

It’s the same for Eleanor Margolis: “I find start­ing any­thing new quite daunt­ing. So I’d say that’s my least favourite part. But when I get into it, I usu­ally find it ex­tremely fun.” Per­son­ally, this res­onates with me too. Be­gin­ning a new piece can feel like start­ing an old car: you keep try­ing the key in the en­gine un­suc­cess­fully, then sud­denly some­thing works, cre­ativ­ity kicks in, and it starts to fall into place.

So, when and where is it best to write? Lots of fa­mous authors ar­gue you should treat it like a desk- job and show up at the same place and time ev­ery day. While this is a valu­able habit, most peo­ple seem to get struck with in­spi­ra­tion at ran­dom mo­ments – I know I do.

Eleanor says: “I mostly write from home – specif­i­cally in bed at about 3am be­cause I’m a bit of an in­som­niac and my mind be­comes very ac­tive at night. Ap­par­ently, Win­ston Churchill used to do all his writ­ing in bed. I think that’s where the sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween Churchill and me be­gin and end...”

For Heather, now that be­ing a mum is part of her life, she takes ad­van­tage of when the house is peace­ful: “I usu­ally write my ar­ti­cles at home when An­nie is at nurs­ery and I’ve got space and quiet. Al­though it de­pends on what the ar­ti­cle is about.”

Some col­umns re­quire her to be out re­search­ing the story: “For my IVF ar­ti­cle” Heather says, “I went over to the Agora Clinic in Brighton to speak to the doc­tors and nurses. For my his­tory of women’s foot­ball ar­ti­cle last month, I chat­ted on the phone to my good friend Kelly Sim­mons who’s with the FA.” Ev­ery piece re­quires a slightly dif­fer­ent ap­proach.

For me, in­spi­ra­tion strikes at weird mo­ments. Watch­ing a film at the cin­ema is a re­oc­cur­ring one, so I al­ways have a notebook and pen in my bag. This can an­noy peo­ple, and I’m prob­a­bly a rub­bish per­son to go to the movies with, es­pe­cially if it’s a date! But I can’t help need­ing to jot down ideas when they hit me.

Eleanor agrees that it’s best to write down flashes of cre­ativ­ity, say­ing: “I have a lot of notes on my phone.” Al­though she adds, “Be­cause my ideas usu­ally come at night, many of the notes are ret­ro­spec­tively non­sen­si­cal”.

Per­son­ally, I’ve found this too: I’ve of­ten looked back at scrib­blings in my “cin­ema notebook” and not been able to un­der­stand a word; prob­a­bly be­cause cine­mas are pitch black! Much of it looks like hi­ero­glyph­ics, and I’m left scratch­ing my head as I try to in­ter­pret them.

In­spi­ra­tion can also hit dur­ing the most mun­dane tasks. Heather says one of her DIVA col­umns was the re­sult of a sim­ple er­rand she ran in Brighton: “My kind­ness ar­ti­cle was the eas­i­est to write. It was a stream of thoughts I had when I got home af­ter wit­ness­ing kind­ness on a trip out to my lo­cal shops.” She saw a per­son be­have in a beau­ti­ful, self­less way, and the idea was sparked. Com­ing home, she opened her lap­top and the whole piece poured out.

Edit­ing can be the least en­joy­able and glam­orous part of writ­ing. So, what’s the se­cret to do­ing it well? Heather says: “I’ll write an ar­ti­cle and then leave it a day or so; to come back to when I’ve had a bit of time away from it.” Dis­tance can def­i­nitely help you see the stronger and weaker parts – all be­comes clearer when you step away then look with fresh eyes.

I’ve found a cou­ple of dig­i­tal tools that help me im­mensely with both writ­ing and edit­ing. Mu­sic seems to help, as long as it is a sound­track or some­thing in­stru­men­tal with­out vo­cals. Re­cently, I dis­cov­ered a site called Fo­cus At Will that plays mu­sic in the style and tempo of your choice. It’s de­signed to have no vo­cals and help you stay “in the zone” with no dis­trac­tions. I use it ev­ery day.

An­other great tool is Gram­marly. It’s a piece of soft­ware that ed­its spell­ing and gram­mar far bet­ter than typ­i­cal word pro­ces­sors. It even tells you if you’re overus­ing cer­tain terms and sug­gests bet­ter ones. You can down­load a desk­top version of Gram­marly and use it in­stead of Word; I do and find it much more user- friendly. A per­ma­nently vis­i­ble word count is ex­tremely help­ful, and spell­ing or gram­mar mis­takes can be fixed with just one click in the side­bar.

Hope­fully these tips, and sneakpeeks into DIVA colum­nists’ heads, have been use­ful. If you dream of be­ing a writer, I hope you’ll pur­sue that goal. And that you’ll refuse to let nerves, busy­ness or set­backs get in the way. Your voice mat­ters be­cause no one else can tell your story.

The nov­el­ist Is­abel Al­lende once said: “Write what should not be for­got­ten.” That’s a pow­er­ful vi­sion – and hope­fully, one that helps us all find the courage to put pen to pa­per. So go ahead: write what you be­lieve should not be for­got­ten. Share your unique per­spec­tive with the world be­cause writ­ing is a fem­i­nist act.

Women’s voices need to be heard – our sto­ries, our po­lit­i­cal opin­ions can change the sta­tus quo

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