creative writing community, craft and inspiration
by Cathy Chester, Guest Blogger
I’ve been writing all my life. As a child, I dreamed of being a famous author, writing a work of fiction that would stand the test of time, like Harper Lee or, dare I say, Jane Austen.
But life got in the way until 2011, when I decided to marry my love of writing to my newly earned certificate in health advocacy. My mission was to empower people living with a disability through the written word.
Why disability? Thirty years ago, when I was in my 20s, I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis at a time when there were no FDA approved medications to battle MS symptoms. Being a health advocate is my way of paying forward the compassion and kindness I received in those scary early days of living with a chronic illness.
Advocacy is defined as “the act or process of supporting a cause or proposal,” but to me advocacy means much more. It also means to help, persuade, guide, communicate, argue, discuss, or inform.
In 2017, advocacy takes on yet another meaning. In our country’s political climate, I needed to kick any lingering shyness out the door and use my voice loudly for the sake of a greater good.
Enter The Writers Circle.
When first I heard about TWC’s special Sunday workshop on “Writing as Advocacy,” I had questioned where I’d next spread my advocacy writing wings. Do you believe in kismet?
I’m active in several online political groups; I’ve signed hundreds of petitions, and donated to causes. Now was the time to put pen to paper, er, type words on a laptop, to bravely advocate for those causes I believe in.
I was nervous about attending, daunted by the caliber of writers associated with TWC. But on that cold, windy Sunday afternoon I was warmly greeted as I entered the spacious St. Luke’s rectory in Montclair, by TWC founder/director Judith Lindbergh, TWC co-director Michelle Cameron and TWC instructor Lisa Romeo. I slipped into my chair, nodded hello to some of my 18 classmates-for-a-day and waited for the magic to begin.
Our amiable instructor, journalist Steph Auteri, asked us to introduce ourselves and why we had come. Despite our different writing experiences, everyone shared a common purpose: to use writing to advocate for good.
Steph cheered us on as we listed more than a dozen different causes. Then she challenged us to look inward and define why advocacy was so important to us and which issues mattered most.
That’s when I wondered if this class was right for me, since I was already advocating. But Steph was just getting started. Next, she asked us to list what current issues made us angry, and which ones we felt compelled to champion — and pointed out that the lists may or may not overlap. That’s when I noticed a quote on Steph’s handout: “If you stand for nothing, Burr, what’ll you fall for?” – from Hamilton, the musical
Fascinated, I listened to other’s stories of angst and courage, about wanting to champion mental health, violence against women, LGBTQ rights, Muslim rights, and more.
Yes, I was indeed in the right place.
But what should I do next? Lately, I’ve felt overwhelmed by this question. I wanted guidance on engaging a wider audience for the issues I cared about most.
Steph had this covered. She encouraged us create a Mission Statement by considering the following: Choose one cause that speaks to you most intensely. Why is it so important? What sort of change would you like to effect in your advocacy? Think about your vision for the future and how championing it will help you realize your vision.
With our lists and mission statements, Steph helped us explore different forms of writing that lend themselves to advocacy. She encouraged us to submit to different media venues. She offered several examples, with tips for making each most effective. Here are just some of those tips:
Letter to the Editor: Letters to newspapers especially should comment on an issue currently being debated among the readership; praise/critique an article or comment in the publication’s pages; or point out an error in the publication.
Op-Ed: Keep it short and stay focused on one or two strong points. Be as current as possible.
Personal Essay: Story elements should include a problem, a struggle, or an epiphany which typically leads to a solution, though not always. Use detail, tone and memory to bring a topic alive. Go where a news story can’t go.
News Story: A story that is current, conveyed with facts and details. Short with crisp, to-the-point language.
Profile: An article that shines a light on people or organizations, who are doing something newsworthy and interesting.
Service Piece: An informational how-to of tips or advice to inform or entertain, such as “20 Ways” to do something, often in list form (“listicles”).
Features: A longer-form narrative with scene-setting and characters to help a reader fully understand the dimension of a larger subject. You want the reader to connect and care.
Knowing we wanted insights about getting those pieces into circulation, Steph also shared tips for submitting to media, covering such critical topics as story formats, audience demographic, publication frequency, and how to query.
The Writers Circle’s “Writing as Advocacy” was inspiring, and I’m looking forward to taking my next advocacy writing steps. I’d like to leave the world a better place than I found it, one word at a time.
Guest blogger Cathy Chester is a freelance writer and health advocate whose award-winning blog AnEmpoweredSpirit.com, focuses on living a positive life despite disability. She’s a regular contributor to MultipleSclerosis.net, Multiple Sclerosis News Today, Mango Health, and is the official blogger for the Consortium of Multiple Sclerosis Centers.