Free speech has been a hot topic in recent months, from banned books to educational gag orders. Friday’s outrageous attack on author Salman Rushdie reminds us that people put their lives on the line to defend freedom of expression. It also got me thinking about what a privilege it is to be a writer, and prodded me to remember why I write.
My writing life has two tracks: freelance content writer and creative poet and nonfiction writer. As a freelance writer, most of my work days have a predictable routine: check emails for new assignments, write to meet those deadlines and gratefully buy groceries.
I’m most energized, however, by my creative writing, which often happens in our backyard under the shade of a walnut tree. Timed writing exercises, poetry, journal entries and essays take shape as I watch our blonde Shih Tzu chase squirrels, who stay just out of reach. Many poems go into blogs or self-published books. Sometimes I get paid to write creative nonfiction pieces about human rights issues I care about. Other times, I join an online haiku challenge.
Whatever shape my creative writing takes, it sets my inner voice free. And you have the freedom to read my words and “hear” my voice — and maybe think to yourself, “you mean I’m not the only one who thinks that way?”
You see, that’s why I write: to connect. To contribute and receive ideas, courage, humor and other nourishment from the written word. The written word can change history. It can teach us to laugh at ourselves. It can help us hang on one more day.
But the only way words can do all these things is if we give them the freedom to say what needs to be said. That includes ideas that may offend your school boards, city councils, presidents and religious leaders.
“The moment you say that any idea system is sacred, whether it’s a religious belief system or a secular ideology, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.” Salman Rushdie
Friday morning, we were shocked into remembering that freedom of speech is vulnerable everywhere— even at the Chautauqua Institution in the United States. It is ironic that Rushdie was stabbed as he was waiting to speak about the United States as an asylum for exiled writers. Indeed, the audience members who ran to the stage to help Rushdie were likely writers and readers themselves.
After the attack, Chautauqua’s president Michael Hill said, “We will return to our podiums and our pulpits at Chautauqua and we will continue to convene the critical conversations that will help bring empathy — obviously, which is now more important than ever.”
A good reason to write, don’t you think?