Editor’s note: this post was first published in 2011 on The Creative Penn.
Cherrie Moraga, my writing mentor in college, has solidified her place in theater history. She’s listed on course syllabuses alongside the likes of William Shakespeare, Samuel Beckett, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams. If you want to get your PhD in Drama, you better hope you know her name or you won’t be getting that diploma.
Moraga is what you would call “a living legend,” but chances are, you never heard of her. It might not come as a big surprise why: she’s an openly gay, biracial, Mexican-American woman. Let’s just say that Hollywood is not burning to do a mainstream movie about her life.
It would seem that Moraga represents such a small section of society that one would wonder why she didn’t just write plays that represented a more “mainstream” view of the world. She is a great writer, after all. Certainly she would have made a “big commercial splash” if she wanted to.
But instead of writing for a commercial, mainstream audience, Moraga has written about her own reality. In her work, there is no sign of the stereotypes we normally see in traditional media: her gay characters are not flamboyant; her Mexican-American characters are not hyper-religious “humble” servants, or violent gangsters; and her women are not helpless victims who judge their worth and value according to a male’s standards.
On the contrary, her gay characters can be timid and complex, her Mexican-American characters are often times intelligent and subversive, and her women are often fiercely outspoken, empowered, and define their worth and value according to their own standards.
No, instead of conforming to popular representations and stereotypes of her many marginalized identities, Moraga, through the pages of her plays and essays, has created a body of work that is wholly representative of her true self.
Mentored By Moraga
I was under Moraga’s instruction for four years. Over those four years, Moraga broke me in and taught me everything she knew about writing. Every year, she tore away a part of me that was not real: everything that was a part of some facade that was not me. She asked me to go deeper with my writing, she challenged me to go places where I did not want to go; and she sometimes, through her writing exercises, gently pushed my head down into the pain and hurt of my past (and my present).
It was often daunting to swim in that place of brutal honesty with myself.
Today, I am not as daring as I was under Moraga’s mentorship, but I still remember the most important lesson she ever taught me: the importance of being my authentic self on the page.
Cherrie would say that the reason writers must bare their souls on the page is because someone out there in the world desperately needs to hear our story. There is a woman or a man out there that has suffered as we, the writer, have suffered. That man or woman may not have the words or the strength to say what needs to be said, and to share what needs to be shared, and so we are providing them a great service by doing it for them.
In writing our truth, and sharing it with the world, we touch a common place within all of us, and this process helps unite the broken pieces of humanity, and heals us all.
The Incredible Healing Power of Authenticity
What keeps people from being authentic is not that they don’t know how to be authentic, but that they don’t think there is a good enough reason to be authentic. They think the consequences of being themselves far outweigh any benefits. They just don’t see why they should subject themselves to the criticism, misunderstanding, or rejection that might come from being their true selves.
So, today, I am not going to tell you how you can be more authentic—you already know how to do that—instead I’m going to give you “a good enough reason” to be authentic.
But first I’d like to share with you a personal story:
At the end of February, I celebrated my blog’s one-year anniversary. The day after this momentous event, I received an e-mail from a young reader. This reader was going to be 16 years old. She was in high school, and she loved to write. She knew she was a writer; in fact, she had already finished the first draft of her novel. But she was shy, and the kids at school had been mean to her. She felt like she didn’t belong at school, and she wanted to thank me because through my blog she found the encouragement to be her true herself. Through my blog she was able to feel a little bit less alone, and a little bit more accepted.
I had been receiving e-mails like this one almost every day for some months now, but this one, I’ll have to admit, made me cry a bit.
It made me cry because this letter was only further proof that my writing mentor, Cherrie Moraga, was right. By being myself in my writing, I was able to speak to the common pain of humanity, and in turn, this young woman’s life felt validated. This young woman felt a bit more confident about her talents and abilities, and maybe just maybe, she’ll be able to make it through the pain and ridicule of high school and blossom into an amazing writer one day.
That’s the healing power of being authentic.
The World Desperately Needs You To Be You. What Are You Waiting For?
Today, I encourage you to be yourself in your work. Share a challenge you faced in your life with your readers, and tell them how you overcame that challenge.
Why? Because the world desperately needs you to be you.
Trust—don’t doubt—that you have so much to give to this world, even if you think you are the brokest of the broke, the lowest of the low, or the lamest of the lame. Trust that you know what to teach your reader, and trust that they will gain so much from your personal story of triumph, however large or small.
You know something that the rest of us don’t know, and the only way we’ll know it, is if you tell us. So tell us then. Trust that, in you, there is a knowing that will unearth itself as long as you are willing to remove all your masks and just be yourself.
Because as my writing mentor, Cherrie Moraga, would say:
“You know more than you know you know–you know?”