Why Write? “…it is better to speak”

Audre Lorde’s answer to “Why write?” is summed up beautifully by her story about taking the name Gamba Adisa, which means “Warrior: She Who Makes Her Meaning Known” in an African naming ceremony.

 What I leave behind has a life of its own…I’ve said this about poetry; I’ve said it about children. Well, in a sense I’m saying it about the very artifact of who I have been…

I started writing because I had a need inside of me to create something that was not there.

A writer’s origin

She came into herself early, adopting a modified spelling of Audrey for “the symmetry” of it. She confidently dismissed discouragement in High School.

I learned about sonnets by reading Edna St. Vincent Millay’s love sonnets and loving them and deciding I was going to try. I learned to write love poems by reading poems I never understood but the words would get me high…I was editor of my high school magazine and I wrote a poem about love. And the student advisor, the faculty advisor said it was a bad sonnet. And I really knew that it was a good one. But I knew that she didn’t like it because of the things that I said in it. So I sent if off to Seventeen magazine and they bought it. And I made more money from that one poem than I made for the next ten years.

In later life she described herself: Audre Lorde was a black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.

Artifacts as a call to action

I came to know her work through “The Cancer Journals” required reading for my daughters in high school.
At that time this is what most resonated with me:

…when we are silent
we are still afraid
So it is better to speak

Perhaps not consciously – but I internalized – “So it is better to speak”.

And I credit that quote – and this poem – this artifact of her life with inspiring a vastly different future than I’d imagined.

A Litany for Survival 

For those of us who live at the shoreline
standing upon the constant edges of decision
crucial and alone
for those of us who cannot indulge
the passing dreams of choice
who love in doorways coming and going
in the hours between dawns
looking inward and outward
at once before and after
seeking a now that can breed
like bread in our children’s mouths
so their dreams will not reflect
the death of ours:

For those of us
who were imprinted with fear
like a faint line in the center of our foreheads
learning to be afraid with our mother’s milk
for by this weapon
this illusion of some safety to be found
the heavy-footed hoped to silence us
For all of us
this instant and this triumph
We were never meant to survive.

And when the sun rises we are afraid
it might not remain
when the sun sets we are afraid
it might not rise in the morning
when our stomachs are full we are afraid
of indigestion
when our stomachs are empty we are afraid
we may never eat again
when we are loved we are afraid
love will vanish
when we are alone we are afraid
love will never return
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
nor welcomed
but when we are silent
we are still afraid
So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive.

A Litany for Survival is also the name of a documentary on her life and work. You can hear much of what is quoted above in her own voice.

For more on “Why Write” join our ongoing discussion on writing for life via the Empowering Change Mighty Network or view the second in this ongoing series right here.