The Silenced Writer

by Somayeh Shams

Writing, as my M.F.A. advisor used to say, is an addiction, and, unfortunately, like all good drugs, it does not come cheap. There is no other way to explain this all-consuming, patience-building exercise that takes so much of our time away from our families, friends, sleep, and exercise. That creates no (or very little) income. Each year the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, AWP, conference and book fair attracts over 12,000 attendees. Hopeful young writers, emerging writers, and writers whose names have filled our canons attend to advertise their work, to learn, and to leave their solitude for four long days to be part of the conversation. With over 2,000 presenters and 800 book fair exhibitors, the conference, according to Wikipedia, is “the largest and most inclusive literary conference in North America.”

Naively, I never even considered money when I chose a career in writing. I had finally come to terms with the fact that I didn’t feel passionate about my scientific path and all I wanted to do was write. I quickly applied for an M.F.A. program, the thought never crossing my mind that, unlike most other careers, writing needed an income to support it. If I had truly understood that fact from the beginning I might have made different choices, gone through the process differently so I could have prepared for my family and my future. Because, let’s face it, I wasn’t going to quit writing.

Still, the thought that writing is likened in our minds to a compulsion, with little value for us except as an instant gratifier and no value to society, makes me uneasy. Have the benefits of books and literature not been proven again and again? Are we not, when luck strikes us, putting out a product? Do we not provide a service? Isn’t our time worth anything? How has society come to believe that writers do not deserve to get paid while so many other jobs are over-inflated? When a conference attendee asked Roxane Gay at AWP 2015 about the emerging writer’s avenues for financial support, until that ever-elusive faculty position is acquired, those same positions being shamelessly replaced with underpaid adjunct positions, she responded, “have a day job.”

But can everyone afford working and writing? How about when you have a family to feed and take care of? Does this mean that writers who “make it” either have made certain choices and sacrifices that most others in other careers seldom need to? Or that those successful writers are from an already more affluent class, thus falsely representing the actual writing population or the population as a whole? I suspect both of these are true. How, then, can a person struggling to make ends meet, a parent who must spend time away from their writing desk, afford being a writer? Those who do are extraordinary exceptions. My child’s calls are louder than my desk’s. The publishing process is discriminatory and those marginalized either by race, financial burden, or gender—they feel the brunt of it.

Tillie Olsen had to abandon her first novel and did not publish Tell Me a Riddle until 1961, decades after her work first came out in Partisan Review. She recounted her struggles with money, work, and motherhood in her book Silences, analyzing the problems that working-class writers, women writers and writers of color face. Frustrated, she wrote,

Literary history and the present are dark with silences: some the silences for years by our acknowledged great; some silences hidden; some the ceasing to publish after one work appears; some the never coming to book form at all. What is it that happens with the creator, to the creative process, in that time? What are creation’s needs for full functioning? Without intention of or pretension to literary scholarship, I have had special need to learn all I could of this over the years, myself so nearly remaining mute and having to let writing die over and over again in me. These are not natural silences—what Keats called agonie ennuyeuse (the tedious agony)—that necessary time for renewal, lying fallow, gestation, in the natural cycle of creation. The silences I speak of here are unnatural: the unnatural thwarting of what struggles to come into being, but cannot. In the old, the obvious parallels: when the seed strikes stone; the soil will not sustain; the spring is false; the time is drought or blight or infestation; the frost comes premature.

She lists the innumerable greats who struggled with those silences: Thomas Hardy, Melville, Rimbaud, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Jane Austen, Theodore Dreiser, Willa Cather, Franz Kafka, Katherine Anne Porter. . . . “How the creative working atrophied,” she writes, “and died in them—if ever it did.” She names the different ways in which writers come to be silenced:

Deletions, omissions, abandonment of the medium (as with Hardy); paralyzing of capacity [ . . . ] Publishers’ censorship, refusing subject matter or treatment as “not suitable” or “no market for.” Self-censorship. Religious, political censorship-—sometimes spurring inventiveness—most often (read Dostoyevsky’s letters) a wearing attrition. The extreme of this: those writers physically silenced by governments.

Olsen was briefly jailed in 1934 for her union work, charged with “making loud and unusual noise.” In our current political climate, with many of us out there standing up to evil, this form of silence seems no more out of the realm of reality.

Since graduating I have focused on finishing my book, obsessing over words and sentences, over the fact that I want the love and dynamics of my Iranian characters to be as honest as possible, particularly for my American readers. Again I am incapable of combining the idea of money with that of my book. By that I mean, in thinking about what Olsen mentions above, I am not sure how marketable my book is and if it would interest the publishing industry. And, again, I am not sure knowing the answer would change anything.

I have learned in recent months that over 80% of the world’s publishing is owned by 5 publishing houses, known as the “Big 5.” I have also learned that Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster are media conglomerates and giant corporations prioritizing profit. In her book The Handover, in which she studies the publishing industry in Canada, Elaine Dewar wonders how a publishing industry led by profit, telling the world what to read, can cultivate diversity of ideas and opinions. And with so much control by a handful of entities in the market, don’t publishers have the power to force what they think a project is worth onto the writer?

A 2014 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey found that 53.9% of traditionally-published authors make $1,000 or less a year from their writing, while only 1.3% reported making more than $100,000.

The digital industry is also a stressor for the struggling writer. More and more writers, in the hopes of building their reputations, write for free for non-profit e-journals that can’t afford to pay them.

With so many odds against the writer, I wonder how many of us turn away from writing? What are the statistics for the marginalized writers who must put aside their dreams for survival? Or how about, as Olsen wrote, “the silences where the lives never came to writing. [ . . . ] those whose waking hours are all struggle for existence; the barely educated; the illiterate; women. Their silence the silence of centuries as to how life was, is, for most of humanity”?

Yet I am hopeful. I feel in recent months something changing in this country. I hear the voice of discontent loud and clear. In the background of hate and evil I hear the thirst for knowledge, for diversity, for equality growing. I see a pushback where acquiescence used to be.

Writers—like Roxane Gay and Vievee Francis—with brilliant work that once went unnoticed are finally being honored. At AWP 2017 the panel “Which Comes First, Activism or Artist?” was well attended. At another panel I sat in a room full of writers excited to hear Iranian writers and translators discuss the Iranian diaspora. Journals like Nimrod are pushing, despite the challenges they face, to diversify and make room for the voice of the marginalized. I am looking beyond this administration for a time when perhaps programs and journals and small publishing houses have enough subsidy to support an equal agenda. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a literary world where equality is a reality, where all writers can be paid for their art and the work they do?

At the end of the Iranian diaspora writers panel, during the Q&A portion, someone said she hoped that the Iranian writers would have more panels like these, suggesting that this should not be a one-time thing. Many in the room nodded, excited, energized by the readings and discussions. Anita Amirzevani leaned over her microphone and noted that they’ve had a panel every year—but that it had never been well attended. My hope now is that their voices are finally being heard.

Somayeh Shams is an Iranian-born writer and a graduate of the Warren Wilson M.F.A. program. She has been a fellow for the Hedgebrook Writers in Residence and a merit scholar at the New York State Summer Writers Institute. She serves on the editorial board of Nimrod.

Contributor Interview: Lisa Nikolidakis

What inspired you to write “The Ladies’ Philoptochos Society,” which appears in Nimrod’s Leaving Home, Finding Home issue?

This story is part of a larger, thematically linked collection that I recently completed. In researching the book, I became obsessed with narratives of first-generation Greek women who came to the States, particularly those who were shoved into arranged marriages. Torn from their homes, moved to the other side of the world, possessing minimal (if any) English, their husbands often twenty years older than them—yet they weren’t allowed to speak of their pain. That silent, obedient suffering hits close to home for me, and I wanted to show how traumatic this particular experience could be for a young woman. I also wanted to challenge myself to write a sympathetic character who makes a decision that most people would condemn.

What’s your writing process like?

As a teacher, the bulk of my writing happens in summer, though if anyone has figured out how to teach and write well at the same time, please let me know. Seriously.

I work from 10-6 almost every day of the summer. Typically, there’s a long stretch of researching, thinking, and note-taking—a space that makes me deeply impatient for the actual writing to begin. I use an 11×14-inch sketchpad to map out ideas visually and work out the math of my stories. Sometimes I remain in research/thinking mode for weeks before I can really begin, which makes my process feel agonizingly slow at times, but I am working on being more patient with my process. My phone alerts me every day at 4 p.m. with, “You are doing enough.” It actually helps.

How many times do you revise a story, usually?

I revise every single time I open my document, so I can’t quantify it. My writing day begins by reading what I’m working on from the beginning. I tweak and shift things as I read through, which helps me settle into the groove of the piece. Once I have a draft, I revise again with specific aims in mind: word choices, syntax, tightening scenes, punching up humor, etc. . . . Then I send it to my beta readers and prepare for more revision. Sometimes I do seven. Other times two. It really depends on how close I’ve gotten it on my own.

What do you like to read? Who are the authors you find yourself returning to again and again?

I’m currently in the middle of Lidia Yuknavitch’s stunning The Book of Joan and Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec. When I’m done with those, Roxane Gay’s Hunger is on deck. I’m a sucker for researched, scientific nonfiction, too, so I’m also reading Lisa Feldman Barrett’s How Emotions Are Made, and I’m rereading Bessel Van Der Kolk’s The Body Keeps The Score. You know, light beach reading.

What tips would you give to aspiring writers?

  • Stop comparing yourself to famous writers who had success at an early age (or who are the same age as you and have more success). You’re on your own journey, and all of that comparative thinking undermines your confidence. Your writing path will look different than someone else’s.
  • Carve out your writing time and guard it fiercely. For me, this means saying no to things people ask me to do—especially in summer. I’m a people-pleaser, so I hate saying no, but I hate not writing more.
  • Read generously. Give pieces the same benefit of the doubt that you want your own work to receive. That doesn’t mean you have to like everything, but don’t come at it arms akimbo either.
  • Be kind to yourself.

What are you working on now?

A memoir based on my piece that was in The Best American Essays 2016. Dark as some of the material is, the story is hopeful in the end. I’ve just completed the proposal for it and am now writing the book itself. This project is a long time in the making, and finally—mercifully—I think I’ve cracked the code on it. Famous last words I’m sure, but for now, I’m feeling surgical, so I’m running with it.

lisanik author

Lisa Nikolidakis’s work has appeared in Best American Essays 2016, Los Angeles Review, Brevity, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Passages North, The Greensboro Review, and elsewhere. She currently teaches creative writing in the Midwest and has recently completed a collection of thematically-linked short stories.

How Do You Be?

by Francine Ringold

The question, said neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks, should not be, “How are you?” but “How do you be?” I reply with the following:

It is sometimes disturbing but more often lovely to live amongst people — under a cloak of men and women and children — especially the children. Ah, there goes Georgie, two-year-old carrot-top curious George.

Yes, it is still a novelty living in an apartment by the water and not in a private home walled in by shrubbery and brick, with neighbors hidden from view who only occasionally peek out their heads to water a bush.


At first one’s eyes follow the lift and sway of calming water, then there is a cacophony of noises and chatter: teams of rowers being urged on by a coach on a megaphone; the guy with abundant tattoos who looks like a surfer but spouts stock reports on a cell phone; the slender French woman, always on high heels, sashaying a Pekinese—all in front of my sliding glass door—briefly in front of my door, and then skirting past like rare birds batting their wings and squawking.  And suddenly, like now, silence, and only the sea, water, and sky.

Going out a few steps beyond my glass door, walking my famous dog, Pete, or leisurely strolling, there is a new world, different from yesterday yet the same — fresh faces and company.  As if out of a storybook, a girl with enormous red-framed glasses perched on a small face emerges from the bushes, where she has carefully “picked up” after the baby beagle beside her, named, to my astonishment, Cyrano.  Did she know, I ask, where that name came from? And so, with her father Gabriel (I am not making this up), in the middle of Old Harbor Lane, we discuss Cyrano de Bergerac, and Molly Sue, the girl, decides she wants to read it through her huge glasses.  “And did you know,” her father asks, “that her brother’s name is Shout? We all love that Mockingbird thing.” All this, trivia though it may be, before 9:00 a.m., to be followed by sylphlike former fashion model Amanda from Brazil with her three young children: one-year-old Zion, three-year-old Kowie, six-year-old Luma hugging me and whispering my name with reverence.  Iranian/German engineer neighbor Barush Murgani has already left for the last of his two final exams on solar energy, promising to fix me dinner in celebration.  This evening Caleb will drop by to bore me with pseudo-philosophy and cuddle his dog and mine. I tire of his endless attempt to impress me, though he is kind and good-looking in a scruffy kind of way.

And so it goes: the roving twin Russian boys, about twelve, who did not understand my proudly spouted sentence in Russian, Простите меня пожалуйста (Excuse me please!), until I had repeated it five times with increasing panic; Happy, the small, aged, white mixed-breed, wobbling to us each morning with owner Paige, gazing longingly at Pete as though he is her big brother.

But there they are again, the elegant white birds silently standing erect—egrets, I think—and the deep black crows cawing a warning.  There are Great Blue Herons too, soaring above the trees, widespread wings like two large kites attached to thin legs trailing behind, pointed like an arrow.  And the greedy cormorants lunging for fish. Good to learn the names of things, to parse not words but living things, how they breathe and change colors and fly.

One would think this is enough—to drift with the clouds.  It is not!  Remember May Sarton’s words: “To work is to feel whole!”  So I pick up my pen and write.


Francine Ringold, Ph.D., edited Nimrod International Journal for 47 years. She served as the Poet Laureate of Oklahoma for two consecutive terms.  Her most recent book: From Birth to Birth: My Memoir and a Guide for Yours.



Poetry Equals Happiness

by Britton Gildersleeve

Aspiring poets often believe that it takes unhappiness to create art. You must drink too much, do drugs, have a sadly aching life. Be as miserable and crazy as Poe, as suicidal as Hemingway, as dysfunctional as Sexton. Sometimes, they even hear this from their seniors. The myth of the suffering artist.

Once, years ago, I asked my students to go see a famous novelist who had been invited to the university. He began his presentation/reading by stating that all artists must suffer, and they drink and/or do drugs as a result.

ARGH! Nooooo! Mr. Writer Guy: You just totally messed with my students! (I apologized to them the next class period.)

This is NOT Nimrod’s position, FYI. Because guess what? It’s not true. Happiness fosters not only art, but (obviously) life. It is—and this is only a perhaps—possibly easier to sit down and write if you’re already miserable and your everyday life holds no allure. Certainly on days when the weather is idyllic, and there are birds at all the feeders, and leftovers I needn’t mess with, it’s easy not to write. But when I think of the times my life was splintered into shards and fragments, I didn’t write. I simply couldn’t.

So, is sorrow good material? Maybe. But so is joy, folks. And if you look east, to art in Asia, there is art to be made from (and found in) each element of our days. There is art in dragonflies, and grasses, and even the calligraphy of our names.


And I know this. Yesterday, for instance, was a good day. Both my wonderful sons were here: the one currently visiting, and the one who lives a few blocks from us. My perfect grandsons and wonderful daughter-in-law were on view, as well. There was Chinese take-in my beloved ordered, so I didn’t need to cook. And the hummingbird feeders were sites of aerial ballet. But I didn’t write a word, other than some work emails.

Today? It’s raining, my younger son and I are having a lovely visit, and I’m writing. Writing. Poetry. About the crows calling outside, about the way the midsummer rain falls like heavy silk over the grass. About whatever. But I’m still happy. That hasn’t changed. Only the level of my activity has changed, and what I choose to spend my time on. Sometimes it’s grandsons, for instance. That doesn’t mean I write better when I’m unhappy. It may just be that when writers are unhappy, there’s nothing else in their everyday lives that claims their interest.

In other words—art does NOT require suffering. Happiness can be just as creative and a lot more fun. Especially if it’s genuine.

Now there’s a question: how to define authentic, genuine happiness? Is it the transient pleasure of a perfect cup of tea? (Maybe? I certainly think so.) Is it the giddy pleasure of my grandson running to me at daycare when I pick him up? Is it—really—any single thing?

No matter how momentous any single event, I’m pretty sure that genuine happiness wells up from a life well lived. Even in the midst of his great sorrow over Tibet, I’m betting that the Dalai Lama is happy. Same for Pope Francis, again in spite of his acute awareness of the desperate poverty around the world. And of course Desmond Tutu, even though he deplores the racial injustice here in the U.S. and elsewhere. And no, they’re not writing much poetry (at least not that I know of).


What will make us happy is our own life, ultimately. Which is what these various wise leaders—and others—have said for many, many years. Being kind to those around us; refusing to participate in inequity; cherishing the fragile young, the old, the poor, and the unfortunate. THAT will make us happy, because it becomes part of our everyday life, a daily attitude of happy, if that makes sense.

And then? Well, you can write poetry. If you’re so inclined. Honest. Because happiness . . . well, it feeds your inner artist. It gives you, I promise, lots to write about. And that’s more than enough to help you get past the myth of the suffering artist.

Britton Gildersleeve’s creative nonfiction and poetry have appeared in Nimrod, Spoon River Poetry Review, This Land, and many other journals. She has published three chapbooks and was the director of the Oklahoma State University Writing Project for twelve years.

Illustrations from Britton’s blog,