Why we must defend our right to write and share our stories

When Elizabeth Gilbert announced that she would pull her upcoming novel, The Snow Forest, a story set in mid-twentieth century Siberia out of respect for victims of the war in Ukraine, I was aghast. Like many others, I was impressed and inspired by her enormously successful memoir, Eat Pray Love. Yet, I was upset by her latest decision. As a reader, I was sad to see the publication of the new work of a writer I admired being halted, but as a writer, I felt more complicated emotions. 

With the advent of the internet and the ease of technology, the world of publishing supposedly became more egalitarian. Writers who once penned their stories privately could share them publicly in a variety of ways. Although I began by writing for print publications as an outlet for creative expression, I eagerly waded into the waters of blogging and began sharing my writing online when the opportunity arose. But writing and publishing are two separate activities. One is satisfying and the other, downright depressing.

A writer’s life

In its current state, theoretically, a global publishing marketplace implies a worldwide audience that is within reach. With multiple avenues to reach readers, there is a belief that an author needs to simply step out of the shadows and connect with potential readers in order to hit the jackpot of bestseller lists and prestigious awards. However, in practice, writers continue to be rejected and censured, books are still banned and authors are canceled for a variety of reasons most of which have nothing to do with the material or the merit of the book itself.

Despite the bleak scenario of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, there is more to what appears to be Gilbert’s personal decision to withdraw her book. Goodreads, a platform where people can find and review books, allows readers to rate books ahead of their publication date. In Gilbert’s case, there were hundreds of one-star reviews, a situation that would wipe away any chance of a book receiving favorable reader interest, even for a famous author like Gilbert. A recent New York Times article described how such a situation would be unsalvageable for lesser-known authors

The joy of writing is multiplied when it resonates with a reader. For a writer, the happiness that arises when a reader appreciates their work stems not just from the praise but from the feeling of being heard, of being understood, of having mattered. Yet, the wall between the reader and writer is a formidable one. For most writers, it is not simply a curtain that you can pull away to access your reader because the gatekeepers are many, the supporters few.

Reaching a level of recognition where people know you by your body of work takes courage, persistence, and years. The monetary rewards are minimal and most writers can’t live off the money they make by simply writing.

Yet I write. 

Why I write, nevertheless

When a cousin shared my recent article in India Currents “What does your mother really want for Mother’s Day” with her circle of women friends in Chennai, it led to an interesting discussion about the underappreciated labor of women. The normally docile group of women revealed their simmering anger and buried resentments while sharing their personal stories. My words struck a chord with readers I haven’t met. It allowed them to speak freely, at least within their safe circle.

A few years ago I developed a friendship with a young woman I met at a writing seminar. We don’t meet in person very often even though we both live in Singapore. Yet, she has taught me how to schedule social media posts and tips for using ChatGPT. In turn, I have honestly shared vignettes of my life. At a recent catchup, she mentioned that every so often she wakes up and decides it is “Ranjani day”, where she spends time reading my work – Instagram stories, blog posts, and newsletters. 

She says my words give her perspective and permission to focus on herself and the things that are important to her. It helps her make authentic choices. I was blown away by her sincere declaration. There is value to what I write because it allows someone to uncover their true self.

On my visit to the U.S. for my daughter’s graduation, I visited the home of a reader who contacted me after reading my memoir about life after divorce. She showed me her new home, one she had lovingly bought and decorated after surviving a bitter divorce. In her office, she pointed out her precious hard-won MBA diploma from a top Business school which is a major part of her identity. Instead of minimizing her accomplishment, after reading my recent article in which I describe my reasons for hanging my Ph.D. certificate prominently in my home office, she had done the same. It was a small but empowering statement for her. 

Our stories and our actions matter

Alongside these life-affirming anecdotes that bolstered my resolve to share my writing with my limited but loyal audience that I had generated organically (without ads or backing of a big publishing house), I faced rejections for my pieces. In one case, I had to take the tough call to not modify my opinion piece on a subject close to my heart as desired by a highly reputed publisher. 

Many years after the success of Eat Pray Love, Gilbert published Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It, an anthology of stories submitted by readers. These were true tales of courage penned by ordinary readers who found it within themselves to make difficult choices after reading her book.

With each sentence we write, each story we share, and each decision about putting our work out in the world (or not), we open (or shut) the door for others to discover their truths, their strengths, and their paths. There are so many ways in which important new voices get silenced. When powerful ones give in to forces that rule in favor of silence, I am disappointed. We collectively need to do better.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of India Currents. Any content provided by our bloggers or authors are of their opinion and are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, organization, individual or anyone or anything.

Ranjani Rao is a scientist by training, writer by avocation, originally from Mumbai, and a former resident of USA, who now lives in Singapore with her family. Ranjani Rao is the author of Rewriting My...