Writing is difficult by design, Etaf Rum, author of the bestselling novel A Woman is No Man, told the more than 200 students gathered for this spring’s Visiting Writer Series workshop. “It is through a lot of hard years and a lot of hard darkness that A Woman is No Man came to be,” she noted of her 2019 novel, which the New York Times book review called “[b]oth a love letter to storytelling and a careful object lesson in its power.” Over the course of the workshop, Rum presented tips on finding your voice and shared what it was like to be a working writer — as well as what it took to create a work of meaning.
Sponsored by Bryant’s College of Arts and Sciences and funded by the university’s Women’s Leadership Living and Learning Community; Hochberg Women’s Center; and Department of History, Literature, & the Arts, the Visiting Writer Series introduces students to diverse works and authors who help them develop their creative skills and understand the world around them a little more clearly. An element of Bryant’s first year Gateway, the Series also helps students engage with topics surrounding social justice, diversity, and inclusion.
Past speakers have included nonfiction writer Elissa Washutta, essayist Sejal Shah, and poet Geffrey Davis. Novelist, essayist, teacher, filmmaker, and memoirist Bridgett M. Davis was the fall’s featured author.
Setting an intention
Rum, who also gave a reading of her novel later in the day and had lunch with several Bryant students, offered advice on honing writing skills, working through writer’s block, broadening their horizons, and developing solid writing habits. She also encouraged the students to consider the larger questions behind their writing.
“It's really important that you set the intention for whatever form of art or creativity or writing that you do, even in every decision that you make,” she suggested. “A lot of us go through our day-to-day life decisions without really understanding, ‘Well, why am I doing this? What's my goal? Where am I going?’ ”
For Rum, her goal in writing A Woman is No Man, which tells the story of three generations of Palestinian-American women struggling to express their individual desires within the confines of community and culture, was clear from the start. “As a teacher, I didn't see Arab American literature in classrooms or in bookstores. It was very underrepresented,” Rum remembers. By drawing from her own experiences, she decided to write a story that help other women like her feel seen and heard.
She also hoped to inspire others, Rum noted: “What if by telling the story, another girl in a different culture, or a different community, can find the courage to find their voice too?”
But to be the voice for others, Rum recounted, she had to find her own words — and that meant grappling with difficult emotions. In turning her memories and reflections into her eventual novel, she was forced to confront the corners of her past — and present — she usually avoided. “I wanted to follow my own truth and to dig deeper and find meaning in my own life — and that meant listening to that whisper that said something wasn't right,” she reflects.
“Make sure that your own writing is making you uncomfortable and have the courage to explore the uncomfortable subjects and topics in your family, your community, and the social environment that you're in,” Rum advised the students. “Don't be afraid to have uncomfortable conversations because that's when really powerful and really healing writing and art comes about.”
Feeding the inner strength necessary for those conversations, Rum noted, requires empathy and exploration. She counseled the students to expand their horizons through reading about different cultures, meeting new people, and getting outside their comfort zone. “There are so many other different experiences and people that are struggling on this earth. In order to appreciate the life that you have, it's imperative that you emotionally invest in other lives,” she entreated.
Making it real
Above all, Rum stressed, writers should be patient with themselves. “I think the biggest mistake beginning writers make is that they give up too easily. They think that their work is supposed to be perfect from the beginning — that if it's not polished and if it's not hitting a best seller list or even getting published, then they are not any good,” she reflected. “And that's simply not true. No one starts out good. It takes a lot of perseverance and a lot of trial and error.”
If we don’t persevere in our work, Rum stated, we will be, ultimately, unfulfilled. “Don't be afraid to go after your passions, even if they don't make sense, even if they're not making money, or even if people think they’re stupid,” she told the students. “If you are passionate about it, it's right and you are right. So trust yourself, trust your instincts and go for it.”