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Issue Date:  October 6, 2006

By Mary Pipher
Riverhead Books, 236 pages, $24.95
Straightforward advice for writers with a cause

Reviewed by ANTONIA RYAN

In her previous books, including Reviving Ophelia, her study on teenage girls, and Another Country, about caring for elderly parents, Mary Pipher combined her long practice as a therapist with her desire to effect social change. Her latest book, Writing to Change the World, does the same thing. Chapter One, “Writing to Connect,” talks about her major concern in both writing and therapy: bringing people together and helping them see beyond differences.

This is not exactly a writing manual, but an extended encouragement for people who already write essays or letters to the editor but are afraid they aren’t “real” writers. The book is divided into three basic parts. In Part One, “What We Alone Can Say,” Dr. Pipher talks about her own background and invites readers to think about their formative experiences, what made them the people they are today, what are their talents, what led them to write about this subject or that passion. Dr. Pipher stresses in this section that we, as unique individuals, are the only ones who can communicate our particular message.

The next part, “The Writing Process,” deals with doing research, revising, point of view and other tools of the trade. Dr. Pipher’s own point of view as a progressive is on full display in Writing to Change the World; in one vignette, she tells of how her women’s camping group was shocked when one of its members “outed” herself as a Republican. Dr. Pipher goes on to stress that in our writing, we should take care not to alienate people who don’t agree with that point of view. “Writers are sometimes cursed with too much certitude,” she writes. “Especially as activists, many of us are prone to jump on one white horse after another to lead the charge. We may indeed be right; however, we are also likely to be shot. ... Absolute certainty can make us unlikable narrators. Preachiness is off-putting, as is too much confidence in our own purity.”

Part Three, “Calls to Action,” spotlights the areas of writing letters, speeches, personal essays, blogs, music and poetry. There is nothing in Writing to Change the World about writing fiction -- to this reviewer’s disappointment -- though Dr. Pipher explains that she has a particular focus on expository writing, as that is her medium.

Dr. Pipher has some good advice in these pages. One of the best tidbits came from her writing teacher in a course she took at a local university in Nebraska. “Never use ‘needless to say’ as a phrase,” he told his students. “If it is needless to say, don’t say it.” Dr. Pipher apparently took this to heart. Her prose is simple and straightforward and no-frills. “After years of trial and error, I realized that when I try to be fancy or literary, I sound silly and fake,” she writes. “When I write as I speak, I sound authentic.”

She writes: “The founder of Outward Bound USA, Josh Miner, said, ‘If you are lucky, just once in your life you will be associated with a great idea.’ If I have one great idea, it is that connecting people might save the world. I suspect that everyone reading this book has a great idea. I hope I can help you sharpen, clarify and share yours. I want you to go forward and tell your good and important stories.”

Benedictine Sr. Antonia Ryan teaches in the Mass Communication Department of Benedictine College, Atchison, Kan.

National Catholic Reporter, October 6, 2006

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