Gag order: finding the courage to speak

“If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

I nearly fell over when I heard those words from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Elizabeth Strout on NPR’s Fresh Air, quoting her father from her childhood.

Could Strout and I somehow be related?* My father used to say exactly the same thing to me. It affected me profoundly and for years I struggled against it a writer, just as Strout seems to have.

My father’s well-meaning but misguided statement first suppressed and later fueled my desire to speak out and speak up. Its effects were long-lasting and deeply felt, perhaps due to the brain’s tendency to discount prepositional phrases and focus on the verb. The “don’t say anything at all” part of the sentence stuck.

Not until I had been writing professionally for more than twenty years was I able to do what writers refer to as “find my voice.” This wasn’t a matter of writing ability; I wrote quite capably in other people’s voices—Hemingway or Faulkner, for example. Rather, I was in the grip of a mostly subconscious struggle to feel worthy of speaking my truth, in my style.

Of course, parents of writers are not the only ones who issue such behavioral edicts and writers are not the only ones who wrestle with the dictum to “talk nicely.” (Sometimes I think the most thoughtful people with the views most worth hearing and considering are least likely to speak up, while the arrogant blowhards extremely confident individuals have no problem telling everyone what they think—and what everyone else ought to think, too… cue the presidential primary debates.)

Even Thumper is in on the speak-only-nicely action, albeit with less-than-perfect grammar.

Many people who never hear the prohibition expressed overtly still absorb the cultural taboo against speaking poorly of others. For the marginalized, this taboo extends beyond “nice” speech to include any expression at all. And the consequences for that group of feeling too intimidated to speak are far more dire than for a middle-class white girl.

Bringing words to the world

Exercising the courage to speak turns expression from a private to a public act. Sure, you can scribble away in a journal; it’s easy to speak when no one will hear you. It ain’t so easy to put the force of belief behind your words and send them out into the world.

Successful writers, especially fiction writers, need thick skins. We need to draw a line between our words and our identities because that’s how we learn to accept criticism and improve our writing. But such politesse takes a writer only so far. At some point, you must have something to say. You must get beyond pleasant sentences and well-constructed paragraphs to the substance and the message. That’s when speaking can get difficult.

I’m sure my father didn’t intend his little reminder to silence his only daughter. His words were born of a different era, one in which there was still such a thing as “polite society” and the range of acceptable discourse was narrower. These days, when almost anything goes, we may not always feel comfortable hearing what other people have to say. The recent turmoil over free speech on campuses and trigger warnings highlights the continuing tension between speaking out and fitting in. I, for one, value the freedom to speak whether or not the content of the discourse is “nice.”

Finding and using one’s voice can be painful and messy. It requires courage and the willingness to make other people uncomfortable. But the alternative—silencing ourselves—is not so very nice at all.

Have you ever silenced yourself out of fear or shame? Have you ever felt silenced because of who you are?

Further reading

*There were other parallels: we both grew up spending a lot of time alone in nature.

9 thoughts on “Gag order: finding the courage to speak

  1. I concur with Carrie’s comment ‘aging has some benefits’. I seem to err on the side of inaction, and it is true I often say nothing at all, just because I lose sleep and it isn’t worth the candle. One of the penalties of being a writer, though, is an over-active conscience and a need to hack aside the emotive so we can expose the hidden logic underneath. If it would only work sometimes….

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  2. I don’t think we should be silenced, but I do think we can express our opinions thoughtfully and without being purposely rude. In my experience, that’s the best way to engage in dialogue and the best way to effect any change. Of course, there are always exceptions. Sometimes a harsher tongue is the only way to get things heard.

    Wonderful post, as always.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Finding that balance is always the key. I enjoy a lively dialogue but I certainly don’t like being insulted and I don’t think that rudeness is an effective strategy at all. However, it seems that large segments of the populace and many political candidates disagree with me. Sigh. It’s definitely possible to be firm without being rude–but that, of course, takes work and thoughtfulness.

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