By Cindy Fuhrman
I should be cleaning the bathroom.
My partner Caleb is working out in the field (by which I mean that as a fish biologist, he is camped along a river with a crew sampling fresh water) and it would be the perfect opportunity to do some deep cleaning. I should go so far as scrubbing the walls and washing the light fixture, for I am not working this summer, and it seems like the right way to earn my keep, to feel like I am doing something useful.
Those were the thoughts going through my head this morning as I was walking along a two track behind the house. I have certain roles that I feel I am supposed to fulfill. Certain tasks attached to my gender, and also certain unsaid rules I have attached to the relationship. But I am writing instead. The bathroom and all the other things I think I should be doing will have to wait. Along with the walk that was for my body, for my health and sanity, the writing is also part of my self-care, something that seems for women to fall in line behind caring for others, behind doing what we think should be done.
Let me back up a month.
I have been invited to attend Summer Fishtrap, a well-known writer’s conference. I am sitting in a cabin with thirteen women and one man and the Wallowa River as backdrop to the stories women are telling. The man is Luis Urrea, an award-winning and best-selling writer, known far and wide for his teaching as well as his writing. He tells us he is thrilled to be guiding this writing workshop, with help (and M&Ms) from his wife, Cindy. In an email he sent before the conference, he noted that his class was all women and writes, “This is freedom and precious and I hope you are excited!”
What did Luis mean by freedom? I would like to think that it was the freedom to escape what we think we should be doing and do what we really must be do: Write. Listen. Speak our truths. Tell our stories.
The other eleven women that were students of Luis’ workshop came from every walk of life. Mothers, widows, sojourners, recent graduates, grandmothers, published writers, and those who had never published. But we all shared one thing: a desire to be heard. A desire to want to be heard, to be allowed voice. We wanted to hear that our writing was important. We wanted time in which writing was the priority, was the goal of the day.
Back to Luis’ intro letter: “Bring your words and bring your questions and bring your bright shiny souls, and we’ll bring you coffee and chocolate and cherries. I’ll try to give you what I have. And I will gladly receive your wisdom and strength. Laugh. If you aren’t laughing, I am failing. I promise–when you share your brave work with our group, tears will take care of themselves.
Bring your ghosts.
I have one ironclad rule you must agree not to break: Cabin 20 is a Shame-Free Zone.
What did he mean by Shame-Free? That here, for perhaps the first time for some of us, our voice and our writing would be honored. And it was.
Let me back up further. To 2014.
I am 42 years old, sitting in a hallway outside Room 029 in the Teaching and Learning Center at the University of Idaho. I have chosen to go back to school to finish a degree in English. After surviving widowhood, the death of my father, the sale of my home, and years of wandering, I met the fish biologist and moved to Idaho. But I was still wandering. My whole life I had wanted to write (ok, at least since I began writing stories, with illustrations at age six), but I had chosen a path that would make money; a career that my parents agreed was wise, one that I found rewarding, yet not entirely fulfilling. A career I had given up for less lofty pursuits. The town we live in is small, there are not many jobs to be had, so my choices were narrow: I could wait tables (which I have done. And loved.) I could clean hotel rooms, I could find an admin job. Or… Or what? I wanted to write. So I did.
I sat at home in the cabin and tinkered with everything from fiction to poetry. But I wrote in a vacuum. I had no one to share my work with. No one to talk about writing. As you might imagine, my house was immaculate. I Googled writing programs. I found the University of Idaho. I discovered on of my favorite writers, Mary Blew, was a professor there. I enrolled.
The first day was terrifying, as every first day in every class, writing conference, workshop, and reading I have done since. But something happened in those classes and keeps happening in conferences, and in that cabin the first day with Luis: I am given permission to speak. I was asked to write papers, poems, talk about my experience as a woman, a Native woman. I could finally write about some of the harrowing experiences of my youth, the death of my father, and of my husband. I could cry, be pissed off, celebrate and I could do it knowing that it was not only my right, but what was hoped for, even expected of me.
It was as if someone handed me a key that unlocked a door in my throat.
Something about that door. I have a poem, that when I read aloud, I feel the power of generations of silenced women rushing to my throat. It is so intense that I feel like I will shout, or I will drown, that they all want to speak at once. It is a poem about freedom, abut flooding, it is a poem about being dammed. I write with all of those women in mind. I write to them. I write for them.
And I am writing to you today because I want you to know that you have permission to write. I want you to know that your voice is needed. I want to hear it. Hundreds of others, men and women, want to hear it. It is your duty to write so as to mentor young women, to assure elders, to educate men. And it is your duty to help other women write as well, every opportunity you get, to champion other women’s voices. We need them all.
And I am aware that writing is a privilege.
That I was at Summer Fishtrap this year, that I was able to meet Luis and Cindy and meet those outrageous and talented women writers was because I asked for help. Because I could not do it otherwise. And when I asked, I received a generous travel fund from the University of Idaho’s Women’s Center, and I also received a scholarship from Fishtrap–these organizations understand the need for women’s voices. Especially now. Especially always.
Back to now.
I am a graduate student here at the University of Idaho. I am enrolled in the MFA program. I study and write nonfiction and poetry. I have student loans. I have no retirement, but I have my voice. I have published poems and nonfiction essays. I have, I hope, in some ways inspired others to do so as well. Perhaps you will pick up your pen and be it a letter to a congressman, a poem for your lover, or a short story for your child, you will open your mouth and let those voices out. Allow yourself that time to do what you should, to speak, to write, to sing your truths. Trust me, the dirty bathroom will wait.
Perhaps you have found your bliss and a writer you are not, but you are reader and you want to support others, like myself, that have been given this opportunity, given this right. You can do so here:
(or any of the other wonderful organizations supporting women writers.)
And, if you are, like me, still searching for those opportunities, those workshops and conferences that can guide your writing, open those safe classroom doors, then here are some resources for you:
Backing up again. Thirty-five years. To my first babysitting job.
I am standing in the large living room of my client. I am fifteen. Awkward. Never given more authority than to tell my dog to sit. The dad introduces me to his son, Jonathan. I wave and Jonathan says, “What kind of noise does she make?” Still, I am silent. I asked myself that question for the next 25 years, and I ask it still, but at least now I have begun to answer it.