Standing Up for the Right to Write

“We are here to shine a light on what matters.” As our bodies flooded Lafayette Park, hundreds of candles lit the dusk sky that fell around us, and as I looked into the eyes of the writers surrounding me, I found it: strength.

Throughout the last few weeks, I’ve repeatedly received one piece of advice from those who know me: take this broken time and use it as an opportunity to stand up for what you believe in. This weekend I had the ultimate opportunity to do just that.

The AWP Conference is a national writer’s convention held every year. Nearly 12,000 publishers, editors and writers from all across the world come together for one weekend. Workshops, panels and a book fair with nearly 2,000 booths, and all of it is for writers. This year the AWP was held in the capital of our nation, Washington D.C. This location presented an unprecedented opportunity for conference attendees.

Freedom of expression is what drives writers and artists to do what they love most: create. Through our writing we have the opportunity to express our own opinions and keep readers informed as to what’s going on in our country. Over the past few weeks, however, we’ve watched as our voices have lost their volume and their right to be heard. We’ve watched as the leader of our nation has discounted the voices of journalists and artists everywhere. Our right to freedom of expression in our speech, our art and especially our writing is something worth standing up for; something worth fighting for. And so it was that on February 11, 2017, the final night of the AWP Conference, thousands of us gathered in Lafayette Park directly across from the White House and held a Candlelight Vigil for Free Speech.

At first I was reluctant to attend the vigil, the warnings of possible arrest echoing through my mind. But then I let myself think about it. How many times do you have the chance to be in front of the White House, standing up for the natural rights you truly believe in? How much regret would I have if I looked back on this moment ten years from now and recognized the opportunity I let pass me by simply due to fear? There was no way I was going to miss it. And so it was that I found myself on Saturday night standing, candle lit and held tight in my grasp, the White House lit from top to bottom behind me, surrounded by writers, all of us fighting for our right to write.

“We specifically as writers have the responsibility to speak up for those whose voices are being put down.” Kazim Ali, renowned American poet, cried out as hundreds gathered around him, lighting the wicks of one another’s candles. “More than ever you need to embrace your freedom to express yourself and never be ashamed of your voice or your story.”

It was absolutely empowering to watch as, one by one, more and more writers filtered into the park. Soon our bodies pushed tightly together, making a sea of peaceful voices speaking out for our rights. Glancing behind me, staring at the pillars holding the White House up, I couldn’t help but smile as I recognized the amazing part of this scene wasn’t the iconic building behind us, but the iconic gathering of voices in front of it. The White House doesn’t hold the power, the people do. We always have. Some might consider our country to be in a time of upheaval, myself included, but we’ve been here before, and we, the people, came out of it victorious.

“Every story, every poem, every essay matters. Every time you express yourself you must do it as an act against the world that seeks to silence you, to marginalize you” (Eric Sasson at the vigil). Our voices are our right, and as long as we refuse to remain silent, we’ll come out victorious once more. This is especially important for the upcoming generation to understand, for as soon as we allow others to take away our voice, we’ve given up our right to fight for it.

After attending the conference and listening to some of our country’s most successful writers speak about the trials and hardships they’ve faced in order to have their work published, I feel inspired. Regardless of what you’re writing about, if it’s important to you, than it deserves to be heard and to be read. It’s just as George Washington once said, “If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”

As the night grew colder our stomachs began growling, and I left with my friends to get dinner, but not before I heard one last message float over the crowd. “Look at the next few years as an opportunity to stand up for your freedoms.” I couldn’t help but smile, it was the advice that brought me to the vigil, and it’s the advice all of us, writers, artists and creators, should take with us wherever we go.