Naomi Ortiz on Writing for Activists Who Don’t Fit In

On a hot day in May, I sat across the table from a best-selling fiction author, an author whose book was on the Oprah’s book club list. As part of my attendance at a small writers’ conference held at the local community college, I could have a sample of writing reviewed by a published author. Summing up my writing submission to the conference committee, I tried to explain it as basically a “self-help” book geared toward social justice activists, social workers, etc. on self-care. They ended up sending my work to this well-known author for her advice.

Sitting at the table, I had to strain to hear her words over the pounding of my nervous heart. This author explained to me that she was running late to catch her plane home, and so instead of the half an hour meeting we were supposed to have, we had 12 minutes. She had prepared for our meeting by providing individual comments on my writing (which turned out to be extremely helpful) but in the time we had, she wanted to provide me the formula for how I should be structuring each chapter.

She flipped over one of my sheets of writing and wrote at the top, “Problem” and then in the middle she wrote, “Story” and at the bottom of the paper she wrote, “Solution.” “If you want to write self-help,” she told me, “then these are the elements you need in every chapter.”

My heart sank. Out of all the advice I thought I might get from this well-respected author, this is the one rule I had struggled with, and eventually thrown out.

When I started out to write a book on self-care for social justice activists, I had imagined creating a self-help book in the image of “self-help” books. I wanted to create something which would fit into a genre I had often turned to for help. I wanted my book to be useful and yet to somehow to also speak to all of us who never quite fit.

I had come to writing this book, not because I had things figured out but because I was angry. I was angry because despite being told over and over that all I had to do to succeed in activist work was to work hard, be polite, and find solutions to organizational and participant’s needs. Doing this they told me, would make sure I was respected. I would fit.

Yet, no matter how hard I tried, I was often taken for granted, rejected, and dumped on. I was angry because what I was told would make me successful, in action, never seemed to be enough. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t figure it out. The effort of trying to figure it out, wore me out – body, spirit and mind.

I didn’t burn out as much as recognize that somehow, I was failing at fitting.

To cope, I folded myself up to fit inside a box of survival. Survival was a stress-pattern I lived growing up. I knew while it was one way to live, that I didn’t want to get to the point where stress was how I knew I was alive. Being in a place of survival was a state I knew I couldn’t maintain without fundamentally changing who I was. I needed something different.

Wanting to learn what other people did, I interviewed activists all over the country, and what people like me – people with multiple cultural/social identities (or as I describe it in the book, people who live in multiple worlds) told me, is we don’t easily fit in.

A few of these activists had found unique systems of support but mostly people worked jobs where they were underpaid and undervalued or worked outside the traditional job system altogether. No one had the answers I was searching for to the questions,

“What self-care do you do to help you fit in? If you don’t fit, how do you not just survive?”

Self-care was a word just starting to come into use in the early 2010’s. I wondered if self-care could help me create a foundation that wasn’t just in reaction to things but supported myself where I was at.

In much of the current writing at the time on self-care, most of the self-care strategies were just tactics to revive the self to go back into the game and probably get beaten down and out again.

Another issue with a lot of current writing around self-care, especially from people with multiple cultural/social identities, is that we are often writing to try to help others who do not have our experiences to understand. I get it. I think we do this so that potentially those who more easily fit in will become aware, move over and make space for those of us who want to be there.

However, when those of us who live in multiple worlds start talking to each other instead of always trying to explain a reality, a system, we start sharing wisdom. Sharing lessons learned about how to live instead of just how to survive.

We also begin to discuss a very important question, “What would a world look like where we fit – not just where we bend The Rules to squeeze in but where The Rules truly change?” We need these visionary discussions and writing in the world. I know I do.

When I had begun the project and tried to follow the “self-help” model by focusing on the “problems, stories, solutions” I was at a loss to find things that could work for people like me in real life. Ultimately, I realized conducting over 30 interviews that no one had answers that were easy, but they did have really good questions. It was these questions which led me deep into the topic of self-care, and what self-care could look like for people who don’t easily fit.

Leaving the meeting that hot day in May with that famous author, I rolled outside and looked up at the wide blue open sky. In the silent heat I noticed the cacti by the sidewalk plump and strong and I reminded myself that I knew who I was, where I came from and my struggle to reject the formula of self-help was okay. I knew I was going to find my own way.

The book I ended up writing is my offering to the conversation I believe people who live in multiple worlds need to be having with each other. I share lessons I’ve learned and what I’ve observed. Some parts of the book contain very specific advice and strategies while other parts are more foundational to create a platform for other writers/artists/activists to build self-care practices from. At the end of almost all of the chapters there are reflection questions so folks can begin to create their own answers.

At the end of this experience of writing a “self-help” book I can definitely say that I believe now more than ever is the time for people to share their stories and to talk with each other about this world that we are co-creating. We may feel like we don’t have any control or say in how it’s being built but I believe that reflection is one of our greatest tools in creating change. Reflecting on what we’ve tried, and what we want, gives us an opportunity to focus on the skills and tools we have already cultivated, instead of only focusing on what still needs to be fixed or what still needs to change.

Asking new questions, risking failure and reflecting on what we learn are some of the greatest tools I think activists develop doing social justice work. We often talk about how these tools can help change the world but I think they are also the best strategies to help us to make change in our lives.

Naomi Ortiz is a writer, poet, facilitator and visual artist who cracks apart common beliefs and spills out beauty. Through her art, poetry and writing, Naomi supports individuals in building bridges to connect them to their own truths around self-care and living in multiple worlds. She is a highly acclaimed speaker and trainer on self-care for activists, disability justice, and intersectionality. Naomi is a fierce Disabled Mestiza (Indigenous/ Latina /White) raised in Latinx culture living in the U.S./Mexico borderlands.

Her book, Sustaining Spirit: Self-Care for Social Justice, published by Reclamation Press, is available for sale at:


Twitter: @thinkfreestyle

Instagram: naomiortizwriterartist

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