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 whose book was on the Oprah’s book club list. I was attending a small writers conference held at my local community college and as part of attending the conference, each attendee could have a small sample of writing reviewed by a published author.

The conference committee had been slightly confused about my submission. I tried to sum it up as basically a “self-help” book geared toward social justice activists, social workers, etc. on self-care and they ended up diverting my work to this well-known author for her advice.

Sitting at the table, I had to strain to listen to her words over the pounding of my nervous heart. This author explained to me that she was running late and had to catch a plane 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.

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. 

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 fit in, be helpful and yet to somehow 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 again that all I had to do to succeed in activist work was to work hard, anticipate a need, find solutions to those needs and be polite. Then I would be 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 make me fit (be respected, etc.). 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 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.

Looking back, when I started writing a book about self-care (a word just starting to come into use in the early 2010’s) it was just another way to try and figure out how to fit in better. I interviewed activists all over the country and what I found with people like me – people with multiple cultural/social identities or as I describe it in the book, people who live in multiple worlds, 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?”

Even though at the time my questions weren’t directly about fitting in, looking back I’ve realized that’s what many of the questions were trying to get at. Ultimately, I realized conducting over 35 interviews that no one had these answers. I wrote a lot over my first two years of working on the book, most of which never went into what the book became.

Currently, in much of what I read on self-care this attempt to figure out how to fit in is really an issue. Most of the self-care strategies out there are 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 if it is from people with multiple cultural/social identities, is that we are writing to try to help others who do not have our experiences to understand. I get it. I think we’re doing 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.

Leaving the meeting 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. 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 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 change our own lives.


Naomi Ortiz is a writer, poet and visual artist who cracks apart common beliefs and spills out beauty. Her book, Sustaining Spirit: Self-Care for Social Justice, will be published by Reclamation Press and be available for sale in January 2018.

Through facilitated discussion, art, poetry and reflection, Naomi supports individuals to build bridges connecting them to their own truths around self-care and living in multiple worlds. Naomi provides individual consultations and is a nationally known speaker and trainer on self-care for activists, disability justice, and intersectionality. Naomi is a disabled Mestiza living in the U.S./Mexico borderlands. She can be found at NaomiOrtiz.com


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