Freedom To Write - Emerging Voices Essay - Jessica Shoemaker

Every year, we ask our five Emerging Voices Fellows to answer the question, "What does Freedom to Write mean to you?" Over the next five weeks, each of our Fellows will talk about the role that freedom of expression, the keystone of PEN Center USA's mission, has played in their lives as writers, readers, and literary citizens.

When I was six, my mom gave me a diary. She told me that I could write whatever I wanted in it, and she would never read it. That night I wrote, “Today at school I played with my ball. Me and Bethie roller skated.” I had a friend named Beth, but I never called her Bethie. I just wanted to feel the kind of closeness with somebody that compels a nickname.

At six years old, I was given the freedom to write. I was shown that I have thoughts and feelings and experiences that matter, that my perspective has value, and that fiction can reveal the truth. I never stopped writing. I wrote about things that were done to me and things that I had done to others. I wrote about what haunted me and what I hoped would be.

In high school I started a zine called A Mind Like Pumice. I put my voice out into the world and asked who else wanted to be heard. I wrote about isolation, feminism, and The Dead Milkmen. With each issue printed, more submissions came. Some by name, some anonymously. I received poems about god and love and loneliness. I received interviews with people in the neighborhood and B movie stars, comic strips, and some really trippy artwork. I published everything I was sent.

Every child should be told that their voice matters, that their experiences and imagination matter, because like a ripple, when we share our voices, we begin to understand ourselves, our friends, our families, our neighbors, our enemies.

I teach English and creative writing in middle school. We talk about free speech and our rights and restrictions as defined by the Constitution and the Supreme Court. We have free writing days when I give them the freedom to write about anything that falls within their rights. “Anything?” they ask, and there are always a few eyes that light up. “Anything,” I say. If I tell my students that certain subjects are off limits, that certain ideas are inappropriate, I risk teaching them that their truth is not appropriate, that it is shameful, or wrong, or has no place in the world. They have written about death, bullying, politics, feeling different, zombies, talking cupcakes, racism, and coming out to their parents.

I know what it is like to be heard. I know what it feels like to matter. I want my students to know this, too, so they will fight if it is ever taken away. If we don’t know that our voice matters, we won’t mind being silenced.

Jessica Shoemaker was raised in Torrance, California, and earned a bachelor’s degree in cultural anthropology from University of California, Santa Barbara. She now lives in San Pedro, California, and teaches middle school. Her fiction has appeared in Blue Skirt Productions, Fiction Southeast, and Lunch Ticket. Jessica is working on a collection of short stories.