Craft and Creativity: Alice Walker’s essay “Saving the Life that Is Your Own”

I don’t think I’ve gotten though a single feminist research project without seeing a reference to Alice Walker’s book In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. As I bummed through a mall bookstore on a rare day off last week, I picked up my own copy, designed in purple, in true Alice Walker fashion, and sped home to start reading.

I had known that this was a book about womanism, Walker’s term for a deeper shade of feminism that embraces black heritage, love, curves, food, camaraderie, and joy. What I did not understand is that the book is an excellent source of literary criticism in the feminist world, particularly with respect to how black culture has often been marginalized. Reading Walker’s critical work gives deeper perspective on both her creative work and the works of other women who have faced marginalizing forces in their own literary production.

Rather than go into the whole book (the entire thing is an enjoyable and critical read), the best place to start learning with Walker’s book is in the very first essay, “Saving the Life that Is Your Own: The Importance of Models in the Artist’s Life.” In the piece, Alice Walker discusses a key problem that she and other womanists and black woman writers have faced in writing creatively. She mentions Toni Morrison’s famous advice to write the kind of books that you, the writer, want to read. Walker takes this advice a step further, detailing how many of Toni Morrison’s works are without a clear influence because of the canon’s marginalization of black women’s stories, told from their own perspectives. Walker digs deeper, recalling her own discovery of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, which had been out of print by the early 1970s. This discovery sparked a need in her to uncover other black woman writers and storytellers to help establish a literary tradition that subverted a canon that is ultimately sexist and racist.

The first time I picked up Zora Neale Hurston, it was 2001 and she was back in print and featured on high school summer reading lists, thanks to contemporary writers like Walker and Morrison. For me, it wasn’t strange at all to see a black womanist tradition forming before my eyes, but for Walker writing her essay in the 1970s, that canon needed some help to emerge. Walker’s main point in the essay is to draw on Morrison’s advice to become your own role model in writing creative work, breaking down fences in literary style in the vein of Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s unique unfolding of magic realism or Toni Morrison’s girlhood perspectives on beauty, sexuality, northern racism in The Bluest Eye. Today's literary canon is still far from perfect, but it's been refreshing to track the re-emergence of fascinating writers like Hurston and Ella Cara Deloria, who lost traction for a while mid-century.

Walker’s essay on creative bravery sparked my own thought process in a very strong way. Her analysis is framed within womanist fiction but urges all writers to go beyond trend or established literary models and discover new ways of doing things. For someone like me, a new-ish creative writer operating in a world of glittery vampires, swooning love stories, and other market-driven tropes, it’s enormously helpful to begin thinking of story and narrative not in terms of how other people do things but how I want to do something. Alice Walker gives me and writers of all backgrounds permission to pull in all corners of our lives—the mundane all the way to the fantastic—to come up with a new tradition. As we take new steps, particularly in the world of making feminist literature more widespread, we also lay the path for others who might otherwise lack influences to join us. By saving our own literary lives, we make tremendous strides in creativity and in forging new avenues of literary thought.