The Alchemy of Privilege

Nancy Slonim Aronie

Nancy Slonim Aronie

At the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers last night, Nancy Slonim Aronie, author of Writing from the Heart: Tapping into the Power of Your Inner Voice, declared that every powerful writer must be an alchemist: “every writer must turn shit into gold.”

She told the story of the life and death of her angry, terminally ill son, Dan, as an example of how the bad stuff that happens to you can be turned into gold—in her case, a documentary film about her son, whose death, she says, taught her so much about life.

Aronie said that the video editor working with her on the movie decided at one point to cut out a scene where Dan’s girlfriend struggles with his urine bag, which had gotten snagged on a bedpost.

“No!” she roared.  “Don’t cut out the urine bag!  Don’t try to protect us from the tough stuff!  Go ahead and make us uncomfortable!  That’s the stuff we most need to hear and learn from.”

She led a short writing exercise, in which she told the group to “start with your brain, drop into your heart, then your gut, and let it out onto the page.”  Writing from your brain alone, she said, will not get you into the zone of authentic, powerful expression that every writer seeks.

She gave us the starting prompt: “Dinner at our house was…” and told us to go back to our childhood dinner table.

When people stood up to read their pieces afterwards, I was astonished how most of them reported dinner tables that were frightening and painful.  One woman remembered how no one listened to her at the dinner table, leading to a lifetime of wondering whether she had anything valuable to say.  Another wrote about how she couldn’t wait for dinner to be over so she could get away from her threatening, angry father.

Nancy Aronie applauded them all, and kept insisting that powerful writing needs to write out of that “core wound.”

But what if you don’t have a core wound?

What if you grew up in a happy, peaceful household, with kind, productive, harmonious parents who did not wound you in any way?

Can your writing still be powerful?

In the memoir that I am working on, I recognize that I had an almost magically privileged childhood.  No, it wasn’t perfect, but it was pretty damned good, and my good fortune continued well into my adulthood.  I sum it up in the memoir by describing the feeling I got in my twenties, when I was working as a journalist in Manhattan, of a “red carpet rolling out in front of me wherever I went.”

It didn’t last forever, of course, but it is that early experience of privilege that I am interrogating in my book, not just in my own personal experience, but also in our general culture as Americans in my lifespan of the past 50 years.

For all the bumps in the road we’ve had, we have still been extraordinarily privileged and comfortable as Americans, relative to so many of the other billions on the planet.  While we’ve been riding around in our air-conditioned Cadillacs, figuratively speaking at least, so many others have been living and dying precariously on the garbage heaps and slums, the brothels and the prisons of tough, violent cities.

As a scholar of comparative literature, I’ve made a career of studying texts by women from all over the world that tell stories of suffering and oppression in order shine a light in dark corners, raise awareness among the more privileged, and act as catalysts for political action and positive change.

In introducing these stories to generations of students, and editing the related anthologies that have made their way out into the world, I have felt myself to be working on the side of justice, doing my small part to help make things right.

Now, in my memoir, I want to shine the light in a different direction: back at myself, as someone who grew up in privilege yet did not become inured and deaf to the suffering cries of others.

I am certainly not alone. I believe that most people of privilege do have a social conscience; do care about how the other half live; and are willing to be part of a movement for positive change if they can see a clear, trustworthy channel through which to pour their energies.

The “shit” that I need to alchemize in my memoir is precisely the lovely bubble of privilege itself, which protected me–and others who grew up like me–from setting foot outside of our comfort zones.

We enjoyed ourselves poolside and planned our next vacation; got married and had children; bought houses and cars and ever-faster computers and gadgets; and had no clue at all how our lifestyles were contributing to the accelerating disaster of global heating and climate change.

In my case, the “shit” I need to write about is as squeaky clean and wide-eyed as my own innocence as a young woman seeing Third World poverty for the first time and having no clue, none at all, of the role of my country in creating and sustaining it.

That cluelessness seems to be the “core wound” that I have to interrogate in my memoir, recognizing how very comfortable it has been to be so protected, and yet how destructive it has been too, as generations of elite young people like me have been raised to take our place in established social frameworks without questioning the underpinnings of social and environmental injustice on which we stand.

It is not easy to call out your tribe, to criticize a way of life that has been so easy and sweet. I have only gratitude for the gentle, loving upbringing my parents gave me, and the support they provided that made it possible for me to step out into the world on a strong footing. I am not being glib when I say that everyone should be so lucky.

It’s the bigger picture that I am questioning: how all of us privileged Americans, without realizing it, have contributed to the twin crises of social inequality and environmental holocaust that we now must face today.

It’s not about casting blame; it’s about accepting responsibility and putting our shoulders to the wheel of the enormous task of making things right again on our planet.

That is the alchemy I seek as a writer in these dark transition times.

Leave a comment


  1. I continue to be amazed that you and I seem to be following similar inner paths, despite the differences in our external lives. Right now I’m working on a short story whose main character wakes up to–and wrestles with–the responsibility of privilege. I can’t wait to read your memoir!

    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  March 22, 2013

      And I look forward to reading your stories! Although I must say, responding to your recent post, that I would be very interested to see you write out of your own experience–as a doula, say? Or as a daughter? I know it comes through in your fictional characters, but it’s not quite the same.

      • Sometimes I think I’m not brave enough to tell that kind of personal truth. Other times I think I really am more effective getting at deeper truth through fictional characters.

  2. This is such an interesting post, Jennifer. Thank you for it. As I began to read I thought, oh no, another new age guru with a formula by which we can expose our “inner child.” Quickly, of course, I realized that Nancy Slonim Aronie had lived through horrific tragedy and managed to turn it into something she hopes may help others. I deeply appreciated her “don’t cut the urine bag!” In this post, the one thing I differ from you about is your belief that “most people of privilege do have a social conscience.” I think this reflects some powerful wishful thinking, and I don’t think it reflects the state of our society. If most people of privilege really did have a social conscience, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in–as regards climate change, war, racism, gun violence, poverty, women’s rights, and a host of other issues. Sadly, I believe most people of privilege want to hold onto their privilege, even if it means less for others. I think it is a tremendous challenge to get people of privilege to see that their own humanity is diminished by their attitudes and actions. And that, in some areas at least, the damage they are doing will end up affecting their own children and grandchildren.

  3. Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

     /  March 22, 2013

    Yes, I suppose you’re right, Margaret–it is wishful thinking to imagine that most of those who enjoy the blessings of money, power and privilege would willingly give them up. I suppose I have not fully come to terms with the extent of the self-sacrifice that might be involved in leveling the playing field for the world.

    At this point, I believe the Earth is going to do it for us, and all the privilege in the world won’t save any of us who are caught by the next natural cataclysm. My hope is that others may see themselves in my story, and recognize our collective responsibility, as a generation, as a society, as a nation, for where we are now. And that in that recognition will come a moral imperative to push for change.

    I know I am being idealistic but my idealism is not something I’m willing to give up. It’s what keeps my hope, passion and drive alive. It’s what keeps ME alive.

  4. Believing that most people of privilege care about others is one thing, finding much to write about out of your own happy childhood is something very different. The latter I understand completely, and can’t wait to read your memoir. I know there are many lessons and much rich material to be found in happy lives… we have been made to feel as if it’s not interesting if it wasn’t brutal or tragic, but I don’t believe that at all. I also think there ARE people of privilege who care about others. I know some of them. Just don’t believe they are the majority, that’s all.


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