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Journalism students, veterans of the trade, and all those in between gathered at The Power of Narrative’s 20th annual conference this March to acquire new industry skills, network, and take inspiration from some of the world’s most acclaimed storytellers. Attendees heard from the likes of Brian McGrory, Editor of The Boston Globe and Lydia Polgreen, Editor in Chief of The Huffington Post. They took notes from Mark Kramer, Eric Moskowitz, and Ellen Gabler. They witnessed famous investigative reporters, Emily Steel and Sacha Pfeiffer, meet for the first time as they shared anecdotes and strategies for breaking down systems of power that enabled years of complicit abuse.

And they laughed, leaned in, and wiped away tears as featured speaker and New York Times bestselling author, Roxane Gay, spoke about her life as a writer. She addressed her history of sexual assault and grappling with body image, and how she found solace through her book, “Hunger”. The memoir delicately though deliberately confronts the horrifying details of her past, the ones that have haunted her the most. “You have to shape that painful truth in a way that allows it to be read”, she said. Never glorifying or sensationalizing, but writing with raw honesty was and is always her aim.

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Regardless of the form of her work, including fiction, non-fiction, comics and essay collections, she says the function is very similar. “The common thread is storytelling.” She sees sparseness as a writing tool, and never overworks her work, but will revise sentence structure in her head. “I wish more writers took time to listen to their own work.”

Gay discussed dealing with Internet trolls, knowing your worth as a professional, her lack of a disciplined writing practice, and how she is plagued with procrastination, just like us.

But perhaps some of the most emotionally rousing moments happened when the microphone was turned over to the crowd.

K. Sophie Will (’20) unabashedly approached the front of the room to ask Gay whether she should expect to be discriminated against as a journalist due to her weight. “I’ve been told my size is going to prevent me from breaking into the field. Personally, I don’t understand what my body size has to do with my writing,” said Will.

“First of all, girl, you’re fine,” replied Gay. “Anyone who has a problem with you as you are, it’s them, not you. And there’s not one single thing you need to change.” She reassured her that “yes, you will get a job in this industry.”

Her matter-of-fact and unapologetic aura spread through the room like wildfire, galvanizing the audience to overcome their own adversities, and be devoted to their dreams.

“Don’t sit around waiting for confidence, or you’re never going to do anything. Don’t say you want to be a writer. Say you are a writer.”

Written by: Emma Guillen

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