Author Archives: TayariJones

About TayariJones

Author of SILVER SPARROW, LEAVING ATLANTA, and THE UNTELLING.

Finding the time is write is hard, but finding the courage is harder.

Yesterday, I sat down to write.  It’s the new year and I have big plans and I have made a big committment to those plans.  I am taking an entire year’s leave from my teaching job in order to fully dedicate myself to writing a new novel.  It’s a big deal, a big blessing, all of that– so why did I sit down to my desk on New Year’s morning and feel like of… nervous?  Am I not the person who whines that I don’t have enough time to write?  Well here’s time, a lot of it, and I was acting like I was afraid of my typewriter.

It’s hard to do what it is you want to do.  Wanting is the easy part.  Trying your hardest, well that’s when it gets tricky.  Every great effort runs the risk of great failure.  With every new book, I have the fear that maybe I won’t be able to pull it together.  Maybe this project is too ambitious.  My novel in progress features the voices of three characters– two of them are men.  This is new territory for me and I had somehow managed to freak myself out.

So instead of spending the day working on my manuscript, I spent the day working on me.  I typed myself little love note you see here.  I wrote all my fears and worries in my journal.  But I also wrote down all my goals and hopes.  I also took stock of every good thing that happened in the last year.  I wrote down the names of my friends and my family.  I wrote the names of my mentors.  I wrote the names of my earlier books and the characters.

In short, I reminded myself that I am not alone and I can do this.

And I will.

And you will.

Happy New Year.  Happy You Year.

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Write Tip: Getting Letters of Recomendation

It’s that time of year. If you’re like me, you’re setting goals and resolutions for 2013. And for me, this includes applying for various grants, awards, fellowships, and other opportunities. No matter where you are on the publishing totem pole, and no matter what you’re applying to, you are going to need letters of recommendation. I can’t overstate how important these letters are. So, to that end, the purpose of this post is to provide you with some tips on how to get the strong letters you are going to need to boost your applications.

Why do I even need letters? Shouldn’t my writing be enough?

Well, not really. The purpose of the letters is to create a narrative to supplement what you have turned in on your application. For example, if you are applying to graduate school, there is the question of can you write—which is what your writing sample is for. But there is are other questions like—does this applicant get along with other people? Does she have the follow through to complete what she starts? Is she crazy? The letters are there to fill in the gaps of what the committee can’t see from the resume.

Who should write the letters?

I know that some people believe that the writing biz is “all about who you know.” And, while, yes, it would probably be a plus to have a letter from a really famous person proclaiming you to the best writer ever, in the world, I don’t recommend that you go get a rec from the most prominent person you have access to. These are the things you should take into account when soliciting a letter:

How well does this person know you? You want to someone that can write a strong letter with lots of details with you and your writing. As a person who has participated on selection committees, I have seen letters from Very Famous People that are only three or four lines long: “I do not know XYZ candidate very well, but when I taught him at Bread Loaf he was a good writer.” A letter like that is not going to do anything for you. It would be much better to have a letter from a lesser known writer who can talk about you with more enthusiasm in more detail.

Do my letters have to be from writers? If you don’t know any writers, then obviously, you can’t get letters from writers. But it will be harder to get attention for the letters, but you have to work with what you have. If you haven’t yet worked with writers, try and get your letters from people who can speak to your dedication to writing and your character.

If the application calls for three references, how do I pick the three people? Keep in mind that different people can write about different aspects of your life. One person may testify to your writing skills, and someone else may know more about your gifts of organizations. Also consider that some writers are known for certain subject matters, or a certain writing style. If your work dovetails with that person’s specialty, then that’s a perfect fit. Your goal is to put together a letter writing team that can showcase all the things you’re good at.

What can I do to get good letters?

The main thing you can do is to be a good writer and a good citizen. The letters will focus on the quality of your writing and the kind of person you are. Your letter writer will likely be someone who has observed you in a number of situations, so keep in mind that you are always making an impression. If you are in school, conduct yourself in class in such a way that the professor will be happy to endorse you for a fellowship or grant. This is particularly true for MFA students—the letters in your file are as important as your GPA. There are some professors who write letters for all their students, but they don’t write strong letters for everyone. Trust me, committees can tell when a letter is written out of obligation. You have to work hard to earn strong letters.

The other thing you must do is to request the letters in a professional fashion. Think of each letter of recommendation as a gift. It takes me about an hour and an hour and a half to write a good one, and this time of year, I have many requests on my desk. You want to make sure that you get the best letter your recommender will write. So here are some tips:

Send supplementary materials. Don’t assume your recommend knows you well enough to write you a strong letter. Send your resume, a description of what you’re applying for, and a writing sample. It’s also good to include a copy of your statement of purpose that you’re including in the application so the recommender can know what you’re aiming for.

Make it as painless as possible for the recommender. I once had a former student who was applying to MFA programs. He sent me a shiny folder containing all the supplementary materials mentioned above, but also stamps and labels to make it easy for me to send off the applications. Not only was I pleased by the convenience factor, but I was also impressed by all the time he spent getting his act together. My letter was influenced by this, since it was clear that he was serious. His packet reflected the way he conducts himself as a writer—dedicated and committed. I wrote him a super-strong detailed letter and he got in everywhere he applied.

Finally, my last bit of advice is that you use a dossier service. Most universities offer this in the career placement department, but AWP also offers a dossier service. With this, your recommenders send a letter to the service who keep it on file. When you need a letter, you tell the service to send it, that way, you don’t have to keep asking people to send additional copies every time you apply for something. Update your letters every couple years or so to reflect your current level of fabulousness.

Good luck!

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Ada’s Rules of 8 #NaNoActTo

A few months ago, I purchased a fit bit– a fancy pedometer.  It’s a nifty little device; not only does it count my steps, but I was able to look at a graph and see how much of my time I spend sitting down hardly moving.  This will sound crazy, but I started trying to get in at least a mile of walking while I am at the office.  A quick trek to the deans office, a walk up the stairs to speak to a collegeage instead of using the intercome.  It adds up.

Small changes are still changes.

Alice Randall’s novel, Ada’s Rules, about a woman who wants to lose 100 pounds is part story, part self-help.  One thing I really like about it was this simple three point list to wellness.  Three simple things that anyone can do, but I suprised myself to see that I wasn’t always doing them.  Here they are:

8-8-8: Sleep eight hours each night. Drink eight glasses of water each day. Walk 8 miles each week. Three simple changes start Ada’s health and beauty revolution in the novel Ada’s Rules. Talk to your doctor about whether they make sense for you. (source)

Because I live in the Northeast, I was getting the walking in easily– I do that much walking just to get the subway.  But I wasn’t drinking water.  I was drinking five cups of coffee, but eight glasses of water no.  Three diet cokes? Absolutely. But not enough water.  And the sleeping?  That’s going to have to be another post on it’s own.

 

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Are you Working Too Hard? #NaNoActTo

Work to Live, Live to WorkI know I work to hard, but I am trying to learn to live/work/love differently.

It’s not Worth The Grief“ by J. Victoria Sanders on Feminist Wire really struck a chord with me.  For a long time, I thought working extremely hard was a way of showing self love.  After all, the only way I was going to reach my goals was to work for it, right?  Were these books going to write themselves?  Who was going to update my mailing list? Apply for these grants? Have you seen the VIDA numbers?  And besides, when I was working– writing, teaching, improving my apartment, whatever– it was something that I was doing just for me.  It was the rare time that I wasn’t laboring for the benefit of someone else, to meet someone else’s goals of what I should be doing with my life.  But guess what– too much work is just that, too much work.

Here is what J. Victoria Sanders wrote:

I basically subsisted on a few hours of sleep during the four semesters when I was teaching and publishing. I answered every e-mail and graded meticulously every single paper and PowerPoint presentation, all while producing a minimum of three stories and five blogs weekly at the paper—on top of freelance work. At work and after hours at home, I kept my inbox at zero, calling readers back, moderating comments and responding to sources. At ACC, I usually skipped dinner and had a bag of chips during my fifteen minute break so that I could mindfully and professionally attend to the needs of students there on Monday nights.

There was something really satisfying about it, I think, because I was used to abuse. I had no idea what to do with my feelings when I wasn’t working. My work addiction provided immediate gratification so that I was always accessible to anyone – student, editor, supervisor or reader.

I, too, am a hard worker and my mother before me has always worked hard.  I don’t think I have had any model of a woman who didn’t work and work and work.  My childhood memories of my father are of him in his basement office working and writing.  There was no room in our world for princesses. By and large, these lessons have served me well. When Silver Sparrow was in the final editing stage, I was also teaching full time and it was the end of the semester AND I was preparing my tenure packet.  I had my daily schedule calibrated down to every fifteen minutes. One item on the list: “Call parents. Assure them that I’m fine.”  The hard work has paid off, but I have also paid for it.

For women it’s a double edged sword.  “You work too hard,” is often thrown out as an insult by people who may resent your success. I have always taken it to mean– be a lady; stop trying to be somebody. I always want to say, “If you think think I am working too hard, why don’t you help me?”

The challenge for me is learning not to work even though there is no help on the way.  When I take time off, I come home to zillions of emails, interview requests, deadlines ticking like bombs.  When I don’t work, there are consequences.  There are opportunities that I may not be able to be able to take advantage of because I didn’t hope right on it.  Deadlines will be missed and people will be disappointed. (And of course there is the fear that I will ruin it for the black woman that comes behind me because I wasn’t perfect.)

For single women who don’t have children, it’s even harder to say no to work.  When a colleagues says she is not taking papers home because she wants to spend time with her kids, everyone says “awww…”  But if a single person says she is taking weekends off to chill, then it seems selfish.  So I always take time off to write.  It’s my passion. I love it.  But it’s not time off.  And for the women with children, taking your kids to soccer isn’t time off either.  And a week off work because of Hurricane Sandy– that’s not time off either.

I am not saying that we should all walk off our jobs tomorrow at noon, ringing phones be damned, or that we should drop the kids off at the pool and never come back. But let’s try small.  Find two consecutive hours this week where you just chill.  If you have to leave the house to do it, then do that.  Go have a coffee or take a walk– a leisurely walk.  No phone.  No iPad.  A book, but no reading for work or for school.  I imagine it will take a couple of tries to keep your mind in the moment.  You will visualize the emails, hallucinate the little tone that says more messages are coming in.  But let’s try to learn to shut the door to all that.  Baby steps are still steps.

 

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Na-No-Get-Your-Act-Together-Mo, aka November 2012 #NaNoActTo

Happy Autumn.  I am posting this from New Jersey, ground zero for Hurricaine Sandy. I am blessed to report that I lost nothing in the storm but peace of mind.  There were a couple of ugly days without power, but it all seems like a bad dream now, and not even worth mentioning when I see the devastation in Hoboken— just a mile away from my place.

That said, the sun is out this morning, really bright and I plan to take a walk and see what things look like in Jersey City.  But I am also sort of taking a look around my life and taking stock.  There is a lot that’s happening with me that’s excellent and there are other areas that are sort of, well, raggedy. Let’s take the next thirty days to get ourselves together.

Now what is this act that needs to get together?  It’s can be lots of things.  Fitness, writing (of course), nurturing friendships, personal time, getting organized, working on that bucket list, saving money… you get the idea.  Getting your act together is about looking at the big picture  I think I have been too laser focused on one dimension– writing, writing, writing.  Now I want to focus on living, living, living.  Would you like to join me?

I really enjoyed the way we harnessed our energy in August with #WriteLikeCrazy.  Let’s try and do thirty days of moving forward in all sorts of ways.  The way I am imagining this is that every day, I’ll think of some thing to do to mlife a better place– and I will happily take suggestions from all of you.  If you can think of something that you do that takes the edge off, makes things go a little more smoothly, please share.  We’re all in this together.

Novemeber is the perfect month for this– and not just because the month ends with my birthday! But we can sort of start now, getting our ducks in a row for the new year.

Do we need  hashtag? Of course we do. #NaNoActTo

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October Meet Up: Silver Sparrowing All Over The Place

Autumn NestingFriday, October 12, Brattleboro, Vermont
Brattleboro Literary Festival 
Reading and Signing (7:00pm)
Literary Death Match (8:30pm)

  • Wednesday, October 18, 7:30pm– Macon, Georgia
    Wesleyan College
    Reading and Signing

Saturday, October 20, 7:00pm– Santa Cruz, California
Booktopia Weekend Reader Retreat
Celebration of Authors Bookshop Santa Cruz

Thursday, October 25, 7pm– Spartanburg, South Carolina
Fall for Reading 2012 Series
Discussion and Signing

Saturday, October 27, 4:15pm– Boston, Massachusetts
Boston Book Festival
Panel conversation with Dennis Lehane and Alexander McCall Smith.

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Summer Writing “Work-cation” in Lisbon, Portugual

Lisbon

This summer, I am joining the faculty Dzanc Books/CNC DISQUIET International Literary Program in Lisbon, Portugal – July 1-13, 2012.  Two weeks of writing in a beautiful historic city by the sea.  Dreamy, right?  There will be workshops, readings, lectures, fellowshipping… Can’t wait.  Apply.  Make it a summer writing work-cation. More details here: http://disquietinternational.org/

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The Color Purple At 30

It boggles my mind to think that The Color Purple was published thirty years ago. I was about twelve years old when Celie, Shug, Sophia, and Mister entered the American conversation.

I have heard many black women writers confess that they were adults before they knew that black women could even be writers at all.  Right now, I am thinking about how fortunate I am to have never doubted that it as possible for a black woman to be a writer.  Like everyone, I had to go through a lot until I realized that I, myself, could be a writer, that I had something to say.  But thanks to Alice Walker, I never thought that I was excluded because of who I am.

Watching Alive Walker, I knew that the life of the writer would not be easy.  Yes, she was the first black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in fiction and the only one– to this day– to have won both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award.  Still, she faced immense criticism for The Color Purple.  I have never heard any writer spoken about with the venom with which some African American critics attacked Alice Walker.  At the same time, I have never seen anyone stare down the hate with such love, generosity, and bravery.

Alice Walker is a trailblazer.  She opened doors for writers who came after, but I want to give her credit for what she did for all of us as readers.  The Color Purple is a gift.  Those characters touched all of us deeply.  They are bright purple patches in our American quilt.

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I Just Wanted To Be Writing, a #WRITELIKECRAZY guest post by Tiphanie Yanique


Tiphanie Yanique

Originally uploaded by kleopatrjones

Sometimes when you let go and just listen to your story, the rest will take care of itself. I hope you enjoy this post as much as I did. — Tayari

 

by Tiphanie Yanique

When I left graduate school I just knew I was going to have a book immediately. I had an agent, I had a novel that had just been picked up, I had all this drive, and wasn’t I talented, too? Well, maybe all of that was true, or maybe not. Either way my agent had a baby and then retired from agenting; my novel was taken by a press, and then that press closed its Caribbean line without publishing my book; I moved to New York and being a full time tenure track professor had sucked out all my drive…and maybe I wasn’t that talented. I appealed to friends. More than one said, “It took me ten years!” At a writer’s retreat a very successful author held up the rejections from her first book that went on to be a best seller and corner stone of American literature. There were more than thirty rejections.

Again and again, when they weren’t commiserating with me, my friends said, “Just keep writing.” This was hard. I felt betrayed by fiction and the whole system of publishing. I felt betrayed by readers who bought used books, or who didn’t buy books by writers of color at all. I was watching really talented friends tank and less talented ones soar. I liked to believe I was amongst the talented tankers, but who knew? And what did it matter, if you couldn’t get published?

I’d always been a poet even before I decided to take an MFA in fiction, and now poetry became a kind of salvation for me. It kept me writing when I didn’t trust prose. And since I teach fiction, I could read poetry and feel I was doing it just for myself, for the pure pleasure of it. I kept writing poems and then, every now and then, when I could stand it, I edited stories in a collection of which I had a draft. I wasn’t writing with a mind towards publication—I knew the novel was the ticket to publication, not poetry or stories. I was writing because I just wanted to be writing

Almost a year later, Fiona McCrae of Graywolf called me. I knew she had already felt my novel wasn’t right for Graywolf. We had sent it to her when I’d made the mistake of giving it to the other press that then canceled its line. Still, I was hoping, maybe, she’d help me take it to another level before I started sending it out again. When we met her at her office she said that she had read my short stories. My short stories. Not the novel. The only problem was that there weren’t enough stories to make a collection.
I peered over her shoulder. “But you only have about half of the collection. I’ve written more.”

“Well, that’s great news,” she said.

The collection, How to Escape from a Leper Colony, was published by Graywolf Press on March 2, 2010.

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Buy A Journal For Your Character #WRITELIKECRAZY


moleskine macro 1

Originally uploaded by fracking

Blocked? Here’s a fun excercise to help you #WRITELIKECRAZY.

The slender moleskine journals come in two-packs. Last time I bought one, I decided to use one for my musings, and on a whim, I decided to give the other one to my new character, Bessie. I don’t want to give too much away because a new book is like a new romance. You start telling everyone about it and then you ruin it. What I can say is her name is Bessie she 21 and she lives in Chicago in 1930. (And fear not ATLiens… she is born and raised in Atlanta, but she moved to Chicago a couple years ago.)

So, the light blue journal is for me, and the deep blue one is for Bessie.

I really love this exercise. I write the journal by hand– like a real journal. In doing it this way I get the benefit of handwriting. (You don’t get frustrated and delete a days work.) And also, I am getting to know Bessie without the pressure of developing plot or knowing the themes of the work. With the journaling format, I can just wander and let her free-associate the way I do in my real journal.

I have tried this before, but this is the first time that I actually bought a notebook for the character to have all to herself. When I have attempted this in the past, I did it on the computer. I think that I had been thinking of it as “just” an exercise. If you have ever been in my class will know that for me “just” is a dirty word. If you do it as “just” anything, you will not do it right.

This time, I took it seriously and the results have been wonderful. I think about Bessie all the time. At the risk of sounding too crazy or woo-woo, my handwriting is even a little different when I write for her. The penmanship is more formal. She has more pride in her journal than I have in mine. I just scribble and scrawl, but Bessie is the first person in her family to finish ninth grade, so she is very pleased to be telling her story. She is also very aware that this story is being written. She says things like “Talking about something and writing it down is two different things. Pen and paper is forever.”

At the same time, I am not completely possessed by the character. The author-me, the one who is obsessed with Toni Morrison in general and Beloved, specifically has a hand in the project. When remembering her mother’s funeral, Bessie lets us know that she had money enough to get her mother’s full name– first, middle, maiden, and married name engraved on the tombstone. “And I didn’t have to pay with nothing but cash money.”

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