My Pieces About Dr. Angelou

Upon hearing the news of Dr. Maya Angelou’s passing, I wrote a few essays, I gave some interviews about her amazing legacy.  Here are the links to those media outlets.  She really was our Phenomenal Woman.

Maya Angelou Showed How To Survive Rape and Racism– And Still Be Joyful. (The Guardian).
Before Caged Bird, Richard Wright’s Black Boy was thought to be the definitive memoir of growing up black in the Jim Crow south. Black Boy – brutal and tragic – reinforced the popular feeling that the answers to the “race question” were issues of manhood. Caged Bird added Angelou’s voice to this conversation – harmony and song – in becoming a classic itself.

Maya Angelou: A Writer’s Appreciation. (Newsday)
Angelou will be remembered in the hearts and minds of everyday people who clung to her words to make sense of this complicated American life. Last semester, one of my students proudly bared her shoulders across which “Phenomenal Woman” — the title of Angelou’s beloved 1978 poem — was tattooed in an ornate script. This, I believe, is a perfect tribute. For Angelou understood that poetry should not be confined to pages or to classrooms, that it should be infused with the air, taken into our lungs, laced through our thoughts and sometimes even inked onto our bodies.

BBC News Night with Nigerian author Ben Okri. (video)

LA Times video chat with Carolyn Kellogg (video)

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Remembering Maya Angelou

Yesterday the great writer Maya Angelou passed away.  I saw the news on facebook and I was felt so sad that I put away my writing, made myself some cocoa, and called up a good friend.  It was inevitable, I know.  She was 86. She lived a good life.  All of that.  I read that she had cancelled a speaking engagement a couple of days ago, so she was active all the way to the end.  It was a good life, and she enjoyed every moment of it.  This is the kind of passing that calls for one of those New Orleans style funerals where you dance instead of weeping, or at least dance while you weep.  But still.  I had to lay down for a while.

When I think about Maya Angelou, I think about I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.  I hardly ever teach it anymore because the students have read it already by the time they get to college.  For my black students especially, it is as essential as To Kill A Mocking Bird.  And speaking of my students, how many of the have tattoos reading “Phenomenal Woman” or “And Still I Rise.”  She was a beloved writer, and a beloved citizen of the community, and a true citizen of the world.

Her life was a magic trick.  She did the impossible thing.  She looked at the world clear eyed and without sentimentality.  She talked about rape back when folks didn’t talk about it.  She talked about single motherhood back when “nice girls” didn’t.  I read all six volumes of her autobiography when I was probably too young for them. My mother had them and I was a naturally nosy child.  It was my first glimpse into womanhood and the life of an artist, the life of a black woman artist.  But the impossible thing is that she did it, wrote about it, and continued to live a glorious life.  I see the photos of her dancing, singing, wearing dark shades, or a cool hat and I think– Still, she rises.  And she makes me believe that it’s possible to honor your vision, tell hard truths, make mistakes, and still be worthy of great love and great joy.

Maya Angelou.  We will miss her.  And there will never be another.

[video] My video chat with the LATimes about Dr. Angelou

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My Writing Process– Blog Tour

My wonderful student, Serena Lin, who has just finished her MFA at Rutgers-Newark, invited me to participate in this blog project about process.  (When I say just finished, I mean TODAY.  Congrats, Serena.  I’ll miss you!) The idea is that there are four writing questions that each writer will answer.  I have to confess that I an uncomfortable with these questions.  I feel like the answer to each of these would require me to write my autobiography– each from an different angle.  But I adore Serena, so I am going to give it a shot.

1) What are you working on?  I am working on a novel.  A couple of years ago, when I was on a fellowship, I had to talk a lot about the work, even though it wasn’t done.  And, it was terrible for my process.  I think that talking too much about your work in progress can cause you to use up all your creative energy talking about.  So I try only to talk about the parts that I have already written.  Because talking about plot angles that haven’t happened yet, makes the writing feel stale when it actually happens, like chewing gum that’s already been chewed.  I want to save my wonder for the page.  If you’re interested,  Here is a link to an article written about my WIP.  It’s basically still true, but I don’t like to go into it for fear of hanging myself up.  That’s the one thing I have learned: don’t hang yourself up.

2) How does your work differ from others’ work in the same genre?  I am not even sure what my genre is.  “Literary Fiction”?  But what does that even mean any more?  And as a black woman writer from the south, each of these becomes a “genre” of sorts.  So how am I different from other southern writers? From other black writers?  From other women writers?  Then we can make a few combination “genres” too.  So, you can see why I find these questions so complicated– and daunting.  My work is different that other people’s because I’m different.  I have my own voice and my own understanding of the world.  Vague, I know, but it’s really the only thing I can say without telling my whole life story.

3) Why do you write what you do?  I consider myself to a a writer of contemporary realism. I’m deeply concerned with how we live our lives today and by today I mean anything within my life time.  I know that a lot of writers, especially black writers, are on a reclamation mission– to tell the stories that have forgotten and erased.  I applaud this because a lot of stories have been lost.  But at the same time, there need to be other writers who are capturing the here and now, keeping our lives from being our granddaughter’s reclamation mission.

4) How does your writing process work?  It works the best way it can.  I don’t have a set way I do it. I don’t even have a set schedule.  I have preferences, but I don’t always get the circumstances that I prefer.  I prefer to write in the morning.  I prefer to journal for an hour or so (by hand, fountain pen.)  Then I like to whip out my typewriter and bang away for a couple of hours.  I have written each book differently, but here are some things that are consistent:  I don’t outline and I write the first chapter last.

 

So that’s it from me on the subject.  Here are Serena’s answers which are really cool and loaded with helpful information for emerging writers. Lots of advice and links.  Check it out.

Now I am passing the baton to two terrific writers.

Bridgett M. Davis, author of the forthcoming novel Into The Go Slow.  (It’s amazing, btw.  And so is she.)  Here’s her blog.

Nicole D. Collier, fellow Georgia Peach, and overall inspiring individual.  She takes the mind-body-spirit connection to the next level and you can see her radiance in her writing. Here’s her blog.

 

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The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan

“With The Valley of Amazement (Ecco), Amy Tan reaffirms her reputation as a master storyteller, creating intriguing settings, unforgettable characters, and twisty plotlines.”

You can read my complete view at Oprah.com: http://www.oprah.com/book/The-Valley-of-Amazement#ixzz2wsEjD4Qa

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Goodbye Ucross

Well, in about ten minutes, I’ll be heading to the airport.  My experience at Ucross has been wonderful.  The accommodations were perfectly suited to my needs and the food was excellent.  My co-colonists were an inspiring cluster of writers, visual artists, film makers and musicians.  Art was in the air and I breathed it all in.

The retreat lasted 28 days, but when you subtract the Thanksgiving holiday (and my birthday) let’s say it was 24 days.  Then I caught the flu, so that took it down to say, 21.  I got a lot done in those days.  By a lot I mean word count, but also I got a lot done in that I figured out some important questions having to do with my book.  I put a lot of new pages in, but I took a lot of pages out.  I’m leaving feeling satisfied, but also eager to keep working.

I think I have to face the fact that a novel takes on long time to write.  As much as I complain about NaNoWriMo, I understand the fantasy of having a book done by Christmas.  It’s what happens when you don’t want to write, as much as you want to have written.  This month out here in prairie has helped me remember what’s important, what I love about what I do.  Being out here has helped me here my own voice again.  So I am grateful. #blessed.

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Retreat Reading– Ucross Edition

Cowboys and East Indians by Nina McConigley:

In her captivating debut story collection, Casper-raised author Nina McConigley examines with wit and empathy what it means to be “the wrong kind of Indians living in Wyoming.” Although prejudice and ignorance surface, there are few bad guys in this game of cowboys and Indians, only complicated human beings.

The characters in Cowboys and East Indians must explain themselves frequently — they are never quite what those who encounter them expect. In the story “Dot or Feather,” a foreign exchange student from India tells a Wyoming kid dressed up as a Native American, “There are two kinds of Indians. Some wear dots, others wear feathers. You’re a feather Indian. I wear a dot.  — High Country News

You can read the title story here.

Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles

Granted, a novel about a dude stuck in an airport isn’t for everybody, but I picked it up quite by accident in the Ucross library and I was sucked in by the voice.  Miles is a writer who seems to be unafraid of being himself.  This is a book that manages to be sarcastic, but still really vulnerable.  I’m digging it.

The Heaven of Animals by David James Poissant

This one isn’t out yet, but I managed to get my hot little hands on a review copy.  The first story, Lizard Man, knocked. my. socks. off.  Poisssant has a way of using premises that may make your roll your eyes, and then sneak up on you, knock you over the head and steal your heart.  Example with Lizard Man: these two down on their luck dudes go on a roadie because one of the dude’s deadbeat dad has died.  When they get there, they try and kidnap this alligator.  (I can hear you rolling your eyes as you read this.)  But then, as you’re reading it, you’re all of a sudden weeping into your latte, and somehow filled with hope at the same time.  Well played, DJP, well played.

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Report From Ucross or Some Thoughts On Abundance

So I have spent my first week at Ucross, an artist colony in Wyoming.  I’ve only been here two days, but already I feel my spirits lifting.  I credit it to the overwhelming spirit of abundance that infuses everything here.

It starts with the landscape.  This is big sky country.  When I look out of the window of my studio early in the morning, I witness the miracle of a purple sunrise over a meadow that stretches as far as I can see. (If you looks closely at the photo you can see it peeking in the window.) This morning, I put on my puffy and sat out on my deck, sipped coffee and just tripped on the splendor.

The rest of the feeling of abundance comes from the colony itself.  In the past I have visited retreats that come with a long list of rules telling you what all you can’t do– more like a boarding school than a true retreat.  But when we arrived here at Ucross, the terrific staff first showed us around making sure we knew where to find the tea station that featured so many varieties that I was tempted to give up coffee and join the #teamtea.  And then we were told that we could take tea with us to our studio.  Take the whole box you want.  Same for coffee which was in it’s own cabinet, stuffed to the brim.  The even found an 1970s IBM typewriter for me to use! The vibe here is like this: tell us what you need to create.  My needs are modest, really.  A sunny room, a big desk, coffee, and cookies if you have them.  But what I see I also need is the feeling that there is enough of everything.  No need to ration.  That feeling of abundance has already influenced my work.

My challenge when I get home to learn to recreate the feeling of abundance.  How to feel that there is plenty and not worry about scraping the bottom.  I think the answer is going to have to be spiritual rather than material.  Because in the material world, there seldom is quite enough.  The in the spiritual realm, there is infinity.

 

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some thoughts on writing retreats

My deskAfter visiting half a dozen artists colonies and retreats, I have finally figured out what makes a successful retreat and what makes a for a dud.  Like romance, part of it is physical and the rest in in your head.  Let me explain.

I have been a guest at a whole range of retreats– from full service pamerfests like MacDowell (New Hampshire) where they bring you your lunch in a basket, to Gilbraltar Pointe Center (Toronto) that was a repurposed elementary school, to my recent stay at La Muse in Southern France.  I spent three weeks in Switzerland in 2004 in a set up that was kind of like The Real World, International Nerd Edition.  I’ve slept in a haunted mansion, I’ve written in a converted barn.  Sometimes I wrote like a maniac and other times I didn’t accomplish a gosh darn thing.  And finally, finally, I think I understand what went right and what went wrong.

The physical space matters:  I write best when I am in a tidy room with a lot of light.  I need a large desk to spread all my stuff out and I need a comfortable chair.  And I need not to feel cold.   I prefer to write in a different room than the one I sleep in.  So, basically, I know myself. I know what I like.  Things will go better if I’m comfortable.  When you get an acceptance to a colony, mention this to the people and they may be able to accommodate you.

The physical space matters even more when your head is not together.  There have been times in my life when the story was just bursting out of me.  I wrote sentences on napkins, I woke up in the middle of the night with ideas. (I wrote my first novel in a closet!)  When I am in The Zone, all I want from an artist colony is for people to leave me the hell alone so I can do my thing.  But when I am not already in a creative frenzy, when the story is not cooperating, I need the environment to woo my muse. I need the creative equivalent of candlelight and Luther Vandross.

The retreat should take up less energy than being at home.  Now THIS is the major issue. I have noticed that the fewer services a retreat provides, the more women tend to be in attendance.  I think this is because for a lot of women, just being away from their kids is a luxury.  (A good friend I met at a colony that I didn’t love, answered all my complaints with “have you noticed that my kids are not here? I’m golden!”) A retreat that is “self catering” (that means no food provided) is fine because because many women find cooking only to feed themselves to be such a treat.  I could go on and on, but you get the idea.  I was recently at a self-catering retreat in France and between the cooking, hanging my laundry on the line, fetching water from the spring, constantly keeping the fire lit and living in a communal situation, I was wiped out from effort of just staying alive.  In my real life, I live in New York, alone.  When I am hungry, there is take out.  There is drop off laundry service.  I have a writing room in my home with an excellent desk and chair.  Nobody has keys to this apartment but me. So, the retreat wasn’t so retreaty because it was so hectic.  But consider if I was on this retreat five years ago when I was used to working way more hours and I had a lot of personal obligations that were eating up my time.  I would have been delighted to live the “simple life” in southern France is it meant I could actually hear myself think, and I would have written up a storm.  You gotta a) know yourself and b) know what you’re getting into.

You have to push yourself even when the circumstances are not ideal.  This is not my strong suit.  I am capable of spending a lot of time and energy being mad.  I can get mad because my room is not up to par.  I can get mad because, over wine one of the colonist said something jaw-droppingly offensive. (Oh the stories I could tell! You wouldn’t believe it.)  But at the end of the retreat, if you don’t get anything done, only YOU suffer, so you must try and push through whatever isn’t working, just like in real life… but that doesn’t sound like much of a retreat, does it?

 

Tomorrow, I am heading to Ucross, a writers residency in Wyoming.  All my friends who have been insist that it is the pamperfest I have been waiting for.  The food has been described as “spectacular”.  The grounds “gorgeous.” I’m all packed and I think that I am in a good place in terms of being ready to write.  I don’t think I am at the phase where all I need to peace and quiet, but I won’t pitch a conniption about scratchy towels.

Watch this space.  I’ll report back with pictures and updates.  This next month is really the home stretch for the novel. I need to write “THE END” by Christmas.  I’ve let too much time slip away.  It’s time to do this thing.

 

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More Retreat Reading

Turns out that my muse wasn’t really trying to hang out with me a La Muse. (More on that later.)  Instead of writing, I took long walks, drank excellent wine, and read. A lot. I am hoping that all this reading rekindles my love for novel and inspires me to breathe life into my characters.  So here’s what’s new on the reading list:

Foreign Gods Inc by Okey Ndibe— It was like the love child of Chinua Achebe and Victor LaValle.  A Nigerian ex pat, reduced to being a cabdriver in NYC decides go back home to Nigeria in order to steal the local diety and sell it to collectors.  Half satire, half not. Foreign Gods, Inc., tells the story of Ike, a New York-based Nigerian cab driver who sets out to steal the statue of an ancient war deity from his home village and sell it to a New York gallery. 

Raw by  Mark Haskell Smith— This one reminds me of Erasure by Percival Everett, but without the complication of racial politics. Imagine if one of the dudes from your MFA workshop were to ghostwrite a novel for “The Situation” from Jersey Shore.  Then imagine a young woman from that same class, she’s a blogger now, and is determined to unmask the ghost writer. That’s the plot here.  Soapy, goofy, but smart fun. Reality TV hunk and People magazine’s “sexiest man alive”, Sepp Gregory goes on a book tour to promote his debut novel, a thinly veiled autobiography. Not that Sepp has actually read the book, he doesn’t have to, he lived it! The book becomes a sensation, a New York Timesbestseller, and, surprisingly, it even gets rave reviews from serious critics. Aside from Harriet Post, that is.

Queen Sugar by Natalie Baszile— Did you read Attica Locke’s The Cutting Season? (You should! It just won the Ernest Gaines Award, but I digress.)  Well, Queen Sugar covers similar territory– a black woman ends up running a sugar cane plantation in Louisiana.  While Locke’s book centers around a murder, this is more of a family story.  It’s a good read lots of plot twists, action, romance.  Why exactly Charley Bordelon’s late father left her eight hundred sprawling acres of sugarcane land in rural Louisiana is as mysterious as it was generous. Recognizing this as a chance to start over, Charley and her eleven-year-old daughter, Micah, say good-bye to Los Angeles. 

 

 

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Retreat Reading: Week One

This pretty little corner is my reading look while I am at La Muse.  I write during the day and in the evenings, I read to fill the well and relax.  Here is what I have been reading lately.

Cartwheel by Jennifer Dubois:  This is a novel inspired by the Amanda Knox triall.  An American exchange student is accused of murdering her roommate.  Dubois seems to really “get” her characters.   While it has some issues here and there, I stayed up all night reading it.

In The Blood by Lisa Ugner:  Page turner falling into my favorite category of thriller– evil children.  Great writing. Twists and turns to the last page. Excellent travel real.

The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan: A bazillion pages. Lots of great characters and many thrilling adventures.  Perfect for a cup of tea, or a glass of wine.  Very very satisfying story.

 

 

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