- Book Tour
- Cambridge Chronicles
- Cocktails With Writers
- Community Service
- Current Events
- D.C. Diaries
- External Posts
- From The Archives
- Guest Bloggers
- Jersey Journals
- Leaving Atlanta Film
- Living For The City
- Real Lives, Real Stories
- Surviving The Draft
- The Artist's Way
- The Writing Life
- Toni Morrison
- Travels & Rambles
- Writing Life
As I announced a few months ago, I accepted an invitation to appear at the Pima Summer Writers Conference in Tucson, Arizona. However, I am cancelling that engagement in protest of SB1070, the anti-immigrant bill recently signed into law by Governor Jan Brewer. Below is the text of the letter I sent to the organizers of the Pima Conference explaining my decision to join the economic boycott of Arizona.
Dear Meg Files,
I regret to inform you that I will not be able to participate in the 2010 Pima Sumemr Writers Conference. Due to the passage of the Senate Bill 1070 which sanctions racial profiling and police harassment against brown people, I cannot return to the state of Arizona. Yesterday, I spoke with a dear friend who is an American citizen of Mexican descent who said that he would not feel safe in Arizona, although he (like me) used to call the state home.
Almost a decade ago, I supported the economic boycott of South Carolina in protest of the Confederate flag flown on the statehouse grounds. This offense, which spoke to one the darkest chapters in the history of our nation, was serious, but symbolic. The issues raised by SB1070, on the other hand, are not merely rhetorical or psychological. The newly-granted powers will allow the police to detain and harass anyone who looks like he could be an undocumented immigrant. Although some lawmakers suggest that a person’s shoes will be a more significant indicator than that person’s race, I find this difficult to believe.
That people should be legally required to show proof of citizenship is similar to the antebellum mandate that black people produce “free papers” proving themselves not to be slaves. It recalls the pass system under South Africa’s Apartheid. Sadly, visiting Arizona for a conference or a vacation without fear has become an ostentatious display of privilege.
As much as I was looking forward to participating in the Pima Writers Conference, travelling to Arizona would be tantamount to endorsing these draconian policies.
There are those who would argue that this is just a “Mexican thing.” Even if this were the case, I would still stand with the protesters. A “Mexican thing,” is a human thing. Moreover, it would be naive to think that this gross exaggeration of police power would be aimed at only a single group. My sentiment is captured in James Baldwin’s famous letter to Angela Davis: “If they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.”
I hope that you will understand and support my decision on this important matter. When the time comes that Arizona is a safe place for all who live and work within its borders, I hope that you will consider extending another invitation to participate in the Pima Writers Conference.
Tonight Natasha Trethewey is reading at the 92nd Street Y– the chi-chiest venue of all of Manhattan. And she’s reading with Terrence Hayes– the dreamiest poet in the kingdom. All this is plenty exciting, but when you add the detail that it’s her birthday– well that makes it a party.
To mark the occaision, I am posting a whole bunch of pictures of the Pulitzer-Prize winning Miz Trethewey. Click on the mosaic for more detail. But even from these thumbnails you’ll see that she’s living her life like it’s golden. Because it is.
Yesterday, I had a quick phone chat with my editor at Algonquin books. She called to tell me that she was finishing up her edits of the latest version of the manuscript. As Octavia in Leaving Atlanta said, “I call myself being cool, calm, and collected, but my stomach balled up in a knot while I waited for her to tell me…” Sensing this, Andra said, “I really like it. You nailed it.” Oh relief, relief, relief.
I will now post something I journaled when I was working on the manuscript after seeing her first round of comments.
How To Read An Editorial Letter
So, I am working very hard to revise the novel using the guidance of my “editorial letter” which was submitted to me by my editor. The editorial letter is a long documents– about five pages, single spaced, telling the writer what to do to make the book stronger. Some of it is praise, but most of it is criticism. No matter how much you know that it’s necessary to receive criticism, it’s never exactly fun. (Girly metaphor: It’s like getting your eyebrows waxed. You want it, but it’s gonna hurt.)
When I got the letter, I scanned it. I didn’t have the nerves to read it closely yet. I just read it really quickly to see what jumped out at me. I saw mostly plot type issues. Then, I put the letter away and started going through the manuscript with my green pen. I made a lot of changes, listening to my own impulses, rather than being guided by the editorial letter’s specific concerns.
The next step was finally reading the letter closely. I used my pink pen to write my comments and questions on the letter itself. I really analysed and digested it. Some of the issues I had resolved already, which made me feel sort of happy. Others still needed tending to.
For the last month or so, I have been going through the manuscript AGAIN, chapter by chapter, consulting the letter as I went along. This is MUCH harder.
The biggest challenge is learning to read the letter. Editors are not writers and they don’t exactly know how we do what we do. Because of this, it’s hard for them to give instruction. It sort of reminds me of when I go visit my dressmaker. Sometimes, the dress hangs funny or is too tight, or gaps somewhere. I will say “The sleeve is too small!” And she will then fix it by doing something with the dart at the bust. Because I don’t sew, I can’t quite tell her what needs fixing, but I know something’s off. Or it’s sort of like going to the dentist. Sometimes I am sure that I am having pain in one particular tooth and my doctor eases the pain by treating a whole ‘nother tooth. Editors are good and knowing when something is off, but they can’t always tell you how to fix it.
It gets tricky because unlike dentists, writers can get prickly when someone tells you what’s wrong. Even professionals have feelings. And editors don’t mean any harm, they really want you to write a better book. But they can still hurt your little feelings.
My pet hang up is the phrase, “I’m not buying” this or that thing. I always want to snap back, “It’s not for sale! You don’t have to buy it.” Still, I have learned that “I don’t buy the mother as a thief,” really means, “Can you provide clearer motivation for the mother’s stealing.” The first sentence gets my ego all riled up and the second makes me want to work.
But here’s the thing. A professional writer doesn’t have time to be all sensitive like that. You have to do the translation and go forth to improve the book.
Of course, there are going to be some things that you just won’t change. (For me, it’s the Al Green chapter. I need it.) But I am going to try and make the connection more relevant. But that chapter stays.
My editor doesn’t like a technique I applied at the end. I dug it but I can see how it might not be working. I am going to try to apply her suggestion because nothing is lost by trying. I think that’s the thing to remember. You don’t lose a thing by taking advice. Remember, you always have your original.
I saw on twitter that an internet company will provide you with a virtual assistant for $30 a month. I have often thought about hiring an assistant but I have never done it. Part of the reason is that I have always assumed I couldn’t afford it and second, it just seemed kind of self-important for me to have a staff.
I’ve been a writer’s assistant before, and let me tell you, it’s deep. If you hire an assistant, you are going to have to trust her completely because she is going to be all up in your business. An assistant sees her boss at her most vulnerable. You will see her crushed over bad reviews. She may find herself asking you to google her rivals. When I was an assistant, I made appointments; I fact-checked. I extended invitations, answered emails, and followed up. When we were in public together, I made sure my boss looked good.
Being a writer’s assistant is a kind of training and it’s not for the faint of heart. Somedays I think I would love to have someone to help me out with all of the work I have to do. There are days when I would just appreciate having someone to be a sounding board, someone who spends her time trying to figure out how to make my life less hectic. It’s a hard job and some dollar-a-day virtual assistant from the internet just isn’t going to cut it.
I’m just saying.
(Weird observation. In writing this, I couldn’t get the pronouns straight. I wasn’t sure if I was thinking as the hypothetical writer, or her hypothetical assistant!)
I received word a few days that Carolyn Rodgers had passed away. I noted it, felt a little sad, but I was busy, and I had sadness enough already. But then, today, one of my Spelman sisters posted this poem of hers and I had to step back, read it and mourn. Forgot for an hour the papers that needed grading. Stopped dwelling on the little slight that hurt my feelings this morning. Stopped worrying about what I was going to cook for dinner tonight, whether there was time to go to the gym. I just took a minute for poetry and reflection and mourning. Goodbye, Carolyn Rodgers, gone too soon.
Poem for Some Black Women
©1992 Carolyn M. Rodgers
i am lonely,
all the people i know
i know too well
there was comfort in that
at first but now
we know each others miseries
lonely women, who spend time waiting for
we live with fear.
we are lonely.
we are talented, dedicated, well read
we are lonely,
we understand the world’s problems
Black women’s problems with Black men
we really understand is
when we laugh,
we are so happy to laugh
we cry when we laugh
we are lonely.
we are busy people
always doing things
fearing getting trapped in rooms
loud with empty…
knowing the music of silence/hating it/hoarding it
loving it/treasuring it,
it often birthing our creativity
we are lonely
being soft and being hard
supporting our selves, earning our own bread
knowing that need must not show
will frighten away
knowing that we must
walk back-wards nonchalantly on our tip-toeness
if only for stingy moments
we know too much
we learn to understand everything,
to make too much sense out
of the world,
we buy clothes, we take trips,
we wish, we pray, we meditate, we curse, we crave, we coo,
we need ourselves sick, we need, we need
we lonely we grow tired of tears we grow tired of fear
we grow tired but must al-ways be soft and not too serious…
not too smart not too bitchy not too sapphire
not too dumb not too not too not too
a little less a little more
add here detract there
Today was a good day. I spend most of the morning with the amazing women from Stacked Up TV. They came to my apartment and interviewed me for a show which will air in about a month or so. I was a little nervous at first, but by the end I was my usual chatty self and I even showed them how I dance with my tambourine to ease writers block. That last thing probably wasn’t the classiest expression of my personality, but what can I say? I just got real comfortable.
The idea is that they visit authors at home and talk about their bookshelves. We talked about everything from Alice Randall, to Jayne Anne Phillips, to baking and breaking bread. And, of course, I went on and on about Girls Write Now.
You should visit the website and see their interviews with really cool writers and visit soon for an upcoming interview with Mary Gaitskill. (!)
Looking at the fabulous homes of some of the more established writers, makes me feel like a little ol’ church mouse, but still, it was a great experience and I look forward to seeing the video.
Other highlights of the day include catching up with a dear friend, finding out that the Brand New Heavies will be playing NYC in June, and finding an earring I lost five years ago.
Not bad at all.
As a professor of creative writing and also the facilitator of many workshops, I have learned that sometimes the problem with a story is a personal problem, not a writerly problem. For example, a person who relies too heavily on dialogue– that’s a writerly problem. The same for overuse of adverbs. But often when the characters are stiff and undeveloped, that can indicate a personal problem.
By a personal problem, I mean that the issue is rooted in the writer’s way of moving through the world. There are many personality quirks that can spoil the writing, but today, I want to talk about empathy, or a lack thereof.
Writers are often motivated by something/someone that angers, irritates, or appalls them. Some people write to get even with a person who has hurt them, or to expose some sort of destructive force in their community. These subjects could be anything from the mean girl who picked on you when you were ten to the evil dude that owns a payday loan company on the corner. What about crusades against “gold diggers.” And so on. If your story is going to be any good, you are going to have to get past this.
This is going to sound crazy, but I can sometimes tell from conversation with a writer whether she is going to have this problem with her work. If conversations often begin with “I just don’t see why she did that…” Or, “Any fool could tell that wasn’t going to work…” Almost any sentence about another person that begins with “I just can’t understand…” exposes the sort of emotional flatness that may show up in the work.
So how to break through?
One thing I like to do is to write journal entries in the voices of other people, or even characters in my books. I sometimes do it for people who have hurt me deeply, so I can kind of get a grip on their behavior. The challenge is that you have to discover something new about the person or character. If your exercise reveals only what you came to the page with in the first place, then you have not tapped into the empathy you are going to need to write the story you want to write. The thing is that you are really going to have to want to understand that person, which means you may have to let go of that anger.
In my new novel, The Silver Girl, one of the major characters is James, who has a secret family. You can imagine the pain this causes everyone else in the story. Still, I had get next to James and really see his side of things.
One of the tricks I employed was to look at what he was doing, and think how it could have been worse. So: in the novel he has a secret daughter whom he sees only once a week, but he pays bills, and constantly lets her know that she is just his #2 daughter. So then I said, well, it would be even worse if he was not in his daughter’s life, denied paternity, did not support her in anyway. Okay, once I had that together, I asked myself, why didn’t he do the really ugly thing? Then, I tapped into the part of him that was trying to adhere to some sort of moral code, the part of him that had an understanding of responsibility and family. When I came to that, he stopped being a cardboard cut-out and became flesh.
I try to keep this blog of interest to a broad base of people, but I hope that you will forgive me if I nerd out just for a moment. The subject is academic regalia.
As you may know, I am on the faculty of Rutgers University, Newark campus. On graduation and other special occasions, the faculty get all suited up in their caps and gowns to lead the procession. This isn’t a big deal to most people, but for MFAs, it poses a special issue.
As a student, you feel like a cap is a cap and a gown is a gown. But in faculty land, everything means something. The Masters robe looks really different from the Doctoral robe. The upside is the the Masters robe has the little wings where you can store a paperback or your iPod. The downside is that wearing a Masters robe in a sea of Doctors makes you look like an intern.
Well, I just found out that since the MFA is a terminal Masters degree, we are get to wear the Doctoral robe, but we wear a slightly different hood. (If you care, here are the specs– Doctorate robe with black velvet, Masters hood, and 4-corner tam.)
Now that I know that I can wear a dignified get-up to commencement, I had to decide whether to keep on renting from the bookstore or should I just go and buy my own. The bookstore rental is about $70– and it’s sort of like renting a tux, kinda B-team. To buy my own is between $500 and $1200, depending on the level of fabulosity.
To buy my own there are some choices. I can go with the plain black– but then you have to choose the right fabric. Keep in mind, this garment will be used for life so you don’t want something that’s not going to breathe. Then, there are school colors.
I am sure you have been to graduation and seen a few faculty members wearing a red robe or a purple robe or something. Well, those are the colors of the school she graduated from with her final degree. (Here is a whole list; scroll over the name of your school to see the official robe.). The only draw back is that your school might have an ugly combo. (Oh Princeton!) My MFA institution is Arizona State. The robe is fine. (I should have gone to Michigan because I love that blue!) The whole get-up is $900.
I must say that I felt a little jealous of my colleagues who told me that they have special robes because their parents gave it to them as a special graduation gift when they completed their degrees. (One Yalie’s dad gave her a deluxe robe with fur trim! By my research, $1700!!)
I am the daughter of two PhDs who didn’t understand the MFA as an equivalent degree. I think they thought of it as a MA with salt and pepper and worried that I would never get a job in the first place, let alone be strutting around in custom regalia!
I’m thinking to go for the ASU regalia, though I wish I could wear the colors of my undergraduate institution. If the gown is supposed to show where you got your education, Spelman is where I learned everything I needed to know.
(Photo is of me wearing borrowed regalia when I addressed the freshmen at Georgia College and State University.)