Get Your Write On This Summer in DC

July 25-31 is Hurston/Wright Writers Week! This is your opportunity to take classes in Building The Novel, Advanced Novel Writing, Poetry or Nonfiction.
I’m teaching the class on Building the Novel:

A workshop designed for writers who have completed 75-100 pages of a novel and who are familiar with the technical aspects of fiction writing. The course will be conducted as a workshop with in-depth critique and analysis of a selected portion of the manuscript, as well as discussion of the broader issues and challenges inherent in writing book-length fiction.

The faculty is really exciting– Marita Golden, Michael H. Cottman, and A. Van Jordan.

Posted in D.C. Diaries | 1 Comment

Learning to Value My Education: A Love Letter

I would like to take this opportunity to thank my MFA students and the citizens of Newark, New Jersey for teaching me the value of my education. I’d always valued what I learned in school, but never gave myself any credit for having gone to school and completed the degree. When I left for school, it was clear that most people in my life thought it was a waste of time. One person compared it to “getting a degree in basketball.” This wasn’t said in a cruel way, more as a warning. My daddy thought I was basically being bourgeois. (See the “cotton” scene in Leaving Atlanta.) I am not mad about this. After all, the MFA is a fairly new degree and the idea of a terminal Masters is hard to get your head around for a lot of people in the academy.

Add to this that my parents are extremely modest people. If they had a motto it would be “We do not make a big deal of things.” They both finished their PhDs in the 60s– and this a huge deal. Black Phds in the 60s! Did they march in their graduations? Nope. Are their degrees framed, uh-uh.

So when I finished my MFA, it never occurred to me order invitations or to ask anyone to come to the ceremony. After all, it wasn’t a big deal. I never even picked up the forms to order a cap and gown. It just wasn’t a big deal. What I didn’t admit even to myself that it wasn’t just the ceremony I was blowing off, it was my entire experience and accomplishment. I had my degree in basketball. Whatever.

Fast forward ten years. Now I teach in the MFA at Rutgers Newark. I have had the honor and pleasure of directing brilliant people who are working on brilliant projects and I am crazy proud of them. I respect the writing itself, but I also respect the dedication and sacrifices they made to get the degree. When I signed off on the theses this year, I made sure “Pomp and Circumstance” played in the background. Sometimes, I think I even embarrass them with my enthusiasm.

As I blogged a few weeks back, I bought my academic regalia. I went all out, buying custom with all the bells and whistles. So yesterday, I put it on– hat and everything– and walked to the subway to go to my students’ graduation.

God Bless the citizens of Jersey City and Newark!

I live in a gentrifying neighborhood in Jersey City. There are yuppies with their arugula, but there are still a lot of regular people– mostly blacks folks, Puerto Ricans, and immigrants who work hard every day. These folks all offered warm congratulations to me as I walked to the subway station. Someone shook my hand, another one speculated that my mother must be proud. I felt a little guilty accepting all this love, after all it wasn’t my graduation day, but I smiled and said thank you.

Once I got on the PATH train, it was like I was the queen of public transportation! People with accented English offered well wishes. Again more hand shaking. A child stroked the velevet trim of my robe. Finally, I admitted to a man dressed in stained coveralls that I wasn’t really graduating. He said to me, “Congratulations, still.” He gestured at my regalia, “If you got it on, you must supposed have it on. You must have earned it.”

I know this is corny, but I teared up.

Once in Newark, the faculty lined up to march about four blocks to the ceremony.

Rutgers-Newark is the most diverse undergraduate campus in the country. Black and brown faces made up almost half of the procession of eager graduates. The faculty, however, has not quite caught up, so I am still distinct in the line. As I marched, black folks lining the streets gave me thumbs up. I heard,”You go girl,” called out. I smiled and waved like Miss America. It felt great.

Then, I started thinking about my students and how proud I was of them and how hard they worked. It occurred to me that I had worked just as hard. Finally, I was able to let some of the glow I saw in their faces, reflect back on me.

Heading to the auditorium yesterday, a woman pointed me out to her little girl, then she called out. “Hold your head up, sister. Everybody don’t make it that far.”

I smiled, and did as I was told.

(some snapshots of our amazing graduates.)

Posted in Jersey Journals | 10 Comments

Mourning Aiyana Jones

I try and keep things literary on this blog, but I must post about Aiyana Jones. In Detroit, a 7-year little girl was killed, set on fire and shot, by the police who raided her home. The show was being filmed by “48-hours.” I can’t help but wonder if being on reality TV made the police more flamboyant, throwing a flash grenade into a home early on a Sunday morning.
The AP story is here, and here’s a blog from a community member.
I was struck by this quote by the Assistant Chief of police: “This is any parent’s worst nightmare. It also is any police officer’s worst nightmare,” Godbee said.
I understand the sentiment of the police’s remark, but I hate the way he implied family’s pain and the officer’s pain are equal. The officer’s worst nightmare is that his own family would be shot or burned.
I was also really struck by this photo of Aiyana Jones. (And let me add that I have a younger cousin with the name.) Look at her, surrounded by Disney Princesses, such a symbol of everything problematic about this culture– the way we think of girls and the way black girls are made to think of themselves.
I don’t have anything else to say. I want to help, but I don’t know how. I don’t know what this family needs that I can provide. None of the articles mentioned a fund to help the family. When I find word of a fund, I will contribute. But at the same time, I understand that my check ain’t nothing but a piece of paper, and paper cannot ease the pain of the loss of a child.

Posted in Current Events | 3 Comments

What Your Road-Tripping Means

Here is the explanation for the pop quiz.
My mentor Ron Carlsonturned me on to this idea back in 1996 or so when I was working on Leaving Atlanta. I think I have blogged in the past about my two-steps-forward and one-step-back writing process: I can get a good 100 pages into a project and realize that I am going about it all wrong and I have to start over. (My second novel, The Untelling, underwent THREE do-overs!) These set-backs used to devastate me. I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t get it right the first time. That’s when Ron told me about the wallet.
Being a writer is about making mistakes. Big mistakes. Being bold it about trying new things that probably won’t work. The key to success is how you feel about these missteps.
The people (24% of us who took the poll) who get happy just because they realized that the wallet was missing are in the best position. These are folks who just love being on the road. These folks are really into the process for its own sake.
I am in the middle (along with another 24%) who feels disappointed but am able to regain my rhythm once I have corrected the mistake. I’m the driver who will curse all the way home, but pop in a new CD and set out singing.
The rest (52%) will be mad until they have written enough pages to make up for the “bad” pages. These folks will look at the page count on their computer and think “I would have been finished by now if I hadn’t spent all that time writing from the wrong point of view…”
The lesson, get happier earlier. We do this thing because we love it, right. Learn to love the whole thing. You’ll have more fun and do better work.

Posted in Writing | 1 Comment

The Wallet and The Road Trip

Between grading finals and working like crazy to meet my May 21 deadline, I am not posting any new content today. Instead, here is an oldie but goodie. (Part 2 will be posted Friday.)
This has to do with writing, take my word for it. Think of it like a Cosmo quiz– you know the ones that try to explain how the way you eat pizza determines who you’ll marrry. Answer the question below and I’ll get back with you to tell you what it all means.
Here’s the set up:
You are on a road trip, in a fabulous mood as you burn up the highway. About 100 miles down the road, you realize that you have forgotten your wallet! You make a u-turn, go back home, get the wallet, and then set out again.

Posted in Writing | 1 Comment

Gone Too Soon Links

  • RIP Rane Arroyo. He was one of the first people I met at my first AWP. I didn’t even know he had been ill.

  • Am I the only person who didn’t find the Bronte Sisters Action Figures to be really funny. I think I may have smiled once, sorta.
  • Reading is good for you!
  • Have budget cuts hurt your education? Write about it and win a cash prize!
  • It’s called the Capote House, but Truman just rented the basement. Anyway, it’s for sale.
  • Lena Horne: Glamorous Revolutionary.
  • I must go to Columbia to see the Gorey drawings.
  • Cool giveaway. Recommend a short-story collection in order to maybe win one!
  • Say it out loud! I write romances and I’m proud!
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    Getting My Freak On

    The word is “freak.”
    It’s funny how words that you think means one thing can mean something else to another person. I am going over the editorial notes on THE SILVER GIRL and for the most part, I agree with my editor. However, every now and again, I will be a comment that makes me scratch my head and say, Aroo? These moments usually are due to region and/or cultural understandings of language. Although the example here is pretty minor, it’s a serious issue worth talking about.
    The sentence from my manuscript goes like this: It wouldn’t be fair to say that Marcus changed me, that he took a sweet innocent girl and turned her into a freak. My editor wrote in the margin, “How is she a freak? What is freakish about her?” I’d confused her with my sentence and she’d confused me with her answer. I stared for a while, drank some coffee, and then I got it. She understood the word “freak” as in “freak show”. I was using freak as in “The freaks come out at night” as in “she’s a very kinky girl/the kind you don’t take home to mother.”
    What to do?
    The use of freak in the Rick James sense of the word is perfectly in tune with the voice of my character—she’s a black girl growing up in Atlanta in the late-eighties. But at the same time, I don’t want to use a word in a context that will confuse a reader who isn’t from that place. If I change it, I will alter the voice, albeit in a minor way.
    Of course, if I were to change it, what would I change it to? There is no real equivalent. A “freak” is not the same as a “slut”—although there is some overlap. Sluttiness is about lack of exclusivity, but freakiness involves a sort of adventurousness. It’s as much about depth of experience as breadth.
    (Sidebar: There are a lot of casual words that sort of defy translation. I will send a signed copy one of my books to someone who can give me a clear definition of “trifling.” And if you can give me a synonym, I’ll send copies of both.)
    It’s sort of the issue that Latino authors deal with about the use of Spanish in a story—to translate or not to translate. But the matter of regional or cultural English vernacular is that the reader sees my words and assumes that she knows what it is supposed to mean. If I see a Spanish word, I know it’s in another language, I either use context or I’ll google it. If it’s an English word, the reader may just be confused.
    For now, I am leaving the word “freak”, where it is. For me, it’s worth potentially confusing some readers for the sake of preserving the voice, and meaning.

    Posted in Writing | 9 Comments

    Goodbye Ms. Horne, Goodbye

    The great Ms. Lena Horne has passed away at the age of 92. The NYT has done right by her, ending her obituary with this wonderful quote.

    “My identity is very clear to me now. I am a black woman. I’m free. I no longer have to be a ‘credit.’ I don’t have to be a symbol to anybody; I don’t have to be a first to anybody. I don’t have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I’d become. I’m me, and I’m like nobody else.”

    Posted in Current Events | 1 Comment

    The Long Song by Andrea Levy

    I reviewed The Long Song by Andrea Levy for The Washington Post.

    Levy’s previous novel, “Small Island,” is rightly regarded as a masterpiece, and with “The Long Song” she has returned to the level of storytelling that earned her the Orange Prize in 2004. Her heroine narrates the beginning of the end of slavery in Jamaica, coming to a climax with the 1831 Baptist War, when enslaved men and women fought their enslavers for 10 days. It’s clear that Levy has done her research, but this work never intrudes upon the narrative, which travels at a jaunty pace. Levy’s sly humor swims just under the surface of the most treacherous waters. (For example, a shocking suicide is preceded by a delightful farce.) Her refusal to reduce her characters to merely their suffering does not trivialize the experience of enslavement, but underscores the humanity of all involved.

    full review here.

    Posted in External Posts | 1 Comment

    Nacireman Links

  • New Yorkers, don’t forget that SWEET: Actors Reading Writers is tonight!
  • This post about being a black woman at Harvard Law School is long, but totally worth reading.

  • Jason Pinter says Men Don’t Read and everybody is freaking out over it.
  • Congrats to Nam Le on wining the Pen/Malamud Award.
  • I’m looking forward to the new Anne Lammott novel, Imperfect Birds.
  • Anne Patchett remembers the Nashville flood of 1974.
  • Friday, Saturday 15, come see and discuss “Black Boy”, a documentary on the life of Richard Wright. (Washington, DC BB&P, free.)
  • The men of Alpha Phi Alpha move their convention from Phoenix! #boycottarizona #whatamanwhatamanwhatamightygoodman
  • “Fela” and “Fences” score big with Tony award nominations.
  • John Edgar Wideman on why he decided to self-publish.
  • The 4th Annual August Wilson Monologue Contest.
  • Do you need an MFA? The debate continues.
  • Happy Birthday, Bernadette.
  • Stunt Writing is when a writer does something crazy and writes about it. Here’s how to do it.
  • I love this little girl. So smart.
  • Song of Solomon, banned. Really?
  • Pearl Cleage’s newest play, “The Nacirema Society Requests The Honor Of Your Presence at a Celebration of Their Fist One Hundred Years,” is opening this fall in Atlanta.
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