Self-censorship is not always a bad thing. I think we all have things that we would like to write about, but don’t think it would be worth the fall out. The question of what’s worth it is entirely up to you. That said, never censor yourself while you are still writing the story. Save the censoring for the final draft.
Self-censorshipisn’t an exact science. While you’re making sure not to write anything that will offend your parents, you may also be holding back some important emotional truth that will make your story rich and insightful. Don’t block the creative flow. Write it all. Every detail that occurs to you. Until it’s published, it’s private, so be honest, frank, and free.
Side Note: Sometimes I meet young writers who are living in a special sort of artist-hell. On the one hand, they are anxious and are convinced that they will NEVER publish. But these same writers totally freak out and become blocked because they self-censor for fear of what people are going to say about their work. This is the worst of both worlds. Learn to let your insecurity work for you: If you really feel you will never publish, let that free you up. Cut loose! Who’s going to see it anyway.
But seriously, “What should I write about” and “What should I publish” are two really different questions. You should write whatever comes to your mind. Writing is personal, it is art. It’s between you and the page.
When it comes to publishing, I recommend letting the story sit a while and then read it over carefully. If there is someone who knows your situation– be it family or whatever– ask that person to read it too. Consider your loved ones’ feelings. Don’t let them steal the show, but consider. (Also consider if they are ever even going to read your book in the first place.) If there is something that may be ouchy, but isn’t that crucial to the story, take it out or tone it down. On the flip side there may be something that’s freaking you out, but your reader may convince you that it’s not nearly as out there as you thought.
There are folks out there who disagree, who believe art is the only obligation of the writer. And I must admit that I have been very enriched by the work of the take-no-prisoners writers. I’m just not one of them.
This Thursday there will be a sneak-peek at my new novel, The Silver Girl, at SWEET: Actors Reading Writers. SWEET is a really cool series where the writers turn over five or so pages of material and actors interpret. My work will be read by Heather Alicia Simms, whom I met yesterday at a cafe in Brooklyn. She’s a terrific actor with gorgeous credentials– August Wilson on Broadway, y’all! (Right: Please note that in this cast photo from The Brother/Sister Plays, she is wearing a silver dress!) Also featured will be the work of Matthew Aaron Goodman, one of the Amazing Eight.
If you’re in NYC on Thursday, Come on out. Here are the deets.
Date: Thursday, May 6, 2010
Time: 7:30pm – 8:45pm
Location: Three of Cups, 83 First Ave @ 5th St.
First off, I would like to thank everyone who was so supportive of my decision to cancel my Arizona appearances. There were one or two people who reacted with outright hostility, but I opted to leave their comments on the blog. We must know what we are up against as we struggle for a free America.
The story got picked up all over the place including national venues like the LA Times and abroad in the UK Guardian. But even more importantly were those of you who wrote about Arizona on your own blogs, facebook, and twitter. I believe we are making a difference, by not allowing this issue to just disappear.
My colleague and friend, Rigoberto Gonzalez, has written about his experiences with Arizona on the Poetry Foundation blog. His post, includes this photo of him as a little boy marching with the grape pickers.
From his essay:
But in the end, it’s not even those things that anger me the most: it’s that out of fear, undocumented people will no longer seek out the police to report crimes, making them more vulnerable than they already are. It’s that it’s that much easier to victimize a population that has been labeled criminal, unwanted, and worthless.
Some might say that this is not about me, but about “illegal aliens.” I say to those people, I am the child of an “illegal alien,” and a place that would detain, demean and oppress my own mother is not a place for me.
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