Learning To Value My Education, A Love Letter

This is a repost, but as I am about to put on my regalia and get on the subway, I felt like sharing it again.

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.

 

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Pep Talk For A Young Writer

Dear A–

Every rejection letter starts something like this:  ”Dear Ms. Jones, I am sorry to tell you that we are unable to offer you a fellowship/residency/admissions/whatever.”  Then there is a statement like this, “We received a GAZILLION submissions from qualified applicants but we were only able to award one-point-five fellowships/residencies/admissions/whatever.”  I sometimes read that as– Dear Ms. Jones, we don’t like  you and or your work.

But after serving on a number of committees that award fellowships/residencies/admissions/whatever, I can tell you from the inside that this is actually true.  I have never sat on a grant panel where there haven’t been very good applications that had to be turned down.  This is mostly because of money.  Arts funding is at an all time low, and the economy is bad.  So what does this mean?  It means that artists who used to make enough money from doing art– because they are accomplished and well known– are now applying for more grants and contests to get by, to get published. It’s really shocking, how I see pretty big names on press releases for grants, etc that used to be unofficially earmarked for emerging writers.

You are not the only one feeling discouraged right about now. So I just wanted to urge you not to be so sad, or at least not to be so sad that you give up.  Your application was good.  I read it, helped you proof it.  So I know it was good.  And trust me, I wrote you a hell of a letter of recommendation   You deserved the opportunity and there was probably someone at the table that wanted to give it to you.  It’s just that times are hard.  There is less to go around right now.  But you are still growing and learning and creating.  Keep at it.  Try again next year.  It’s just a matter of time.  I promise.

Love,

Tayari

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Let’s Get Something Done This Summer.

InspirationEvery January I get excited about making New Year’s Resolutions.  I love the idea of a clean slate and 365 days of possibilities stretched out before me.  Every year I say– I’m going to get in shape! Write a new novel! Mend broken relationships! And then I set out on these tasks and I make good progress until about, say, March. I don’t know what happens.  But it happens.  Every year, I do it again because three months of excellent habits is nothing to sneeze at, but it’s not enough either.

In January I imagined that would be zipping through my novel. I thought the neighbors would be complaining about all the noise from my typewriters.  I also hoped I would be able to communicate in Spanish by now.  I took the language class, but it it just didn’t take. (sigh).  I pictured myself with all new clothes because my excellent nutrition and tireless exercise would have transformed me back to my high school self!  You get the idea.

On the plus side. I did pick up and go to Paris in January.  And I have kept true to my goal of writing at least three letters a month.  (Recipients of these letters, can you write me back?)  I’ve taken twitter and facebook off my phone, so I can be more present in my non-virtual life.  It’s amazing how different life is when there’s isn’t a cocktail party going on in your phone.  I’m actually something of a regular at my gym now.  3 days a week– 6am spin class.  I’m seeing results, too.  Slow, over-40 results, but something is happening and I’m proud of that.  My novel is moving forward…. slooooowly. But it’s getting there. I am not satisfied with my progress, but I must give myself a little credit.  That said, I have sort of lost that January sparkle.  Maybe it’s because I have gotten some rejections for some of the opportunities I so enthusiastically applied for in winter.  And maybe it’s just a natural ebb and flow.  But whatever the cause, it’s a rut and I don’t like it.

So this year, I decided to do the resolution thing more often.  So my resolve petered out in March.  Well, then it’s time to get some new resolve.  My idea is to try a summer resolution.  What do I want to accomplish between Memorial Day and Labor Day?  Here’s an (incomplete) list:

  1. Get in at least 4 writing days every week
  2. Add one extra day of weight training to my work out
  3. Go on two “artist dates” a month
  4. Learn to meditate
  5. In general, work harder at what matters to me

 

Okay, now it’s your turn.  What do you want for yourself this summer?

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Is Lisbon too far? Let’s Work Together in New York

This summer, I am teaching a fiction workshop in Lisbon, Portugual as part of the DISQUIET workshops and I am also teaching a workshop a little closer to home.  Please join me at the Manhattanville Summer Writers Week just north of NYC.

Manhattanville College’s MFA program in pleased to celebrate the 30th Anniversary of its Summer Writers’ Week from June 24-28, 2013.

Summer Writers’ Week offers writers an opportunity to spend an intensive week working closely with some of the country’s finest writers and teachers of writing. Enjoy workshops in Fiction, Poetry, Creative Nonfiction (Memoir/Autobiography), and Children’s/Young Adult Writing.

details here.

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The Best Way to Get Over Rejection? Get Rejected More Often

RejectionIt’s March and that means all those applications I sent off in January will be sending out YAYS and NAYS pretty soon.  Nothing feels as good as an acceptance.  A couple of years ago, I received a call saying I had been awarded a Radcliffe Institute Fellowship and my friend Rigoberto and I danced in the street.  We celebrated with martinis and sent zany selfies to the dean.  I mean, let’s face it.  Good news is always good news.  But we all know that nobody gets everything she applies for.

I have a couple of applications pending and I really really hope that I get at least one of them.  I usually apply to three things, hoping to get at least one.  This time, I have only two apps out there, so I am worried that I didn’t cover all my bases, but these things happen.

The point of this post is to give you my secret to dealing with rejection.  Here it is– get rejected all the time.  Seriously.  You will grow a thicker skin.  Take a lesson from middle school boys.

When I was in eighth grade,  I asked a boy to dance.  I spent about twenty minutes working up my nerve and another five minutes fretting about lip gloss.  Short version is that he said no, and I was crushed.  Crushed!  Why? Because I had never asked a boy to dance before and I had so much riding on it.  On the other hand, look at the boys in the room.  They were asking lots of girls to dance.  Some said no, some said yes.  (And let me tell you, when someone finally asked me, I said YES.)  But the boys didn’t have to run to the bathroom to cry after being rejected.  I’m not saying they liked it, but they regarded the rejections and just part of the process of finally getting someone to slow dance with them.  And they knew this– asking ten girls to dance greatly increases your chances getting a little smooch by the end of the night.

When I tell people that I received 22 rejections for my first novel, they sometimes gasp and ask me how I was able to take it.  But truthfully, out of those 22, I only remember three or four of them.  But the acceptance– I’ll never forget it.

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February Travel

2013_February Calendar

This month, I will be giving readings and signings in Tennesee, Maryland, Alabama and Tennessee.  If you’re in the area, I’d love to see you there.  Here are the details:

  • Thursday, February 21, 7:00p,m–Salisbury, Maryland
    Wor-Wic Community College, Echoes and Visions Reading Series
    Reading and Signing
  • Saturday, February 23 — Birmingham, Alabama
     Southern Voices Festival
    Reading and Signing
  • Wednesday, February 27, 6pm– Clemson, South Carolina
    356 Sushi & Martini Bar (366 College Ave, Clemson, SC, 29631).
    Reading and Signing
  • Thursday, February 28, 6pm– Johnson City, Tennesee
    East Tennesee State University
    Reading and Signing
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Fiction & Fashion In Park Slope

I admit it.  I love clothes.  And my favorite boutique in the world is COZBI in Park Slope.  When ever I want to look my best, I look to Cozbi Carbrera’s designs.  When I was preparing to go on a fifty city book tour, I knew Cozbi would hook up the perfect outfits– gorgeous fabrics & eye catching designs that a real woman can wear.

This weekend, I would like to invite you to experience COZBI.  There is a special sale all weekend long– Friday to Sunday.  On Saturday, February 2 from 11am-7pm, I will personally be at COZBI signing all three of my novels and also trying on clothes and enjoying the amazing sale.  Please come and join me.

COZBI
351 5th Ave
Park Slope, Brooklyn
718.246.7960

(and here’s a video we did together. yes, i was excited.)

 

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“…the first thing a writer must do is love the reader and wish the reader well.”

“…the first thing a writer must do is love the reader and wish the reader well. The writer must trust the reader to be at least as intelligent as he is. Only in such well wishing and trust, only when the writer feels he is writing a letter to a good friend, only then will the magic happen.

I have done the other thing. I have written bitter and cruel things and even published some them and I regret every one.”

from Falling Through Space by Ellen Gilchrist

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Hot Fun In The Summertime: 10 Writing Opportunities

sunglasses in da darkWhile you’re still feeling resolution-y, here are some summer writing courses/workshops/retreats that you should look into:

There are the ones I’m participating in:
DISQUIET International:  Two weeks of writing in Portugal, by the sea!
Manhattanville Summer Writers Week: Just an hour’s train ride from NYC.

 

 

And here are more:

Bread Loaf Writers Conference: Middlebury, VT
VONA Workshops for Writers of Color: Berkeley, CA
Lambda Literary Retreat for Emerging LGBT Voices:  Los Angeles, CA
Sewanee Writers Conference:  Sewannee, TN
Napa Valley Writers Conference: St. Helena, CA (did this last year.. LOVED)
Wesleyan Writers Conference, Middletown, CT
FAWC Summer Workshops, Provincetown, MA (really cool because there are classes all summer so it’s easy to fit in your schedule.)
Squaw Valley Writers, Nevada City, CA. (poetry only)

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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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