Greetings from La Muse in Labastide, France

For the next three weeks I am going to be living in the village of Labastide in southern France enjoying the La Muse artist’s retreat.  Although I have been to several artist’s residencies in the past, this is a new experience for me.  Here’s my report from my first few days.

To get to La Muse, I traveled by train from Paris.  The ride was about six hours total, and I had to change trains in the middle.  Trains in Europe are very comfortable– especially the ride from from Paris to Bordeaux.  Even the sandwiches in the cafe car were delicious.  I was apprehensive about the journey because I speak next to no French, but it worked out just fine.  People speak a little English and I had researched the trip thoroughly, so I knew what to expect and where to go.  Once I arrived at the train station in Carcasonne, a representative from the retreat took me to the grocery store and then up the mountain to the house.

La Muse is run by John and Kerry two New York writers who bought the house– built in 1100 AD (!)- basically on their credit cards.  They live in a part of the house and the rest is occupied by writers who come for three week retreats.

I have been to many writer’s residencies, but never to a retreat.  La Muse is not like visiting an artist colony like MacDowell or Yaddo where there is a large staff dedicated to keeping the writers fed and watered.  La Muse is more like visiting your country home.  It’s in a beautiful location– you should see the view from my window!  The writers themselves are responsible for their own cooking and basic upkeep.  It has been nice so far taking care of myself.  In my regular life, I eat a LOT of New York take out, so it has been sort of relaxing to prepare my own meals in the evening with the fresh vegetables we bought at the supermarket. (Does anyone have a nice recipe for duck breast?  I bought one, but don’t know what to do with it!)  There are also opportunities to buy eggs, chickens, honey, tomatoes, etc that are raised and sold by the neighbors.  It’s really old world living.

As a retreat, rather than a residency, the writers simply rent rooms like you would do in a hotel.  I was attracted this because I was tired of soliciting letters of recommendations and anxiously awaiting a letter of acceptance.  With a retreat– you pay then you show up.  I chose a suite of rooms called “Calliope” because I like to sleep and write in different spaces.  But there are very nice rooms that have both the bed and writing table.  The house is about a thousand years old, so there are little quirks, but it’s very pretty and John and Kerry appear to be renovating it, one room at a time.  (My bathroom, for example, is dreamy!)

The up-side to the DIY-ness of the retreat is that you just eat when you’re hungry, drink when you’re dry.  There is no need to go to the dining room at any appointed time, possibly interrupting your writing groove.  But of course this is the downside as well.  If you want to eat, you’ve got to fix it and to plan it.  This morning, I had to get up from my writing table to meet the bread delivery man who brings the baguettes. But the upside is fresh baguette, warm from the oven!

In the afternoons we take long walks through windy mountain roads.  There is a spigot that offers crystal clear spring water where we fill our bottles.   Once a week, we go on an outing in John and Kerry’s car.  On the last day, we’ll get gussied up and go to a restaurant about 30 miles away that boasts of a Michelin star. (Yes, I’m into that.)

But the real pleasure of being here is the time to write and think.  When I arrived here, I had a little bit of work on my plate– letters of recommendation to write, novels to blurb, etc.  But I’ve put all those babies to bed, and now I can just sit here are spend some quality time with my characters.  I’ve been having a hard time writing lately– but over the last few days, I have felt the writing return.

I don’t have my typewriters, but pen and paper are working out just fine.

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Men We Reaped By Jesmyn Ward

Jesmyn Ward, a native of DeLisle, Miss., chronicles our American story in language that is raw, beautiful and dangerous. Her National Book Award-­winning novel, “Salvage the Bones,” claimed the Gulf Coast as her literary territory, but with “Men We Reaped,” it’s clear the region has claimed her in return. Ward’s memoir is an elegy for five young men dear to her who died in Mississippi between 2000 and 2004. Chapters are announced with each of their names, along with the dates of birth and death, giving the reader a feeling of winding through an overcrowded cemetery. The death of her younger brother, Joshua, is at the core of the book — “This is the heart. This is. Every day, this is.”

–Tayari Jones, NYTBR, September 15, 2013.

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I Wouldn’t Call It Writers Block, Per Se, But

Simply put, I haven’t been writing for the last couple of months.  I’m not ready to call it a writers BLOCK, mainly because I am not convinced that such a condition really exists.  It’s more like I am out of balance, so the creativity just isn’t sending me to the page. I’ve had a lot of my mind lately.  I traveled a lot this summer– Portugal, Spain, and Morocco.  It was a wonderful experience, but I mostly just scribbled in my journal.  Then, my favorite aunt passed away after a lengthy illness, and this broke my heart.  So I haven’t been much interested in playing with my imaginary friends.  That’s what I call my novel-writing because I engage with the characters as though they are in the room with me.

I’m telling myself not to worry.  That the writing will come back.  It always does.  I have to just have faith in it.

Though I haven’t been writing, I’ve been reading.  Mostly books that haven’t yet been published.  When the reviews come out, I’ll let you know.  I’ve also read some really exciting manuscripts that I have been honored to blurb.  (Get ready; 2014 is going to be tremendous for black women writers.  I’ll post about the books individually as soon as they are available for pre-order. Seriously.) I know there are writers who don’t like to read while they work, but I am just the opposite.  Reading inspires me and reminds me how much I love everything about literature.  It makes me eager to join in the conversation.  I don’t worry about  being influenced by another author– I hope for it.  To be influenced is to grow.  And it’s a connection between one artist and another.

I’ve got a really exciting retreat coming up and I hope that my characters are packing their imaginary suitcases because I’m spending three weeks in southern France at the La Muse Inn.  I promise to post photos once I get there. This isn’t Paris– it’s more like a sleepy little village with a population in the low three digits.   And my French is limited to ordering breakfast, so I will be forced to listen to my own mind instead of social butterflying.  It’s good, it’s what I need.

I’ve had to turn down a number of really sparkly invitations in order to take this time, but it’s the right thing to do.  In a busy world, it’s hard to  settle down enough for the kind of deep contemplation required to create a world with nothing but paper and ink.

Wish me luck.

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Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat

I reviewed Edwidge Danticat’s new novel, Claire of the Sea Light, for O Magazine.  It’s beautiful and heartbreaking. Full review here.

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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.



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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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