Stacked Up

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.

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On Writing With Empathy

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.

Posted in Writing | 7 Comments

Pomp and/or Circumstance

Professor Jones

Originally uploaded by kleopatrjones

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.)

Posted in The Writing Life | 2 Comments

Cathing Up With the Links

  • Good news about Leaving Atlanta: The Movie.
  • America’s most amazing libraries.
  • The authoress returns.
  • The Autobiography of Malcolm X gets three new chapters.
  • Tax tips for writers.
  • How do publishers pick the lead title?
  • Natalie Merchant sings 18th century poetry. Lovely video, if you like that kind of thing, and I do!
  • Look at our handsome Dwayne Betts on the cover of Mosaic!
  • A writer who is a highschool teacher writes about the murder of one of his students.
  • Mark Doty skipped AWP this year, for all the right reasons.
  • Students rate their famous writer professors.
  • When a great writer is a total jackass.
  • Essence magazine lists its favorite poets. (No Natasha Trethewey? Really, Essence?)
  • Harlem School for The Arts closing down?
  • Everybody loves John Murillo.
  • How ghostwriting works.
  • Posted in Links | Comments Off on Cathing Up With the Links

    ToMo in Newark!

    Toni Morrison

    Originally uploaded by Bookmans

    OMG! OMG! OMG! I’ve just gotten the word that TONI MORRISON will read at Rutgers-Newark next year!

    You all know that I am obsessed with ToMo. I was so dialed up over the news– which came via txt message from Jayne Anne Phillips — that I was unable to sleep. I wanted to call Cozbi and say, “Make me the baddest suit, ever! Start looking for fabric now!” Even typing this now, I have a tight feeling in my throat, making it hard to drink my coffee.

    Toni Morrison at Rutgers-Newark.

    Jayne Anne is amazing. You got to hand it to her. Our MFA program is only three years old. But we have charged forth with our mission which is to have the most diverse and dynamic MFA program in the country. And when we say diverse, we aren’t just talking about race, we mean nationality, sexuallity, and age. Our motto is Real Lives, Real Stories and we mean it. Our budget has always been modest, but with new cuts, it’s been slashed to ribbons. But still, one of the best reading series in the NYC area is on our campus, in Newark, New Jersey. We’ve hosted Junot Diaz, Patrica Smith, Yusef Komunyakaa, Rick Moody, Jaci Jones Lamon, E.L. Doctorow, and now: Toni Morrison.

    It’s time for me to order my Joe Biden T-shirt.

    Posted in Toni Morrison | 2 Comments

    I Don’t Want To Be An Honorary White Writer

    This Toni Morrison interview is fantastic. She takes on the issue of being called a “black writer.” Why do you call yourself a black writer, a woman writer? Because it’s true. Then she gets down to the nitty gritty.

    Posted in Bookshelf | 3 Comments

    AWP Denver 2010

    In the VIP Lounge

    Originally uploaded by kleopatrjones

    I’m back from AWP in Denver. It was good but not great. I am trying to decide how much of my feelings are about the actual vibe of the conference, or just the fact that this is my eleventh AWP.

    There were great moments. For example, I got to meet Attica Locke, author of Black Water Rising, a gorgeous debut. Also, Dolen was there and I finally got to meet Carleen Brice. The receptions were lovely. Any day that gives me face time with Rita Dove is a lovely day, and how often do I run into George Saunders, about whom I am crazy?

    So that’s the good.

    On the other side, there was a sort of creepiness this year. I don’t know if it’s the economy, but the back biting and competitiveness seemed heightened. I saw and/or experienced insanity, racism, passive-aggression, and old fashioned meanness. I’m not going into detail because I hate to give negative experiences new life by writing them down. (Another blog post on that idea later.)

    But the point is that I am home now.

    Pics here.

    Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on AWP Denver 2010

    Report from Spelman

    I was in such a rush getting out of town on Monday, that I didn’t get a chance to tell you that I am going to be out of town until Monday. Right now, I am in Atlanta, spending some time at Spelman College, by beloved alma mater. I know I’m getting old because I keep wanting to hug the young ladies that I see walking accross campus. Also, they call me “ma’am” which is another indication that clock in ticking.
    Spelman women who read this blog, listen up. PLEASE give a donation to Spelman THIS WEEK. Any amount. There is a mysterious donor who will give 300,000 to the college if 5000 Spelman Women give a donation before Founders Day. Click here to give now. Don’t let Spelman down.
    The reason I am still in Atlanta although AWP starts tomorrow is that Spelman is honoring my mentor Pearl Cleage and I will make a tribute to Pearl this evening at 6:30 pm in LLC2. Not to be overly dramatic, but Pearl taught me how to be writer. I love her very much.
    After that, it’s off to the AWP conference to talk about my other passion, GIRLS WRITE NOW.
    More later, and hopefully pictures from the Spelman events. I have my camera, but not my cord…

    Posted in Community Service | Comments Off on Report from Spelman

    Walking in Memphis

    This is a piece I wrote a few years ago about visiting the Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was shot on this day in 1968.
    I was born in Atlanta, Georgia, right downtown, just off Peachtree Street. You can’t get more Atlanta than that.
    As you can imagine, the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King is everywhere in my home town. After all, he grew up there. He’s buried there.
    There’s another city in this country that cannot forget Dr. King: Memphis. Although we claim him as a native son of Atlanta, Memphis is where he died on April 4, 1968.
    I had never thought much about the burden of Memphis until I was on my first book tour in 2002. I was headquartered in the legendary Peabody Hotel for an entire week. The Peabody is known for its lavish appointments and the ducks that swim in its opulent fountain. My ten days in the Peabody were uncomfortable. For one thing I was homesick and longed for the stripped-down accommodations of my little apartment and also, I was the only black person in the hotel that wasn’t working there. I felt under intense scrutiny each day– I imagine I was something of a oddity to the white people staying there the black people were counting on me to represent.
    I was raised in a “movement” household, so you know I wouldn’t have been in the Peabody with my nose in the air, treating the black employees like servants. Instead, I called everyone “ma’am” and “sir” and tried to need as little help as possible. I eventually got to know everyone on staff and soon people wanted to know where I was from. When I said, “Atlanta,” everyone wanted to talk about Dr. King.
    Up on the roof, where the famous Peabody ducks live in their “penthouse”, I was sitting at a little table. The view wasn’t spectacular or anything, I just wanted to be in a space where I could be myself, where I didn’t have to sit up straight, cross my legs and the ankle, and be a good talented-tenther and make everyone proud. I was tired, lonely, and depressed over a crappy review in People Magazine. (The caption under my photo read: “Jones: a partial success.”)
    While I was sitting there wondering why I signed up for this life in the first place, the “duckmaster” lead the pampered birds up to their cages. After they were all squared away, he sat himself down at my table. He was wearing a red jacket with gold braid, but close up I could see that underneath was a regular janitor’s uniform.
    “Quackers,” he said. “I’ve had about enough.”
    “I hear you,” I said.
    “You the one from Atlanta?”
    “Yes sir,” I said.
    “I sure hate that Dr. King was killed in Memphis. I hate that it happened on our watch. He never should have come here. They set him up.”
    “Who?” I asked.
    “THEM,” he said and gestured at all we could see from the rooftop. “I sure hate it.”
    “Oh,” I said, with that weird feeling you get when you understand what someone is saying, but not quite.
    “You been to the Lorraine motel yet? I pass it on my way to work everyday. It’s just up the street. It’s a museum now. You should go on over there.”
    I was pretty tired and didn’t feel like going anywhere. Sensing my hesitation, he added, “It’s free.”
    Being an Atlanta girl, I have visited all the King memorial sites in my hometown. I visited the boyhood home with this small signs telling you that these were not “ML’s” actual toys but toys like the ones he would have played with. When relatives came to town, they always wanted to visit the white marble crypt on Auburn Ave. I’ve seen all those things a million times, but I can’t say that I FELT anything.
    The museum at the Lorraine hotel wasn’t free, but I paid the entry fee. At first it was like any only civil rights museum. If it had a brand name it would be “struggle-lite”. There were no really disturbing images, just the segregated water fountain signs, etc. I was bored. Why had the duckmaster sent me here?
    At the very end of the exhibit was rooms 306-307, where Dr. King had stayed in on the last day of his life. The curators took care to recreate the atmosphere. There was a coffee cup half-full, an unmade bed and other personal touches that made it seem like Dr. King, Andy Young, Jessee Jackson, et al had just been in here making plans. When I crossed the threshold of the room, I tripped a switch that caused Mahalia Jackson to sing “Amazing Grace.” I felt it all over my body. I closed my eyes for a moment and took a careful breath before looking out onto the balcony.
    We have all seen the famous photo of Dr. King’s compatriots pointing in the direction from which the fatal shots rang out. At the Lorraine motel, saw the view as they must have seen it. I saw with my eyes what Dr. King must have seen in the last moment of his life. There was nothing so memorable in that view.
    The parking lot has been recreated: three fin tail cars are parked at an angle, just like in the picture. I stared out until my vision blurred with tears maybe and fatigue. Behind me, I the voice of Mahalia Jackson poured out of invisible speakers. This was hallowed ground. I took a cautious step out onto the balcony.
    I cannot remember leaving the museum or the walk back to the Peabody. Back at the hotel, I ran into the duckmaster; this time he was wearing the janitor’s uniform.
    “Did you go?” he said.
    I nodded.
    “It got to you?”
    I nodded.
    “Course it did,” he said. “You from Atlanta. Just think how it feels for those of us who live here.”

    Posted in Current Events | 2 Comments

    A Note on the Typos

    Can I haz spellcheck?

    Originally uploaded by arnoldziffel2007

    I have never been a good proofreader. This has been true since I was a kid in grade school. My teachers used to get so angry with me over it and I admit, as a professor myself, I sometimes get personally offended when students hand in work that is full of typos, and other goofs. However, I have since come to the conclusion that a lack of proofreading isn’t always a lack of respect for the project.

    Sometimes people don’t proofread because they can’t stand to read their own work. It’s like listening to your own voice on a tape recording. There is also the fear that you will read over the story closely and find out that it’s terrible and then what would you do? The story is due? So you just print it out and turn it in.

    Insecurity manifests itself in a variety of ways. Some people’s insecurity makes them perfectionists. They sweat every little details for fear that one typo or error will somehow invalidate all of their hard work or cause people to mock them. These folks may hang onto a manuscript way longer than they should have for fear that it’s not perfect.

    Because I am not a good proofer, I hired someone to proof my manuscript before I submitted it to publishers. ($600. More than mere chump change.)Imagine my dismay when I made a mistake with MS Word and accidentally left a few “notes” in the margin! I think one said, [Should I double space here?]

    I called all my friends hoping that one of them would say, “That doesn’t matter. No one is going to disqualify your manuscript because of that little mistake.” Rather, almost everyone said, “Oh no! Can you get the manuscript back?!?!?! Certainly there is something you can do!!!!!” I was really freaking out about it. I felt as though a few little margin notes from a professional proofreader would somehow undermine the five years of work I had done on this book.

    Finally, I called my agent who wasn’t all that upset. “That’s too bad,” she said. “But we’re not going to worry about it.” I called my publicist. “How about you act like you never even noticed. It’s not a big deal.”

    The difference in the reactions is that my agent and my publicist are professionals, not artists. They don’t have the same insecurities. They had distance and promised me that no one was going to say, “I reject this manuscript because the professional proofer asked about double-spacing on page 104!”.

    The other day, at Greenlight Books, Tiphanie Yanique told us about a story that had been chosen as a prize-winner by Junot Diaz. She said he contacted her and said, “I am about to choose your story as a winner, but you really need to clean up these typos! This is ridiculous.” Everyone laughed, because everyone loves a happy ending. Tiphanie is a great writer. Of course Junot would see it despite some carelessness.

    I guess the obvious lesson is that you don’t want to turn in a manuscript full of errors. But at the same time, you don’t want to be too obsessive about the details either. When I met with my editor for the first time, I sheepishly mentioned those margin notes, and she didn’t even know what I was talking about.

    Posted in Writing | 7 Comments