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On Saturday, May 5, I am teaching a course at the amazing Grub Street Writers Conference: The Muse and the Marketplace. I am delighted to be included because this conference is pretty amazing. I like that they have courses in writing craft– hence the “muse”, and the business end, as well. If you are in Boston, I strongly encourage you to come by and take a few courses.
My contribution to the festival is a course on writing coming of age stories. When I last checked there were four places left in my class. So, there’s still time for you to join in. There are a lot of amazing other classes. And the guest authors are top notch.
Meanwhile, here is the description of my class:
The coming of age story is a mainstay of American fiction. It is full of possibility – so many of the most enduring works of literature – fall into this genre: To Kill A Mockingbird, The Bluest Eye, The Catcher in The Rye, Great Expectations, Black Boy, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The popularity of the genre holds fast in both literary and commercial fiction, from Harry Potter to Twilight to Portrait of the Artist of a Young Man and The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint. All of these stories require the author to authentically recreate the voice of a child. This craft class is not a literature survey, rather it is a discussion of strategies to create young characters that are are both convincing and compelling.
Yesterday, I read from my new novel, Dear History, at Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University. I had butterflies because Dear History is not yet finished and I wasn’t quite sure if it was ready for the public. I promised myself after my experiences with Silver Sparrow that I would not show my next work too soon. But part of the Radcliffe Fellowship is that each person should show how she has been using her time here. This year at Radcliffe has been such a a gift, and this seemed like so little to ask. So I did it. And it went so well.
The purpose of this post is not to recount the highlights of the evening, but to give deep thanks not only to Radcliffe, but to the community of writers and readers here in Cambridge who came out in force and cheered me on. It’s easy to get so caught up in the drama of your own mind that for start to feel like you’re in this writing world all by yourself. Leaving my office at 11pm after completing yet another round of revisions, I felt incredibly isolated and exhausted.
I was right about being exhausted, but not about being alone. More than 100 people showed up to hear the debut of Dear History. In the crowd were new friends, folks who had journeyed from New York, a couple mentors, and friends I just hadn’t met yet. The most special guests were a middle school reading group.
Afterwards there was a happy hour and dinner after that. It was lovely. I feel so blessed and lucky.
Today is a big day for me. At 4pm, I will read from my novel-in-progress at the Radcliffe Institute, where I am a fellow. My name, translated literally from Swahili, means “she is prepared.” I always thought it was a little lackluster and practical– like a pair of low-heeled shoes with arch support and laces. But for this event, I have embodied the spirit of “Tayari.” I have worked hard to make this reading and lecture the best it can possibly be. The first challenge was choosing excerpts that worked together and could be expressed by being read aloud. And then I needed to write a narrative sort of putting the work into context explaining why this story, why now. Around 8pm, I did a skpe run through with Lauren Cerand, making sure I had all my bases covered. Then, I rushed back home to set my hair. I went to bed feeling that I had done all I could do.
I woke up this morning and glanced at facebook and I saw the photo that is displayed here. James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry getting their boogie on! I looked at three more friends pages, and there was the photo again. I am taking this as a sign. In all my preparation, I had forgotten the fun.
Look at this picture. James Baldwin, that super serious American genuis looks like he is about to drop it like it’s hot. And that is the author of A Raisin in the Sun shaking a tail feather. I imagine myself sitting on the couch sipping club soda, chewing on a pencil, making last second revisions while everybody else is doing the hustle.
Anybody who knows me even a little bit will tell you that I am not a wallflower, but I somehow let my desire to bring my A game almost undermine that same game. Your “A” game is still a game, and games are supposed to be fun. I forgot that if I, as the artist, am not having good time, nobody else will either.
I’m back on track now. Today is going to be an amazing experience. I’ve been here at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University since September, piecing together this novel. It’s my most ambitious work ever. It’s very contemporary and sections of it are narrated in the voice of a man. I’m taking on some Big Ideas, but I also want to make sure it pops on the level of old-fashioned plot. I’ve worked hard on Dear History and I am ready to share. The even is open to the public, so if you’re in the area, I’d love to see you.
I know I haven’t been the most regular blogger these days, but I promise to report back and let you know how it went.
Many of you know that I am spending the year as a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. It’s wonderful here. There are fifty fellows and we are given a full academic year to basically do our thing. My thing, as you can imagine, is researching and writing a new novel. It’s called Dear History and it’s turning out to have a mind of it’s own– but that’s a post for another day. This opportunity is what I have always dreamed of. It’s a room of my own and more. The perks: Very few real responsibilities. (We go to a couple lectures a week and eat a nice catered lunch.) A large office with natural light. Access to an excellent cappuccino machine. Extra cool colleagues. A monthly stipend.
With all these goodies, you would think I’m over here writing like a mad woman. After all, when I am teaching, don’t I whine that I don’t have enough time for my own work? How many posts have I written about creative ways to carve out a little time for your novel or other projects? But guess what? I am not yet getting my work done here at Harvard. Why? Because I have too much “free” time.
In my own defense, I arrived here bone-tired after the 48-city Silver Sparrow tour. And moving was no walk in the park. But that’s really no excuse.
Here’s what happened: I have been sleeping late. Why? Because I have all the time in the world. No reason to pull myself out of bed and be seated at my desk by 6:45am. I have also been experimenting with my hair, pen-palling with half the universe, fooling around on ebay looking for pretty typewriters, etc. And I won’t lie– there have been spa days. In short, all this luxury has sort of lulled me into becoming a slacker.
Back when I was teaching, I knew every quiet moment was precious and I took full advantage. I would happily turn down three days at a day spa, for three days at a writing retreat. I stole time to write and did it gladly. (Remind me to tell you the story of how I once wrote a novel on my lunch hour, barricaded in the faculty loo!) But now, quiet moments have become a little ho-hum. I let this pass through my fingers because I know that the next day will bring many more opportunities to write.
Luckily, I am nothing if not self-aware.
Although this seems counter-intuitive, I am making myself write by giving myself less time to write. I am putting myself on a schedule that involves more than just my daily date with the blank page. I joined the gym and signed up (and paid for) three classes a week. I joined the Boston Athenaeum and I will go there twice a week. Then, there are the twice weekly Radcliffe lectures. I’m also making an effort to attend lectures all over the Harvard campus. This week and next, I’m editing a friend’s manuscript, eating up more precious time.
I’ve only been at this a week, but I already feel it working. A couple days ago, while attending a lecture on Romare Bearden, I came up with an idea so strong it wanted to kick it’s way out of my head. The next morning, i was in my writing office at 5:30 am, eager to get started.
This is not to say that I wish I had a job in a canning factory or that my writing would benefit from me working the graveyard shift at the local mental hospital. A writer needs time to write, time to think, and a certain amount of leisure. A writing life must also be a life. Not only do my new activities make my writing time more valuable– I’ll admit it, there is something particularly sweet when time feels a little stolen– but all the other things I am doing stimulate me and inspire my writing.
I’ll report back in a couple weeks, but I think I’m on to something.
Last week I blogged about my plan to write my new novel on a sixty-year Smith Corona. I bought the machine on Etsy and the ad promised that it “works.” Well, it did work, a little bit. It worked enough to type my name, but it wasn’t in true working order. The seller thought I just sort of wanted the typewriter as a conversation piece. She didn’t understand that I was actually going to use the thing.
Luckily, there is a typewriter hospital here in Cambridge. My trusty assistant, Sarah, gave me a ride to the storefront shop which was crammed with typewriters of varying vintage. The Typewriter Doctor looked very tanned and rested, having just returned from vacation. He opened the case and looked at my machine. “This is a beautiful Pinky,” he said. “One of the best ones I’ve seen.” I beamed like a proud mama and no longer felt silly for talking to the thing in baby talk on the ride over. (My assistant is very indulgent.)
When I left the Typewriter Hospital, I realized that the Typewriter Doctor did not mention one time that typewriters are dying out. When asking me if I wanted a two-tone ribbon, he mentioned that mostly teenagers like those. When I was looking at a 1980s IBM Selectric he said, “It’s a real workhorse. If you are going to be pounding out a lot of documents, that’s what you need.”
I had expected him to be like that Maytag Repairman on those old commercials. (Remember, he was depressed and had no customers because Maytag washers never broke down?) Instead he was a jovial and optimistic as the “Geek Squad” computer repair team at Best Buy. If I didn’t know better, I would have no idea that the vast majority of printed writing is generated by computers. Further, he didn’t charge me a fortune to tune up the machine, as though I was asking for some arcane service. His store isn’t a museum.
I couldn’t help but wonder if writers have something to learn from him.
I have noticed that writers are always asked about the death of the book, the death of the bookstore. We are told that the Kindle is going to drown us in our bathtubs. How do we feel about the fact that we are all going to starve to death? When I go to a poetry reading, there is often a sense of self- satisfied martyrdom—no one reads poetry, but we write it anyway! And in the literary fiction word, it is often the same vibe—everyone wants to read “street lit” or _________ (fill in the blank with your anxiety of choice). Woe is us. All this genius and nobody cares. Frankly, it’s a drag and I don’t think it helps anyone get her work done and it certainly does not improve anybody’s quality of life. And I can’t imagine that it revs up readers.
This is not to say that the Kindle will not drown us in our bathtubs. Maybe it will. Who knows.
I am not saying go into see-no-evil mode. The Typerwriter Doctor is not burying his head in the sand.[video] He has had to adapt with changing times. He used to rent typewriters, but now he repairs them. And he doesn’t hate computers– you can like him on facebook, and he keeps a blog– typing the entries and then scanning them.
What I learned at the typewriter hospital is that we don’t have to carry that fear of obsolescence around with us, strapped to our backs and we certainly don’t have to make it part of our identity. We don’t have to announce impending doom everytime we talk about our work. When we create, we don’t have to multi task writing with fretting that these these are the endtimes for literature.
Take a lesson from a man who repairs typewriters for a living. He’s good at it. And he’s enjoying his life and his work.