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The Writing Life
There is a chapter that I had to take out of Leaving Atlanta where Octavia gets her hair pressed for the very first time. She thinks that she will get to a salon and pick her style out of a hair magazine, but her mom sends to an old lady’s kitchen. When Octavia complains about her experience the old lady– whose hair is so thin that it looks like spider webs stretched over a bowling ball– well, the old lady says, “Pretty ain’t easy.”
When I wrote that line, I was about twenty-five and I was mostly thinking about how much time I spent on my own hair, nails, and make up. But now that I am almost forty, I am thinking more about the politics of pretty.
Pretty, as you know, is a woman’s trap. There is the endless pursuit of pretty- and don’t let me get into the cultural stuff. We’ll let ToMo handle that with The Bluest Eye. And then, once you catch pretty, there is the problem of being too pretty and not seen as smart enough. But if you’re not pretty enough, there are consequences, too. It’s a trap and it’s hard not to end up gnawing off your own foot. An friend told me that for my author photo, I tend to favor “beauty over mood”, which in her view was a mistake. I didn’t even know what to do with that piece of information, or how a person would go about implementing it.
But the author herself isn’t the only factor is the conversation about pretty. There is the matter of the book cover.
I want a pretty book cover. For one, I really like pretty things. (My friends can testify to this.) BUT… I don’t want my book to be *too* pretty. I mean, I want serious review attention. And as always, my book deals with some not-so-pretty subject matter. (SILVER GIRL is about the secret daughter of a married man. “Illegitimacy” is a pretty heavy issue.) At the same time, it’s a delicious story about family, sisterhood, love, and scandal. And the word “silver” in the title just invites shiny and shiny is one of my favorite things. My friend, Lauren, told me that all cultures think that shiny things are beautiful. (So, ladies, slather on the lip gloss!) But do I really want you to think of lip gloss when you see my book. Well, I do if it makes you pick it up.
I don’t think that male writers go through this. (Poor Jonathan Franzen– he is my new shorthand for “privileged” now that Updike is gone to glory.) I really doubt that Mr. Franzen really had to worry about whether or not he or his book were too pretty/not pretty enough.
And while we are on the subject of gender here is another question– will a man read a pretty book in public? I guess that’s why we have the Kindle. And should I even worry about that?
One thing I have learned in the ten years I have been in publishing is that every issue that you deal with in your day to day life is magnified when you publish a book.
My publisher and I are still working on the book cover, wanting to strike the perfect note. Algonquin does great work– bestselling great work, so I know I am in good hands. But you know, this book is my baby and I want everything to be just right. Still, as always, the answer to every writerly problem is to just keep my head down, get writing on the next book. Control what I can control and just have faith.
On Tuesday, September 21, hundreds of people gathered in Harrisonburg, Virginia to celebrate the life of Lucille Clifton. It was one of those experiences that made me remember why I love my life.
The program, organized by Joanne Gabbin and Nikki Giovanni featured 73 writers who each read one Miss Lucille’s poems. (I recited my favorite, “Here Rests.”) The experience was beyond beautiful. Imagine Sonia Sanchez, Mari Evans, Rita Dove, Honoree Fanonne Jeffers, Tony Medina, Kamilah Aisha Moon, Haki Madhubuti, and many many others reading every one of your favorite poems.
One thing that was clear to me as the night went on was the great respect that the younger writers had for our elders. We even called the that, “elders,” and we said it without irony. Everyone in that room loved Lucille Clifton and respected the gift of her art, but also what she had done to make our careers possible.
I have often read about writers who feel they must dethrone their forefathers and mothers. I am happy to say, I don’t know nothing about that. I know whose shoulders I stand on.
For the grand finale, Nikki Giovanni took the stage and brought about one hundred of us with her. Together we recited “Won’t You Celebrate With Me.” It took a while because Nikki called upon many people to give the lines their own interpretation. (Rita Dove sings like an angel, btw.) A ten year old interpreted a verse with a burst of music from his violin. But all together, we called, we responded, we shouted, we intoned, we boomed.
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.”
By the last line, we were all on our feet. “And has failed! Has failed! Has failed!”
I will admit that I have a thing about hair– my own hair and everybody else. As for my own, I do it myself and I love to chat up strangers in the elevator and find out what products they use. (My current fave is the Curls line. Great for a well-defined twist-out.) I also love thinking about what hair means to people, especially black women. For me the most interesting character in Their Eyes Were Watching God is Janie’s hair! As a matter of fact, Janie’s very brown skin and very long hair inspired two of the characters in The Silver Girl.
Gwen and Dana are the secret wife and daughter of James Witherspoon and the whole book revolves around this set up. As you can imagine, Gwen and Dana have an unconventional take on life– I mean, it takes a special person to be okay with the fact that you husband has a whole other family and you must live in the shadows. One way that they make themselves feel better is that they are more sophisticated and better looking that his “legitimate” family. And what’s the main proof of this beauty? The fact that mother and daughter both have about two feet of hair that hangs to the middle of their backs. And when you add to the mix that the “real” wife owns a beauty parlor, we’ve got conflict, baby! (The photo to the right is me getting my hair pressed as research.)
So, on to the topic of this post.
My editor and I are working on the catalog copy. This is the brochure with which the publisher will announce next season’s book. it includes a photo of the author, the book, and quick summary meant to snare the attention of book sellers. I love what my editor has written, but there is one phrase that is tripping me up. Here’s the sentence”
For Chaurisse, Dana is a glamorous friend—a “silver girl” possessing all the beauty, popularity, and good hair that Chaurisse thinks would make her happy.
As you probably guessed, the phrase is good hair. Yes, Chaurisse is really impressed by Dana’s hair. And, she probably would describe it as “good hair.” But I am having an emotional response to the word choice. I don’t want it to seem like I think that some people’s hair is good and others isn’t.
When I was a kid, I felt a lot of pain about this good-hair/bad-hair mess and I don’t want to appear to be perpetrating it. Do you think that putting the phrase in talics will show that I am sort of mocking the idea? Or should I just rephrase, or leave any hair-talk out of the situation all together?
I have been represented by Jane Dystel since 1999, when she called me up on Christmas Eve and said that she was interested my first novel, Leaving Atlanta. There is a little prequel to that particular story, but I will save it for another post. Anyway, to celebrate her birthday, I thought I would post on why I think it’s best to go into publishing with an agent.
Just in case there are folks out there who are new to the publishing game, let me give a quick run down on what an agent is and how an agent works. Your agent acts as a go-between for you and publishers. Many agents—Jane included—used to be editors, so they have personal relationships with editors. The agent decides which editors at the various publishing houses will be into you. Then she sends the manuscript with a personal pitch. For this, you pay her 15% of any money you make from the book. (Little coda here: any agent who asks for money up front is a crook. Run!)
Anyway, some writers prefer not to work with agents, mostly because they don’t want to give up the money. Far be it from me to urge anyone in this rough economy to part with cash, but in my opinion, it’s well, well, well worth it. Here’s a bullet point anecdote-y list as to why.
So, these are the reasons that I choose to work with an agent in general and Jane in particular. I’m in good hands and, for that, I am very grateful. Happy Birthday, Jane.
This blog entry comes to you live from the Acela train to Washington, DC. I have been aboard the train about twenty-minutes and I have have already eaten ALL the snacks I brought with me. (What does that say about my personality?) Anyway, I am on my way to DC because I am teaching in the 2010 Hurston/Wright Writers Week. I am really thrilled about the opportunity and this is why.
In 2000, I won the Hurston/Wright Award for college writers. It’s important because it was really the start of my career. Before winning the prize, I had been going through a looooong dry spell. Really long. Seven years long. I had written a novel that I couldn’t publish and I had a fat notebook full of short stories that just couldn’t get any traction. I’d applied to all sorts of prizes– Even the Huston/Wright Award.
Every year around my birthday, I would send off my entry, humming with optimism. Around Valentine’s Day I would get my rejection letter. Well, in 2000, I noticed that I was still feeling happy all the way until Februrary 20th or so. What was different this year? Well, I didn’t get that pretty Hurston/Wright envelope with my rejection enclosed. When I realised it, I got mad. “They didn’t even have the decency to send my rejection letter! Trifling.”
Literally, a day later, I received the call saying that “Press and Curl,” an excerpt from Leaving Atlanta had won first place! The prize, $1000, was more than what I lived on in a month! And, frankly, I hadn’t won anything since I placed in a writers contest in eleventh grade.
Shortly thereafter, good things started happening for Leaving Atlanta. I won a couple of other prizes and in May, the book deal. I’ll never forget winning the Huston/Wright.
The winners were driven from the hotel to the awards ceremony in a stretch limo! If you know me, you will know that I was way overdressed. (If it’s worth doing, it’s worth over-doing.) The other honorees were Selly Thiam– a 19 year old prodigy, and Faith Adelele– a fabulous memoirist. With us in the limo was Gloria Naylor. I was so in awe of her that I was almost afriad to speak. She was so bored, that she didn’t feel like being spoken to! To this day, this is a funny story that Selly, Faith and I tell whenever we get together.
Finally, it was time for my reading. I had practiced my little heart out. Just as I started on the first lines, “My mother tells lies…” There was a gasp in the crowd. A gentleman in the back had passed out and had to be rushed to the hospital.
Thirty minutes later, I took a deep breath and read again. “My mother tells lies…” I paused to make sure that no one else was going to fall out.
It was a beautiful night. I will be forever grateful to the Hurston/Wright Foundation for giving me that first affirmation when I needed it so bad.
It is an honor to be asked to return. It’s going to be a great week.
Let me tell you about PASSION PROJECT, a really cool competition from She Writes. If you have a great non-fiction project that you’ve been working on, you can win the opportunity to work with professionals who will help you whip it into shape and get it ready for publication. The contest is open to emerging women writers. Check out the details, ladies. And join She Writes. The contest is only open to members, but it only takes five minutes to join.
Visit She Writes
I know I am a little late to this party, but I have recently joined She Writes and I really dig it. The short version is that it’s a social networking site for women writers. (If you are already a member, please friend me!)
As you know, I am already on a million social networking sites– facebook, Red Room, Shelfari, Goodreads, Library Thing– but She Writes is different. This site is about women writers talking to each other. People aren’t over there hawking their books. It’s more a site for folks to talk about what’s going on with them as writers.
She Writes is open to writers at all stages of the their careers, and there is something there for everyone.
Since I wrote a post last week about the double standard in publishing, I have been directed to a number of blog posts on the issue. By and large, people are offended by the separate sections in the bookstore reserved for black literature. As I have said before, I think it’s probably problematic, but I don’t think it’s the biggest problem facing black authors. That said, I would like to post on what I see as a disturbing trend– In order to protest the sections, literary writers and their supporters feel the need to demean other authors.
Over at the Vernaular blog, there is a post up called Segregation for Unicorns:
All of this bothers me not just as a writer but as a reader because it seems to suggest that these books would be of interest to no one else. Not only that, but the books in that section are so widely diverse in terms of content that the target demographic is not the same. Writers like Victor Lavalle and ZZ Packer and William Henry Lewis are shelved with books like Succulent: Chocolate Flava II by the ever-classy Zane. Obviously, the person looking for ZZ Packer’s forthcoming novel isn’t going to be the same as someone looking for Big Juicy Lips: Double Dippin’ 2 or Mama I’m in Love (…with a gangsta). To me, this is the equivalent of taking, say, The History of Love by Nicole Krauss, or The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Banks, and shelving it next to Danielle Steel and Debbie Macomber books. (While you’re at it, put authors like Kevin Brockmeier and Judy Budnitz and Aimee Bender in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy section.)
While I understand the point, I am uneasy with the way Zane and other writers are so often ridiculed in order to show some great contrast between the literary and the commercial. How is this helpful? If you want to protest being classified solely by ethnicity, just say that. Why does a conversation about racism in publishing always end by putting down other black writers? I call it the Santa Claus Syndrome– the constant need to separate the naughty from the nice.
If you follow Toni Morrison– and you know I do– you will see that she never talks bad about other authors. Being as she is the epitome of all things literary, you can imagine how often she is baited by interviewers to say that writers of today aren’t as good, or that street lit is ruining the black American literary landscape. But ToMo is the one who is truly ever classy. She never takes the bait.
Although I am no Toni Morrison, I often find myself in the same position in interviews. I am frequently asked to say what I think of street lit or self-publishing. I know that, as a literary author who has an MFA, I am expected to distance myself from these others. Maybe I am meant to lament being shelved beside them– oh noes! urban cooties! (No one ever mentions that out there in the “regular” section where the alphabet reigns supreme, Morrison could easily end up besides “Myers”– oh noes! vampire cooties!)
My advice is this: other writers do not deserve your scorn. Always be careful when the only people you name-check are the least powerful people in the equation. As writers, we’re all out here working hard and doing the best we can. When I was first starting out, I used to get all bent out of shape when I was paired with someone that didn’t have the same writing style as me. I am ashamed now at the way I used to pout. Much of it stemmed from my own insecurity. Now, I would urge literary authors to give at least one reading with a commercial author and check your ego at the door. And I disagree with the idea that Zane and Z.Z. don’t have readers in common. When I visit book clubs, I find that readers have a really wide variety of interests. They read a little ZZ, they read a little Zane. They love me, they love Omar Tyree and IT’S ALL GOOD.
And on the marketing tip, if a commercial writer will do a reading with you, jump on the opportunity. (Oh how I wish Stephanie Myers would read with me!) The commercial writer will bring a lot of new people in the door who may become your readers, too.
**Blame it on old age, but I thought the orignal post was on Carleen’s excellent Welcome White Folks Blog, but I was wrong, or going crazy or something. I corrected the link in the post. Thanks to Brooks for pointing it out.
In the last few years, black writers have been speaking out about double standards in the world of publishing. Among these are Martha Southgate’s NYT essay, “Writers Like Me” and more recently, Bernice’s MacFadden’s Black Writers in A Ghetto of the Publishing Industry’s Making. In these articles, both writers (who also are novelists) put into a public conversation the issues that black writers have been complaining about for years– like why is that stories about black folks that are written by white folks get so much traction. (The Help, The Secret Lives of Bees, Little Bee, etc.) How come books about us by us are not thought to be “universal”? Why are black faces on the cover of a book thought to be so alienating? At this point in the gripe session, I break out my favorite oh-no-he-didn’t moment– when someone asked me what percentage of my work is “black” and what percentage is “human.”
I have no quarrel with Southgate’s and MacFadden’s insightful observations and strident calls to action. These issues are very important and must be discussed. What I am starting to wonder is whether or not this is a battle that writers can win.
I read an interview years ago with Alice Walker. The Color Purple was being banned at a library somewhere and concerned members of the community called Alice Walker, expecting her to lead the effort to reverse the ban. She ultimately told them that she had done the hard, soul-searching work of writing the book. It was their library, their community. If they wanted to keep the book, THEY were going to have to fight for it.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this interview, especially as there is a lot of talk among black writers on the internet about what we can do to be considered American authors as well as Black American authors.
Maybe this isn’t the author’s fight. I know it may sound crazy at first. In this DIY age, everyone has a story of some really pro-active writer who turned the tide on her career. Be it the self-published guy who sold a zillion copies out of his trunk, or the legendary stories of Terry MacMillan writing letters to independent bookstores encouraging them carry her debut, Mama. But this may be a moment when it is best for authors to stand down.
It is going to be up to readers.
Take this example from my own publishing past. In 2005, when I was on book tour in Arizona, none of the big chains carried my book. I called my publisher and was told this was because there wasn’t much of an African American population there. I was hurt and angry. I complained, but it went nowhere and I was even seen as being unreasonable.
Imagine, on the other hand, if Arizona readers were to gather up a petition and give it to the big bookstores saying that A) they are offended to be assumed to be too racist to enjoy books by black authors and B) they want to BUY these books. Every black writer has received an email from a white reader who is dismayed at not being aware of the work of writers of color. When we receive these messages, authors should urge these readers to take some action on a local level. Tell them to talk to a librarian, or make a request at Barnes and Noble, or use the internet. After that, authors, we just have to trust and believe.
I know this probably sounds counter-intuitive, because anyone who is an author is used to working very hard and struggling against the odds. You don’t get published by sitting on your hands and waiting for things to happen. But for now, we may have to just chill.
Unfortunately, when the writer speaks up–even though she is right, so often she is written off as being self-interested, and not taken seriously as a social critic. Do you remember the letters to the editor after Martha Southgate’s piece was published in the NYT? Although her point was that it’s very hard to black writers to publish a third book, the letters and comments attacked her personally, accusing her of vanity and unchecked ambition. Bernice MacFadden has posted in her blog some of the vitriol directed at her as a result of the Washington Post piece. As a writer, it’s almost impossible to avoid this criticism. A reader-focused initiative reminds everyone that depriving the broad marketplace of books by black authors is a crime against society, not just an offense against the careers of a few folks who happen to write books.
Literature is for everyone, and everyone should demand it. Let’s make this about the write to read, not the right to be read.
My dear friend and collegue, Rigoberto Gonzalez, delivered the keynote address at the 8th Annual National Latino Writers Conference in New Mexico. Here is an excerpt of his talk:
Never be ashamed or embarrassed to call yourself a Latino writer. In fact, be more specific, call yourself a Chicano writer, a Dominican writer, a Puerto Rican writer, a Cuban writer, or any configuration or combination of these and other identities. Situate yourself within a nation and an immigrant history, it is what preserves the integrity of the sacrifices of your people and the loss of your people’s homeland. I’m frequently dismayed by Latino writers who subscribe to the notion of wanting to “just be a writer, not a Latino writer,” as if that designation “Latino writer” wasn’t true. Unless you don’t carry any signifier of ethnicity in your name, unless your work doesn’t illustrate your cultural identity, unless you can pass for white, you will never be “just a writer.” By moving forward with this delusional goal you are betraying your own inferiority complex, you are buying into the stigma imposed by the mainstream publishing industry that you are lesser than, regional, foreign, and derivative. This is why you need to read your literary antepasados–so that you can navigate the troubled waters of doubt, writers block or other creative frustrations with the strength and pride of those who came before you.
For those of you who have started publishing or who are in the early stages of a career, those of you who have one or two books under your belt, don’t rest on your laurels and expect the readers to come to you. Take some initiative and become your own best advocate: learn to speak in public, to articulate matters of craft and all things literature. You learn these skills by attending readings and listening to the seasoned voices, by attending conferences like AWP or this one, the 8th National Latino Writers Conference, and absorbing the wisdom, advice and knowledge of your instructors. And recognize that even at this level you already have something to teach others–share your mistakes and your moments of success. And don’t forget, as you further your career, that you are more than “just a writer.” You are also a role model: take responsibility for your public appearances, choose your words carefully and fight with intelligence–you are now a public figure, generate praise for those who are your colleagues not your competition, and don’t become that writer who chooses to remain detached or isolated, who chooses to remain disconnected from any literary forum. That sidestepping of accountability to your artistic community is nothing short of selfishness. Such weakness is the weight around the necks of the rest of us who must pull forward a little harder because you won’t.
You can read the rest of his address here.