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The Writing Life
There are many teachers in my life whom I owe great thanks, starting with my parents, Dr. & Dr. Jones. But I think I will spend this post expressing my deep appreciation for my eleventh grade English teacher, Patricia J. Ramon, who was the first person to encourage me to write fiction.
I was a junior at Benjamin E. Mays High, the flagship public school of black Atlanta. It was a good school, but it was a math and science magnet and I was neither a mathematican or a scientist. In addition, I was a lonely kid, much younger than my peers. I felt like the new kid even though eleventh grade was my second year at the school. I played in the band, only because my brother was in the band, but in truth, I was terrible at the flute and hated it. (I tried over and over to lose my instrument, but someone kept returning it to the bandroom.) In the age of “Precious”, these highschool complaints seem pretty minor, and in truth, I was hardly scarred for life. But still, I was a baby writer, full of stories with no idea what to do with them.
Somehow, Mrs. Ramon noticed little me. One day she gave me a flyer advertising a short story contest. Would I like to enter? She asked me in private, after class had let out. I felt so special and, for once, seen. The story, The Pursuit of Michael Thomas, became my whole reason for living for nearly two weeks. The story was based on my incredible on a talk lanky member of the drumline. Once I finished the draft, my mother went her her job on the weekend and typed it up for me on the IBM Selectric.
On Monday, I handed my story to Mrs. Ramon, hoping she would think it was worthy of submission to the contest. Oddly enough, I wasn’t worried about winning or losing the competition, being chosen by Mrs. Ramon was prize enough. I didn’t even know when the winners would be announced, so imagine my surprise when I received a letter in the mail a few months later informing that I had won the contest!
I don’t think there was any money associated with winning, but there was a celebratory reading. My mother sewed me a new dress– pink with a white collar. My father made a special trip home form DC. My sponsor, Mrs. Ramon, also attended. The ceremony was in the evening; Mrs. Ramon was off the clock. Further, she had three young children and she not only brought them, but they were all dressed up like they were going to church in matching dresses and ribbons. She must have rushed home after the last bell, fed the kids, dressed them up, and then loaded everyone in the car to help me celebrate my special day.
So, here’s to you Mrs. Ramon! In celebration of this day, I looked up her address on line and I sent her a copy of Silver Sparrow. I also sent her this, a copy of my prize winning story. I hope that she will remember me.
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.
Tomorrow, I am leaving to go to Cambridge for a year to accept a Radcliffe Fellowship at Harvard University. This fellowship is such a gift—for the full year, my main responsibility is to read, write, and interact with other artists and scholars. (No committee work! No papers to grade! No hellish commute!)When I received the call notifying me that I had been chosen for this award, I literally danced in the street with my dear friend, Rigoberto Gonzalez. We stopped traffic and the motorists on Grove Street did not share our joy.
I am a person who believes that His eye is on the sparrow and the title of my book, Silver Sparrow, is a nod toward that sacred hymn.
As I have been packing up to go, I have been unearthing old photos and I came across this one, taken at the Breadloaf Writers Conference back in 2003. I feels like at least a lifetime ago. When this photo was taken I was at an outdoor book signing reception. I wasn’t anywhere near being an “it girl”. I was just a first time novelist trying to figure this whole thing out. Breadloaf, as you may know, is the scene of scenes for emerging writers. And, alas, I was not one of the Cool Kids, but I had a novel that I had written with my whole entire heart.
I was standing around feeling awkward when a woman approached me and asked me to sign her book. She said she had read it almost a year earlier and had brought her hardcover copy to Vermont with her and would I sign it. I still remember how moved I was. Back then, it was still a miracle to me that anyone had heard of me, or had bought read my book. There was no signing table for me, so she said, “use my back.” I can’t even begin to unpack the metaphor.
I feel like finding this photo on today of all days, is a little reminder to me to remember where I’ve come from and what I am here to do. I recently received an email from a silver sparrow daughter who said she was moved and healed by my novel. I won’t violate her privacy by posting her words, but it reminded me that literature matters and telling/reading/hearing our stories makes a difference in our real lives.
It’s no accident that these messages have come in now, just as I am on my way to Cambridge. These are loving anchors, attaching me to what really matters as I move myself forward.
Over at the Algonquin Blog, Alexander Chee and I engage in some #realtalk about writing, publishing, race, and the pleasure of difficult stories. (excerpt below)
TJ: My favorite novels are about difficult subjects. Beloved, anyone? I am drawn to these stories because I like to be emotionally challenged by a novel. I like to walk away with a new understanding of something that troubles me. I read to grow and I think I like to write for the same reason.
The most difficult literature really pokes at the seams of an accepted morality. There are a lot of books that seem to grapple with difficult topics like, say, racism. But you will notice that the racists are often extreme cartoon characters which don’t encourage the reader to see himself.
I like to write a novel with a conflict that leaves me stumped. I like to feel like I am trapped in a maze and I write to find my way out.
AC: “Bigamy” strikes me as just that kind of a maze. It is such a charged word, but it also has a fusty, old-fashioned quality to it. It’s “racy” and yet not. What I love about the novel is how it makes bigamy the floor, or the background, and moves off toward the very human stories of the people involved. What were some of the keys to understanding it this way for you as you wrote it? How did you, in other words, get past the cliches around this charged topic?
TJ: The thing is that I don’t really know of many cliches around the topic of secret families, because it is something that is spoken about so seldomly. The only cliche I can think of is that the man dies and everyone shows up at the funeral and pandemonium ensues! I had to just remember that everyone in the story loves everyone else in the story and it wasn’t my job to avenge anyone. That I just had to remember that every person in this love quadrilateral has a legitimate point and need. They all want a family. They want to be included and secure. And that’s not racy. It’s human.
I am delighted to post the link to my recent NPR interview. It was such a pleasure to sit down with Michele Norris, who is just as amazing in person as she is on the air. We talked about bigamy, Girls Write Now, Toni Morrison, “invisible” girls, Spelman College, magic wands, Johnetta Cole, writing, mentoring, and SILVER SPARROW.
Over at The Nervous Breakdown, I interview myself. Yes, you read that right. Me, talking to me, about me.
ME: How much of this is autobiography? Is your father really a bigamist?
ME2: The dedication to my book is: “To my parents, who, to the best of my knowledge, are married only to each other.” It’s funny—when it comes to memoir, we want to catch the author in a lie. For fiction, we want to catch the author telling the truth.
The post is up, and I invite you to go check out. And even leave a comment if you feel like it.
The May/June issue of Poets and Writers magazine includes a seven-page feauture on Tayari Jones and her novel SILVER SPARROW. The feature story is written by Rochelle Spener with a photograph by Christy Whitney.
This time tomorrow, I will have my first review for SILVER SPARROW. Although the novel won’t be released until May, these early reviews are published in the trades so that bookstore and libraries know what’s coming down the pike, so they can order (or not) in advance. The first one out of the gate is Kirkus.
When Kirkus almost closed down last year, a lot of writers did the happy dance. It’s because Kirkus is notoriously brutal. The review I got for LEAVING ATLANTA made me cry. (My very first review ever, and it was heartbreaker.) The one for THE UNTELLING just made me mad.
So, it’s that time again.
I am hoping for good reviews– doesn’t everybody? But I can’t live and die by the critics. It’s not good to give your power to other people, particularly people you don’t even know. With the pre-pub reviews, you can’t ever consider the source, because the reviews are submitted anonymously.
It’s not that reviews don’t matter. A “star” or just a positive notice can get the attention of booksellers and persuade them to give you a chance. And a negative review, in addition to being hurtful, can hurt your chances of being ordered for a library. (Not to mention it’s embarassing. Imagine your ex reading a slam of your latest work!)
But the key is to not take it personally and to keep moving on, no matter what happens. And I say no matter what happens, because the review might be good. It might be a rave! But even so, that anonymous person cannot be in charge of what a writer thinks about her own book– for better or for worse.
So, anyway, deep breath. Here goes nothin.
I see you everyday at my job working at the coffee stand. Although Rutgers-Newark is a really diverse place, as far as college campuses go, it’s still easy to pick a sister out in the crowd. I see you every day making coffee, ringing up purchases, organizing displays, and reading like crazy. I try not to be too nosy, but I can see that you like to read many different types of books, but pretty much all of it is by black authors. When you opened that cupboard one time, it was like you had every piece of urban literature ever written. There were other authors in there too, like Pearl Cleage,Connie Briscoe and Eric Jerome Dickey.
When you asked me about my novels, I have to admit, that I was a little nervous. I gave you The Untelling and tried not to look at your face when I would see you sitting there reading it. I shouldn’t have worried. Just two days later you blew kisses said, “That’s one beautiful book.” I was happy enough to dance right there in front of the cash register.
It’s hard to explain what it means to me as a writer, a woman writer, an American writer, a Black American writer– to have my book read by a reader, a woman reader, an American reader, A Black American woman reader passing the time on her job with a book.
I read a really interesting article the other day by Roxane Gay where she basically went off about the fact that Best American Short Stories 2010 seemed to be all about rich white people and rich white people problems. I haven’t seen the book yet, but I am sure that she’s right. It’s nothing new, but still frustrating and– truth be told– hurtful.
Nobody that is compiling an anthology or end of year list is going to ask you what books you liked best in 2010. (They probably won’t ask me either!) The people making the lists, crowning the kings and queens of the year, have no idea about the books stacked in your cupboard. (They probably never heard of many the authors on my office shelves, either!)
Vanessa, I’m getting off track here, but the point is that your opinion means everything to me. I’m going to work today and since you asked, I am bringing you the manuscript pages of my new book, SILVER SPARROW. I really really hope you like it.