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In “Stories From The Road,” Tayari Jones, along with Junot Diaz, Sloane Crosley, Nell Zink, Gary Shteyngart, speak about the relationship between writers and readers.
In Georgia, we have an expression that speaks to our limited human understanding of our own actions and motivations. We say “I call myself.” In that tradition, I can say that I called myself writing my first novel, “Leaving Atlanta,” in order to remind the world that in the early 1980s, 30 African-American children were killed in my hometown; two of them were students at my elementary school. I believed myself to be banging on the door of History, demanding that my memories be let in.
But as we also know in the South, what you call yourself doing and what you are called to do are often two different things. — Tayari Jones
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.
I admit it. I love clothes. And my favorite boutique in the world is COZBI in Park Slope. When ever I want to look my best, I look to Cozbi Carbrera’s designs. When I was preparing to go on a fifty city book tour, I knew Cozbi would hook up the perfect outfits– gorgeous fabrics & eye catching designs that a real woman can wear.
This weekend, I would like to invite you to experience COZBI. There is a special sale all weekend long– Friday to Sunday. On Saturday, February 2 from 11am-7pm, I will personally be at COZBI signing all three of my novels and also trying on clothes and enjoying the amazing sale. Please come and join me.
351 5th Ave
Park Slope, Brooklyn
(and here’s a video we did together. yes, i was excited.)
“It’s not Worth The Grief” by J. Victoria Sanders on Feminist Wire really struck a chord with me. For a long time, I thought working extremely hard was a way of showing self love. After all, the only way I was going to reach my goals was to work for it, right? Were these books going to write themselves? Who was going to update my mailing list? Apply for these grants? Have you seen the VIDA numbers? And besides, when I was working– writing, teaching, improving my apartment, whatever– it was something that I was doing just for me. It was the rare time that I wasn’t laboring for the benefit of someone else, to meet someone else’s goals of what I should be doing with my life. But guess what– too much work is just that, too much work.
Here is what J. Victoria Sanders wrote:
I basically subsisted on a few hours of sleep during the four semesters when I was teaching and publishing. I answered every e-mail and graded meticulously every single paper and PowerPoint presentation, all while producing a minimum of three stories and five blogs weekly at the paper—on top of freelance work. At work and after hours at home, I kept my inbox at zero, calling readers back, moderating comments and responding to sources. At ACC, I usually skipped dinner and had a bag of chips during my fifteen minute break so that I could mindfully and professionally attend to the needs of students there on Monday nights.
There was something really satisfying about it, I think, because I was used to abuse. I had no idea what to do with my feelings when I wasn’t working. My work addiction provided immediate gratification so that I was always accessible to anyone – student, editor, supervisor or reader.
I, too, am a hard worker and my mother before me has always worked hard. I don’t think I have had any model of a woman who didn’t work and work and work. My childhood memories of my father are of him in his basement office working and writing. There was no room in our world for princesses. By and large, these lessons have served me well. When Silver Sparrow was in the final editing stage, I was also teaching full time and it was the end of the semester AND I was preparing my tenure packet. I had my daily schedule calibrated down to every fifteen minutes. One item on the list: “Call parents. Assure them that I’m fine.” The hard work has paid off, but I have also paid for it.
For women it’s a double edged sword. “You work too hard,” is often thrown out as an insult by people who may resent your success. I have always taken it to mean– be a lady; stop trying to be somebody. I always want to say, “If you think think I am working too hard, why don’t you help me?”
The challenge for me is learning not to work even though there is no help on the way. When I take time off, I come home to zillions of emails, interview requests, deadlines ticking like bombs. When I don’t work, there are consequences. There are opportunities that I may not be able to be able to take advantage of because I didn’t hope right on it. Deadlines will be missed and people will be disappointed. (And of course there is the fear that I will ruin it for the black woman that comes behind me because I wasn’t perfect.)
For single women who don’t have children, it’s even harder to say no to work. When a colleagues says she is not taking papers home because she wants to spend time with her kids, everyone says “awww…” But if a single person says she is taking weekends off to chill, then it seems selfish. So I always take time off to write. It’s my passion. I love it. But it’s not time off. And for the women with children, taking your kids to soccer isn’t time off either. And a week off work because of Hurricane Sandy– that’s not time off either.
I am not saying that we should all walk off our jobs tomorrow at noon, ringing phones be damned, or that we should drop the kids off at the pool and never come back. But let’s try small. Find two consecutive hours this week where you just chill. If you have to leave the house to do it, then do that. Go have a coffee or take a walk– a leisurely walk. No phone. No iPad. A book, but no reading for work or for school. I imagine it will take a couple of tries to keep your mind in the moment. You will visualize the emails, hallucinate the little tone that says more messages are coming in. But let’s try to learn to shut the door to all that. Baby steps are still steps.
Sometimes when you let go and just listen to your story, the rest will take care of itself. I hope you enjoy this post as much as I did. — Tayari
by Tiphanie Yanique
When I left graduate school I just knew I was going to have a book immediately. I had an agent, I had a novel that had just been picked up, I had all this drive, and wasn’t I talented, too? Well, maybe all of that was true, or maybe not. Either way my agent had a baby and then retired from agenting; my novel was taken by a press, and then that press closed its Caribbean line without publishing my book; I moved to New York and being a full time tenure track professor had sucked out all my drive…and maybe I wasn’t that talented. I appealed to friends. More than one said, “It took me ten years!” At a writer’s retreat a very successful author held up the rejections from her first book that went on to be a best seller and corner stone of American literature. There were more than thirty rejections.
Again and again, when they weren’t commiserating with me, my friends said, “Just keep writing.” This was hard. I felt betrayed by fiction and the whole system of publishing. I felt betrayed by readers who bought used books, or who didn’t buy books by writers of color at all. I was watching really talented friends tank and less talented ones soar. I liked to believe I was amongst the talented tankers, but who knew? And what did it matter, if you couldn’t get published?
I’d always been a poet even before I decided to take an MFA in fiction, and now poetry became a kind of salvation for me. It kept me writing when I didn’t trust prose. And since I teach fiction, I could read poetry and feel I was doing it just for myself, for the pure pleasure of it. I kept writing poems and then, every now and then, when I could stand it, I edited stories in a collection of which I had a draft. I wasn’t writing with a mind towards publication—I knew the novel was the ticket to publication, not poetry or stories. I was writing because I just wanted to be writing
Almost a year later, Fiona McCrae of Graywolf called me. I knew she had already felt my novel wasn’t right for Graywolf. We had sent it to her when I’d made the mistake of giving it to the other press that then canceled its line. Still, I was hoping, maybe, she’d help me take it to another level before I started sending it out again. When we met her at her office she said that she had read my short stories. My short stories. Not the novel. The only problem was that there weren’t enough stories to make a collection.
I peered over her shoulder. “But you only have about half of the collection. I’ve written more.”
“Well, that’s great news,” she said.
The collection, How to Escape from a Leper Colony, was published by Graywolf Press on March 2, 2010.
This is a repost of a entry that I wrote last year. I’m still on vaycay– I don’t know how much access I will have to internet, but I promise I am still #WRITINGLIKECRAZY. Full report when I get home.
Like many people, the biggest impediment to my writing is a failure to sit myself in the chair and try. I recently whined to someone that my writing hasn’t been “going well” for the last week or so. I know the person thought that I have been sitting at my typewriter, staring sadly at the glass keys, waiting for the words to come. But no. My writing didn’t go well last week precisely because I hadn’t been staring at those keys.
The remedy is obbvious– I need to sit myself in that chair and have at it.
And as all of you know, whether we are talking about writing or exercising, or cleaning house, or whatever. Starting is the hard part. (Sidebar: Have you ever watched this awesome video? It’s the mother of all peptalks.)
But on a less touchy feely plane, here is a simple tangible suggestion: Prepare your writing area the night before. Clean off the desk. I don’t mean just organize the clutter. I mean CLEAN IT. Wipe it down. Then arrange all your tools just so. Sharpen those pencils. Do you drink coffee when you write? Load the pot, so you only have to press “ON” when you get up. If you have a special writing outfit, set it out, too. (For me, that would be my fluffy robe.) Then go to bed.
I find that is I get the process going at night, I wake up already in the mode to write. And with everything set out before hand, I won’t get distracted and start cleaning up or something and them lose the mood to write. And besides, a clean and lovely writing space is so inviting. You will entice yourself as you entice your mood.
The picture you see here is my writing space in my place in New Jersey. Looking at the photo makes me realise how much I miss it. My lucky lamp! And the envelope you see is a letter from a reader, encouraging me to finish up Silver Sparrow. The desk is has a glass top and I windex it down at night so it gleams in the morning. Just seeing this picture makes me want to write. Seriously.
What I am suggesting is a simple fix. Try it. And while you’re at it, buy yourself a couple of flowers. Set them on your desk. You deserve it. And then, go write that book.
I was looking through the archives of this blog looking for posts that would be inspiring to us as we #WRITELIKECRAZY and I stumbled upon this peace by Remica Bingham. I know that one fear that can keep a lot of us from writing our story is fear of alienating our family. In this post, Remica writes about how her parents came together to design the cover of her first book.
A Healing by Remica Bingham
It’s a strange thing to find your father where you never thought he would be. So when I found my father pouring through the rows of poetry on my bookshelves I was a bit taken aback. He wasn’t reading any poems, just looking at spines and covers, examining each book, its texture, style. This was July 2006, after I found out I’d won the Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Award and that my book, Conversion, would be published, in a matter of months, by Lotus Press.
When Lotus Press asked me if I had any input as to what I’d like to see on the cover of the book, I knew this was the right press at the right time. I told them my father was an artist and that I’d like him to do the cover art. Not only were they agreeable, but they seemed fond of the idea as well, without even knowing our story. I suppose they had read the book, though, since they’d chosen it for their book prize, and did get to glimpse into our past. My father takes a bit of a thrashing (as do many others—myself included) in the book. I tell so much about the dark times in his life, in our lives. My father and mother divorced when I was twelve and remarried when I was twenty. After many years of turmoil and distance, they found their way back to each other, older, wiser and more open to the possibility of happiness, of trust.
When I asked my father if he would paint something for the cover of my book, he was a bit reluctant. He’s so humble and protective of me. I could see his worry already dawning. Eventually, he would say ‘yes’, but it would have to be perfect. He set a lofty goal for himself, especially with such a close deadline (we had less than two months to get the painting to the press), but he was on board. I must admit, I was nervous, too. I wasn’t concerned at all with his skill (I still keep the portraits he painted for me when I was a child), but I had no idea what I wanted, and therefore, couldn’t give him any instructions, not even a slight lead.
Sometime in July, after I’d caught him ravaging my shelves for ideas, my father and I went to Sunday breakfast (a weekly tradition) and I told him about a dream I’d had the night before. I saw a woman’s face and colors, lots of bright colors. I had no idea what it meant or if it meant anything at all. I must have sparked something for my father though, as he’d been reading and re-reading my book and said the dream was all the inspiration he needed. It all fit together for him somehow, and the cover was born.
I never dreamt my first book would turn out better than I’d let myself imagine. It is pure color in a sea of green. The eyes I dreamt of are there and the textured sun. People are standing in praise, every bit the Conversion I’d hoped for. My mother, father and I went out to celebrate after he’d put the finishing touches on the painting and my father and I talked endlessly about the book’s set up, where his name would go, whose blurb I was still waiting on. We went on so long that my mother finally interrupted us and asked, “Well, what am I going to get to do?”
My mother is my biggest supporter, she was a single-parent for so long, I think she felt a bit left out, and rightfully so. This book was the first real project my father and I had worked on since he painted my peacock mask for animal day in the fourth grade, so we’d begun to exclude everyone else, even her, from the conversation. But her question stopped us in our tracks. “The picture!”, I replied, “Mom, will you take my picture for the cover? Then all of our names will be there.”
And she did and they are.
Lotus Press and the cover designer, Leisia Duskin, did such a great job with the book that we couldn’t help but marvel at out work, all of our singular efforts becoming one, when we finally got the book in our hands.
When I hung outwith Tayari in February 2007, the book had just come out and had made its way to the shelves of Busboys and Poets—a trendy hot spot in Washington, D.C. When we all went over to peruse the shelves, Tayari asked me about the book, the cover, the author photo, the press. When I told her my Dad painted the cover and my Mom took the photo on the back, her immediate reaction was, “You have to write about this for my blog. People would like to hear that story.”
I’d never thought about it that way, as something that would make any kind of difference to perfect strangers. I am just beginning to understand her interest now, as I’m writing this. That’s the true power of words and why so many of us make the continual trek to the page: we go there for a healing. That’s what I find looking back at the miracle that became my book, the story of my parents and I. There such forgiveness in the story—we all forgave each other for past mistakes, for anger and distrust. The poems, the photo, the cover, all of it was a healing for us, a welcome home.
PS Her new collection of Poetry, What We Ask of Flesh is availble for pre-order.
My work in progress is a love triange. A love rectangle, really. (It is also a pretty intense look at the collateral damage of mass incaceration, but love thing is what I am working on now.) When you have at least three people in love, there is going to be some physicality and I have to write it. I spend my whole writing day trying to write a scene between Roy and Davina. In the writing, I discovered something about myself: apparently, I’m shy.
I thought about going the innuendo route, sparing myself from having the write anything hot and sweaty. Afterall, I reasoned, sometimes you can convey a lot just through describing touches, glances, etc. But I had to face it– I was pretending to take some sort of high ground because the scenes that needed writing made me uncomfortable. And let’s face it, when you feel uncomfortable while writing, it probably means you really MUST write that scene. What famous person said tha literature is meant to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable?
So for this week, I have been trying to get Roy and Davina in a room and let nature take its course. For the last two writing day, Ive had these characters taking their own sweet time having dinner because I am too shy to really GoThere with what happens after dinner. I never would have thought of myself as a hesitant writer. I’m not a prude. My friends can tell you that I can girl-talk with the best of them. But me in my own living room pouring cosmos for my girls is different that me writing something that the whole world will read. And here was the issue. When my students say, in squeaky voices, that they fear certain subject matter, I urge them on. I tell them that they should never be afriad to write. Writing is private. It’s between you and the page. Don’t worry about exposing yourself until it’s time to publish and by then you might not even care.
But there I was, timidly typing.
I pushed through my fear and wrote the chapter. I am trying to recollect exactly how I pushed past the block. I tried to think about the craft of writing sex scenes. The rule of thumb is that sex scene must advance the plot or complicate our understanding of the characters’ relationship. But when I thought of it that way, I felt like the story went flat. What I wrote was the opposite of hot. So I ripped that page out typewriter and started again.
The way I was able to write the scene was to stop thinking about what would happen when the book is published. I stopped imagining myself reading the chapter aloud a a sweet little bookstore. I had to just sort of tune out of the “real” world and llose myself in the world of my characters. I pretended that I was the best friend of the characters and I imagined how she would tell me about that night. I imagined that I was the male character’s brother and I imagine what he would say. Then I tried to fill in the blanks and imagine what part of what happened between them that they wouldn’t tell anyone.
It was in the part that they didn’t tell that I found the hotness of the scene, but also the character development what I was looking for.
The fear an self consciousness went away when my own desire to understand the characters became more pressing than any worry I had about what anyone else would think about my work.
That’s the key.
How’s your #WRITELIKECRAZY August going? Hit any roadblocks? Tell us how you got around them.