Writing Life

Learning To Value My Education, A Love Letter

This is a repost, but as I am about to put on my regalia and get on the subway, I felt like sharing it again.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank my MFA students and the citizens of Newark, New Jersey for teaching me the value of my education. I’d always valued what I learned in school, but never gave myself any credit for having gone to school and completed the degree. When I left for school, it was clear that most people in my life thought it was a waste of time. One person compared it to “getting a degree in basketball.” This wasn’t said in a cruel way, more as a warning. My daddy thought I was basically being bourgeois. (See the “cotton” scene in Leaving Atlanta.) I am not mad about this. After all, the MFA is a fairly new degree and the idea of a terminal Masters is hard to get your head around for a lot of people in the academy.

Add to this that my parents are extremely modest people. If they had a motto it would be “We do not make a big deal of things.” They both finished their PhDs in the 60s– and this a huge deal. Black Phds in the 60s! Did they march in their graduations? Nope. Are their degrees framed, uh-uh.

So when I finished my MFA, it never occurred to me order invitations or to ask anyone to come to the ceremony. After all, it wasn’t a big deal. I never even picked up the forms to order a cap and gown. It just wasn’t a big deal. What I didn’t admit even to myself that it wasn’t just the ceremony I was blowing off, it was my entire experience and accomplishment. I had my degree in basketball. Whatever.

Fast forward ten years. Now I teach in the MFA at Rutgers Newark. I have had the honor and pleasure of directing brilliant people who are working on brilliant projects and I am crazy proud of them. I respect the writing itself, but I also respect the dedication and sacrifices they made to get the degree. When I signed off on the theses this year, I made sure “Pomp and Circumstance” played in the background. Sometimes, I think I even embarrass them with my enthusiasm.

As I blogged a few weeks back, I bought my academic regalia. I went all out, buying custom with all the bells and whistles. So yesterday, I put it on– hat and everything– and walked to the subway to go to my students’ graduation.

God Bless the citizens of Jersey City and Newark!

I live in a gentrifying neighborhood in Jersey City. There are yuppies with their arugula, but there are still a lot of regular people– mostly blacks folks, Puerto Ricans, and immigrants who work hard every day. These folks all offered warm congratulations to me as I walked to the subway station. Someone shook my hand, another one speculated that my mother must be proud. I felt a little guilty accepting all this love, after all it wasn’t my graduation day, but I smiled and said thank you.

Once I got on the PATH train, it was like I was the queen of public transportation! People with accented English offered well wishes. Again more hand shaking. A child stroked the velevet trim of my robe. Finally, I admitted to a man dressed in stained coveralls that I wasn’t really graduating. He said to me, “Congratulations, still.” He gestured at my regalia, “If you got it on, you must supposed have it on. You must have earned it.”

I know this is corny, but I teared up.

Once in Newark, the faculty lined up to march about four blocks to the ceremony.

Rutgers-Newark is the most diverse undergraduate campus in the country. Black and brown faces made up almost half of the procession of eager graduates. The faculty, however, has not quite caught up, so I am still distinct in the line. As I marched, black folks lining the streets gave me thumbs up. I heard,”You go girl,” called out. I smiled and waved like Miss America. It felt great.

Then, I started thinking about my students and how proud I was of them and how hard they worked. It occurred to me that I had worked just as hard. Finally, I was able to let some of the glow I saw in their faces, reflect back on me.

Heading to the auditorium yesterday, a woman pointed me out to her little girl, then she called out. “Hold your head up, sister. Everybody don’t make it that far.”

I smiled, and did as I was told.

 

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Let’s Get Something Done This Summer.

InspirationEvery January I get excited about making New Year’s Resolutions.  I love the idea of a clean slate and 365 days of possibilities stretched out before me.  Every year I say– I’m going to get in shape! Write a new novel! Mend broken relationships! And then I set out on these tasks and I make good progress until about, say, March. I don’t know what happens.  But it happens.  Every year, I do it again because three months of excellent habits is nothing to sneeze at, but it’s not enough either.

In January I imagined that would be zipping through my novel. I thought the neighbors would be complaining about all the noise from my typewriters.  I also hoped I would be able to communicate in Spanish by now.  I took the language class, but it it just didn’t take. (sigh).  I pictured myself with all new clothes because my excellent nutrition and tireless exercise would have transformed me back to my high school self!  You get the idea.

On the plus side. I did pick up and go to Paris in January.  And I have kept true to my goal of writing at least three letters a month.  (Recipients of these letters, can you write me back?)  I’ve taken twitter and facebook off my phone, so I can be more present in my non-virtual life.  It’s amazing how different life is when there’s isn’t a cocktail party going on in your phone.  I’m actually something of a regular at my gym now.  3 days a week– 6am spin class.  I’m seeing results, too.  Slow, over-40 results, but something is happening and I’m proud of that.  My novel is moving forward…. slooooowly. But it’s getting there. I am not satisfied with my progress, but I must give myself a little credit.  That said, I have sort of lost that January sparkle.  Maybe it’s because I have gotten some rejections for some of the opportunities I so enthusiastically applied for in winter.  And maybe it’s just a natural ebb and flow.  But whatever the cause, it’s a rut and I don’t like it.

So this year, I decided to do the resolution thing more often.  So my resolve petered out in March.  Well, then it’s time to get some new resolve.  My idea is to try a summer resolution.  What do I want to accomplish between Memorial Day and Labor Day?  Here’s an (incomplete) list:

  1. Get in at least 4 writing days every week
  2. Add one extra day of weight training to my work out
  3. Go on two “artist dates” a month
  4. Learn to meditate
  5. In general, work harder at what matters to me

 

Okay, now it’s your turn.  What do you want for yourself this summer?

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The Best Way to Get Over Rejection? Get Rejected More Often

RejectionIt’s March and that means all those applications I sent off in January will be sending out YAYS and NAYS pretty soon.  Nothing feels as good as an acceptance.  A couple of years ago, I received a call saying I had been awarded a Radcliffe Institute Fellowship and my friend Rigoberto and I danced in the street.  We celebrated with martinis and sent zany selfies to the dean.  I mean, let’s face it.  Good news is always good news.  But we all know that nobody gets everything she applies for.

I have a couple of applications pending and I really really hope that I get at least one of them.  I usually apply to three things, hoping to get at least one.  This time, I have only two apps out there, so I am worried that I didn’t cover all my bases, but these things happen.

The point of this post is to give you my secret to dealing with rejection.  Here it is– get rejected all the time.  Seriously.  You will grow a thicker skin.  Take a lesson from middle school boys.

When I was in eighth grade,  I asked a boy to dance.  I spent about twenty minutes working up my nerve and another five minutes fretting about lip gloss.  Short version is that he said no, and I was crushed.  Crushed!  Why? Because I had never asked a boy to dance before and I had so much riding on it.  On the other hand, look at the boys in the room.  They were asking lots of girls to dance.  Some said no, some said yes.  (And let me tell you, when someone finally asked me, I said YES.)  But the boys didn’t have to run to the bathroom to cry after being rejected.  I’m not saying they liked it, but they regarded the rejections and just part of the process of finally getting someone to slow dance with them.  And they knew this– asking ten girls to dance greatly increases your chances getting a little smooch by the end of the night.

When I tell people that I received 22 rejections for my first novel, they sometimes gasp and ask me how I was able to take it.  But truthfully, out of those 22, I only remember three or four of them.  But the acceptance– I’ll never forget it.

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Hot Fun In The Summertime: 10 Writing Opportunities

sunglasses in da darkWhile you’re still feeling resolution-y, here are some summer writing courses/workshops/retreats that you should look into:

There are the ones I’m participating in:
DISQUIET International:  Two weeks of writing in Portugal, by the sea!
Manhattanville Summer Writers Week: Just an hour’s train ride from NYC.

 

 

And here are more:

Bread Loaf Writers Conference: Middlebury, VT
VONA Workshops for Writers of Color: Berkeley, CA
Lambda Literary Retreat for Emerging LGBT Voices:  Los Angeles, CA
Sewanee Writers Conference:  Sewannee, TN
Napa Valley Writers Conference: St. Helena, CA (did this last year.. LOVED)
Wesleyan Writers Conference, Middletown, CT
FAWC Summer Workshops, Provincetown, MA (really cool because there are classes all summer so it’s easy to fit in your schedule.)
Squaw Valley Writers, Nevada City, CA. (poetry only)

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PS #WriteLikeCrazy On Holiday

Oops, I was so caught up with the philosophical implications of my vacation that I forgot to post a couple of updates.  (This awesome picture that I am posting is hopefully what I am doing by the time you read this.  This is an auto post written in the airport on my way out.)

#WRITELIKECRAZY will go on.  I have my work in progress with me.  I didn’t want to leave it behind. This is kind of why I don’t say writing is my job. I would never take my job with my on vacation.  Writing is my heart and I will get some words on the page in the mornings.  After which I will indulge in regular like beach reading, dancing, mojitos, and maybe jet skiing. (I’m on the fence about that one.)

There will be #WRITELIKECRAZY blog posts appearing here, magically in my absence! There are a couple of cool guest posts in the hopper and some posts written by yours truly.

I am trying to think of a cool way to celebrate LEAVING ATLANTA’S tenth birthday.  That book is my baby-boo.  I am thinking to give away ten books for ten years.  If you have cool contest ideas, let me know.

Alright. That’s it.  I gotta a plane to catch.  Actually, a lot of planes to catch. But by the time you read this, let’s hope I am on a beach, sipping a mojito and #writinglikecrazy.  I hope you’ll keep the hashtag alive til I get home.

 

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Ten Years in, One Thing I’ve Learned #WRITELIKECRAZY

The original title for this blog post was: Happy 10th Birthday LEAVING ATLANTA! #WriteLikeCrazy On Holiday. To celebrate the decade since I became a published author, I booked myself a fancy island vacation.  First class all the way.  For ten years in the biz, I felt that I deserved it.  So that was going to be my post, all about taking care of yourself and learning to give yourself a round of applause.  But you know– that’s not what ten years have taught me and a hurricane named Isaac made sure I didnt get it twisted.

Here’s what happened. About 48 hours ago, a tropical storm gathered in the Atlantic.  I looked at the weather channel and it was nothing nice.  My dream vacation– the one that was supposed to be my reward for a decade in the trenches– was being washed away. I know it’s insanse to take a weather event personally, but I was crushed.  In my head, I call could hear all the naysayers.  I don’t only mean the ones who warned me against travelling alone to Antigua (you’re going to get killed!) but all the naysayers along the way. I remembered everyone who failed to encourage me in my writing.  (You would not believe the things people said.  I was told everything from “you’ll starve!” to “all the guys are going to be scared to date a Published Writer.”) I remembered the people who told me to take the safe path and “write on the weekends.” I watched the Weather Channel, hung my head and worried about the process of canceling my trip.

I won’t lie.  I cried about it and gave myself a headache.  I hadn’t bought travel insurance, so I was going to lose all the money I had put down on the trip and I would start school without having had a few days to myself.  I tried to figure out how to do a staycation here in Jersey, but it wasn’t just the same.

Well…

The the part of me that is stubborn, unreasonable, and optimistic refused to let me cancel. I decided to wait to see if the storm would “turn.”. After all, how many metaphorical storms have I weathered these last ten years? Since when did I start giving up so easily?  I decided that if the planes were flying, I was going.

The storm did turn, not completely, but I am going to Antigua anyway. It’s going to be a Frankie Beverly vacation– sunshine and rain.  The airline called and they are re-routing me halfway around the world and half of the trip will be in coach class. I was upset about this for a big chunk of yesterday.  I had paid for a first class seat and I wanted to sit in first class.  The nice woman on the phone explained to me (slowly like she was talking to a child) that there were no more seats in first class because this was a last minute ticket.  I shot back, angry (like a child) that I had booked my original ticket back in April!  She was calm.  I would have to fly coach or not go.  I whimpered and accepted seat 25C.  She then suggested that I extend my trip an extra day since all day Thursday would be eaten up with travel drama. No charge, she said.  I eagerly seized upon it, but there was a catch.  Miami to JFK– coach again.  So I had to weigh the options– an extra resort day, or a first class ticket home.

And here’s the lesson. You don’t always get what you deserve, but you will receive many blessings.  Ten years ago, who would thought I would be taking an island vacation financed by the returns from my writing?  Even five years ago, this type of getaway would still be just another unreachable item on my bucket list.  For a minute, I almost spoiled it for myself because of my seat.

You see, I had assigned a sort of emotional premuim to that first class seat.  I needed seat 3A because I had worked hard for it; if I didn’t have it, then it meant that I somehow had fallen short of my bucket list ideal.  This fantasy of a first class vacation was something I dreamed up for myself when I was just starting out.  It was probably based on something I had seen on television, or maybe even from overhearing friends and relatives who had “made it” talk about their vacations.  And look how quickly I went from crying because I thought the trip was cancelled to being funky because it wouldn’t be first class all the way.  Shamefully, I didn’t even take a second to be thankful that travel would be permitted at all.

In the ten years since Leaving Atlanta, I have worked to curb this kind of thinking.  I’ve struggled to learn to put away petty markers of success and remember what the real indicators are of a life and career well lived.  I sigh to think of how much time I wasted when I was just starting, fretting over The New York Times? And it’s not just baby-writers that do this. I have seen extremely successful people melt into tears because of some small disappointment. When I received a crappy review last year, Nichelle Tramble read it, agreed that it was viscious, but she said, “Let it have your breakfast, but don’t let it eat your dinner.”  It’s so easy to disregard all the bounty that you have been given and that you have earned because of some insult heaped at your feet or some shiny thing that is just out of your reach. Ten years in, and I finally get it.

So– seat 2A or seat 25C, the point is that I am going, and that I wrote my way there.

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Five Sexy Links #WRITELIKECRAZY

So, it seems that I am not the only one struggling with writing about s-e-x.  Here are some links that might help.

  • Steve Almond tells  How to Write A Sex Scene. “Therefore, in the interest of preventing more bad sex writing from entering the  cultural jet stream, I am officially setting out my 12-Step Program for  Writing Incredibly Hot Scenes.”
  • Were these sex scenes written by a man or a woman?
  • The Joy of Writing Sex is a great how-to guide. You know she had me when she used Toni Morrison has an example of a really sexy writer.
  • Writing about sex for YA audiences. “The considerations of how to deal with the (touchy, sticky – insert pun of choice here) topic of sex in such a way that is appropriate for readers of varying levels of maturity can seem extremely complex. Add to that the worry about censorship, people accusing us of corrupting their kids, the issue of portraying responsible sex, etc. “
  • In the spirit of no inhibitions, here are 25 Tips for Writing About Sex. “Do not watch [porn] for inspiration..because porn is to sex what McDonald’s is to food.

 

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Does This Count? Yes it does. #WRITELIKECRAZY

To-Do ListI am so happy that so many folks are doing #WRITELIKECRAZY for the month of August.  If you have pictures to share or testimony, you can leave a comment here or you can bop over to my fb page and leave your message there. (I love the pictures of your writing spaces!)

We’re just a couple days in, but I have been gettin questions from folks who want to participate.  Many people tell me what they’re doing and they want to know if it “counts” toward #WLC.  My basic rule of thumb is that if it helps you finish what you’re doing, it’s legit.  But here’s an incomplete list of what you can spend the month of August doing and consider yourself Writing Like Crazy:

 

 

  • Reasearch (but be sure to make specific and concrete goals)
  • Generating new pages
  • Revising existing work
  • Outlining
  • Poetry (of course!)
  • Reading to “fill the well”
  • Morning Pages
  • Random Writing Exercises
  • Letter Writing
  • 30 in 30
  • Academic Writing
  • Proposals

What did I miss?

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#WRITELIKECRAZY Make a plan

Right Brain Planning {elements}If you’re participating in #WRITELIKECRAZY, (like my fb page to be included) try and think of what you want to accomplish and how much of it you can accomplish in a month.  Do not overreach and set yourself up for disappointment.  The goal of this whole project is to leave you jazzed for what you will do next, not to leave you exhausted and feeling like a failure.  We are in this to feel good about ourselves and our writing. I know that there are people who feel like you need a “boot camp” or “tough love”, but for me, the only boots I like are made of Italian leather and I prefer the healing, gentle kind of love.

Now is the time to decided what it is in your writing life that needs doing.  I will tell you that I am not a page count freak.  As a matter of fact, I HATE NaNoWriMo.  (Here’s my essay NaNo Hell No.)  I usually give myself goals of how much time I spend trying.  I figure I cannot control how fast the words come (or not).  But I can control how much time I feel trying and if I have spent the day honestly doing my best, then that is a good day, regardless of outcome.  And, for me, this usually works.  All the days aren’t great days, but the absence of pressure frees me up and allows me to love my process.

But that said, I know counting words or pages works for some people.  So figure out what works for you.

If you are doing a historial project maybe you want to spend the month researching? Or maybe a combo-platter– some researching and some writing.  Just figure out a way to measure your goals.

And last but not least: prepare your space.  I’m scrambling to get my writing room together.  I am still in cardboard from my move from Cambridge more than a month ago.  But come tomorrow morning, I will be ready.  I hope you will be ready too.

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Amp Up Your Fiction With Me This Summer

 

FAWC 

 

The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts has published the schedule for this summer. I am offering a new course called HE SAID, SHE SAID: BUILDING CHARACTERS THROUGH DIALOGUE, SETTING, AND CONFLICT, CONFLICT, CONFLICT.
I got the idea from this course from noticing that many of the writers I mentor have trouble making their stories really sizzle. Sometimes I diagnose it as being too in love with your characters to let them really hit the wall. Other times, it’s nice people’s disease– people who avoid conflict in life have a hard time getting it down on the page.
In this class, we are going to take existing drafts and turn the heat up. I am sure you have a story that is good enough, it’s fine, but it’s sort of forgettable. Bring your story to class.
Southern ladies, this analogy will certainly resonate with you. When I was a teenager, someone told me to put on every piece of jewelry I wanted to wear with a certain outfit. Then, before leaving the house, take off one, and you’ll be perfect. This is my approach to conflict in story-writing. Don’t hold back in the creation, then tone it down right when you’re done. Writing is not for the faint of heart, or of pen.
Dates are August 15-20. Scholarships are available. Details here.

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