So you want to be a writer. Be prepared to be hungry. Be prepared for the doubt that will gnaw at you like Jaws, fangs sharpened ready to sink into any weak spot. Be prepared for the blood you will spill, some of it your own. Be prepared for the loneliness and the long nights and the ghosts that will haunt you. Be prepared for people side eyeing your choices – “she could’ve been a lawyer…” though you can’t think of a worse fate (no disrespect to lawyers, it’s just not your passion). Be prepared for the moments you’ll want to kick yourself for giving up control of your destiny to something as disorderly as a passion (and one that doesn’t guarantee orgasmic highs…but then again, what passion does?). Be prepared for the moments you’ll be absolutely certain that certainly you must be mad because who but a madwoman would subject herself to this, this life of stops and starts and twists and turns and sprained ankles and bumped heads and a growing worry that at the end of it, you’ll be flat on your back.
So you want to be a writer. The angel of pure thoughts tells me to be straight with you. Tell you you better have a fallback position (which isn’t untrue), tell you that writing is a vampire that will take everything if you let it (which is…true), a fairweather lover giving only as he sees fit and never when you really need it (well…).
The demon angel has other thoughts.
She believes in wishes and dreams, revels at sunsets and the night’s first star, she dances….and wants you to know what it feels like to dance like no one is looking. She’s supposed to tell you don’t do it, but dammit, she can’t because she believes following your passion straight to heartbreak if that’s where it leads beats clocking in and clocking out. She wants you to know that she likes the sound of the word free and that when she so much as thinks it she sees a girl spinning in tall grass and wants to be that girl.
So, when it comes to it she can’t, won’t, say don’t be a writer; she will say instead to trust your voice, trust your instincts, embrace the journey; and don’t hesitate in doing so. She will tell you that in spite of everything she wishes she’d done it sooner, that she doesn’t look back regretting the things she’s done only the things she hasn’t. She’ll tell you that your journey need only make sense to you and sometimes not even then, but it should be your journey. She’ll tell you if you have a dream, if you have a passion, don’t drag your feet to the dance floor, get on it and dance.
So today’s prompt was Well, I Never… and this is what I wrote.
There are pieces of paper stuffed in the holes. 12 of them, four to a row. At first it’s the paper that fascinates. The very idea of it. No one had seen paper since the last of the trees was uprooted for timber, 30 or so years ago. She’d been a little girl then, and her Tanty had still been alive. That’s how she knew what the thing with the holes was, a coal pot, for cooking, though only rarely used for cooking by then. At picnics and on Fridays when her Tanty turned cornmeal for the fungee. It nearly knocked her down, this vision, memory, of Tanty bent over the coal pot, bathed in sweat, rump doing a circular dance, like a wine, to a soca beat, as she ground the grains of corn meal into something at once soft and solid. She hadn’t had fungee since Tanty’s death but she could taste it now, the savouriness of it, the sliminess of the okroe mixed in, because fungee wasn’t fungee without okroe and though she detested okroe, she loved her Tanty’s fungee. She always told herself she had time to learn it; it was a fancy more than anything as she wasn’t much for cooking, even then, before cooking became obsolete and everything became pre-packaged and tasteless, and functional, like food wasn’t meant to be. The coal pot was at the old house, tucked under it with the electric typewriter, the blue water tank, and other useless things. The land was being reclaimed now that Future Tech had perfected the art of personal breathers allowing what was left of humanity to leave the domed living spaces sour with recycled air and make a go of recolonizing the earth. Nothing was as it had been, but her feet still took her home to the peach house, where improbably aloe and bougainvillea, and the Century plant her Tanty’s grandmother had planted when they’d first moved into the house on the hill, bloomed. There were no more trees, and, as such no more oxygen, but there were these plants defying everything and insisting on life. And there was the coal pot, under the house, with bits of paper stuffed into the holes where the pot would sit soaking up the heat from the coals below. The clay of the coal pot was cool to her touch, and at the touch of it, feelings surged up inside of her; tears, a lump, memories. Tanty, gone. When she pulled out the first of the papers, it was instinctive, a way of distracting herself from feelings she didn’t know what to do with, and then at the sight of what was written, the feelings pushed against her shaky resolve anyway. Tanty’s handwriting.
“Bring the slimy, okra water to a boil before adding the corn meal”
If the others in her scouting team thought it odd, the sight of her crying over a cracked coal pot and a badly scribbled note on scrap paper, they had the good sense to look away as they continued foraging among the remains.
For today’s writing exercise, I decided for the first time to try one of these blog prompts; this one specifically:From the Collection of the Artist This is what became of that experiment.
When I started the Wadadli Youth Pen Prize in 2004 (hopelessly dewy-eyed I was), I couldn’t see 11 years down the road. But time flies and here we are and remarkably, Wadadli Pen is still alive (it’s been touch and go a few times). I want to keep it going, I do. I’m working on grant funding applications (again), hopefully learning from past mistakes and hopefully able to harness the resources needed to deliver what this programme can deliver…when I dream of it. Fingers crossed. And if you’ve got ideas or support (money or time to give to these grand ambitions for this little project that could, email firstname.lastname@example.org)
Meanwhile, this is a link to the outcome of the 2015 Challenge, and here are some visual highlights from the most recent awards ceremony held last Saturday (April 11th 2015)…and look, we made the front page of one of the local daily papers:
Every year at the awards, we are reminded why it’s all worth it. And then there are letters like this the day after:
“I write to express appreciation to you and your team for allowing young writers like [my son] to explore their writing potential. He was quite reluctant to enter at first, but warmed up to the challenge. Excited, elated and ecstatic are just a few of the words that could explain how he felt, by being able to share his story and be rewarded for his effort.”
“…unfortunately, your entry was not selected…”
“We very much regret…”
“…unfortunately, your submission doesn’t feel like a good fit for…”
If you’re a writer submitting, you’ve received some version of this. And, if you’re anything like me, sometimes they hit you hard. Rejections are a part of the writing life, though, and should never stop us from trying.
My next workshop – coupled with follow up coaching – will aim to get participants to commit to submitting at least one piece before the end of the year.
The workshop will include suggested markets, writing exercises to get you started on your writing goal, and guidelines, with examples, for submitting to journals or contests. The follow up coaching will include me nagging you (as I said at the recent Wadadli Pen awards ceremony, nagging can be a good thing, if it gets you moving); and providing feedback re your work in progress as well as advice re revising the piece. This will require a month long commitment – a minimum of one group session, three weeks of personalized coaching.
I don’t offer guarantees of acceptance; if I could I’d be published in every publication to which I submitted. But I have been published in some, and, as for the others, picking myself up and trying again and again is the only way I know to get over the fear of submission and the hump of rejection. This goal driven engagement of one month, with the option to extend, can do the same for you.
Contact me to discuss rates and explore ways of participating (wherever you are).
Proposed workshop date: Saturday 2nd May 2015.
What inspires your writing… it’s a question I get a lot…and it’s a question that still often stumps me…the answer too abstract and paradoxically too specific to pin down…is “everything…life” abstract enough for you?…is “the unexpected vitriolic verbal attack thrown at me earlier tonight by the man who aggressively banged down my door like I owed him money” (I didn’t) specific enough for you?…because I have no doubt that it will turn up somewhere…if not as a specific incident then the rage I felt, the go eff yourselfness that I felt in the moment will feed some other moment on the page …I don’t know this for a fact, of course, but I can take an experiential guess…because that’s what I do, I process things through my writing…I try to understand things through my writing…
(Like how, in the case of Musical Youth , shadeism/colourism can lie dormant within us even when we think we’re socially aware and self-accepting due to patterns of self-abnegation that took root on the plantation; like whether sisters as different as Selena and Celia in Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, or Nikki and Audrey in Oh Gad! can overcome their differences and the ways they hurt each other; like how to process anger at God in the face of enormous grief when you’ve been taught that that such anger is blasphemy – Vere has such a moment in The Boy from Willow Bend)
…and I try to let go of things, too…and chances are if I didn’t have my writing there might be a lot more go eff yourselfs floating around.
I should have posted this already but better late than never, I suppose. The delay is not a reflection of anything but not enough hours in the day. Something this Burt Award judging process reminded me of. I’ve judged writing contests, locally, before, but it was my first experience judging a book prize, and a regional one at that. I would learn that reading that many books on a schedule can have even a book lover whimpering, with no intended aspersions to the books themselves, please, no more. Interestingly, as the process narrows to the top contenders, you get a shot of adrenaline again as you spar with the other judges making a case for this choice over that until you arrive at as close to consensus as you can get with something as subjective as art. I’ve been on both sides of this process now and have intimate knowledge of how vulnerable you feel when you leap into this kind of thing, hoping they’ll pick you, steeling yourself for the probability that they won’t; and, as well, the grave responsibility you feel to give each writer a fair reading, to consider and re-consider. Hopeful on both sides of being surprised.
I remember receiving word a year ago around this time that my unpublished manuscript Musical Youth had been selected for the Burt short list; I remember it was maybe 3 in the morning and I called perhaps the only friend I can call at 3 in the morning without there being a life or death emergency. And the next time we fight, and we will, I have to remember that not only didn’t she immediately hang up the phone on me but she was right there with me, as awake as I was at the news. Musical Youth has been good to me and good for me as a writer, and I continued to do all I can to make sure it fulfills its potential as a book by reaching as many readers as it can. Books are meant to be read, right?
And these second set of Burt winners deserve an audience as well. In the end, I think all four judges agree on that. What’s more I think the core target audience, teens and young adults of the Caribbean, will enjoy the adventures these books take them on both in the moment, and later, on reflection. The top three haven’t been announced as yet (I know something you don’t know LOL) but you’ll see what I mean when they are and when, ultimately, you have the opportunity to read them. Meantime, big up to all who dared, big up to those on the short list, big up to the finalists and ultimate winners. To my fellow judges, it’s been real…seriously.
On the list are:
– Children of the Spider by Imam Baksh, Guyana (manuscript to be published)
– Putting Up a Resistance by Michael Cozier, Trinidad and Tobago (self-published book)
– Dancing in the Rain by Lynn Joseph, Trinidad and Tobago (manuscript to be published)
– Prayer to the Motivator by Kamau Mahakoe, Jamaica (manuscript to be published)
– The Dolphin Catchers by Diana McCaulay, Jamaica (manuscript to be published)
For more, go here.
And given that it’s awards season, I’ll also mention that the Hollick Arvon long list has been announced, and the Bocas long and short list – special congratulations to Dorbrene O’Marde who’s Short Shirt biography Nobody Go Run Me made the long list of the latter. And let’s not forget the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, with four Caribbean writers claiming a spot.
All but one of these will be announced during the Bocas Lit Fest in Trinidad. Wishing all contenders success.
And since we’re talking prizes, I should mention that I have already been announced as one of the winners of the Caribbean Writer’s Flash Fiction Prize; and on April 11th, I will be announcing, during the awards ceremony at the Best of Books, the winner takes all winner of the Wadadli Pen 2015 challenge which I coordinate.
Gratitude for both – the opportunity to reap and to plant, the opportunity to see things from both sides. And to all who dare to leap, including myself, continue as Zora Neale Hurston’s mother said to her children to “’jump at the sun. We might not land on the sun, but at least we would get off the ground.’”