Come out if you can.
Come out if you can.
This is a re-post of something I wrote and posted elsewhere in 2012. I’m sharing it here as I’ve removed my content from that other place. Also because it concerns two authors whose work I love – Judy Blume (I’ve written here before about Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret) and Tayari Jones (read my review of her book Silver Sparrow). In addition to being a brilliant writer, I’ve met Tayari on a couple of occasions
and she’s always been gracious to me – even to the point of reaching out after hurricanes blasted through the Caribbean region this season to make sure I was okay. So it is with enthusiasm that I let you know that she has a new book coming out in the new year: An American Marriage – put that one on your to-read list.
Here’s the re-post.
OF PUBERTY, BIGAMYAND FAIRY GOD MOTHERS IN THE CITY …WHERE ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN
By Joanne C. Hillhouse
Judy Blume wrote of puberty in Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret, a favourite of mine going way back. Tayari Jones’ blogging … and later a facebook ‘friendship’ had landed her acclaimed SilverSparrow, a tale from the perspectives of two daughters of a bigamist, on my to-read list. I just happened to be here this week for the NY launch of my book Oh Gad! … and in the midst of mixing promotion with playing tourist (hitting everywhere from Tribeca to Central Park, MOMA to the MET), I found my way to the Barnes and Noble where these two literary ladies would be dialoguing. Lucky me and the 150 or so others ‘eavesdropping’ on their enlightening engagement.
A few things that stuck with me…
“You have to be ready” – Tayari Jones
The story goes that Blume, a well established author essentially anointed an up and coming writer (Jones) by introducing her to the publisher who would eventually bring Silver Sparrow to market. It’s kind of a literary fairy tale really, a fact noted by Jones in proclaiming Blume her fairy god mother. Of course, this bit of grace would mean nothing if the chosen one had nothing to show or say for herself. Thankfully, Jones did, her readiness opened the door and out flew the Silver Sparrow.
Note to self: stay ready.
“Readers want to see what is the real secret, and what’s gonna happen once the secret’s found out” – Tayari Jones
An important reminder, to my mind, that plotting is driven as much by what is unknown as by what is known, and the tension comes, in part, of not showing your hand too early. Their curiosity sparked, the need to know is what keeps the reader up at night turning page after page. But it’s not one sided. The need to discover is in great part what keeps me up at night, as writer being led by these characters. Yeah, you read that right, being led; because I believe (as said by one of the facilitators at the Callaloo Writers workshop which I also participated in that summer at Brown University in Rhode Island) when it’s really on, your characters actually guide you.
Note to self: stay curious and open.
“If you can write about what it is to be trapped in an elevator, you can write about what it is to be trapped in a space ship” –Tayari Jones
I remember commenting to someone not too long ago that I’m not a method writer, yet as I once wrote in a poem I know that I routinely steal from life. Snatches of this and that that become something else by the time I’m done with them. I feel that Jones is saying something similar; writing what you know doesn’t have to mean boxing your narrative in, it can mean using what you know to explore other spaces. Of course, what Jones was really commenting on was the question all fiction writers get: How much of this is biographical? The answer: None of it and all of it.
Note to self: Use what you know, to discover and explore what you don’t know.
“You want to paddle them to safety and (but) you have to let them swim or not.” – Tayari Jones
Your characters do become like people you care about – even the ones that are difficult to like. But comes a time you have to let them go, sometimes without a happy ending. As writer, you don’t always know what their fate will be until it blindsides you. That’s not to say that you have nothing to do with the crafting of the tale, but that often you can’t strong arm the characters into going where they’re not meant to; and sometimes even you have to let them go, painful though it may be.
Note to self: Let your characters walk the path they are meant to.
“If it works, it works; I don’t mess with it” – Tayari Jones
Jones writes old school on vintage typewriters each with his or her own name and I can only imagine personality. Blume apparently has a writing shack. Jones (like me) reads a lot (all the time, even when writing) and that’s an ongoing part of the learning process (because, as I always say, reading is one of the best ways to learn about writing). Blume was unabashed about the fact that as far as writing schedules go, “everything’s a mess” with her including her emotions (“I love it and I scream and I’m frustrated”). Jones writes early in the morning when the phone isn’t likely to ring unless there’s an emergency and you can empty everything else out. I write foreday morning too only I’m more of the haven’t-been-to-bed-yet variety than the get-up-early variety. To wit, as I write this blog it’s somewhere between 3 and 5 a.m. and I haven’t been to bed yet. Understandably, I wake up late. It took me a while to not feel guilty about that and to blow off people’s judgment (“you just now getting up!?”) – after all they’re probably getting more sleep on average than I am.
Note to self: Do what works for you (there is no single way).
“I don’t know if I hate classification or I hate categories or if I hate the way people perceive the categories” – Tayari Jones
Exactly! I thought as Tayari said this even as my companion snorted at the explanation. But here’s the thing. I know exactly what she means. People slap a label on you (or your writing) that does not begin to describe the complexity of you/it, and then they deride it for the label they gave it – chick lit, erotica, Caribbean, urban, whatever. I am a Caribbean writer. My first two books, The Boy from Willow Bend and Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, were dubbed young adult when, as Blume explained of her own books, I never wrote them as that. That was the label slapped on them by the publisher for marketing, and really I didn’t have a problem with it, and don’t, except for when I’m expected to be a children’s writer when I’ve probably written maybe one children’s story* in my life and usually wind up doing Anancy stories or something from Wadadli Pen (the youth writing programme I run in Antigua) when asked to read to kids (not to be confused with teens for whom I’ll usually read from my own work). Now Oh Gad! is published by Strebor, a Simon and Schuster imprint owned by Zane, known primarily for erotica; and while being apart of her brand is expanding my readership, I’ve been compelled to explain a time or two that my book is not erotica – not that there’s anything wrong with that.
As I wrote in a recent blog, these categories are a marketing issue and not a writer’s concern. Like Judy said about how she came to write the types of books she does, “I just wanted to write what I knew to be true”.
Note to self: Keep telling your (characters’) truth, telling authentic stories, and defying the class-i-fications.
I love how disarming and down to earth Blume seemed, how witty and smart Jones seemed, and how genuine their connection seemed. It was a veritable lovefest with the woman who wrote books beloved by so many (Blume) saying to Jones of her book, “The story is moving and moving and moving and you do wonder what will happen next”, while Jones mentioned that Blume was one of her literary inspirations going back 30 years.
“That’s really good; I should write that down,” Blume quipped at some insight from Jones and, doing her one better, I did write it all down (hence this blog), even as I smiled at the off-hand comment. Another such moment came when Jones commented of spending the last 15 months on the road, “it’s been a wonderful gift to do it” and Blume, who’s likely been down that road a time or ten, tossed in, “it’s wonderful to do it… once.”
I ended up buying a copy of Silver Sparrow and getting online to talk with Jones. Because social networking can create a false sense of knowing, I was nervous about introducing myself to her even as I wanted to introduce myself to her if that makes any sense. I’m glad I did in the end and(though I want to assure her that I’ve never stalked anyone and I’m not about to start now) I’m hoping that our paths do cross again and that I maybe even get to share a stage with her some day. A girl can dream, right?
Meanwhile, I will be reading Silver Sparrow and continuing my own writing.
*Okay, so as fate would have it since asserting that I was branded a children’s author without having any actual children’s books, I’ve written an actual teen/young adult novel (Musical Youth) and a couple of children’s picture books (With Grace, Lost! A Caribbean Sea Adventure). Check those out too if you’re so inclined. Go here for all my books.
We’re a contrary bunch. We want attention (on our books) but we want to be left alone (to just write). We appreciate your interest in our writing but we really don’t want you asking us about our writing. Well, that last one deserves more nuance. We appreciate that you appreciate our writing, but this question – when’s your next book coming out? – or its variations – you working on another book? – can send us spiraling.
Our inner responses, the things we dare not say out loud can range from the snappish – I’m not working on an assembly line, it takes time, back up off me – to the utterly despairing – I don’t know, I’m stuck, I’m a fraud, I know you see it, don’t pretend.
There’s always that vague sense that you’re disappointed that we don’t have that next book ready to go – (insert real favourite writer’s name here) has a new book out every six months, why do you write so slow? Of course, you may not be thinking this at all, your when’s the new book coming might just be your version of “hi!” but given that writers live in the uncertain space of will I ever write anything worth writing again (and again not all writers, some are blessed like that), your “hi!” can feel like you’re digging your finger into an open wound and wiggling it around…and delighting in the pain it causes and the squishy sound it makes. Why are you so mean!
Nah, I’m kidding, writers love readers – you are our air. And now I’m overstating.
But not about the question though, we hate it. Yes, we. It’s one of the things we gripe about at our secret writer meetings when you’re not around. And, yes, we totally have secret writer meetings. A secret knock and handshake too.
In all honesty, though, the question can send us (some of us) spiraling depending on where we are in the process. I should just say me, right? Except I’ve heard enough writers gripe about this (no, not at the secret meetings; there are no secret meetings…unless you count workshops) to know it’s not just me. But it did sort of happen to me, yesterday.
I’ve been hearing some variation of this question since my first book The Boy from Willow Bend came out.
The beautiful thing was, back then, before Willow Bend had even been published, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight had been acquired by the same publisher and was ready to go. That’s how publishers – and writers – like it. But a book takes time to write and both of those books between writing (months) and revising (more months) took what added up to years; it just so happened that a book also takes a while to sell so that when the publisher asked, got anything else, I could honestly answer, yes, yes I do.
It doesn’t always work like that. When I published Oh Gad! that was all she wrote – well technically she had her first two unpublished manuscript in a do-not-open mailed-to-self envelope somewhere (see poor man’s copyright) but …yeah, not so much. Oh Gad! was published in 2012. Since then I’ve published Fish Outta Water (a children’s picture book), Musical Youth (a teen/young adult novel and finalist for the Burt Award), re-issued Dancing Nude in the Moonlight as part of a larger collection Dancing Nude in the Moonlight: 10th Anniversary Edition and Other Writings, have With Grace (a second children’s picture book) getting ready to drop, been published in A River of Stories, Round My Christmas Tree, Pepperpot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean, A Letter for My Mother, She Sex, In the Black: New African Canadian Writing, So the Nailhead Bend So the Story End, For Women: in Tribute to Nina Simone plus journal publications, hustling and juggling writing and editing assignments, workshop activities – the ones I facilitate and the ones I go to to work on my craft, voluntary activities (especially Wadadli Pen which can feel like a full time job) and then some. (sidebar: check out my books, my projects, my workshops, my fiction, my poetry)
And still I’m plagued in such times, when that question inevitably drops as it did yesterday, by doubt that I’ll ever write anything worthwhile…ever?…again?…take your pick. And as unsatisfying as my I’m always working on something response is (I can see it in your face), it is the truth – because carving out time to write is what I’m always trying to do, and in fact I just started an online writing course, not because I need more on my plate but because I need to make my writing a priority. The works in progress have been works in progress for so long, I kind of just want to trash them and move on, and yet I know they’re not done with me yet. I’m as frustrated by my progress as you are to see what my next book is going to be. And I am truly grateful for the interest all 10 or 9 of you have in that next book – grateful to have any kind of fan base. But that question just underscores my failure to deliver, and the truth is my or any other writer’s frustration with that question has very little to do with you. The person we’re really frustrated with is ourselves.
Yesterday, the last time someone asked me that question, had begun with a rejection in my inbox. If you’re a freelance writer, you’re always pitching something; if you’re freelance writer-editor-workshop-facilitator-writing-coach, you’re always casting a net because you’ve got to draw business to yourself. You get used to being ignored or being rejected, and you catch enough business to live to fish another day and on good days to have a fish fry in which friends and fam can share (okay, putting that belaboured metaphor to bed…sorry…but see what I mean?)
Usually you don’t get in your emotions about rejections (not every one, because come on, how would you function?) But something about the casual “we’ll pass” in this particular rejection (random as it was) hit me funny – had nothing to do with the market itself and only a little bit to do with the off-hand tone, and everything to do with where I was before opening that email. I powered through like I always do but by evening I was weepy and depressed, and I’m not delusional enough to think it had everything to do with that rejection or was because the when’s the next book coming out (and its cousins what are you working, what exactly is it you do again) triggered that frustrated feeling.
It has to do with that sense as you cut through a path only you can walk that you could be headed in the completely wrong direction, hit a dead end, fall off a cliff. And that’s something I’d venture most writers – even those with the security of tenure or big bank feel at some point or other. In to that space of uncertainty comes the question-s, what are you working on, when’s your next book coming out, and your mind goes blank, because you truly don’t know; and that feels disorienting as fuck.
But you get up the next day, as I did today, and you …write.
How about you, what questions do you hate?
No pictures as yet from my reading or the workshop. Will share if and when I get. NO more words; I promised this was a picture post. Well, just two more: THANK YOU.
Peeped this post on the facebook of the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda along with a share of the bibliography of writing by Antiguan and Barbudan writers I’ve compiled and updated for over 10 years now. Crazy. When I started putting this list together I didn’t realize what a writing people we were…Antiguan and Barbudan scribes, you all continue to give me nuff work to do keeping up with you all. Give thanks! And keep the words coming.
This is a link to the lists* –
if you’re from Wadadli, an opportunity to catch up on the writing from and about home; if you’re from other-where, an opportunity to read outside of your comfort zone.
And, Museum, thanks for the shout out and especially the list share; (it’s not why I do it but it’s) nice to know that someone notices the effort.
*these lists refer to material that can be found in book form but there are other lists on the site referencing songwriting, playwriting, etc.
Was reading a piece in the Society of Children’s Books Writers & Illustrators Bulletin (November/December 2014 edition). It’s called The Truth about School Visits: Tips for Handling Donation Requests by Alexis O’Neill. It’s not available online, not that I could find, so I hope the author won’t mind me quoting somewhat liberally.
“As children’s authors we’re wired to give,” O’Neill writes. “It feels good when we help a school or organization…
“But authors and illustrators earn a significant portion of their income from paid appearances…
“When schools expect authors to do school visits for free, then authors struggle to sustain a living as book creators.”
O’Neill suggests that, as requests come, we need to ask ourselves several questions including how much time the appearance will take away from our writing (and, if you’re a freelance writer, I might add, from the hustle), consider the expense involved and basically if you can afford to eat that expense at the time of the request, is the request reasonable (is it an in-and-out maybe or do they expect workshop time that may eat up a few hours, not counting prep time), is it a cause you support and can afford to give to. Then, he said, you set guidelines. He quoted one writer as saying, “I always charge schools something – even if it’s $50 for gas. I do two or three of these greatly-reduced school visits a year, and I choose who gets them based on how the situation moves me. I only schedule them when it’s convenient for me and I do keep the number to three, max.”
Some reading this will dismiss this as cold; it’s not. It’s practical. Even as someone who strongly believes in volunteerism, someone who has given more donated hours than I can count over time, I had to get real with myself and say no to the things I could no longer do – including some school visits. Of course, depending on your location it may also be impractical to expect schools to pay even for gas.
The article also suggests‘trade’ conditions such as ensuring that the school library buys a copy, preferably copies, of your book (again tricky if the school doesn’t even have or is just trying to build a school library), or getting the school to participate – through online promotions and flyers – in promoting the visit and by extension your book.
Because it assumes (not necessarily incorrectly) that we, writers, are wusses when it comes to saying no, it suggests that authors with the means to do so have booking agents and/or managers to manage such requests. And, there are authors like one referenced in the article, who like many of us doesn’t have such a thing but has a friend who serves as her ‘manager’. “She doesn’t mind getting the few requests mailed to her home a year. She hands them over to me and I respond and sign her name…This way, I can truly pick and choose without the guilt.” I’m going to assume she doesn’t have people emailing her or facebooking her directly with requests. As for the in-person requests, they can be the most awkward of all. “I just say ‘I’m sorry. I can’t do that anymore.’ End of discussion. No excuses. No regrets.”
Wow. I haven’t quite mastered the “no excuses…no regrets” bit. Instead I plot ways that I can find a way to give, because, back to the beginning, it does feel good to help when we can (and if we’re being honest, there’s a promotional aspect as well, an opportunity to create awareness about our books I.e. our products and our services I.e. workshops etc). On the point of finding ways to create the opportunity you’d like to see and be a part of, I think back to the writing workshop I did in 2013 and how I asked businesses to sponsor participants so that the young people who were genuinely interested wouldn’t find themselves unable to do so due to lack of funds. My most recent stream of workshops had one business coming forward to sponsor one of the participants, their initiative not my request. Something like that might work for future school visits, if there was such a business or businesses so inclined. Because I have to say it felt really good being able to get out there and do school stops again earlier this year; I hope to do more. I hope to be able to do more.
But I also think more than one-off visits are needed, I do feel that in-school writing workshops would be beneficial to our students (especially when I consider that I’ve had at least one teacher reach out to me recently for tips on teaching narrative writing to his/her students); it’s one of the reasons it’s on my Jhohadli Writing Project menu of options.
Anyway, I share things of interest when I read them, here, on Wadadli Pen, on facebook, the O’Neill article is a good reminder to give where we can but to remember that we can only give so much, what we do not only has value, it also costs. I appreciated it, too, for, among other things, highlighting that it’s not a just-us thing, but, wherever you are, if you’re a working writer, just a thing…one of the many things we have to consider.
Tongues of the Ocean is an online Caribbean literary platform originating in the Bahamas under the stewardship of managing editor Nicolette Bethel. The current issue is guest edited by me and features literature and art from and about Antigua and Barbuda. I hope you’ll check it out. Here are some excerpts…it will be updated at a pace of about two new additions per week until the entire issue is live. Be sure to let the creators know what you think about their work. Thanks.
As I posted on social media about this piece, art inspires art. I remember writing my poem ‘One’ (published in the… She Sex anthology out of Trinidad) in response to a painting by Glenroy Aaron. I told him how his painting had inspired me when I sent him my poem ‘Summer 1’ (which had been published in The Missing Slate) simply because I was curious to see what it would look like visually and *hint hint* hoped it would inspire him. Aaron readily embraced the spirit of what I was suggesting, and captured the vibe of the poem without re-creating it in a literal sense. ‘Summer 1’ (the poem) will be republished in this special Antigua and Barbuda edition of the Tongues of the Ocean. Summer One by Glenroy Aaron is the cover image for the issue.
“I think that artists are essential catalysts of change; we have the power to raise consciousness, stimulate debate and promote change.” – Heather Doram during the roundtable discussion of Antiguan and Barbudan artists – this roundtable also includes Mark Brown, Emile Hill, and Glenroy Aaron, with art work by Aaron, Hill, Doram, and X-Saphair King.
“Near twenty years ago, my delight upon recognizing an intimate self in Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John was equal to my delight a few years prior when I re-discovered the Antiguan kaisonian, after years of a staple diet of Trinidadian kaisos. These two moments have plotted my trajectory to this current moment in which I am fresh from defending a doctoral thesis that intervened into the traditional obscuration of Antiguan and other ‘small-island’ narratives.” – Dr. Hazra Medica in an essay entitled Discretely Antiguan and Distinctly Caribbean
Here’s my introduction to the issue. Still to come, poetry, fiction, and art by… me, more from Aaron, King and Doram, also Marcus Christopher, Dorbrene O’Marde, Brenda Lee Browne, Gayle Gonsalves, Barbara Arrindell, Kimolisa Mings, Tameka Jarvis-George, Charles Langley, Tammi Browne-Bannister, Linisa George, and past Wadadli Pen finalists Shakeema Edwards, Devra Thomas, Rosalie Richards, Vega Armstrong, and Zion Ebony Williams – a WP selection, by the way, which spans the singled-out submission of our youngest contributor to date to new writing by our oldest winner to date. As satisfied as I am with the issue, I am especially pleased with the present and past Wadadli Pen voices in the mix because that feels like Wadadli Pen has played a part, however small, in developing new literary voices out of Antigua and Barbuda. We are here – Arwe Yah!