Writing Inspiration: Keep Going

Can anything be sadder than work left unfinished? Yes; work never begun. -– Christina Rossetti

hopeHorrified by the racial prejudice, bigotry, threats, violence, threats of violence – displayed during the primaries leading up to the 2008 Presidential election, I was desperate for comfort and hope. I prayed that the behavior displayed by some of my fellow Americans were a part of some big, cosmic joke.

That, unfortunately, was NOT the case.

I was one of the hold outs regarding the Barack Obama’s bid. The way I figured it, given that so many Americans were showing their ass, either the Democratic nominating committee would choose another candidate (Yay, Hilary!) or if nominated, he would be assassinated before elections – either physically or figuratively – someone would find some horrible, deep dark secret to disgrace him.

Right up to election night, I held back. The emotional cost would be too much if he failed and I knew I couldn’t handle the emotional wringer. One way or another, this country would let me down. Again.

I had been praying for comfort which came in the form of a 16 year old runaway slave in the early 1800s. She started whispering her story to me, sharing her helplessness, her pain . . . her strength and internal power. After a brutal rape by the plantation owner, she is nursed back to health and was cautioned to accept that this was the way her life would be until she died. Niomi prayed for death. Instead, she time-traveled to the American South 2008.

It was like a door opened. Two elderly ladies, best friends for nearly fifty years, retired teachers, both widows . . . super sharp. Well-respected in the community – they taught most of them and so it just seemed a natural evolution that folk would start taking their problems to them.

These ladies were followed by a 30-something young woman with self-esteem issues who kept choosing the wrong people in her life out of her own doubts that she could never measure up and because of that, she did not deserve better. Well, she comes to an understanding that she is/was the reincarnation of an Ethiopian princess.

Anyway, the point of this post is work left unfinished or never started at all. Niomi opened the floodgates and people have been showing up since then. The happiest of times were the days I finally committed to putting her story on paper, so to speak. I loved the story she shared and spent every waking moment trying to do her justice. But I never finished.

I had this ambition notion to write a novel and had not the slightest clue how to do it. When I got half a clue, I was swept away by Ima, who is the characterization of Niomi in modern day. Ima’s story became the basis for the novel I’m currently drafting, KAOS.

So, election night 2007, I huddled in front of my television just like every one else on the planet. When the results were announced, another dam broke. I cried until my chest and sides were sore, until my throat hurt and my eyes were raw. Such a burden had been lifted, one I hadn’t even fully realized I even bore. I cared. I hoped and dreamed along with the rest of the country.

Don’t get me wrong, I held no illusions that I would wake up on the day President Obama took his oath of office and America would enter a transformed state of utopia. No, that wasn’t the hope or the joy. That came from recognizing that in one of the rare moments in America’s history, black and brown people put aside differences and pettiness and worked together. I saw something of myself in Barack Obama and was inspired that I could reach my mountaintop too.

Niomi was quiet in the aftermath of the election. Everybody else was clamoring for position, even a few new folk showed up, demanding equal time on the page. I’ve accommodated them. I have written their stories to the best of my ability and am still polishing on others.

I miss Niomi. Her presence freed me from a creative drought where my storytelling and writing took a back seat to self-doubt – that feeling of uncertainty about my ability to accomplish something, insecurity – that dark shadow that lead me to hesitate and take the first step to reaching for my dreams. Dreams I never fully realized I had . . . until Niomi.

One final lesson I learned from Niomi . . . patience. I’m sad and I miss her but I can feel her, just over my shoulder, smiling as the others continue to jockey for position.

She knows that her time is coming.

Settings – A Celebration of Memphis

SAM_0104I love my hometown of Memphis TN. I’ve lived in various places around the country but when it was time to settle, I chose home.

Memphis figures prominently in both my novel as well as many of the short stories I’ve published over the years. Part of me rebels that the only thing people think of when they think of Memphis is Elvis Presley and Graceland (no disrespect intended. The man is all that and a bunch of cookies in my book, he gave my aunt a Cadillac in the 70’s).

But the city is much richer that popular media presents. Like any urban dwelling, it has ugliness but there are parts of the city that take your breath away. One of the sweetest sites when traveling home after a long absence is the Tennessee-Arkansas bridge over the Mississippi River.

Eula ch 3Robert B Church Park features prominently in the opening scenes of KAOS. It nestles in downtown Memphis and is land donated by one of the city’s first African American millionaires. It was designated as one of the few places in the city black citizens could gather in a safe space. To this day, the tradition continues where events such as Africa in April and other open air festivals

Micah’s condo is located on Mud Island, a tiny peninsula just off the bluff. ariach5It’s a bit ritzy for a cop salary but let’s just say that he is a good planner and manager of his money. That VA loan came in handy.

ch 6 judgeMuch of the action takes place at 201 Poplar, which houses the Shelby County Jail and Memphis Police Department. Imagine having this view to clear your mind after a long day dealing with criminal types all day?

What are your favorite spots in Memphis?

Writing Inspiration: A Room Of Your Own

imagination

Writing is finally about one thing: going into a room alone and doing it. Putting words on paper that have never been there in quite that way before. -– William Goldman

One of the scariest parts about writing fiction? Being in a room alone with nothing more than you and a blank computer screen.

But first, you gotta get past the internal editor, the external critics, the tangential angst, the job, the kids . . . okay, you get the picture. Once you’re in the zone though, imagination flows and amazing things happen. It doesn’t matter if your words are grammatically correct or that you’ve got the right sentence or story structure (not at that point, anyway). What matters is that you have allowed your imagination take you on an incredible journey, and maybe even captured a glimpse into yourself. Whether you write literary fiction, fantasy, mystery, suspense, romance, horror . . . it doesn’t matter, genre is irrelevant. To paraphrase the opening to Star Trek, writing takes you “boldly where no man has gone before.”

That’s amazing!

Then . . . more angst.

I get messages in my inbox all the time with advice on writing:  how to write, what to write, when to write, how not to write, WHY AREN’T YOU WRITING?, who are you writing . . . and so on. And I read every single post, because I want to improve my craft, right?

But really, at those early stages . . . who needs the pressure?  When it’s just you and the blank screen, why limit the journey? Spending too much time focused on the end product stifles me, and frankly, takes the joy out of it. I’m so busy trying to write within certain parameters, that I lose . . . me.

So, I sit in my room, alone. I boot up the computer, shut out the internal editor, the external critics, the tangential angst, the job, the kids . . . Forget about grammar and structure . . .

And I write.

Because that’s what writers do.

Writing Inspirations: What’s Your Story?

Don’t forget — no one else sees the world the way you do, so no one else can tell the stories that you have to tell.-– Charles de Lint

Several years ago, early into my fiction workshop at VONA, our facilitator expressed a similar sentiment. He started the discussion: “Why are you the one who is writing this story?”

A quick glance around the table showed me that most of us in the room wore the same puzzled expression. The answers varied from “I don’t know, it just sounded cool” to “this is the story of my family” or “I want people to know about this issue”.

I was the 6th or 7th person to be called upon and by the time Chris Abani got to me, I was still no closer to knowing just how I would answer. I decided not to try to bullshit my way through. “I don’t know, these two ladies just sort of came to me one day and would not shut up until I recorded their story.”

“But why you? Why are you the one to tell their story?” Chris was pushing, just as he had everyone else before me. I felt heat flush my face and a queasiness in my stomach as I fought the urge to snap at him.

“Chris,” I said, forcing a confident smile. “I’m not writing a memoir or a political essay or a nonfiction biography. I write commercial fiction, mysteries, suspense. Mama Lou and Ethel Mae are fun and they have great adventures solving crimes. People bring them their problems. Most of the time, it involves someone who’s dead or about to get that way. I like to kill people in my stories. It keeps me sane.”

I felt my tension ease at the laughter that erupted from my peers and was confident that he would move on to the next person, but Chris’s intense gaze never faltered.

“It doesn’t matter what genre you write,” Chris said over the mirth. “You’re not the first person to write a mystery series featuring elderly sleuths. So, why tell it? We’ve read these stories a hundred times.”

“But you haven’t read MY story,” I insisted. “Mama Lou and Ethel Mae are unique because . . .” I spent a minute or two expressing what I loved about these two characters and why I was certain the world was just waiting for the opportunity to meet them. Chris watched me closely, without interruption, his gaze still intense and probing.

My voice trailed away as heat pulsed behind my eyes. I swallowed and forced air in my lungs. People who know me well know I’m a damned cry baby but I was determined that I would not shed even one tear. This was not fuckin’ group therapy for heaven’s sake, it was a professional writing workshop and if this dude made me cry, I was going to be really angry and I was going to ditch every class from that point forward and spend the rest of my time in Miami at South Beach in a bikini!

The room was deadly quiet except for the occasional sniffle made by one of my peers he had already broken down. Later, when I would recall this moment, I would challenge myself and question why he was able to push my buttons. Anger, frustration, even feared warred within me and this stranger had done it in less than five minutes.

And I would be honest and confess that I did not like having strangers SEE my buttons much less PUSH them at will. I am a private neurotic. I didn’t like having a mirror held up to me, showing how much of myself was  revealed in my writing despite the distance I thought I had just making up fun characters in my head. It was all there, my personal strengths and weaknesses, my insecurities and angst. It was like that time in the 7th grade when I got my period and walked around the entire school in soiled, skin-tight white jeans. I especially didn’t like having the boy I was crushing on to point that out to me.

“Your characters are you. They develop out of your experiences, history, personality, desires. There is a reason why you choose to write about two eighty year old black women in the South. These women are powerful in an understated, no-nonsense kind of way. Everyone around them recognizes it. That’s why the community takes their problems to them. They are female, black, and elderly . . . factors that in our society are frequently overlooked, undervalued and certainly underestimated but YOU create them to show the world that they are still valuable.”

Chris’s voice softened and the glossy sheen in his eyes spilled over and rolled slowly down his cheeks. “Your writing reflects your need to be strong and valued.”

After I got through snotting, along with everyone else in my group, I considered what he was trying to tell us. The genre in which we write is irrelevant, as he said. Good writing comes from a writer’s willingness to be transparent on the page. Not in a navel-gazing, false-suffering (Chris-ism) sort of way but in a way that adds emotional honesty and allows the reader to connect and share the  experience.

Not everyone who reads The Misadventures of Mama Lou are elderly, female and black. I’m two out of three but I have close relationships with several of my elders and this helps me estimate their decision making. I may have a reader who meets none of these demographics but may still be able to relate to the need for acceptance or has had to cheer for the underdog.

They say there is nothing new under the sun and every story has been told before and I suppose to some extent that is true, there are themes and premises that tend to repeat in storytelling. Still, as Mr. de Lint says at the top of this piece, no one can tell a story like you.

Happy Writing!

Before I go, Voices of Our Nations Arts (VONA) is now accepting applications for their 2016 summer workshops in Miami. VONA is the only multi-genre workshop for writers of color in the nation, bringing writers of color from the margins to a community where their work is centralized and honored. Do yourself a favor and apply here.

Sensations

A successful life is one that is in balance. My soon-to-be-completed novel, KAOS, features not only a protagonist, as mentioned here last week, but also his nemesis, not to be confused with the antagonist, who I’ll introduce at a later date. By definition:

Nemesis, winged balancer of life,
dark-faced goddess, daughter of Justice,

Other definitions: something a person cannot overcome or conquer, an opponent or rival whom a person cannot best.

These definitions describe Ima to a T. Micah spends most of the book trying to figure out if Ima is the enemy or on the side of the angels. She doesn’t even try to make it easy for him. But it is through his journey with her, he sees and conquers the darkness within himself.

This is how I picture Ima:

The E.N.D.

Man, I wish . . . no, I can’t wait until I finally write these tiny but powerful two words at the end of my novel, KAOS. I’ve been working on this story for the past couple years. Several times, I walked away or set it aside for other projects but Micah and Ima would not leave me alone.

So, I keep going.

A well-intentioned friend asked, “What’s taking so long? You’ve been talking about this story and working on this book forever.” Or that family member, “You STILL working on that book?”

So, yeah, I felt a little shitty afterwards. That question set off all kinds of insecure warning bells.

“You’re not a writer. Writers produce and finish their projects. Remember that writer we met who declared that she wrote a novel from start to finish in six weeks? Stop playing, this will never be more than a hobby. Nobody cares what you have to say.”

And on and on. I won’t bore you with a complete run-down of my neuroses. But it was after one of these conversations that I stepped away from my writing. A period of drought, a nagging sense of dissatisfaction. It wasn’t until I forced myself back in front of my computer that I felt anywhere near normal again.

But I’m a natural optimist, I may stumble but I always get back up. I remind myself why I started writing. Why this story feels so personal and my awareness of my characters so intimate. I remind myself that I don’t have an MFA though I’m constantly looking for opportunities to develop my craft. When I look back over my early writing samples, I see the progress in my ability to tell the story that lives in my heart. I relish in the knowledge that I will never write another first book again, so I focus on the PROCESS and not the end result.

And so it goes.

KAOS will be completed and it will be everything I’ve hoped and dreamed of because . . .

The E.N.D means “Effort Never Dies”.

Visions

The protagonist in my soon-to-debut novel, KAOS, is Detective Micah Langston Hughes. He’s a Memphis cop, task force leader and boy, does he have problems with the ladies.

In the book, I’ve described Micah as six-feet four, caramel complexion, with hazel eyes. However, in his more dangerous moments, when he is creating havoc and chaos, this is what I see:

Lawd have mercy!

I’ve got to get back to work!