When dreams die, they die young: Confessions of a Writer Part I

When dreams die, they die young: Confessions of a Writer Part I

I knew from the first moment I looped twist ties through a thick stack of notebook paper with the edges still frayed that I wanted to be a writer. There was this feverish excitement to watch written words come alive. And when you’re six years old and add a few pictures sketched and colored with Crayola crayons, well you might as well be a NYTBSA.

Yep, six years old with these characters that seemed to come from nowhere. They were my creation, my friends and once they were out on paper they were no longer imaginary, they were real people.amazing_silhouette_photograph_14

I started telling anyone who would listen that I was going to be an author when I grew up. I was going to write fiction. I don’t know where I got such a big, complex dreams but it seemed I knew and understood them intuitively.

After a few years I stopped this ridiculous confession because as I looked around no one in my circle of influence was talking about writing books and authors and such. Do those people even get paid? What would you even write?

By sixth grade grownups were always asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up. By the looks on their faces I knew it had to be something that required college and a degree I could hang on the wall in my office.

When I grow up I want to be a psychologist.

When I said this people drew in long breaths and smiled with admiration. Psychologists were smart people. Educated folk, they said. This was a wise choice. With a clear head and a dedication to school I could become that or even an accountant. You see my Daddy said I should become an accountant and I could, once I learned how to be good with numbers. His brown eyes let up as if he could see it in his mind’s eyes.

Yes, I would be either a psychologist or an accountant as Daddy suggested.

My father worked at General Motors for 30 years. On the, weekends he wrote and read every day, for hours. About a year after he retired he died. After his death we found piles of notebooks filled with his writings. I wonder if anyone ever asked him what he wanted to be? I wonder when he sat in the big chair with his tall legs crossed looking over his bifocals writing in those notepads did he ever wish he could do that all day?

Well, I went to college and graduated with honors.  I got a Bachelor’s in Journalism so at least I would be sure to get paid if I just insisted on writing.

I don’t quite remember when my dream to become a fiction writer began to die. I suppose it was a slow process, like someone who is terminally ill and finally stops struggling against the inevitable. It’s almost a relief just to give in. There’s a feeling of satisfying indolence when you’re no longer struggling. I guess that must be what a physical death feels like.

When dreams die, they usually die young.

They die in the womb; at the point when they should be cared for the most, tended to to  make sure the roots are strong.  They don’t usually die brutally; but go the way of neglect. We stop speaking over them, we don’t feed them anymore. We smother them with the expectations from others, disappointments and fears we’ve learned from our environment and all the lies we tell ourselves.

Eventually, as a young woman, I discovered this little seed; hidden and long forgotten.  Stories played in my head, like when I was six. They needed to be recorded.

Whenever there is something still alive there is hope.

Not all dreams die young. Some dreams just refuse to die.

A story without sound conflict quickly fails

Everyone likes a happy ending. But in order to fully appreciate it there has to be some stuff that comes before it; a struggle, a cause, a problem. It is this which makes us appreciate the protagonist triumphing. Now, many works of fiction don’t become a tedious read because the subject matter is boring—I read a variety of genres. Most become problematic because the conflict is not defined, we couldn’t care less if the protagonist lives or dies, or there is too much drama drowning out the central focus of the story, thus taking our focus off the real conflict (if there is any).

 I critiqued a story for a young man about a football player caught doing drugs and a former member of the team found out about it and threatened to expose him, in which case he would’ve been kicked off the team. And the conflict was just as plain and flat as the sentence I just wrote. The thing which drives conflict is the extinct to which we feel we know or connect with the protagonist or the person for whom the conflict is against. If their character is too general (all we know about them is the way they look, for example), too cookie cutter (dumb jock or blonde, nerdy with glasses, angry or cool Black person) or if we don’t in some way connect with them, frankly we won’t much care what happens to them. Characters are so multi-dimensional and flawed we want to see all of that because on some level they are as we are; imperfect and complex. And we feel a psychological need to “protect” this person.

Other times there is so much going on it’s like spooning our way through a bowl of mystery stew. Mind you, drama and conflict are not the same things. Conflict is the battle that your protagonist faces; drama is all the stuff within the conflict. But if there is too much drama or if there is so much going on without a focus it becomes convoluted and just way too much to care about, especially if the drama isn’t centered toward one central conflict. For instance a Black family is being discriminated because they moved to an all-white neighborhood and the neighborhoods hate them, their employers are threatening to fire them, and the people are their kids’ schools shun them. All of it is centered around being discriminated. But if, in addition to that, the wife’s mother is dying of cancer, the husband is having an affair, the daughter is thinking about dating an older guy and the son is diagnosed with dyslexia, well, that’s a whole lot happening and the central conflict of the story is in jeopardy of being over shadowed–unless of course we can somehow tie it into the central theme and even then…

If you notice often biopics are narrowed to the central theme of a story, even if in real life the protagonist had much more going on. If we have too much to care about, we stop caring about any of it.  Often it seems as if writers feel the need to have a lot of drama going on in order to make the story interesting. But if the central conflict is focused and intent, if you can deftly build character and suspense, you will find that you need less “stuff.”

In Martha Southgate’s, A Taste of Salt, all of Josie’s family members had issues to deal with but they were all centered on the problem of addiction.  In Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale, all of the friends had their individual trouble, but it was about the general issue of the women finding themselves. In Joyce Carol Oates, We Were the Mulvaney’s , all of the family members had issues to battle but all  focused on the central conflict of the story, which was dealing with the rape of the daughter.

Conflict is like the filet mignon or the main course of a meal. If it is under or overcooked or drowning in sauce, we will not walk away praising the vegetables and potatoes. We will be griping about that awful meat. But if the filet is good we will talk about it for days and forget that the veggies came from a can.

Book Review: The Taste of Salt

Book Review: The Taste of Salt

When doing book reviews I try to feature new, upcoming talent. I love the freshness and enthusiasm of new authors. But when I recently read, The Taste of Salt by Martha Southgate I knew I had to do a review. The Taste of Salt is the story of Josie Henderson an African-American marine biologist who happens to come from a family where substance addiction has been prevalent for the past two generations.taste of salt

Josie moved away from Cleveland, Ohio years ago leaving behind the pain and ill memories of growing up with her alcoholic father, Ray. Later her brother Tick would struggle with that same addiction and then some. Although her father has since recovered and is now living soberly while trying to make amends with his damaged family, her brother Tick is right in the midst of his battle.

The story begins with her coming back to her hometown to release her brother from his latest stint in rehab. According to Josie, it’s the least she could do considering she has kept her distance from Cleveland and her family for many years. The city has deteriorated, and like her family it brings her shame and disappointment. She lives with her husband in the comfortable, quaint town of Woods Hole. We don’t know the exact location of the city except that it is near the ocean. She loves her job, loves the ocean as it is the place where she feels the most at home. It is the thing she has become the most connected to.

Upon releasing Tick from rehab everything changes. It is now that she begins to face the family demons from which she has run from for so many years. Her relationship with her father is strained at best. She has trouble accepting the fact that he is clean. There is so much pain and so much left unsaid. And although she was extremely close to her brother growing up, his addictions have damaged ties and neither of them seem to be able to fix them.

Her brother Tick struggles soon after his release from the facility, loses his job and stops attending AA meetings. Off the wagon again, his mother puts him out and he finds himself at Josie’s doorstop; no one else will deal with him. She hasn’t talked about her family much to her husband. How could he possibly understand? He has a white middle-class upbringing and no kind of experience with this kind of dysfunction. She has been able to avoid exposing this part of her life until now.  Here in Woods Hole Josie must face this generational demon if she is to save her brother–and herself. It is here where she must come to herself and face her own demons.

The Taste of Salt seamlessly alternates points of view from Josie’s, to Ray’s, and to Tick’s and back again. It is written mostly in first person and is told in manner in which a story is told to a dear friend. This narrator hides nothing. She glosses over nothing. She never pretends to find all of the answers.

But with poignancy she chronicles how it all begins with the slow death of unrealized dreams, life’s let-downs and, for reasons inexplicable, the urge to continue bad behavior at the risk of losing it all.

Southgate writes boldly, sometimes simplistically, but always engaging. The Taste of Salt is filled with heartbreak and hope. It is about family and the power that binds it. It’s one of those novels that settles itself deep into your soul and rests there until you are thinking of those characters long after the last page has been read.

Write what you know: writing outside of your cultural experience

SnoopDogg1andMarthaMost of us have limited cultural experiences. If you’re white, you hang out with mostly white friends; your church and various groups are filled with people who look like you. If you’re Black you look around the congregation on Sunday morning into a sea of colored faces; the radio jock you listen to on the ride into work tells jokes that affirm your cultural experience. Asians and Latin Americans have the same story. I’m not judging. I’m just stating facts.

We stay within a level of comfort so it is not surprising that when we write it is geared toward the audience with which we most identify. Notice I say most of us, because there are some of us, who have had enough variation to write outside of the scope of a single audience. And this all works well except when it doesn’t. When you decide you want to add a little color to your work and the Blacks are all saying things like “yo man” or “what’s happening” or they’re all snarky or angry, or the whites use the word “like” more times than humanly possible or the Asians all speak with broken English; it is then we have a problem. It is a tricky thing to take on a character or a setting of a different ethnicity without trudging in the dirty waters of stereotype and hence peeving off dual audiences.

Earlier this month I talked about writing what you know or knowing what you write, both phrases are basically equal except, writing what you know is drawing on experiences you already own and knowing what you write is reaching and learning so that your knowledge and experience increase and now you can write with a new level of understanding.

We tread lightly when it comes to bringing other ethnic groups into our writing and if you don’t know what you’re doing you very well should.  Sapphire the author of Push, the basis of the movie Precious does it, with the broken dialect and dark life of this teenager girl. Although the author is Black, it is still a culture unfamiliar to the author. James Patterson brought it with his character Detective Alex Cross; the complexity of the character is what is evident. Author Kathryn Stockett did it well with The Help. And she admitted she was a little concerned about using dialect associated with many Southern Blacks of the time in fear of insulting, stereotyping or appearing to mock. And still she was criticized. I personally loved the book and thought it was an honest portrayal. I’m reading and seeing my grandmother and great-grandmother throughout the pages and marveling at how she was able to capture not just the dialogue or the text, but the subtext; movements and things not said but implied. I read the book because I was attracted to the cover. I hadn’t read her bio yet. I didn’t know her history. But when I did I thought “ahh”. You see she had a close relationship her family’s help growing up. It was a risky thing to assume to know what was in the mind of this group.

It is important, I believe to step into that divide to try our hand at something different and daring, but only after we can paint a complete picture. To pretend to know the life of a gang banger and only see his violence or anger is doing it void of experience. Assuming to know the life of a middle class white woman living in Westchester County would be disingenuous for a Black woman raised in the Bronx, unless she knew her story. Simply watching does not an experience make. It’s empathizing and finding that humanity which connects you with the subject. And even with the most deprave people or situations there is that humanity which connects us. To tap into the part, to connect to the human spirit is when we start to know, when we can create and then make the story our own.

As writers we have the privilege to share what we know, by creating new stories. In doing so you may evoke more questions than you answer. And that is where the real story begins.

Black Women Writers to Celebrate

Black Women Writers to Celebrate

zora-neale-hurstonAs I reflect this month in which we celebrate women’s history I feel compelled to share with you a couple of women writers that rank high upon my shelves.

When I first attempted to read, Zora Neale Hurston’s, There Eyes Were Watching God, many years ago, I have to admit I just couldn’t get through it. The dialect of broken English was just a little too much. Some years passed and I don’t remember why, but I picked it up again. I’m glad I did.

For those of you not familiar with it, this is the story of Janie Crawford, the grToni-Morrisonanddaughter of a former slave who rejects the notion of marrying simply to establish a solid home and financial stability. During a time when this was much more than someone of her stature could hope for this was no light matter.

Her grandmother, who she calls Nanny, became pregnant by her slave owner and fears that her granddaughter will become “a mule” by some man if she doesn’t quickly get her married.  She arranges for her to marry Logan Killicks because he will provide the status and financial security she feels her granddaugghter needs; love is neither necessary nor relevant. Nanny’s destiny was chosen for her, she wants better for her granddaughter. Janie has higher hopes. She longs for true love and can’t imagine settling for anything less.

She eventually finds it in Vergible Woods, better known as Teacake.  He is a good looking stranger who enraptures her with his guitar playing and free spirit. He seems to be from nowhere and everywhere.

She is in her forties when her second husband a prominent man in an all-black town in Southern Florida, dies. Despite their age difference and his lack of any type of status, she runs off with Teacake and marries him despite the whispers and gasps of the town folk. Janie narrates the story, which is a reflective one.

Their Eyes Were watching God, taps into the human spirit and the quest in all of us to find that one that makes us have to remind ourselves to breath.

Hurston dared to write such a novel during a time when women and especially Black women wouldn’t think to flaunt their dissatisfaction with traditional roles so publically and unabashedly. She does it uniquely, tastefully and in a way that transcends time, race or culture.

My other look-back is The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. Morrison is a master storyteller and possesses this ability to tap into the most intimate parts of the human spirit,bluest eye awakening her reader.

This is the story of Pecola Breedlove; the girl is as black as night and equally as ugly– at least in the eyes of others and thereafter, in her own eyes. Taking on the role she believes society has given her, a role subservient to her white counterparts, she desires to be a white girl with blue eyes. For her this seems to be the sought-after standard of beauty.

The story is told mainly from the point of view of Claudia, whose family has taken in TheirEyesWereWatchingGodPecola because of issues she’s having with her family, namely her incestuous relationship with her father. Claudia is proud of her blackness and indignant at Pecola’s desire to be something other than Black.

Although issues of racism and sexuality and self-worth are thematic throughout, Morrison has a way of weaving them into a well-told story.

Take some time to check out both books. And if you have already, they are certainly worth a second look.