For 80 days, I’ve opened up The 100 Best African American Poemsand read one poem a day. With 20 days to go, I’ve got a few weeks of reading left. What a perfect way to start the day during Black History Month, reading our most prolific Black poets in this beautiful collection edited by Nikki Giovanni.
In the wake of the Black Lives Matters protests, I read several books about racism and was struck by the concept of”othering” as explained by Toni Morrison, in The Origin of Others. I had experienced that “othering” regard when I lived in France, but it had never prevented me from getting a job, or a place to live, or eating in a restaurant, or staying in a hotel. What if it had? What if that were my experience here, at home, in my own country? The fact is, this is the experience of many BIPOC Americans and residents in the US, an ugly truth I can no longer ignore.
When 100 Poems arrived at my local book store, I was overfull with new thoughts and concepts from the many books I had read. I surrendered myself to poetry where I could immerse myself in the familiar realm of feelings and I trusted Nikki Giovanni to guide me. Nikki had been my first poet. Her book Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day was the first book of poetry I ever owned, a gift from my mother after I placed in a poetry contest at 17. As a teen, I had copied whole stanzas of her poems into my journals to express what I had no words for yet.
Read it all at once, listen to the CD that comes with the book, or do what I am doing: linger over one poem a day. Let it sink in that every person loves, strives, suffers and aims to stand up again. We will stand taller as a nation when we stop seeing each other as an “other” and help everyone to stand up and thrive.
P.S. And yet this is not an after-thought, but an after-discovery: here is another poem written on the occasion of the Biden/Harris Inauguration, by Jericho Brown, one of the poets in The 100 Best African American Poems and a winner of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. Try reading this without tears Go on. Try.
After two weeks of not writing, I was stuck. Frozen. My draft of a middle grade novel felt as remote as actual middle school. For a week, my hands were too busy gripping a steering wheel or a map for 3,000 miles as I drove with my daughter back from college. But then a second week of not writing followed for less concrete reasons and the creative juices of flow cooled to slow-moving mud.
My cousin Kathy rescued me with a writing prompt that was meant as a conversation starter. Around the 2000th mile of my trip, she met us for lunch and generously gave us a goody bag of Lara Bars for the trip. A small notecard poked out of the bag. “That’s just for a fun. It’s a college essay question. See if you can answer it,” she said. The card said, simply, “Describe your top ten.” Already missing my daily writing routine, I knew writing and books would have something to do with the answer.
A thousand miles later, my daughter and I arrived home. The end of summer presented its own To Do list: host the Labor Day BBQ, help a grape harvest intern get settled, have dinner with a teacher friend before school started, see my nephew and his girlfriend before they moved back to Wisconsin, and help my daughter pack for a long trip. The excuses for not writing grew and grew.
At some point my laptop probably sent up a flare but I wasn’t quite ready to be found yet. Finally, when the the immediacy of my middle grade characters were fading from memory and I’d skipped two weekly blog posts, I stopped dithering, gathered up some of my favorite books on writing and opened them, one by one. Help me, I implored them. I need to get going again. And they answered.
Here’s a sample of what ten of my top books on writing, creativity and self-improvement had to say:
1. Poet Denise Levertov reminded me that I was in process. In her book the poet in the world, she nailed it: “….Then there’s that period of irritable brewing, sometimes – knowing there’s something pending, getting clues, flashes, losing it again….” She was right. I was still woolgathering.
2. In the 1990 classic Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life, Nathalie Goldberg quoted writing teacher Kate Green: “If you want to write, you have to be willing to be disturbed.” She didn’t mean by people – she meant by your demons, your memories, your preoccupations, but I got the picture. “Be willing to split open,” she said.
3. Then I turned to R. J. Palacio‘s wonderful book of quotations, 365 Days of Wonder. The book opened at September 2nd with a quote from Horace, “Begin, be bold, and venture to be wise.” The balance of courage and reflection sounded just right.
4. In The Crossroads of Should and Must: Find and Follow Your Passion, author and artist Elle Luna reminded me why I bothered to care about my writing at all: “It is a constant effort and hard work…to honor who you are, what you believe, and why you are here. To choose Must is the greatest thing you can do with your life because this congruent, rooted way of living shines through everythingthat you do.”
5. Daniel Goleman, in Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence reminded me that its not enough to simply write for 10,000 hours to achieve my goal; I have to improve as I go and focus on the deliberate practice of the craft. Remembering this time and again makes me turn writing into deliberate practice, with a goal in mind.
6. …And yet I need to write faster – before the story grows stale. In On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King says, “…the first draft of a book – even a long one – should take no more than three months, the length of a season. Any longer and – for me, at least – the story begins to take on an odd foreign feel, like a dispatch from the Romanian Department of Public Affairs, or something broadcast on high-band shortwave….” I already felt a chilly distance from my work in progress. It reminded me of my critique partner Hillary Homzie’s advice: write as fast as you can, and don’t stop!
7. Opening up Author in Progress,Barbara O’Neal‘s chapter “Write Like You Mean It” agreed with the idea of drafting quickly: “…Do not use the Internet. Do not check e-mail. Do not search for a fact that you think you need…Writers have argued with me over this – but the bottom line is, if you break, you end the trance.”
8. Anne Lamott came to the rescue with humor and wisdom. In the classic writing book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, she says: “Try looking at your mind as a wayward puppy that you are trying to paper train. You don’t drop-kick a puppy into the neighbor’s yard every time it piddles on the floor. You just keep bringing it back to the newspaper.”
9. Elizabeth Gilbert provided me with a new mantra, in Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear: “So try saying this: ‘I enjoy my creativity.’ And when you say it, be sure to actually mean it.”
At this point last night, it was midnight and there were ten open books splayed across two desks. It was time to get back to work on drafting my novel whether I felt ready or not. (I enjoy my creativity! I enjoy my creativity!) I opened one last book.
10. …and read Joan Didion’s essay, “On Keeping a Notebook.” I found it reprinted in The Making of a Story, by Alice LaPlante. Joan says, “…I think we are all well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not…We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget.”
Her words reminded me that if the Reluctant Me didn’t get moving, the Writerly Me would rise up and clobber us both at some time. What a shame that would be when I learn from them both.
Levertov, Denise. the poet in the world. New York: New Directions, 1973.
Goldberg, Natalie. Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life.New York: Bantam New Age, 1990.
Palacio, R.J. 365 Days of Wonder. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.
Luna, Elle. The Crossroads of Should and Must: Find and Follow Your Passion.New York: Workman Publishing, 2015.
Goleman, Daniel. Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. New York: Harper, 2013.
King, Stephen.On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. New York: Scribner, 2000.
Lamott, Anne.Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. New York and San Francisco: Pantheon Books, 1994.
Gilbert, Elizabeth. Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. New York: Riverhead Books, 2015.
Didion, Joan. “On Keeping a Notebook.” In Slouching Toward Bethlehem. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1961. I read the essay in Alice LaPlante’s The Making of a Story. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007.