The Practice of Creativity

Posts Tagged ‘Toni Morrison

As you know by now, the country has lost one of the greatest writers ever to use the English language–Toni Morrison.

There have been several wonderful and poignant remembrances about her:

In the Paris Review: Creative folks (writers and a photographer) remembering Toni Morrison. Made me laugh and choke up. Fran Lebowitz’s memories about Toni are funny (who knew how much Toni loved dessert–can’t we all identify with that?) and poignant as she talks about Toni’s ability to forgive.This is how we all wish to be remembered by those who knew us well–as living big, full and messy lives and giving all we have to our art and each other. And, of course the peculiarities that our friends love about us.
(credit to Austin Kleon’s newsletter where I first saw the link)
https://www.theparisreview.org/…/20…/08/06/remembering-toni/

My wonderful AROHO (A Room of Her Own Foundation) friend, Cassandra Lane wrote a powerful homage:

And this from The New Yorker feature with several writers reflecting on Morrison’s legacy:

If it hadn’t been for Toni’s Morrison’s “Sula,” I would never have been able to write the book that is “Another Brooklyn.” If not for the many readings of “The Bluest Eye,” half of the books I’ve written for young people would not be in the world. So many writers, so many writers that are women, so many writers that are black know this to be true—because of Toni Morrison, we are. Because of her, I am.

—Jacqueline Woodson

(thanks to Heloise Jones for posting on her Facebook page)

I thought I would write a very short memory about Toni Morrison, one that I have been carrying around for some time. Well, it turned out a lot longer than anticipated. It’s really a beginning meditation on creativity, my alma mater, Bard College and being a student of color in the 1980s. It turned out deeply personal:

A different kind of Toni Morrison memory…

I discovered Toni Morrison in the Language and Thinking program that was required of all first-year students admitted to Bard College. The year was 1987. ‘L&T’ took place a few days before the start of the semester and provided an opportunity for students to socialize and experience humanities classes in the traditional, intimate seminar style that defined Bard. I see myself then, a fiercely proud young woman, excited to be at Bard, but already feeling a bit off kilter by the extreme affluence and whiteness of the student body. [To give you a sense of this, Bard’s student body during the years I attended, 1987-91 was around 900 students. I would say that at any given time there were about 50 or fewer self-identifying students of color. I remember 3 Black faculty on campus, one tenured, one a visiting professor and the other person was Chinua Achebe, who came during my junior year]. I remember being the only African American student in my L &T group of about 12 students. We had a wonderful instructor, a white guy, whose name is now lost to me who had us read different selections from novels during the week. Typically, the L&T professors were not Bard professors and I believe they brought much needed fresh perspectives and new texts into this endeavor.

On one of the days, the instructor had us read the opening pages of Sula. For those of you who have read Sula, you may remember that it begins with exposition of how Black residents in a small fictional town in Ohio came to occupy ‘The Bottom’. It’s beautifully written and deftly reveals the horror of disenfranchisement and segregation that marked much of 19th and 20th century America. I felt exposed and vulnerable, both as a reader and a student. Who was this writer to expose truths and ideas so deep that it cut to the core? I’m sure the teacher wanted to demonstrate how a writer could so thoroughly and expertly engage questions of history, community and identity in a few short pages. The educator in me is almost positive that he said that the author was African American. I don’t actually remember, but I know that at some point in the class I thought the author was white. I somewhere along the line, in realizing Morrison was Black, then turned my anger on her—how dare she write about these difficult things! How dare her that I have to read them? How dare the power of her words to completely refashion my psyche in the midst of a classroom, in front of strangers?

I’m not proud of this memory, but there it is.

[I was still coming out of my young adulthood pre-racial consciousness in wondering why there had to be a magazine like Essence, instead of one for ‘all of us’. I was slowly realizing that color-blind approaches didn’t work in confronting systemic oppression]

It was probably the first time that I so powerfully experienced being in a classroom being both hypervisible and also invisible because of the intersection between the text taught and my own subjectivity. I don’t remember saying one word during that class. Of the white students who did talk, I wonder of their experience. Did they have to treat the text as distant and almost ethnographic or did it shatter their ideas of America, too? Most of them did look at me at some point in the class to say something and what did they make of my refusal? Defiance? Ignorance? Embarrassment?

I am, of course, grateful to this instructor who had us read and think about Toni Morrison’s words. He went on to become an early champion of my creative writing. As an instructor now, I am very attentive to thinking about who is in the room when I am assigning various texts, especially fiction. I think about not just the analytical points I want the work of the text to do, but how will it land with students across their multiple and intersecting identities.

By sophomore year, I did embrace Toni Morrison and devoured her work. I have fond memories of summer vacations reading one of her books.

Toni Morrison-ness was also invoked in my creative writing classes. Although I graduated a political studies major, my true love was English and creative writing and I came very close to being a double major. In most of my creative writing classes, every writing assignment I turned in leaned toward ‘non-realism’ or speculative fiction. This was not always appreciated. And, trust me, at the time, few of my English professors (except one teaching ‘Women and Writing’) had heard of or read Ursula LeGuin, Margaret Atwood or Octavia Butler. Some of my writing professors, however, also struck me as fundamentally lazy in their reading habits. They did not appear to have read widely in 20th century African American literature. So, they would say things like…”you write so well, it reminds me of Toni Morrison.” This happened several times. I guarantee you that I did not write as well as Toni Morrison—it was just the only Black female author they had bothered to read. They weren’t reading Ntozake Shange, Gwendolyn Brooks, Paule Marshall, Alice Walker, Jean Toomer (male) and others whose work I was also consuming and trying very hard to emulate.

As much as I loved attending Bard, Bard for many students of color was a difficult place to exist socially, politically, and aesthetically.

In writing about Morrison, I see that I am also writing about how my generation of creatives of color (now in our late 40s or early 50s) were often not nurtured by our PWI college environments. Many of us were tokenized, our creative work often dismissed, ignored or trivialized. This is not necessarily news, but important for me to say at this point in my life.
We ultimately had to find our own role models and build our own canons. Toni Morrison, despite our rocky start became part of the bedrock of my canon. I love her work and when I can, I teach her novel, Love, to our Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies class. Many fall in love with her right away and many have already read some of her work in high school or other college classes. Times do change, thankfully.

I will, like so many Black creatives, always be in her debt.

 

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Ever look at the words ‘flailing’ and ‘failing’?

One definition of flail is ‘to wave or swing vigorously; thrash’. The word flail always reminds me of Grover from Sesame Street with his blue arms up in the air running around, being dramatic.

Writing often feels easy, until it’s not. We get stuck, hit a bump, and don’t know how to fix it.

I’ve always like the word flail because that is what I feel like I do on the page sometimes when I get stumped.

We can try writing prompts, freewriting, word sprints, delete sections, move the end to the beginning, write six fresh ways to open the essay or story, etc. If we’re being kind to ourselves, we know flailing about in our writing is no big deal. We just keep trying new things.

If our inner critic is awake and cranky, it will tell us that we are ‘failing’. It will tell us that if we were really good writers, we would have figured it out perfectly the first time (or something to this effect). When I was younger, I believed my inner critic(s) and often stopped writing when I got stuck and consequently didn’t finish pieces that I loved.

Now, I know that while flailing on the page looks and feels dramatic, it’s what’s needed to get to the Land of Completion.

Flailing is not failing.

Toni Morrison in her recent interview for the NEA Arts Magazine discusses creative failure and revision. It’s worth a read. Knowing that a great writer like Toni Morrison sometimes has to start over with a piece of writing and go in a different direction is quite comforting. She reminds us that we each have the power to “write and erase and do it over.” And, that there’s no shame in not getting it right the first or fourth time.

Brooke Warner is on a mission to help authors become savvy at all stages of book development—from idea generation to publication. Brooke is a founder of Warner Coaching Inc., and the newly minted She Writes Press. She is a former Executive Editor of Seal Press (a groundbreaking press that publishes the diverse voices and interests of women).

I met Brooke through She Writes, an online community for aspiring and distinguished women writers. Brooke is a frequent contributor on She Writes and I quickly learned what most writers do about her. She’s thoughtful, honest, deliberative, positive and supportive (even when delivering challenging updates about the publishing world). And as an insider in the world of publishing, she brings a wealth of expertise to She Writes discussions.

When I discovered she was writing a book geared toward aspiring authors, I knew that I wanted to invite her to share her wisdom with this audience. I am grateful for all Brooke does to make the publishing world seem a little less mysterious and daunting to aspiring writers.

1) Tell us about your new book, What’s Your Book? A Step-by-Step Guide to Get You from Inspiration to Published Author. What sparked your interest in writing this type of nonfiction book?

I have been working in the book publishing industry for the past thirteen years. I just left my position as Executive Editor of Seal Press in late April. I realized that I not only needed, but wanted, to experience firsthand what my authors were going through. I also felt I had some progressive, supportive, and optimistic things to say about publishing in this new era of publishing. My coaching is a blend of heavy-duty support, discipline, and honest critique, and I decided it was time to try to put down in writing some of the ideas and strategies I’ve been teaching aspiring writers since I started coaching in 2007. Also, publishing is changing so much all the time, and it’s changed drastically since I started in 2000. I think a lot of people are confused by the options, or don’t really understand how publishing works, so my book offers insight and good advice about approaching publishing in what I call this new publishing frontier.

 2) You made a public commitment to write your book by a certain date and asked your reading public to hold you accountable. How did making that commitment support you in the completion of the book?

 It was huge! The reason I did this at first was because I was going to be launching a class with my colleague, Linda Joy Myers, President of the National Association of Memoir Writers, called “Write Your Memoir in Six Months.” We conceived of it late last year and I decided I wanted to give it a go, to see how hard it would be to write my own book in six months. As a coach, I know that at least half the value of what I offer is giving my writers accountability, so I knew I needed that too. Plus I wanted to give my clients and people I’m connected to through social media a chance to be engaged in my process. It was fantastic, and fantastically challenging! I’m really excited about our first memoir class, too, now that I’ve been through the six-month challenge and have a sense of what it takes to really do it.

 3) You’ve been an acquisitions editor and been in publishing for a long time. You’ve witnessed firsthand the dramatic changes sweeping across the industry. What’s one thing every aspiring author needs to know about the new publishing terrain?

The biggest and hardest thing to come to terms with is the importance of platform to industry professionals. This, in my opinion, has been the single biggest change (other than technology) that has happened during my time in book publishing. When I first started platform didn’t look like it does today, and in part technology is the reason. Writers are expected to have well-trafficked blogs and lots of followers on social media. In order to get a book deal, the marketing and publicity the author brings to the table, sometimes before the book is even complete, plays a big role. So I’m always reminding the writers I work with, as they’re toiling away on their projects, that they need to be tending to their platform. As an editor at Seal I rejected plenty of good projects from authors who didn’t have a platform, so it’s a really important component now of traditional publishing. On the other hand, I will say that self-publishing has never been more exciting or more accepted, so the upshot here is that while traditional publishing’s barriers are getting higher and more impenetrable all the time, self-publishing is looking more attractive and interesting with each passing month.

 4) Let’s imagine that you were hosting a magnificent dinner party and got to invite three well-known writers. Who would you choose and why?

First is Toni Morrison, hands down. I’ve read every book she’s written. She’s the single most influential writer in my life because she touched me at a really critical time in my intellectual development. I have to credit her for my love of good writing. I would choose Stephen King because I think he has a brilliant mind. I liked his books when I was younger, but I like that he’s a writer who thinks about writing and imparts his experience and wisdom to aspiring writers. Finally, I would invite Caroline Knapp (assuming we can suspend disbelief here and invite someone who’s no longer with us). I would invite her because I would want a memoirist in the group and for me she’s a memoirist who embodied the skills I’m trying to teach my memoirists. She was transparent, honest, vulnerable, and relatable. Her books are about her, but they are without fail about everywoman.

 5) Besides promoting your current book, what’s next for you?

The biggest thing on my plate right now is growing She Writes Press, my new self-publishing venture with SheWrites.com founder Kamy Wicoff. We launched the press at the end of June, on the third anniversary of She Writes. To date we’ve received 52 submissions and we have thirteen books in the production process for our pilot program. This has been a really exciting endeavor, and my own book is the first book to be published by She Writes Press. I will never stop supporting traditional publishing, but I have strong reasons for having wanted to self-publish, which I discuss in my book. So I’m thrilled to be partnering with Kamy in this way and to continue to support women writers, which was something that brought me a lot of fulfillment in my role at Seal Press as well.

 6) What’s your best writing tip that you’d like to share?

Tough question. There are a lot of tips depending on what a writer’s particular struggle is, but I think the number one tip is to be self-protective with your writing life. Sometimes this means guarding yourself against others and their feedback and opinions, whether you’re at the early stages or shopping your book. But sometimes this means guarding yourself against your own inner critics, the ones who tell you to give up, who makes excuses for why you should write later, who insist that it’s going to be embarrassing to have your work out in the world. Even doing a how-to book I found the inner critic to be a formidable foe! I had to find ways to work through that, and to allow the process to be fun and sacred and to not always feel like something scary or a burden. Writing opens you up in unimaginable ways, and when our hearts are open, they’re sometimes a little raw. So protect and persevere!

Brooke Warner is founder of Warner Coaching Inc. and publisher of She Writes Press. Brooke’s expertise is in traditional and new publishing, and she is an equal advocate for publishing with a traditional house and self-publishing. What’s Your Book? is her first book, and she’s honored to be publishing on She Writes Press.

Find Brooke online:

www.warnercoaching.com

www.shewritespress.com

www.facebook.com/warnercoaching

twitter.com/brooke_warner

www.pinterest.com/warnercoaching

To purchase Brooke’s book: http://warnercoaching.com/order-wyb/

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/193831400X/ref=olp_product_details?ie=UTF8&me=&seller=

(Photo credit Jen Molander Photography)

 

There are few times that I get down about living in a small town in North Carolina, but this weekend is one of them. I have been excited about the film debut of Precious for weeks. I thought I was going to see the film and do a bit of film analysis on the blog, since I have read and taught PUSH by Sapphire (the powerful novel that that film is based on), for years. But, alas it is not opening anywhere in the Raleigh/Durham area until Nov 20! So I can’t write about the film. I can, however, share a bit about how Sapphire’s coming into her own as a writer at 40, along with other writers and activists, who started their journeys later in life, have been an inspiration to me.

Two weekends ago, I was watching MILK, the incredible story of the gay activist Harvey Milk. Early in the film, he picks up a man who will become his long term lover. At this time Harvey Milk is a closeted gay man. Right after the clock strikes on his 40th birthday, he says to his lover plaintively, “I’ve haven’t done a single thing I’m proud of.” (I’m paraphrasing). With his lover’s urging, they move to San Francisco, reinvent themselves and within a year, he is on the path that will eventually shape the modern gay rights movement.

When I have students read PUSH, I ask them to also read an interview with her conducted by Patricia Bell Scott in Flat-Footed Truths: Telling Black Women’s Lives. Here is an excerpt from that interview:

“Although I had been writing for some time, I was almost forty before I claimed my identity as a writer. In 1990, when I did my last major performance, a fifty minute choreopoem, ‘Are You Ready to Rock,’ my business manager, a wonderful young African American woman, said to me, “If I’m going to promote you as a writer, where’s the writing? Where’s the book?” I was trying to do the performance work, trying to write, and none of it was making a living. I was exhausted. Dead tired. And I couldn’t go on.
I went through an intense midlife-turning forty crisis. I felt that I had not really done much with my life, when I compared myself to mentors like Ntozake [Shange], who had five or six books. Then I looked at some of the reasons I hadn’t tried. A lack of confidence-a belief that maybe I couldn’t do it or that I wasn’t good or smart enough. I also realized that I had never committed myself to any one thing. I had always tried to dance, act and write at the same time.
With this awareness, I decided to totally commit myself to becoming a writer. I said “I will put together a collection of writings for publication,” and that became American Dreams. I said, “I will go to school and get an MFA degree”; and I did.”

Witnessing Harvey Milk’s decision to begin over again at 40 and Sapphire’s commitment to writing at 40 makes me grateful about manifesting my creative work at this stage in my life (41). It’s only been recently that I’ve come to appreciate that the path to your heart’s desire is rarely straight and narrow, or, progress easily demarcated strictly by one’s age.

I’ve always been somewhat enchanted with child stars and people who seem to achieve big things early in their careers. And, it’s true that as an academic, I’ve had solid and early professional success, so I can’t complain on that front. I’ve, however, been creatively writing all my life, but it is has only been in the last ten years that I’ve made more space for that identity to flourish. I used to be more convinced that something needed to happen at a particular age: 20, 25, and 38. I’m now less worried about age being a gauge of inner or outer success. I do think that by midlife, people are usually getting intuitive prompts, urgings and guidance about new directions, if they have been blocked. This often leads to new commitments to pursue buried or unrealized dreams.

I am also cheered by examples of writers including Amy Tan and Toni Morrison that didn’t start their writing careers until their late thirties or early 40s. PUSH is a remarkable novel and I think the skill and focus it took to craft it might not had happened if Sapphire had not lived a full and complex life (sex worker, writer, incest survivor, performance artist, teacher), and faced her internal demons and doubts squarely in the face as a mature woman. Her life and other ‘over thirty’ creative bloomers are useful reminders of the arc of human potential.

I hope that you will read PUSH and see the film. So, if you’re lucky enough to live in a place where it is opening this weekend, go see it. Seeing the film sends a message to Hollywood that the viewing public is interested in being challenged and hearing new stories.

I’ve included a link to Sapphire being interviewed on NPR:
Sapphire’s Story: How ‘Push’ Became ‘Precious’
All things considered: NOV 6 – 2009
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=120176695


Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

Author, Academic, Creativity Expert I'm an award winning writer.

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