Wednesday, July 18, 2012

This Writer Recommends Reading…

I am a member of the Harlem Writers Guild. I used to be an avid reader. I readily admit that my relationship with books changed the moment I decided to become a writer. Before I read books the way I watched television, purely for enjoyment. Now, I read to study style, voice, and syntax.

In my hands, even a Zane book will become unsexy. Once I'm done with it, I would have marked up the entire copy, in red no doubt. Notes would fill the margins with all my suggestions for improvement. This passage would've been more effective had it been placed on such and such page. That outcome is forced and inorganic. The copy editor missed this glaring error. That whole section is didactic and completely out of voice. Literary, grammatically correct erotica. How unsexy is that?

Because I'm a writer, everything I read I study. What I look for is substance, and my attention span is short. My first love is my own writing and trust me when I say it competes for my attention. With that being the case, to all the writers whose books I have read completely from beginning to end, I say, "Kudos!" Few authors engage me and far less engage me more than once. But I must admit: I'll remain loyal, so long as I'm not experiencing "more of the same thing."

Here are my suggestions for writers to read and for readers who hope to someday write. I'll share them with Harlem World from time to time. The following books have substance. I refer to them again and again, in hopes to improve my own writing. Reader-writers get ready to take notes.

Graceland by Chris Abani. Since the invention of ink, we writers have been advised, "Show don't tell." The "how" is never fully explained until a book like Graceland comes along. The cast of characters and depiction of Lagos is craft and technique at its best. The prose is exquisite, gritty and sometimes very disturbing.

Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid. Get it. Read it. This is what characterization should feel like. Anything less is ineffective. The voice of Lucy is bold, defiant and will reel you in.

Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison. Yes, this is a Lifetime movie, but if you haven't seen the movie, don't watch it until you have read the book. I was pulled out of the writing and immersed in this tragedy. It reads like memoir. Allison did such a brilliant job crafting this that I forgot it was fiction. I fell in love with the main character, Bone, and her clan of misfit rebels. 

This piece was origionally published on Harlem World Magazine's Blog site on October 31, 2011.


I don’t know how many times I heard my aunt, Eartha, after whom I am named, tell this one particular story. According to her, I was three years old—telling everybody’s business—outside in front of her building with pen and paper, writing “a book.” I don’t remember that. Or even if I was able to write my own name at the age of three. I do remember telling another aunt, who had read so many romance novels that they were stacked across her dresser in three rows approximately two feet high. I said to her, “I gonna write a book, just so you can read it.” Based on the size and shape of the paperbacks (approximately two inches thick) and the length of the dresser (twelve books across), my estimate now is that she had at least four hundred and thirty-two books there, plus or minus two units.  Pardon me; I’ve always had a thing for numbers.

I’ve had a thing for numbers and songs. Words actually scared me, unless of course I was facing a word problem. It was intimidating, having papers returned to me with big red corrections. Explain! I never understood how I was failing to communicate my ideas effectively. The way I saw it, if my thoughts and feelings were written on the page how could they be “wrong”? One would either agree or disagree.  I deserved an A, because I had written these concepts down. Points shouldn’t be deducted, because I didn’t explain them to someone else’s satisfaction. Sound logic, but try explaining that to an English teacher. Songwriting was second nature to me. In grade school, I studied to a rhythm, creating songs to help me remember. Vocabulary words and definitions stuck, because when it came time for exams I was actually singing them in my head. In high school, I started writing love songs. A snappy song was “instant happy” for me. And I loved numbers because formulas had set answers, concrete solutions I could figure out that wouldn’t be subject to interpretation or debate.

In college, I majored in accounting. One day, while riding the commuter train, I saw a man dozing off. I had never seen him before, but instantly knew his life story. It was more than the stress pressed into his forehead, his worn and outdated suit, his wire-framed glasses that were misshapen, and the lead stains on his shirt pocket from too many pencils. This man looked exhausted, like he was so busy counting money that he didn’t have time to spend it. We talked briefly, and what he told me confirmed what I already knew: he was a CPA who owned his own firm and was near retirement. No glamour there. I could’ve been a bookkeeper, a Math teacher, or stock broker. None of those professions would’ve been a labor of love for me. I wanted to be a CPA because I heard they made “good money.” I had planned to be a CPA, and then a tax attorney, and maybe eventually, Comptroller. I realized I didn’t have enough of a passion for numbers for them to take me to that “CPA MAN” place or any other place where I’d be crunching numbers for the rest of my life.   

Fast forward. Now, my appearance has become just as wacky as CPA MAN’s. I have become WRITER WOMAN, always with an oversized purse full of Mead composition notebooks, fine point Sharpies, index cards, and my flash drive. So busy writing that, at times, I don’t have time to read. I am an artist. No glamour here either. It is hard to say how I arrived at this place, especially since the transition was gradual, a segue I myself didn’t notice despite the many checkpoints along the way. In college, my English professor explained the structure of a critical essay to me in formula form. Years later, my aunt gave me a book as a gift. After reading the voice of a narrator that didn’t seem fabricated, for the first time in my life I said to myself, “I can do that!”  

Why do I do it? For me, writing makes me feel as good as if I were stuffing my face with large amounts of chocolate. At first I wrote, chasing that sense of euphoria, but I have come to realize that expression is my gift, and there are so many responsibilities attached to it. Black people have more depth than we are given credit for. We don’t all come in the same package or from the same place. We don’t all think the same thoughts. We don’t all have the same motives. We all don’t live the same story. I am grateful that we are represented in books, films, and television now more than ever before, but still I feel there needs to be more of a variety. Much of what I’ve been exposed to doesn’t accurately reflect the people I love. For that reason, I write what I feel is missing. I write what I enjoy and would love to see exist.

So when I am seen with my fanny pack full of index cards and my SONY Walkman (audio books are convenient and books on cassette are dirt cheap), please forgive me. I just hope that young, aspiring writers are not scared off.

This piece was origionally published on Harlem World Magazine's Bogsite on July 14, 2011.