Fall Back Just a Little Bit–And Click on This

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Beloved people, I have not forgotten you. It’s just that I have a very tight deadline that I am working on, and syllabi for my classes that start right up after King Day (as we called it when I was growing up in Atlanta), and in the meantime, I’m trying to keep up with writing everyday. And by “writing everyday” I mean writing on my novel. Poetry just comes whenever, thank the Creator, but as the novelist Paule Marshall once told me, you must possess a certain cussedness to finish a novel.

Finishing has become more complicated since an (unnamed) former friend/former mentee of mine “inadvertently” used a really unusual character name and a couple of minor plot lines in a PUBLISHED novel that I used in my UNPUBLISHED novel-in-progress. It wasn’t the same exact piece of writing, no. But it just makes a bit harder for me because when/if I ever finish my novel and try to publish it, someone will tell me, “Oh, don’t you think that’s a bit too similar to such and such novel?” And of course, it’s a bit strange and upsetting since I shared my work with this person.

Yes, of course it occurred to me that I was being paranoid. But see, I published an excerpt–with that same unusual character name and those same secondary plot lines–in Story Quarterly five years ago and this person told me, “I really loved your story in Story Quarterly.” So I knew the person had, like, read my story in Story Quarterly, ok?

I could go on, but if I did, you might just figure out who I was talking about. And I’m not trying to salt the ground someone stands on. Sometimes, I wish I were that mean, but you know, karma and all that good stuff. I’m not that nice of a person, really, but one day maybe I, too, will inadvertently pass off the ideas of someone else as my own, and will need sympathy–although I hope I go into a deep, unresponsive coma right after it happens so I won’t know it. I wake up in the middle of the night with that particular fear. I mean, it’s right up there with the naked in the cafeteria dream.

But I will be blogging about this issue in depth at a later date–without mentioning the person’s name, gender, or novel title–because “borrowing” disguised as artistic license is something I’ve heard too many creative writers of all races complain about, and since you cannot copyright names or plot lines–only the actual words–you can’t sue. And even if you could, who wants to sue a former friend you used to share laughter and secrets with, somebody you really loved? It’s depressing even to think about.

I thought long and hard about whether to say anything; you know, people are always saying to me, “Honorée, you should take the high road.” Of course, they always say that when they want me to lie down and let somebody stomp on me while I keep a smile on my face.

So picture my smiling beatifically, just like Aunt Jemima with a press and curl. And now, also picture my not sharing any more of my novel-in-progress with anyone but my mama ever again. because this is the third time this has happened to me–and by the way, all three writers were black/African American/Negro if Senator Reid is looking at them. I mean, dang.

It’s different with poetry, since I have a little bit of reputation in that field, and my fingerprints are clearly all over any poem I’ve written, but two of those other writers who “borrowed” from me were also poets. This was way, way back in the day.

As for that poor Senator Reid, this last couple of days have been crazy for him, haven’t they? Now, a lot of folks–black, white and other– have just climbed up his butt and pitched a summer camp, complete with a fire and white kids clasping hands around it, singing “Kumbaya” while someone strums softly on a guitar. Or “Go Down, Moses,” or “Mary, Don’t You Weep,” or some other traditional, African American song.

Yes, my dear, white friends who went to Camp Appropriated Native American Name every summer, Kumbaya is a black song. Who knew? I did, but I bet they didn’t tell you that when they were passing out marshmallows, sticks and spraying you down with Off.

Oh Senator Reid. If only you had remembered “Negro Dialect” is now called “vernacular!”

Say what you will about me–and stop trying to snatch my black passport–but I feel kind of sorry for this man. There have been a lot of changes in America in the past fifty years, and he is really old. It’s hard to keep up. And it’s not like he said something we weren’t all thinking in the black community anyway. (You know you were thinking that! Come on now, be honest!) Here’s a link to an article on The Root that breaks down the whole Senator Reid thing.

I like to let old folks slide, as long as they aren’t being mean and hateful, just forgetful. So my Enraged Black Brethren and Sistren, might we save our anger for Rush Limbaugh and Them and live to fight a real battle another day, instead of a manufactured one? Can you still pay your light bill after Senator Reid said “Negro dialect”? Alright then. Fall back just a little.

How about we take the actual high road–and make fun of this old guy’s politically incorrect missteps behind his back? That’s how they did it in my Negro family when I was growing up.

Former Illinois Governor Blogojevitch claims that he is blacker than Obama because he shined shoes as a child. I guess he’s blacker than me, too, because I pay somebody to cute my shoes up for me just like Barack. It’s bizarre, but what do you expect? Have you seen this man’s hair?

Ok, I don’t have much to say about this, but it seems that my beloved old black folk are right: we really are living in the last days like the Bible said because UTAH HAS ELECTED ITS FIRST BLACK MAYOR. And I don’t think she shined shoes as a kid, either, but I have to check on that.

Gina Athena Ulysse, a wonderful scholar who teaches at Wesleyan University, has a fascinating article on Huffington Post about voudou–that’s voodoo for the uninitiated–and the movie Avatar. It’s deep, y’all. She goes places that you never thought of, and then, once she says it, you wonder why it wasn’t instantly obvious to you.

Brown Girl Speaks has a reading challenge for people who want to read books written by members of the African Diaspora. And if you’re reading my blog, I would assume that includes you. And there are some sexy books on the list. Not sexy like lingerie, but sexy like fabulous and interesting. I signed up for it; I mean, it was sort of required, given my profession.

And finally, remember I told y’all about getting your hustle on? This month, Carleen Brice has challenged us to write for 32 days; she was inspired by an essay by author Ann Patchett.

It’s eleven days into January, but it’s never too late to begin. You need to be writing everyday. I am, but listen, it’s not easy, so don’t think I am bragging. At first it was so hard. But now, I just keep my Moleskine in bed with me, and every morning, I roll over while it’s still dark, write for an hour, and then I might roll back over and go to sleep again or I might actually get up and do something. Yesterday morning, I actually got up and did something after I wrote. I ate breakfast, I wrote for my deadline, I sent emails I had been procrastinating on, I cleaned up my house, and then, I worked out. That writing really cleared the sinuses.

But even when I don’t do anything after I write, I feel sassy all day long because at least I did what I set out to do. Not what I set out to do each morning. I mean, what I set out to do with my life.

3 thoughts on “Fall Back Just a Little Bit–And Click on This

  1. I’m just going to say that I feel for you about the usage of your character name and plot lines. It sounds to me like you are taking the high road because I am not sure that I would be able to keep myself from physical violence in a case like this.

    But now I guess I will tell you about something that happened while I sat in your class back in the spring of 2006. We were going around the room reading our stories that day and as I sat there, someone I thought was my friend began spilling words out of her mouth that sounded so familiar. Right down to the color of the toenail polish the main character was wearing. It was all familiar because her entire plot was what had happened in my life the year before. I just sat there boiling while she continued reading. The whole thing was so appalling because she had been present to see the events, but had never been a participant. And now my life was her story. Without my permission.

    I learned a lot in that class. On that day my lesson was 1) figure out who the crazies are, 2) mark them down, and 3) cut them out.

    (Sorry to get so wordy on my first comment here! I’ve been reading since day one 🙂

  2. Hey, Honorée,

    Take heart!

    First time I was copied was in first grade. Yep. Happens all the time, right?

    Note it and sever the tie.

    One of the worst ones, for me, was a friend in grad school who won a huge award on a novel around our graduation, including our dorm talkstory of my childhood while I was writing poetry and a memoir and sharing some excerpts with her. So her novel, using some of my memoir, went out ahead of me and used my own lines guised in the voice of a male Arab. True. I was happy for her winning the prize, but really disappointed to see my inclusions when I read the work. This writer actually publishes articles about cultural authenticity but is – yep, you guessed it.

    Other worst moments of my writing lifted (published as pieces in journals, but not in books as of yet, or unpublished and under review where novelists were reviewing), include: Nasdiij and a good handful of like manner. He was reviewing for several places and lifting tons of work from a handful of people before it was accepted. So his always came out first, making the actual work look like a quasi-mimic. I was not happy when he won the prize. Nor with bookstores in my homestate of NC telling me they already had a “Native” author they used for readings, when I was on tour there. They asked me if I’d ever heard of him. At the time none of us knew him, so I was surprised to hear a Dine’ novelist was in NC as an NC writer. Seems like I would have heard, right? Well, he was not from NC, was not Dine’ and was reviewing all Native everything for the Raleigh News & Observer and tons of small press/journal types, etc. So a great way to secure the unpublished, or piece work to capture for his own and not note in the reviews, or pan them to secure his booty.

    I think they believe the adage that good writers steal and just go on about themselves. (“Good writers borrow; great writers steal.” –Oscar Wilde or “Mediocre Writers Borrow; Great Writers Steal” – T.S. Eliot – hmmmmmmmm even here the threads are obviously mussy.)

    When the Nasdiij happened, I felt physically violated and remarkably gutted. That the only press out on it neglected that he’d taken a good deal of my life in his texts, for his memoir persona, and that he took the awards my own memoir was up for that was actual – well, heart wrenching it was. Did me no good at all to talk about it. No one really minded unless there was some money in an interview with a commercial writer, or such. Alexie did a great job of dealing with his own stolen life in Nasdiij material. At least he was able to speak about it publicly and clear his own feelings/name and do a great job of speaking up for others of us so violated.

    You are so much better than the worry they inflicted upon you. Really. Just shift the work and make it more than you imagined the first run. Amp it up where they left off. Don’t let them ground you! When you’re down in it, take the mud up in your hands and rebuild it better than before.

    You are amazing!

    They cannot reach that.



  3. I have been warned occasionally about scholarly theft. Its all still a bit odd for me because I have always been a bit uneasy with the idea that individuals can/should own ideas. But putting that aside it is clearly wrong to profit from stolen ideas… So I am not really clear as to why you would not tell the person about your concerns.

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