A while back, this old man came up to me in the post office and started a conversation with me, but after a few seconds, I realized it was a continuation of a previous conversation from the day before. Only, I wasn’t there for that conversation.
“Have we met?” I asked.
“Sure we have. You were in here just yesterday,” he said.
“No, it was too cold. I was at home,” I said. I looked at him over the top of my glasses.
“You sure?” he persisted, and pursed his lips. It was clear he thought I was trying to fool him.
“Pretty sure,” I said. I was being so patient because he wasn’t trying to flirt at all. He was nice old dude, a gentleman.
We went back and forth like that. This was a White man, but I’m used to nice old men of all colors—Black, White, you name it. I did a lot of growing up around old people in the South, so he didn’t bother me at all.
After a while, when I saw that he realized I wasn’t the lady he thought I was, I gave him my most radiant smile; I didn’t want him to feel embarrassed. And no, I did not think he was pulling that “all y’all Negroes look alike” routine. I thought he was old. The memory ain’t got the same snapback at his age.
Then he told me, I had a twin in town. She was a real nice lady, too,he said, just like me. I asked was she cute; he laughed real loud and he went to the counter to get his stamps. That was that.
I bet that “you’ve got a twin scenario” has happened to everybody, or at least three quarters of the world’s population. And if you’re a writer, while you hope and imagine that your work is completely original, sooner or later, you realize there really is no new subject. Not only are there no new subjects, there aren’t any new situations, or new feelings. There aren’t even any new people, as my encounter in the post office proved.
There are only new words to describe what has been described before. You have to be very careful to pick those new words and you have to arrange them in a new way. It’s my worst nightmare to think that one day, someone will pick up a book of mine and say, “Hey, that sentence [or stanza or whatever] is identical to something I read in a book by [insert writer’s name here].” Only, that collection of words had been published before mine. I think if that would ever happen while I am still alive I would stab myself. Or like, have people hold me down so I couldn’t stab myself.
But lately, I’ve been reading poems and stories and novels that resemble each other, sometimes in small, incidental ways and sometimes in large, disturbing and shocking ways, and although I wish I were confused, the answer is pretty obvious to me: there might be too many people out there who want to be professional writers, and originality is drying up.
Yes, I said it. It had to be said.
I’m not the first person to say this in private. I know this is supposed to be blasphemy for someone like me, a practicing, publishing writer who teaches creative writing and who writes letters of recommendation for students to go study creative writing. I also do readings of my work—or did, who knows what will happen in this bad economy now.
But the truth is, I worry that the profession of writing isn’t equipped to handle all those professional writers out there now. It’s not only the money, either. It’s a matter of logistics. Can there really be all those wildly talented people out there touched personally by the Hand of God?
As I heard a Black preacher say once about entering the ministry, “Some are called. Some are sent. And some are sent by they mamas.”
Right now, there might be a whole bunch of writers sitting up in graduate school or even teaching young writers who have been sent by their mamas. I’m just saying.
That doesn’t mean that I think I’m the Grand Poobah who decides who’s really a writer and who isn’t. Or that I’m the only real writer out there, and everyone else is a faker. Nor do I think we should go around crushing the dreams of the young people that we teach, because you never know.
I read an excerpt from Robert Hayden’s Collected Prose, where he talked about a teacher telling him he would never be a poet. Because of how that teacher hurt his feelings, he vowed never to tell a student of his that he had no talent or that he would never be a poet. But what Hayden did tell his students is that poets are not made but born. I would assume that principal applies to novelists and memoirists as well.
Right now, though, because there is the possibility of making real money as a novelist through advances, or making a decent living teaching writing at a university as a poet (and collecting enough reading fees to buy you a couple of household appliances each year in readings), there are huge numbers of students entering creative writing programs so someone–other than God–can make them into writers, and they are borrowing serious amounts of dough to pay for it.
Because there are so many students in so many MFA programs, it’s time to question how many can access something truly special and unique in their talents, let alone hit the proverbial big time. Add to that the tendency of some creative writing teachers to impose their own personal aesthetic tastes on students’ writing and you end up with a bunch of people who write about the same thing in much the same way, repeatedly.
Which brings me back to my original point. It’s not just the White folks who sound alike, ok? We Black folks can lie to ourselves about our dogged originality, but it’s just that: a lie.
I’m a Black poet and fiction writer, representing a generation of Black writers coming of age artistically in the early- to mid-nineties. My generation is the first large group of Black writers who were formally trained–not self-trained— to write about “Blackness” in ways that enabled us to publish in mainstream (read: White) journals and get our hustles on.
We Special Negroes learned how to write about aspects of Black culture—basketball, jazz, hair-pressing day, Holiness Pentecostal churches, Hip Hop, and the list goes on—in ways that were easily identifiable and non-threatening to White academic readers. The problem is that it’s really hard to be on your hustle and be original, too. It’s very possible, yes, but it’s stressful as hell. It requires more and more artistic innovation, and thus, finding a voice and sticking to it is called “laziness” in your craft.
We Special Negroes went to MFA programs where we were “the only ones” in each workshop class. Many of us came out emotionally scarred by racism, cultural indifference, or ignorance of our culture. For example, every Black writer I know who’s been through an MFA program has been told by their White classmates and teachers that “you need a glossary” at the back of a story or poem. If you look in the back of all three of my books, you will find a notes sections.
Please don’t judge me. I just got tired of fighting The Publishing Man on that one.
After those traumatic experiences in MFA programs, so many of us thought we were going to change the White creative writing establishment; we were going to change the game and discover a way to make money as a Black writer but yet, not compromise in our cultural truths. We were going to be the ones, like Barack was going to change the world simply by his mere brown presence.
I got four words for you: Gulf Coast Oil Slick.
Instead, some of us colored folks are running out of ways to be original and please White readers at the same time, and thus, some of us are starting to sound alike, too. After all, now that everybody and their brother is attending an MFA program to learn how to write, instead of learning on his or her own, how special can we Special Negroes be anymore? And what is the solution to this issue?
Don’t look at me. I don’t have any solutions to this problem. I’m just putting my career on the line naming the problem in public. Somebody else is going to have to put her career on the line to propose a solution–in public, and not on the phone with her girlfriend. I ain’t calling no names, though.
Now that the economy is in trouble, and the money has stopped flowing like wine, it will be interesting to see how many of us still want to be writers through entering MFA programs. Perhaps then, some of these mamas will start to send for their children to come on back home. I just hope my mama don’t send for me.