My Journey With Albert

I’ve talked a lot about the fact that I have been a serious fiction writer for a long time, sixteen years to be exact.  My graduate creative program was structured so that you couldn’t concentrate in two genres, so I concentrated in poetry, but over the years after grad school, I collected fiction pubs here and there. I still didn’t have any confidence about my fiction, though, so I decided to take a workshop.

The fiction workshop was with an organization that I will not name. I won’t identify the year or the teacher, either; I only will say I admired the teacher so much because he was a well-known Black fiction writer, though I hadn’t yet read his work. However, when I entered the workshop, the teacher had a very gruff, nearly rude manner toward me, even though I was putting the full beam of my Southern Belle charm on him.

Y’all that charm is dangerous, especially when combined with my mother’s biscuits, but I didn’t make him the biscuits. Maybe that was my problem.

Strangely, though, the teacher was friendly to the other students, just not to me— it seemed that way. But sometimes, I’m very overly sensitive, so I thought it was just in my head. He and I were nearly of the same generation, while the other students were much younger than I was, and since I was an accomplished poet with two books, I wondered if I was giving off some “know-it-all” impression without wanting to. I knew my having poetry books meant nothing in the fiction world, so arrogance wasn’t going to get me anywhere.

Finally, it came time to workshop my story. Weeks before the workshop began, I had sent in a twenty-page story called “Fish Albert,” about an old man who wants to be independent and take care of himself, but whose daughter is starting to take his independence away from him, bit by bit.

Both Albert and his daughter are Black, and they live in the deep country, in a (fictitious) small town in Georgia called Chicasetta. The old man speaks in deep vernacular and is uneducated, while his daughter is a college graduate who speaks very correct English with a clipped accent. There were parts of this story that I knew had serious issues, but to me, those issues were plot-based. I had a habit of writing  long passages of beautiful language that didn’t go anywhere, and I knew I needed help with that. But I didn’t have any problem with the setting and the dialogue–I thought.

When it came time for workshop, though, the teacher didn’t talk about the plot at all; instead, he focused almost solely on the language the old man used, meaning the Black vernacular. My teacher told me the story was “riddled with racial cliché” and he went on to say how “offensive” the character of the old man was, how people like this “didn’t really exist.” (Clearly, my teacher had never met any of my great-uncles.)  When I asked him—in my humblest, most quiet, and frankly, my most unlike-Honorée manner—how to fix the story, he suggested cutting eighteen pages out of it. Which would have left, like, two pages. To me, it seemed–again seemed--like he was saying “throw this story in the trash can.”

As I sat there and my teacher talked about my writing in a strident tone and with his face screwed up like he was smelling a fresh outhouse, I started getting the impression that he was taking something about my story personally, but I didn’t know what. I immediately tried to dismiss that notion, because I’ve had my own students say, “she didn’t like me” on teaching evaluations.

I decided to set the story aside. Clearly it was bad and couldn’t be fixed.

Then, a while later, I decided to order a book by that teacher from Amazon. I couldn’t even make it through the book, I was so bored. So I started reading another book by him—same experience. The novels were very smart and funny and had extremely intellectual frameworks, but I felt no emotional connection to the stories or the characters. Admittedly, I’m prejudiced that way; I like a lot of feeling in my books, not just irony and humor.

I like a lot of feeling in my life, too, by the way.

Then, I got to thinking–or “cogitating,” as Albert might say. Maybe the problem between my teacher and me had been our own artistic prejudices. He liked smart stories and didn’t care whether anyone was feeling something inside when reading his work while I liked emotional stories and didn’t care about the intellectual impression I was leaving.

But just because I don’t have an intellectual concept when I sit down to write doesn’t mean I’m not smart. Like the main character in my story, I have a southern drawl and speak (sometimes) in the vernacular, but that doesn’t mean I’m stupid. And it also doesn’t mean I can’t write a smart story, either—smart doesn’t always have to look and act one way. We Black folks have to stop making that mistake about each other.

That’s when I went to my files and found the “Fish Albert” story. At that point, the story was five years old.

I changed the title of the story to “A Cheerful Tune” and submitted it to Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review. It was accepted and published. Now, in my teacher’s defense, I did revise that story, a lot. But I also kept the basic plot and the Black vernacular dialogue that he really, really despised.

A few days ago, I received a letter from the editor of Shenandoah informing me that I had won the Goodheart Award in Fiction, and the prize comes with money, too! And I really liked the name of that award. The name says something to me—and not just that 1) I’m about to get paid and 2) my former teacher can suck it–and he can suck my traditional southern African American folkways and vernacular.

No, “Goodheart” reminds me to look back and see how far I’ve come and not to get down on myself if I’m not moving as far ahead as I think I should. Surely, I want to make money on my creative writing, but I’ll never be super-rich, and probably not even moderately rich. The most I can hope for is to pay off my student loans. But I write because it gives me happiness inside and a purpose in life.

So let me say this.

I know a lot of y’all out there feel like me and I want to encourage y’all to stay the course on your good journey, whatever it be. Don’t you let nobody stop your flow. And don’t you let nobody turn you round or steal your joy. You got the victory inside you. Remember that.

And that’s me and my Black vernacular talking to you. Okay?

Breaking A Writer's Sweat

A little after this New Year, I posted about not being obsessed with my weight, which is hard, since I’ve been obsessed with my weight since, like, forever.  [The post was called “A Perfectionist’s (Sort Of) Happy New Year, Part 1] I talked about how people binged over the holidays, then started the New Year intent on getting their diet and exercise regime together.

In the same way, many creative writers talk about how many pages they are going to generate daily and when they were going to finish a project, when they have had a dry spell with the writing–when they feel they haven’t been behaving in the “healthiest” of ways creatively.

At the end of last semester, I couldn’t get any writing done because I gave into my students who somehow could not find the time all semester long to meet with me and suddenly absolutely needed to do that in the last two weeks of school. I was meeting twelve to fifteen office hours a week, when regularly I meet three. And I was reading the first drafts of student papers that were supposed to be turned in before Thanksgiving.

I was giving everything to my students–a common problem with female professors of all complexions–and I was so tired that I couldn’t concentrate when I sat down write, which had never been a problem with me before, until I remembered that I never tried to take care of myself before. I would just drink coffee and stay up all night and ignore the stress that was making my fibroids bigger and bigger and sapping my energy.

In the past, I would grim it out. But something has happened since I started feeling better. I don’t ignore want to my feelings anymore. I like feeling good and normal. So, I had to decide that I wasn’t going to run behind students who hadn’t turned in papers, just so I could have a perfect score on my teaching evaluations.  Of course, I had a little crying jag before then, when I realized I would never be a prefect teacher, but I got over it and at least my breakdown was in private.

Then, I turned my attention to my writing. One of the three books I’m working on is a novel and instead of trying to pay attention to the rhythms of a novel, I thought I could force it to work like my poetry does. (Which is basically through prayer. I’m not kidding.) Last year, I lied to myself that I would get the novel done in six months without a daily writing schedule. I’d try to write fifty pages in a week, and end up writing nothing that I thought was useful.

Usefulness is a strange concept when it comes to writing. By the grace of God, I am always  full of ideas and words. But sometimes, that’s the problem. I get an idea for a poem, but I’m trying to write the novel. Or, I decide I’m going to write in a straight line with the novel, and some scene comes to me, and it just doesn’t make sense in terms of where I am in my outline.

I want things to go my way, always–like any good perfectionist. I want the words to come to me in the ways I have dictated they will, and at the times they will. Recently, my good friend Crystal Wilkinson, fiction writer and co-founder of the journal Mythium: The Journal of Contemporary Literature, told me that I had to stop strangling my imagination like that. She told me, I had to just write whatever came and then, figure it out later. But just don’t throw anything away.

Frankly, even though Crystal is a well-known writer, I figured she just had it wrong when it came to me and my muse, until I was working on a chapter the other day and realized, I could use some pages I had written–five years ago.

Another thing Crystal keeps saying is, enjoy the journey, and I realize I haven’t done that at all. Even though I finished a first draft of a new poetry book three months ago (not the Phillis book, but another one), I didn’t even take time to celebrate and pat myself on the back. I just started in with revising that new book and continued worrying about when the novel would be done with no rest in between. But after I turned in final grades, I just sat back down at the computer, stopped worrying about the end of the novel, and just said to myself, “Write for today. Just for today.” And then, “Don’t worry where you’re going. Just get there when you do.”

It sounds boring and completely lazy, but actually I’ve gotten more done this way than I have placing huge daily expectations on myself. I can’t say it works everyday, and the perfectionist in me wants anything I write to be, well, perfect, but it does make me feel a little better to devote even just thirty minutes to writing, if that’s all I have. Just like with exercise.

You don’t have to work out for two hours to burn calories. Just break a sweat. So that’s what I’m trying to do with my writing. I don’t have to finish a chapter every day. I just have to write some words, and then, write a few more after those.