Conversations on the F-train with a Writer Friend Manhattan, NY to Brooklyn, NY
I hadn't seen a friend of mine in a while so we decided to take the train home from work together. My friend had just finished her first professional short story and had it picked up for publication. She was so inspired that she decided to turn the story into a novel. She had outlined the novel and had been working on the first few chapters the last time we talked. This time, however, when I asked her how the novel was going, she said she hadn't been working on it. She felt stuck, like she was in a slump or something. "What's the problem?" I asked her. She said:
I don't know if my idea is good.
[A sound bite from outside my window: A groups of kids passing by my window. A female voice says: I can't take this anymore, y'all always talking about me. A male voice says: I tried to get on your side, but you don't want to... He is cut off by someone making a comment. Then he says loudly, strongly: We love you Tyra. We love you Tyra. And the other girls join in, they say it over and over again, like a mantra: We love you Tyra. We love you Tyra. And the male voice asks: We don't love you? ]
I had a passionate response to her comment. I talked about process and not judging yourself and many other things. At the end of our conversation, she said: there ought to be a class on process. My eyes glazed over thinking about it. Because process is such an integral part of all of life, not just art making. It was then that I decided to bring this conversation to you.
One of the biggest mistakes of new writers—and one of the biggest mistakes of the entire human race—is the expectation that genius/beauty/mastery should be instant. That if they are a "good writer" everything they write should be good from the moment they start writing. This obliterates the natural rhythm of life. Everything, everything in life has its own process. As important as it is for a writer to find their voice, it is equally important for them to find their process.
Our work can only be as good as the level of our craftsmanship. So many people take the attitude that if their writing isn't the level of a Pulitzer Prize winner they don't want to write. But if you never set out to write and be where you are, how do you expect to become a Pulitzer Prize winner? The question is not "Is it good enough?", but "How do I get from here to there? What process do I have to engage in to become the writer/person I want to be? Am I committed to completing that process and continuing to accept the challenges of developing myself and my craft?"
"I don't know if my idea is good enough."
In science, the way you test if an idea is good enough is by experimentation. In writing, you test it by writing it. Writing is far more than content alone: writing is execution. A nonsensical idea could form the center of a masterpiece of literature. And what decides if it is a masterpiece is not the "goodness" of the idea, but rather the power of how that idea is communicated. ANY IDEA CAN BE THE KERNAL OF AN AMAZING PIECE OF WORK.
Besides, judging an idea is like judging a child. How do you know what that idea will grow up to become? I'm sure you've heard the secret to art is showing up. Show up to the blank page, show up to the blank canvas and see what comes out. Well, I've also read that the secret to mastery is making the same choice over and over again. If you want to become a master violinist, you practice everyday. If you want to become a master writer, you write everyday. I can hear someone out there saying "what about talent? What about the capacity to communicate emotion through the violin strings? What about an original voice?" But who decides what is talented? Who decides what is true emotion? Who decides what is originality? The beauty of our universe is in its multiplicity. As they say in my father's NOMMO workshop: "A multiplicity of validities." Cool technicality, emotional quivering, short sentences, sparse prose, heavy decorated long sentences, chilly reserve; all of these things belong to artists we consider masters. Is one form of expression really any better than the other? Is one approach really any stronger than the other?
Judging is not a part of the artistic process. There is a famous Martha Graham quote (which I don't know word for word) which says: "It is not the job of the artist to judge and label the work. It is the job of the artist to create. Let the critic name and judge. The artist must work." Judging takes the artist off the path of creation and disturbs the creative process. "Forget whether or not the idea is good," I told my friend. "Execute it, then we'll look at that execution and see what can be done to improve it."
We really can't know what is going to be validated as "good" art before we create it. And even after we create it, it may be immediately celebrated and published. It may go to twelve publishers before one finally picks it up. It may hit the bestsellers list. It may not. No one may read it until we die, and then once we're dead, it becomes the holy word of literature. It is dangerous, dangerous, dangerous to try to create "good" art. Audiences are fickle, reader response is subjective, ability to get your work read and reviewed is not democratic. There must be a part of you that knows when your art has been expressed. It is dishonest to create art so that you may be celebrated as a genius. If your ear is attenuated to what is going to prove how intelligent/amazing/talented you are, how deep inside the work are you? How profoundly are you dancing with the ideas and questions you are presenting yourself with as an artist? As there is no objective scale, no impartial judge of truth, beauty, talent, and art, all we can do as artists is manifest what is inside of us. No more, no less.
I do not pretend that the result of the work is not important, but process can not be forgotten as a major contributor to the act of making art. Process teaches you that there is always something there in the creation of art. No matter what you start with, if you are open and engaged, more than what you anticipated WILL flower forth. Process teaches you that you don't know what the outcome is going to be. Process teaches you that if you judge the outcome before the execution you are killing creativity. Process teaches you to have faith. To create first, assess later. To wait and see. Process is about an artist trusting herself. Process is about the artist trusting the creative process.
Who talks about faith and trust in the creative process? In the outside world, all they talk about is the outcome: it was stunning. It is mind-blowing. It is life-altering. And the new artist wants those accolades and wants to create work that will change the world. But the joke is you can't create genius while fixating on genius. You can only create genius by surrendering to the process.
What is process? Process is the method of doing things. Process is going to the grocery store. [Does the food taste good yet? No, the meal hasn't been executed. The idea is just being cooked up.] Process is selecting the items you decide to cook. [Does the food taste good yet? No, the meal hasn't been executed. The idea is just being solidified into a plan of action.] Process is picking up an unplanned item because it looks good and you ran across it. [Does the food taste good yet? No, the meal hadn't been executed. A fresh twist has just introduced itself to the plan. Something new has arisen. Hmm, could it be the key to something genius? Maybe. We don't know yet.]
[At this point, my friend had already stopped. Who freezes up before putting the food to the fire frightened that the food isn't going to be any good? At this point in the process my friend was trying to telegraph ahead, is it any good yet?, is it any good yet?, is it any good yet? But all art demands of you is that you stay in the game. (Don't judge.) That you surrender to the process. (Don't decide how it should be before it's done.) That you take EVERY STEP ON THE ROAD. (Don't stop short before meeting with the twist that's going to take you higher.) That you don't leap ahead. (Don't short circuit your own creativity) That you have faith that when you open the pot, the food will be cooked.]
Process is getting home and chopping the ingredients. [Does the food taste good yet? Yuck, raw onions, garlic, meat. The elements of the art are just being prepared for wholeness. This is the act of creating the first draft.] Throw the food in the pot, let it heat up. [Does the food taste good yet? Ouch, you might hurt yourself trying to taste at this stage. This is the first draft unedited, unreviewed for holistic integrity.] Stir, stir, stir. [Edit, edit, edit. Consider. Share. Think. Flow.] Open the pot, ahh, this stew looks well integrated, of a nice consistent texture, all the elements look cooked. [Voila. Does the food taste good now?]
So much of writing happens in the writing. There are so many ideas we don't have access to while we're sitting there trying to come up with good ideas. Just in the process of developing an outline for my novel, I flowed through a process. I wrote down the idea as it was in my head, and as I wrote it, I nipped and tucked and made changes. Then weeks later I went back and looked at it, and I cut and rearranged and oh yeah, the main character's profession popped into my head, and her motivation for taking the trip she takes popped into my head. But these things come as you are in the process, messing around with the ideas. And there comes a moment when you are not doing it, it is doing you. When the soup is telling you what seasoning needs to come next, and the character is telling you what to do next. And to me, genius is when you listen.
Ideas are only as good as their execution. The execution relies on a process. As artists [and also as humans living life: there's a process to getting out of bed, to taking a shower, to getting a job] we must come up with our own personal processes (I write for three hours a day in the morning, I like to listen to jazz while I write, I write in the middle of the night in five hour spurts, but only once or twice a week) and be gentle with ourselves as we're discovering what works for us. As we sit down to create art, we stand at the center of numerous whirling spheres of process. There is the general process of creating art, there is our own specific process of creating our own specific art, there is the larger process of our development as an artist. We can't consciously juggle all of these things. All we can do is be there and express that which is bubbling to the surface. No walking before crawling, no tasting before stirring, no genius without surrender.
A friend suggested that I reorder the rejection/acceptance o'meter to make it more positive. So it's now the "acceptance/rejection o'meter," acceptance comes first. She also suggested that I try other words besides: acceptance or rejection, to give the whole process a more positive spin. I would do that, but I know some of you out there—those of you I'm trying to inspire with my own rejections—are not so kind with yourselves as to rename your rejections something positive. So while I thought of: "go girl" and "not quite there yet," I decided to stick with acceptance & rejection b/c I believe there is some power to looking something in the face and calmly accepting it exactly as it is. I am clear that I—as an individual, I—as a writer, was not rejected. The particular piece I submitted was rejected from that particular publication at that particular point in time, which doesn't mean I can't improve it, which doesn't mean another publication doesn't want it, which doesn't mean it's not good.
My latest rejection points to that fact. The editor called the story "wonderful" and, though it's not right for her publication, she suggested a specific publication for me to try. As of this week, the rejections are 1 up on the acceptances.
Phone Conversations with My Mother Baton Rouge, LA and Brooklyn, NY
Writing is a very solitary act. Yet it, like many other art forms, is only fulfilled in community. It lives when it is read by others. Some artists don't like to be influenced by others while developing their work, but I find a large part of my progress as a writer, and as an individual, is based on interaction with others.
From the beginning, my father was my editor, spurring me on to create work and submit my writing for publication. His questions about my content and his challenges regarding my themes caused me to dive deeper into the theoretical questions of my work; therefore, his feedback had a direct impact on my writing.
Years later, I now have two friends who read and comment on my work. Almost everything I submit for publication has been through one, if not both, of their hands. My friends' responses teach me about the strength and weaknesses of my work. Badly phrased fragments, underdeveloped sections, and uneven characters can pass under my radar easily, because often I'm filling in the blanks in my head, but not on paper. Outside eyes catch and stumble upon those awkward places in my writing and push me to work harder at creating a smooth ride for readers. This process is something my mother would call "I/We."
As I mentioned before, my mother, Tayari kwa Salaam, is a Ph.D. student. She calls me up from time to time to talk about the theories she's developing for her dissertation. "I/We" is one of those theories. Well, she's decided it is a methodology (rather than a theory): in other words a method to approach critical thought. My understanding of "I/We" is that it is the process of developing an idea or a thought by partially birthing it in private, then bringing it to your community (whoever that may be) for discussion and contemplation, then using the ideas sparked by discussion with the community to cement your idea or thought into theory. She's embraced this as the methodology for her dissertation. She finds that she is able to have a stronger grasp on her ideas through discussion with others. Her most exciting theorizing happens in conversation with her community.
The moment my mother explained the I/We methodology to me, I recognized I/We as a profound experience I had with one of my essays: "Navigating to No." Just now, as I type this, I realize that I began my career as a writer out of an I/We moment. The first story I ever wrote (as an adult) was entitled "How Far Have We Come?" In 1990 (or 91) a classmate of mine had a bizarre experience while reading a Haki Madhubuti book on the train. A white man—who happened to be reading over her shoulder—became so incensed by a particular passage regarding white people's fear of black people that he knocked the book out of my classmate's hand, and eventually hit her. Although everyone on the train was black, no one came to her aid. After the classmate told us this story in class, the thought of this happening in 1990 would not let go of me. It just kept running over and over again in my head. So I wrote the story down as a mechanism for coping with it. In the story, when the character is hit by the man on the train, she suddenly finds herself back in time, sprawled in the cotton fields—her back burning from the sting of a whip, a book on the ground inches from her fingertips. The classmate assaulted by a self-righteous white man became an enslaved woman beat by a zealous overseer. I sent the story to my father, he suggested I send it out for publication. The Black Collegian published it in 1991. They paid me $100. I just knew I was in business, it was years before I made that kind of money from a piece of fiction again. [I know now that commercial magazines pay way better than anthologies and literary magazines. It's the economics of the business.]
I/We is all over my beginnings as a writer. If that woman, a member of my community, hadn't stood up and shared her story, that material wouldn't have nagged me until it was written. I have no doubt I would have become a writer anyway, there would have been another entry point on the path of writing, but this woman is the one who got me started. I told her story, threw in my own speculative fiction twist drawing on the communal history of Americans, and started my own individual career. Then a member of my community, my father, said "Hey, you need to publish this." For sure, I would NOT have sent that story out without someone suggesting it to me. It just wouldn't have occurred to me. But anyway, back to the story I intended to tell.
My largest experience with I/We transformed me personally as well as professionally. In 1993 a friend of mine told me she was raped. She "rushed over the confession quickly. She didn't really want to discuss it. Why?—because it wasn't a 'physical' rape. He didn't have a gun or a knife and he didn't beat her up. They were, in fact, friends. She was attracted to him, it was late, and she was in his home.... Although she clearly believed she was raped, she couldn't explain why she considered it rape."—from "Navigating to No."
I found myself fascinated by my friend's story. How could you say you were raped and not be able to explain why? How could these things happen? I never forgot her story.
In 1995 I told a male friend that someone "seduced me." He said "Oh, you trying to say you didn't want it?" "No," I said, "I mean he made it happen, but I wanted it." He said, "No, seducing is when you make somebody have sex when they don't want to." "Are you crazy?" I said, "That's rape." As we were arguing about what seduction is and isn't, something clicked. I realized if men think seduction is making women have sex when they don't want to and women aren't strong enough to say no in the face of extreme pressure or harassment, that's how "date rape" happens. Two people with two different definitions for seduction and two very different models for interaction. I put together my female friend's rape story with my male friend's definition of seduction (two elements from my community—the "we") and wrote a personal essay entitled "Seduction vs. Rape."
"Seduction vs. Rape" was published on an Internet publication called Topsoil. A college professor found it and asked if she could use it in her classroom. So here I am, having a discussion with my community. My community expresses some ideas to me, I think about it and write an essay, my community posts it online and a member of another community reaches out and asks if she can spread it to more people.
In 1996 I suffered the same type of sexual experience. I clearly didn't want to have sex, but the man was not picking up on my signals. When he didn't respond to my mumbled suggestions that we should slow it down, fear set in. Rather than confront him, I went along with his program and had sex with him. I went home the next day and didn't tell anyone about it. Yes, I believe this too, is a piece of conversation from my community. It was certainly an I/We moment.
Some years after, I decided to develop "Seduction vs. Rape" into a full-length magazine article. I didn't intend to tell my own story, in fact, I don't think I even categorized myself with my friend. My plan was to focus on men and women's differing definitions of seduction. I embarked on a series of interviews and talked to as many men and women as I could about seduction and sex that isn't quite seduction, but not quite what our society defines as rape either.
In interacting with my community, I stumbled upon many disturbing sex stories. Women who had given in to sex up to five times, women who were forced into sex in their own homes, women who clearly said no and were raped. In discussing all of these experiences, I found that I wasn't so unique. My experience was almost textbook; my shutting down in bed was scripted.
I completed the article and almost turned it in when I realized an essential element of the issue was missing from the article. The huge chunk that was missing was my revealing my own story. After delving into so many powerful conversations with women I admired, I was ready to add myself to their numbers. In the company of friends, due to the commonality I found between my experience and that of others, I was able to admit that I had been weak, I had not protected myself, and I was ready to examine the reasons why.
My community healed me. Speaking to various "victims" who had been both stronger and weaker than me, yet who had suffered the exact same experience freed me to relate to the unwanted sex as an aspect of our world that we all need to heal. It granted me license to attack the issue from a more balanced perspective. My new draft of the article not only told my story, but discussed how men are responsible for this issue AND how women are responsible for this issue. I emerged from the conversations able to suggest tactics for both men and women to make the sexual experience better.
I sent the article to Essence, they renamed it "Navigating to No" and accepted it for publication. I was ready to move on to new work. Then the emails started coming. (Another of my father's suggestions: Put your email address at the end of the article so people can contact you.) My community responded in full force. I got over 100 emails from women telling me their rape stories: Ph.D.'s, teenagers, mothers, wives, college students. Emailing me with stories like, "Just last week..." "I cried the whole time..." "I thought he was my friend..." "He said we were going to watch television...." I got about three or four emails from women and men saying I was being ridiculous for holding men accountable, women are responsible for what happens to them. And I got one detailed response from a 24-year old man.
He said: "The most important thing is that a woman needs to be clear with her message/intent. That whole no/yes thing is too open to interpretation. It should not be up to the man to interpret whether the woman wants to go all the way. A woman needs to know that if she is thinking 'No' and she says 'No', her actions need to be consistent with that message. Saying 'No' and following it up with kisses, while letting him unbutton your blouse or pants, kind of defeats the purpose." Clearly he offered good, clear advice that was well aligned with my ideas about what women are responsible for doing to protect themselves and communicate their interest (or lack thereof).
Then he went on to share his own experiences:
"My next statements will probably make any female reader vomit, but, in my opinion, it's the truth. Women have played a significant role in this whole situation. It's the women that "Freeze" and give in, that are NEXT TO the heart of the problem. A man is usually naturally aggressive when it comes to sex. He has to learn that aggression pays off. I learned. The first time I "Muscled it" (that's the common term males use for Navigating to No), I was scared to death afterward. It was a situation where she and I were together and things were getting heavy. We were kissing and she was in a submissive position. I proceeded to remove her pants and she asked me what I was doing. I told her nothing and proceeded kissing her and removing her pants. She was still very responsive, returning the kisses and not providing much resistance to me removing her pants. When she got back into a submissive position, she said that she didn't want to do anything, but she was still kissing me in the process. Once I got in position, she said no, and I paused. I recited the usual rhetoric men use at this point. I then continued kissing her and she occasionally returned the kisses. The rest is self-explanatory. At no time did she ever try to get up, or force me off of her. At no time did I use any force or threat of violence towards her. After it was over, while I was on my way home, I started to wonder. What had I just done? I began to worry that I may have just raped her and that if she called the police, I would go to jail. I was sick to my stomach. The weird thing was that when I saw her the next day in school, she acted like everything was fine. We never had sex again, but I figured everything was OK."
In reading his lengthy letter [For anyone interested in reading the essay (Navigating to No) and the brother's response, they both can be read at www.kiiniibura.com/essays], I learned a lot about my own behavior in the situation. I realized I had been trying to compromise my way out of the situation. But when I read this man's words, I see that considering the feelings or desires of the aggressor is utter stupidity. The letter disturbed me, but I was so grateful he sent it. I sent it to as many women as I could, because it was a clear notice that in the realm of seduction, many women and men are NOT on the same page. Could my understanding of this issue get any clearer? By publishing the article, I got profound insight into a social ill that I (and many other women) had been dealing with as a private issue. I/We indeed.
What happened next? Out of the blue, I was invited to go to Spelman, my alma mater, and address a convocation. I participated in one television program and two radio shows. And everywhere I went women were saying, "me too, me too," and men were saying, "Huh? You mean to say...?" The gap between women and men's perspectives became something I could smile and laugh about. And when a man challenged me, it wasn't personal, it was a commentary on the state of our society and a commentary on how little women and men understand about each other's lives. We really are living, working, breathing, writing, creating art in a communal world. Though we may be alone in our offices and our studios, in our triumphs and our traumas, there is a communal element to it all.
I'm blessed that my mother shares her work with me. Her finding words to define the way she lives, gives me words to explain the miracles that happen in my life and work. It's so cool is to know that just as other people's work and ideas influence us, we influence others. Just last week, I got an email affirming the power of I/We. A dancer and a performance artist, after reading about my Catcalling essay asked to read it. After reading it, he decided to do a performance piece on the topic. He says:
"By you expressing your ideas and voice, I was able to find my voice. It is a tag team if you will. I appreciate this process that life offers, it gives life flavor and movement which is unplanned and unlimited."
My parents brought me and my siblings up with a reverence for ancestors and a thankfulness for life, but with no real religious structure. They never set out to define God for us, nor did they even suggest to us that there was a God. Religion just did not exist. Consequently, I didn't have a working knowledge of/relationship to God (or a God force) until I struck out on my own. I went away on a 12-month international fellowship with nothing but a suitcase, contacts, and some money in the bank. On that trip, I was a witness to how the universe works. How I was often in the right place at the right time. How, when I was in a horrible housing situation and I knew no one on the island of Trinidad, I followed my instincts to volunteer at a conference and there met the woman who would solve all my housing issues.
God/the Universe is working for us all the time. Even when it seems like nothing's working out, things seem to fit together in profound ways. In my career I've had my "universal" moments which are not necessarily earthshaking, but they are tiny affirmations that I'm on the right track. It's like I feel the gentle hand of the universe urging me in the right direction.
And sometimes, when you take one step, a network of reactions spreads out and impacts many areas of your life in ways you could not have foretold. Here is one interesting thread of coincidences, an accidental (?) chain of cause and effect.
The First Step: A Failed Attempt Sometime last year, I saw an email call that announced a Ms. magazine columnist search. The magazine was looking for young feminists to write monthly columns. Hmmm, I wondered if I was too young, but I thought, what can it hurt to apply? I emailed a letter expressing my interest and attached "Navigating to No" an article I wrote about the gray areas between seduction and rape. A Ms. editor emailed me back to say I was too old! They were looking for women between the ages of 19 and 25. "Oh well, another missed opportunity," I thought.
The Second Step: An Unexpected Result Months later, I had forgotten about the Ms. magazine column. I was surprised to receive an email from an editor at Ms. expressing interest in my work. She read "Navigating to No" (either in the email I sent or in the magazine it was published in) and wanted to know if I was interested in writing a 600-word article for their "Ms.-cellaneous" column, in which a writer writes about how a word relates to her as a woman. [Perhaps this chain of events legitimately starts earlier when I actually wrote "Navigating to No" and had it published as the result of an unsolicited submission, but the Universe is such a fascinatingly complex web of actions, it's hard to start at THE BEGINNING.]
After I pitched a few words to them, we finally agreed I'd write on the word: "No." I wrote the piece about learning to be direct, about transforming my communications from obligatory politeness to clear honesty. Here's a brief excerpt:
Fluency with "no" is a human right, yet many women cling to "maybe" or "I don't know." "No" is sometimes audacious, but it is always fundamental, economic, and direct. A simple, well-intoned "no" is a feather of realness, a moment of authoritative self-expression, an adult utterance, a commitment to self.
It was a very difficult editorial experience because they really forced me to go deep with my ideas. The article was picked up to be reprinted within one month of it being published, so I guess the editors and I were doing something right.
The Third Step: Taking Another Leap Ms. published the "No" article in their June/July issue. A few weeks later, I got an email about an anthology for young feminists of color. This time I actually fit in the age bracket, but I was feeling lazy and I didn't want to write something new without knowing that the editors were interested in what I had to say. Dealing with rejections is hard enough, I'm not interested in writing something new specifically for that project and then finding out, my style isn't what they're looking for. I don't have that much time on my hands. Maybe in the future when I'm writing full-time, but not yet. The call for submissions didn't specify whether or not they were accepting reprints. I assumed they only wanted original work, but I sent the same "Navigating to No" that I had sent to Ms. to the anthology. I never heard from them. I forgot about the anthology and moved on with my writing.
The Fourth Step: An Unprecedented Request A month or so after I submitted my work to the feminist anthology, I got an email from Ms. magazine. Apparently the summer interns were organizing a meet and greet party. The interns invited writers whose work had been published by the magazine while they were interns, specifically they invited writers they admired. The invitation was a request for us writers to share our wisdom about developing a writing career.
I was flattered. I immediately wrote back saying I'd be happy to attend the party, but I didn't think I was qualified to offer advice about developing a magazine writing career. I explained that my publication history with magazines is limited and I'm not even close to making a living as a writer. My editor told me she appreciated my humbleness and assured me I had a lot of information to share with the interns. Plus, she added, success never feels like what it looks like from the outside. O.K., I said, this is called what?: Taking my medicine. Here's a situation where I don't think I have the experience to offer what they're asking, but they insist they want me, so why not go?
The Fall-Out: How the Universe Works Here are the things the party, and hence the universe, taught me. [A series of lessons that were the result of me using an essay pubslished from an unsolicited submission to apply for an opportunity I was not qualified for and was rejected from.]
First lesson: I learned that, no matter what stage of the game I'm at, I have something to offer.
There were women at the party who were way more experienced than me. One in particular taught journalism at a university and makes a living off magazine writing. There was another who, like me, shyly expressed reservations as to whether her knowledge could help the interns in achieving their goals. But in sharing my literary ideas, experiences and convictions, I saw the power of my mid-career wisdom. In that brief question-and-answer session, I clearly saw that experts aren't the only ones who can offer expertise. Sometimes where an expert stands is too far away for a novice to relate to. As I spoke to the interns, I felt my power as a model of a work-in-progress. I don't need to be an icon who's already arrived at her destination to offer guidance and mentorship. Each one, teach one is real.
THE GIFT: I am now able to embrace my worth as a resource. I accept and acknowledge all I have to teach without pretending I have nothing more to learn. Despite the fact I have so far to travel in my career, I still have much to give. This gift helped me believe I could write the KIS.list without pretending to be a fully-evolved writer. It empowered me with the understanding that there are lessons to be shared at every stage of the journey.
Second lesson: Though I was asked to give, there was so much to receive.
Although I went to share my experiences, I was enriched by the women who were more advanced in their careers than I was. I didn't expect to receive guidance in my own career, but I did. Sue Shapiro, in particular, was helpful. The most valuable thing I got from her communications was her disdain for query letters. While she acknowledged the query letter's importance when writing nonfiction pieces for a magazine, she explained that it's very difficult to give an accurate sense of a personal essay with a query. Personal essays are so subjective; it's almost impossible to communicate their strengths through an outline or a letter of intent. "Write it and send it unsolicited," Sue Shapiro says. "If it's strong, they'll accept it." My own experience certainly supports this. The first article I had published in a major commercial magazine was one I sent unsolicited. I had written it for myself and once it was finished, I sent it out. They accepted the article for publication and I am now in the process of building a relationship with the magazine.
THE GIFT: Sue's suggestions reminded me that I am in charge of my writing career. The querying process can be maddening with editors rejecting ideas or forgetting to pitch them in editorial meetings. If there is an idea or an article that I think should be out there, perhaps I should start sending out work. At the very least, I can use these unsolicited articles to build relationships with editors.
Third lesson: My father is always right. [Just kidding, my father gives great advice. He's the one always telling me to send stuff unsolicited to this person or that person. But as you'll see, he's wrapped up in the third lesson.]
Third Lesson: The Internet builds recognition.
I wrote six reports from the Clarion West Writers Workshop for my friends and family. By the time I sent the third one, my father emailed me and asked me if he could circulate them on the cyberdrum, his listserv. "I think lots of people will be interested in this information," he said. "Sure," I said go ahead. Upon my return from Clarion, when I told my father I was finally going to start taking responsibility for my career. I was going to create a website that would help me build a relationship with my audience. "Start a listserv," he said. "It's dynamic and immediate, and it will really build your relationship with readers." But I hemmed and hawed (see lesson one). Could I really start writing my ideas and sending them out to strangers. My friends and family, yes, but folks who don't know me?
So, back to the party. After I introduced myself, one of the writers asked, "Are you the one who wrote those reports from Clarion?" "Yes," I said. "I read them on your father's listserv," she said. And as she expressed her appreciation for the reports, I saw the power and possibility of putting together this list, the KIS.list. Not that I didn't believe my father, but here was someone who, without reading any of my fiction or essays, recognized my name and showed appreciation for my efforts.
THE GIFT: The KIS.list. After that, I knew it had to be done. At the party, I got a firsthand taste of how the Internet can help me build relationships where previously there had been none.
Fourth Lesson: When I "take my medicine", I'm often in the right place, at the right time.
When I stood up to leave, one of the writers pulled me to the side and said "I need to talk to you." As it turns out, she was the editor of the anthology for the young feminists of color. "My coeditor and I really love your writing," she said, "but we aren't doing reprints. I wonder if you could write something else, something specific to the experience of women of color." I told her I would think about it. Months later, I've written an essay both of us are happy with.
THE GIFT: If I hadn't attended this party, I don't know if she would have contacted me. Maybe they had received enough original work to put together a powerful anthology. But with face-to-face contact, she was inspired to ask me to develop something and I was energized to write something new. Plus, I'm finally able to balance out my acceptances and rejections.
So the Universe and I had fun with this one. And, who knows where the ripple effect will end?
Over the past two weeks I got two acceptances for publication. The first was for the full-length article I wrote on catcalling and other street sexual harassment. The editor I wrote it for received it enthusiastically. Because it will be included in an anthology of young feminists of color, she asked me to add a few references to how I connect the issues of catcalling with feminism. That will be a slight challenge but I will pull it off by the deadline: Nov. 15.
The other piece accepted for publication is a speculative fiction story, well it's actually categorized as fantasy. It's been accepted to an anthology of speculative fiction from the African diaspora. The story I originally wrote for the collection was rejected, but the editor emphasized she was not necessarily rejecting me from the collection. "I'm not worried about fixing this story," she said. "You're off to Clarion, I know you're going to write something interesting." While I was at the Clarion Writing Workshop, I wrote six stories and she chose one entitled "Desire." So now my acceptances are equal to my rejections. I know some of ya'll out there were starting to get worried about me, but this rejection thing is the nature of the game. I been sending out lots of stuff, so I'm bound to get a few more rejections shortly.
KIINI IBURA SALAAM is a writer, painter, and traveler from New Orleans, Louisiana. Her book--"Ancient, Ancient," a collection of speculative tales that revolve around the dark, the sensual, and the magical--was named one of the Best Fantasy and Science Fiction Collections of 2012 by editor Jeff VanderMeer. http://www.amazon.com/Ancient-Fiction-Kiini-Ibura-Salaam/dp/1933500964
Kiini's work is rooted in in eroticism, speculative events, and women's perspectives. Her fiction has been anthologized in such collections as Dark Matter, Mojo: Conjure Stories, and Dark Eros. Her nonfiction has been published in Ms. magazine, Essence magazine, and Utne Reader. Her KIS.list e-report chronicles the ups and downs of the writing life and is currently being serialized in the e-book format. The first volume is titled On the Psychology of Writing: Notes from the Trenches. http://www.amazon.com/Psychology-Writing-Notes-Trenches-ebook/dp/B009NNHTOU/ref=la_B007YU4GWC_1_16?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1355940255&sr=1-16
Stay in touch with her activities by clicking "Like" on her Facebook author page at www.facebook.com/kiiniibura