spec fiction
the KIS.list: August 2012


Vol. 81, Have You Been Seen?

On a television show I was recently watching, there was a curvy girl trying out for a ballet summer program. She got cut almost immediately. Her ballet teacher gave her a wig and told her to go audition again under another name. She got cut quickly again. Her ballet teacher sent her in again under a third name. Someone who was watching the repeated interchange said, "This is madness. They saw her, and she got c ut." The ballet teacher said, "They didn't see her. She's going in to audition with all these skinny girls and they see that she has the biggest thighs and the biggest hips and they cut her. They aren't actually seeing her. Eventually, she'll go in with a group of girls and someone else will have big thighs, then they will see her."

Wow, what a thought. How many times have we been rejected from something, not based on talent but on some external prejudice beyond our control? And how many times have we taken that judgment to be a ruling on our talent (or lack thereof) rather than a prejudice against our being. It happens when you go out for writing fellowships--who knows what others are writing and how your work screams something different (not necessarily something less than). Who knows who is reviewing the work and what their personal opinions biases and preferences are.

The ballet teacher wasn't pushing to have her student selected, she was pushing to have her student be seen. And isn't that what we are all looking for?

At the same time, being seen can be an intensely uncomfortable sensation. As I age, I become more comfortable with being seen and with being seen as myself, not some mythologized version of myself.

As a younger writer, the idea of seeing my work--my raw, unpolished, quickly rendered work--was excruciating. I wouldn't dare show the raggedness of my initial thoughts. I remember eleven years ago when a magazine a editor asked me to write an article on a specific topic. I told her I would be happy to, but I didn't know where to begin. She told me to just write what I could off the top of my head and send it to her unedited. I looked at her li ke she was crazy. She, a writer and editor with many years under her belt said, "I know sharing your work at such a raw stage feels strange, but I think the first draft holds a power and I think if you gave that to me, I could tell you what I'm looking for." It was painful for me to even consider turning over a first draft of anything. I did it, with MASSIVE reluctance, and it unfolded just as the editor said it would. She guided me as I completed the piece.

Fast forward to 2012. An editor has asked me to write a piece. I'm willing but busy. I told her I'd write it with no hesitation, though I thought to myself, "I have NO idea how this will turn out. I sat down and banged out a draft in two hours. I sent her the draft without reading over it even once. "I need to edit this piece," I wrote, "but please review it and let me know if this is what you're looking for." I trusted that she could see the essence of what I was doing, she could read the bones and I could fill out the flesh later. She reviewed it and let me know that it was just what she was looking for. She gave me a deadline to turn in edits and it's done.

I find it intriguing that when I was less developed as a writer I was more rigid and more controlling. Now, I'm happy to hear critique and feedback, to gain insight and suggestions, and I don't mind sending out a raggedy first draft for feedback.

It occurs to me that more experience = more confidence. More confidence = less need for every single thing I do and say to be perfect (because I know my worth and if I turn in something that's less than my worth it doesn't devalue my entire self). Less need for perfection = more acceptance of myself. Acceptance means I can be imperfect and I'm still perfect to me. I accept my mistakes, I accept not crossing every "t" and dotting ever "i." More self-acceptance = more willingness to try. The need for perfection stops people from just giving it a go, if you're okay with making a mistake, you'll learn the rhythm of the thing you're attempting a lot easier. So more willingness to try = more progress. And more progress gives me what? More experience.

The question of writing a novel is now pushing me further in this conversation of being seen. At last night's reading, in conversation with Moira Crone we came to the topic of novels. I had just finished talking about how much I enjoy following an idea into the unknown as I write short stories and discovering what the idea wants to be. The next second I was explaining that I think I'm afraid to venture into the unknown of novel writing. What I have seen of myself as a novel writer is a confused lost self. I have soldiered through, slogging through drafts, but still not succeeded at carrying through the thread of a novel-length tale.

Moira said she thinks short stories are part of the natural scope of how people think and feel and ingest information. They can spill out of a writer in a very natural way, whereas novels are like a set of instructions or directions. The writer has to follow a set of proscribed actions/structures/strictures for it to be complete.

Which is an interesting point b/c I don't do restrictions and have-tos very well. I remember when I was getting my MFA and we had to write a paper in our second to last semester. I was annoyed because I had finally gotten flow with my novel. "I'm deep in my novel," I told my advisor, "can't I just write this paper later?" The program director got wind of it and told me I wouldn't be able to proceed without writing the paper. My advisor, Chris Abani, referred me to the book "39 Microlectures: In Proximity of Performance." A poet and a novelist, I suppose Abani had an idea of what I was struggling with and knew exactly what to suggest for me to move through it. The author, Matthew Goulish, felt that presenting lectures was impossible until he decided to do them the length he was comfortable with. Working on that principle, I wrote my paper by doing a series of micro chapters which made it possible for me to produce the required length in short sections.

Process is so important to success. And success is gained by not being stopped by "I can't." If I can't do something--for whatever reason--the only way I know of to succeed is to ask myself what I can do and go from there. I think the same goes with being seen. I think we don't want to be seen because we think we don't measure up, at the same time we want to be seen--we want the value and validation of being noticed, accepted and approved of. We have many distorted ideas about what people should see when they look at us. True power comes from accepting who and what we are and being will and open to receiving the gaze of others.

It comes back to surrender, as it always seems to. And being able to see ourselves clearly and honestly. Regarding novels, I am still working on my "self-gaze." In other areas as a writer, it feels great to be fully open to being seen.

Be well. Be love[d].

Kiini Ibura Salaam


Same Worries, 11 Years Later

I will be in New Orleans in August. I asked my sister if I was crazy to do three book events, she said, "no." If five people show up at each that's fifteen potential new fans! I had so much fun with Linda Addison at Bluestockings that I'm having two guests. Moira Crane, author of "The Not Yet," and my father, Kalamu ya Salaam!

If you're in New Orleans, please come out and be one of my five audience members!

New Orleans Readings

• Monday, August 13: Octavia Books, 513 Octavia Street, 6 p.m.–8 p.m.

• Wednesday , August 15: Maple St. Books in the Healing Center, 2372 St. Claude Ave., 6:30 p.m.–8 p.m.
Featuring Moira Crane, "The Not Yet"

• Friday, August 17: Community Book Center, 2523 Bayou Road, 6 p.m.–8 p.m.
Featuring Kalamu ya Salaam and Hosted by the MelaNated Collective

Also, catch me on the Reading Life radio show on 89.9 WWNO

• August 7 at 1:30 p.m.
• August 12 at noon
• On demand at wwno.org

It's crazy how we can travel so far and yet find ourselves harboring the same fears, internal obstacles, and worry.

Back in 2001, I wrote: Fast forward to this year and I am quietly trying to convince myself it's time for me to start a new novel."

I also wrote: "Deciding to write a new novel brings up a lot of fears."

Did I really write that *ELEVEN* years ago? It is still true today. As I'm writing essays and short stories, promoting my book, reading, I am quietly trying to convince myself to write a new novel.

And yes, it brings up a lot of fears. Fear that I won't make it... again. Fear that a passion for the story will never rise up to rescue me from relying on discipline. (At my reading Friday night Linda was discussing novel writing with another writer and he said it takes him about three months before he's gripped by his novel.) Fear that I can't commit to an idea. Fear that I am wasting time--because if the novel isn't going to work, I shouldn't spend my time starting something I'll never finish, right?

hee - hee

Everything old is new again... or it never aged, it just hid out and took a different form. Since I wrote about writing a new novel in 2001, I have written a novel. It's better than my first novel. It's more complete, has fully realized characters and a plot arc. Yet here I am again, feeling my stories hanging out, waiting to be told, while I stall and wonder if I can follow through with the next move.

Funny when nothing and everything changes.

Nothing new to report, except that Troy Johnson of AALBC recorded me speaking about my day at the Harlem Book Fair. Forgive the wrinkled-face squint, the sun was dominating my vision!

Ancient, Ancient Brief Promo Video