Why I Stopped Writing, Jan. 21, 2018
Which time that I stopped writing? It happened twice.
I must have been about 12 when I told Grandmama I would be a writer. Don’t know why I said it or why I remember saying it. Through junior high, high school, and college I jotted verses in my school notebooks. Took a college course in creative writing, the first time I showed my work to anybody. Graduating with a degree in English and a teaching certificate, I turned my back on my youthful writing interest and entered the adult world of real jobs.
For 23 years creative writing disappeared from my life. Working in the public library, I wrote a monthly book review for the newspaper. Readers didn’t rush in to check out the reviewed books, but my fans looked forward to the next review because they liked my writing. I felt odd that my reviews didn’t persuade people to read those books.
Years passed, and I was curled up on the couch on a Saturday morning. I finished reading a novel, put it down, and stood to get dressed for the day. In the shower hot tears dribbled down my face while the water sprayed my body, and I said, “I wish I could write like that.”
The logical side of me said that was odd, that tears should have been for the characters who finally muddled through their plot twists. Where did my statement come from? And what to do about it?
I attended writing workshops at the University of Missouri – Kansas City, University of Iowa, and Indiana University. A writer at Indiana, looked up from my work and told me that I couldn’t write because I was a librarian, and librarians don’t write. He knew it because his mother was a librarian. In Kansas City Sharat Chandra, the poet, looked over some of my work and said, “Something unique is slowly emerging.” I stifled my urge to yell at him what do you mean SLOWLY? My young adult days were past. If writing were going to happen in my life, it needed to take off soon!
In another twist, I turned all my energy to running the college library, first as acting director, then as director, telling myself that I would write again but not now.
In 2011 my husband and I decided together to retire 2 years later. Sitting at home on a Saturday in June, we wondered what we would find to do when we didn’t have our jobs. I said, “When I retire, I’ll write.” A little voice inside of me said I had hardly written in 10 years. How was this plan going to come together when retirement began? My writing self didn’t wait 2 more years.
Within a couple of weeks, I stood in the library looking at a magazine, maybe National Geographic, at an article about Homo sapiens nearly going extinct. This happened 70,000 years ago when a widespread drought killed most life forms in Africa. Few people survived, some on the south coast, some on the west coast, and a group by the Nile. How did they cope with seeing themselves as the only people left on earth? I strained my brain, trying to see them in a world of 70,000 years ago. Not much clue what it would have looked like. Putting the magazine in its place, I went to my office, and the images went with me. Days passed. Instead of fading, the prehistoric people talked to each other in my head about their fears, despair, hope, plans, chance events, and their dream for a better life for their children.
I began to write.
Is It OK for a White to Write about Black or Brown Characters?
I can just imagine Toni Morrison’s reaction to a white presuming to write black. As a long-time fan of Tony Hillerman, I remember feeling shocked on learning that he was no more Navaho than me. And now I’m reading Highwire Moon by Susan Straight, who apparently wasn’t born into a family like her Mexican and Native characters. And I’m happy to see Sherman Alexie, Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks and Dan Brown sitting alphabetically together on my shelf, along with some dead white men.
The question of a white writing black hit me nearly a year ago when I was working on an assignment for an online fiction course from GrubStreet. Nathan Oates had asked us to write a story in which a character returns to a place and encounters someone unexpected. I wrote “Axe and Blaze” about a woman going to a deserted house that had been in her family since before the Civil War, and she encounters a man whose ancestors had been slaves owned by her ancestors.