A Few Lit Links

The case against becoming an English professor? Tayari Jones responds.

Anis Shivani says MFA programs are corrupt.

From 2008: Charles Johnson on Black narrative in the 21st century.

Helena Andrews looks at the Hollywood history of Ntozake's For Colored Girls.

Writing (and reading) for Family

Earlier this year I decided I wanted to write something for my grandmother on her 100th birthday in September. I thought whatever I wrote could be private, for her to read and remember, but as the party planning got more elaborate, I was placed on the schedule of events. I'd be reading "Reflections." When I learned that there would be an audience I tweaked what I'd written and then I filed it away. That was in July.

I need about two months between finishing a piece and looking at it again for revision. By then I'm less attached to what I wrote the first time. It just so happened that in August and September, I was so busy with work and family that all I had time to do was read it a second time. I didn't make any revisions. I told myself that the piece was fine. I promised myself I'd look at it again when we got to Atlanta for the party. I pictured myself on the hotel bed with my laptop, making changes, reading it aloud. Of course, that never happened.

I was anxious, then, because I had not revised my "reflections." There would be 300 people in attendance, and a lot of them would be church folks that I didn't want to offend or bore. Let's be real, a churchgoing audience is used to a different type of rhetoric than you find in a quiet essay. I guess I was also nervous that my father, brothers, nephew, sister-in-law, cousins, uncles, aunties would be there to listen. I'd never shared with them a personal essay that I'd written.

I also kept replaying a scene from the movie, "Death at a Funeral" starring Chris Rock. In it, Rock plays a writer who's been working on a novel for forever. He's a serious brooding type with little sense of humor. At his father's funeral, Rock reads a eulogy which is filled with the kind of flat and boring historical facts that just won't fly with black folks at a funeral. I'd filled my essay for my grandmother with flat historical facts. I mean, how else do you talk about living for an entire century?

And then, at the party other people got up and started saying the same historical stuff that I'd written. Even if it wasn't exactly the same in content it was in spirit. Unoriginal ideas are not something we writers strive for.

I started revising in my head. I began mentally cutting and pasting. "The beginning was boring," I thought. I'd start with the third paragraph.

Reflections were scheduled at the close of the event. There were two readers of reflections: me and one of my grandmother's friends. The friend was from a senior citizens group that meets to play bingo and such. This gray-haired woman was exactly the type of phenomenal speaker you never want to follow. She had no notes. She was funny. She told personal stories about my grandmother that were endearing and specific. I am certain that the words she spoke were mostly spontaneous. She was brilliant.

When it was my turn, I walked up to the front with my two typed pages. I decided right there not to read the first page. Instead I just talked. i told them how I'd fretted about this reading. How I'd researched all these historical facts which were not really relevant. I told them that I was happy I'd done the research because it helped me understand the dilemma I faced when talking about my grandmother. On the one hand, I was reading about an America pre-voting rights for women, pre-civil rights for blacks, and a world where a lot of ugly things were happening. On the other hand, there was Rubie and her constant laughter, her flowering garden, her delicious pound cakes. I told them that it was hard to reconcile these very different images without conceding that maybe Mama Rubie's life was blessed. I admitted that "blessed" is not a word I often use but that it seemed appropriate to describe a woman who thrived despite such low expectations.

I then shared a few personal stories and read from the end of the essay. This was a section of the essay that was written more like a prose poem. I got a little emotional as I read, but it was an emotional day.

I heard Toni Morrison say once that the revising is never done, not even after publication. I'd add that the revision process continues even as you walk to the mic.

New Blog!

Check out a new blog I've started, The So-Called Middle. It will document middle class life using mostly photos, videos, and quotes.

Recommended Reading

I just finished this novel and really liked it. Apprentice to the Flower Poet Z. by Debra Weinstein was published in 2004 by Random House so I'm a little late to the party. The novel is set in a university creative writing program and the main character is a young poet who is being mentored by an uber-famous faculty member. It's funny and smart and a very quick read.

The Nature of Power + Pimps?

A new documentary opened this weekend in select cities. The film is about the nature of power, geopolitics, and self-empowerment....I think. I'm not exactly sure what Ghetto Physics will be about, but the trailer has me curious. It opens in Tempe, AZ on October 15th at the Harkins Valley Art Theater.

The trailer mentions the U.S. invasion of Iraq which made me think about President Bush for nearly an hour on this Sunday morning. I thought I'd share this video of "Great Moments in Presidential Speeches" provided to you by David Letterman:

Writing at Age Five

Do you remember what you were writing at age five? I have homemade books that I created and school papers that I wrote from about age eight, but I don't recall my first scribblings of words.

Ava, our resident kindergartener, is a furious scribbler right now. In one year, it's gone from symbols:

to the random use of letters (on a homemade telescope):

to the creation of menus:

birthday cards:

copying words seen on art:

notes to her brother:

random thoughts:

and this morning, the creation of a computer keyboard:

BTW, Ava is NOT spelling "zucchini" or writing notes to her brother on her own. She has the initial idea, and then asks for help with the spelling.

Grading Papers. Will Return Soon.

Sign of summer
Originally uploaded by DawndiQBU
It's that time of the year when I start to realize that summer is truly gone and I'm somewhere in the middle of a fall semester juggling many deadlines. So far, so good. The trick, for me, is staying on top of 1) courses that I teach; 2) outreach curriculum & events; 3) Ava's classroom schedule; 4) Amir's classroom schedule; and 5) my personal writing deadlines. I posted a few months ago that I purchased a large calendar on which I scribble brightly colored deadlines. I have so many dates to remember, they sometimes are written sideways or bleed into the next day's box. The calendar is probably illegible to everyone but me. When I look at it (it's this big, flimsy plastic board held up by magnets on the refrigerator) I wonder how I landed this deep in middle American kitsch.

Amir is on fall intercession right now, so there are no reports or papers that he's writing for the next few weeks. It has started to rain, finally, for days in a row. The break from 100+ heat makes it easier to concentrate on everything that begs to get done.

The gray skies and rain, and the witty students I'm teaching this semester have stoked my creative juices. In other words, in the middle of all these dates and deadlines, I am finding time to write! Of course all this busy-ness and inspiration means that blogging has fallen off, but I expect to post more once I have finished grading my first round of papers.