Writer’s Workshop: Studying the Craft

There are many ways to study the craft of writing. You can earn a bachelor’s degree in English. You can attain an MFA in creative writing. You can even take a few classes here and there to learn from experts.

But what should you do if you’re like me and have no intention on setting foot in another university as a student?

Read. That’s what! Writers read, and it’s important to read books in the genre in which you intend to publish. For me, that’s memoir.

Writers read, and it’s important to read books in the genre in which you intend to publish.

So, in 2018, I read ten memoirs to learn what bestsellers are made of and to understand what the pulse of a “good” memoir is. Here’s what I found out.

A “good” memoir focuses on one theme. My favorite memoir that demonstrates this basic principle is Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped. The overarching question is why have so many of the men in her community died? The quick answer is the interrelated nature of racism, poverty, and gender. The long answer is her 256-page memoir, where chapters are written in a seesaw fashion. One chapter is devoted to understanding one man’s in-depth story, while the next chapter reflects Ward’s life as it was related to each man. By the end of the memoir, Ward has clearly made a case for how systemic racism affects human beings.  

A “good” memoir has to present a bigger purpose. A bigger purpose doesn’t mean theme, necessarily, but it should answer the question: why is this author telling these stories? In My Dead Parents: A Memoir, Anya Yurchyshyn spends the first half of her book describing how much she disidentifies with her parents, how much she hates them, and how much their deaths don’t affect her. Part two digs deeper and explores who her parents really were prior to marriage and children and how this showed up in her life. This is ingenious. Anyone can write a book about why they dislike their parents. But she researches their histories as a way to see their identities, and then analyzes their lives outside of being her parents.

A “good” memoir weaves back and forth through time. This is a skill. Tara Westover’s Educated is superb at showing how to write a linear/not-linear story, which is important. While the overall story should be a cohesive narrative, it should travel back in time and then snap or slowly crawl back to the near present. For example, Westover remembers one of her brother’s violent acts from when she was an adolescent and then moves the story forward to a more recent memory of when she planned to visit home. The memory of the violence is important for how she will return and interact with her family in the book’s present.

A “good” memoir fits into a clear subgenre. Issa Rae uses humor for The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, which is a coming-of-age memoir. Kenan Trebinčević’s The Bosnia List: A Memoir of War, Exile, and Return is obviously a historical memoir, and so is The Girl Who Escaped Isis (Farida Khalaf and Andrea C. Hoffmann). Celebrity memoir is a thing, but more literary leaning ones, like Trevor Noah’s Born A Crime demonstrate sociocultural lessons. Finding Your Creative Muse explains more about these categories.

There’s nothing wrong with taking classes or seeking degrees; however, if you’d like to see what works for published authors, then I suggest reading in the genre you plan to write. I am also in no way advocating that you imitate the style of your favorite author. To me, that’s a no-no, but studying and learning about how others put words together? That’s a win for you and your growing body of work.

Are you intending to publish a book one day? Who’s your favorite author? What’s your favorite genre? What makes a book good?

Monday Notes: Empathy

Tupac had a song called “Brenda’s Got a Baby.” I remember when I first heard it. I was alone in my dorm room.

It starts like this:

I hear Brenda’s got a baby

But Brenda’s barely got a brain

A damn shame, the girl can hardly spell her name.

I don’t know if it was the soulful harmony that preceded these words or the actual rap, but I was captivated.

The song goes on to describe how she didn’t know her parents. One of them was a drug addict. But here’s the kicker. Her cousin became her boyfriend and she ended up pregnant! And guess what? Brenda was twelve.

I remember being glued to the black and white video. Tears streamed down my face and I hadn’t even gotten to the worse part. Brenda had her baby, threw it in the trash, and then became a prostitute.

What in the entire…

Anywho, it was too much. And I remember it all. I sat on the edge of my bed and cried as if I knew Brenda personally. Even though I didn’t know anyone remotely close to a “Brenda,” I remember feeling the pain of being a twelve-year-old, who was pregnant with her cousin’s baby. And then I felt the pain of being a baby thrown away in the trash.

That’s how I’ve been my whole life.

Some may say I’m an empath. I’ve never claimed it. But I do admit to being empathetic. It comes naturally.

It doesn’t matter if I know your backstory or not, I have the ability to listen to what you’ve told me, recognize, understand and share your thoughts and feelings.

My problem, until recently, has been realizing that not everyone has this ability, which coupled with my (sometimes) judgmental nature, caused problems.

For example, when my father died, my cousins wanted my stepmother to pick them up from the train station. It was remarkable to me that they would ask a recent widow to do something more equipped for a Lyft driver. I couldn’t wrap my brain around why they couldn’t put themselves in a grieving woman’s place and sense she may be a bit too sad to function normally.

I recognized it again when my goddaughter brought her godson, Mark to our house a couple years ago. We were decorating Christmas trees.

Mark bounced around helping each person with their ornaments. He danced when we turned on some music, and when we watched Frozen, he belted out a song as if he was Anna herself.

But when it was time to go, he shriveled up like a roly-poly pill bug and sulked around the house until it was time to go.

And I felt his sullenness.

Without my goddaughter telling me parts of his homelife, I sensed that wherever he was going, there was no joy. For some reason, he was crying on the inside. He was more than just disappointed because he’d had a good time at our home. His sadness held an untold story.

“I feel sorry for him,” I said out loud.

“You always feeling sorry for someone,” a friend of mine replied.

I couldn’t understand how she or any other adult who witnessed the same Mark I just did, didn’t feel similar. Aside from my goddaughter, why didn’t anyone else feel his sorrow?

But now I get it…kind of.

For some people, empathy is a learned behavior that can be developed by reading fiction or purposely practicing how to walk in others’ shoes. It’s a skill, like active listening.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this information, though. On the one hand, I understand we can’t all go around crying over music videos and lyrics. On the other hand, I do wish people were more empathetic. It seems more empathy might create better families and communities…somehow.

So, I’ll end with the above thought and let you decide. Will empathy weaken or strengthen us?

An Interview with the Real Celestial from Tayari Jones’ Novel An American Marriage

Have you read the New York Time’s bestseller An American Marriage? Well, guess what? I happen to know the person for whom the main character was named. And because I love coincidental, kismet-like stories, I asked Celestial to sit down with me to share how it happened. I hope you enjoy this interview:

kg: How did you meet Tayari Jones?

Celestial: It was 2011, and my family has a book club, called Mama Francina’s G.U.I.L.D. It started off as just our small family. We’d meet every quarter and read a book. My aunt made a suggestion, like, “Oh, I’d really like to do something with hats.” Mama Francina’s G.U.I.L.D. is named after her mother, and G.U.I.L.D. is an acronym for Gifted, Uplifted, Inseparable, Literary Descendants. We started that in honor of my grandmother and did a hat-tea sort of situation. 2011 was our second meeting, and Tayari’s Silver Sparrow was our selection.

We had invited Tayari as a surprise and she sat among the guests with the hat on, kind of over her face. No one knew she was the author or in the audience. She and I had brief conversations up to that point because I was responsible for booking her flight and hotel stay.

The day of, she was seated at my table. After the reveal and after she signed some books, she said to me, “Your name is really pretty, and I really like that. I think I’m gonna name a character after you.”

I kind of thought, oh that’s cute. I didn’t really think anything of it because people say stuff about my name all the time. It was like one of those moments, like you say that, but…

Celestial and I share a yeah, whatever girl glance.

kg: Right.

Celestial: But then later, she sent a proof copy to my aunt and my aunt told me, “She did name the main character after you.” So, I was super excited.

kg: So, your aunt gets the proof copy, reads the book, and tells you about it. But you don’t read the book until…this year, right? 

Celestial: Yep. I was like in disbelief and then when she made Oprah’s Book Club list and the NYT’s bestseller, then it really was like oh my gosh! So, it started off like, I’m gonna save it. It’s gonna be a good “rainy-day read.” Then, it turned into I don’t know if I wanna read it. Like, I don’t wanna ruin the fantasy of what it is. I held off and did not read it until this year (2020).

kg: Then when you read it, what did you think? Did you know what the topic was?

Celestial: I knew the topic only because she was at the Savannah Book Festival shortly after the announcement was made about her making Oprah’s Book Club selection. So, my aunt’s other book club, U.S.G.I.R.L.’s heard that she’d be there. I tagged along. She (Jones) talked about how the story came about and that sort of thing, but I still couldn’t not bring myself to read it. 

kg: Okay, so you already told me this before, but remind me. You’re there (Savannah). The book is out. Your name is in the book. You already met her before, but then you froze up?

Celestial: I was awestruck. It was so goofy. I kick myself. I can’t even remember saying two words to her. We took a picture and she spoke and hugged me. But I was kind of like, “Hiiii.”

I guess because one of the other things she said at the fancy hat book club is that she was going to be an Oprah’s Book Club selection.

kg: Wooow.

Celestial: She said it for Silver Sparrow, but to see it come to fruition…when you see someone speak something into fruition like that, it’s like whoa.

kg: She did all of the things she said she was gonna do!

Celestial: Yeah. And it’s something I aspire to do, so it was a full-circle moment. I think I was a bit taken aback by all that.

kg: Yeah. That’s a bit much. I can see how it’s on another level, like on some spiritual type stuff.

So, you read the book this year. What I want to know is…my name is very common. I can see “Kathy” all over, but I’d still be excited, like look y’all! This character’s name is Kathy! But your name is so unique. How was it reading your name over and over again, but knowing it’s not you?

Celestial: It was really surreal. I guess knowing that it was in the book because the person had met me and wanted to use it…that was the part that was kind of like whoa. It was pretty cool. I loved the book. I was a little on the fence about Celestial, the character, but I read the book in one day. I woke up about two o’clock one morning. I couldn’t sleep. I said you know what? Let me just read it. Let me dive in and see what happens. I think I was done by four or five o’clock that evening.

I was just blown away. It’s like every other page she had those lines that kind of gut punch you. It was an experience. I don’t even know that I could put it in words.

kg: What did you think about Celestial? Because she was a piece of work and kind of put herself in some situations.

Celestial: How deep do we wanna go? Cause I don’t want to give any spoilers.

Spoiler alert


kg: It’s up to you.

Celestial: Initially, I was a little perturbed. I kind of felt a way with her decision to deal with the best friend (Andre) while the husband (Roy) was in prison, especially because she knew he was innocent.

kg: Right.

Celestial: I struggled with that. She was just leaving the man high and dry. As a woman of forty-four, I get it. I get that it would be hard to be on the outside and not have companionship and physical needs met and all of that, but especially considering the way this country is set up…I just really struggled with that, initially.

I think when it turned for me is when he (Roy) got out. I struggled with how she treated ole boy (Andre) then because I was like you’re playing two sides. You want the best of both worlds and you can’t have it. Somebody’s gonna get hurt. You’re putting these people in this bad position. Even though everyone is an adult. The best friend (Andre) knew what he was doing.

It just was such a mess. I try my best to stay out of mess and drama. For me, that kind of stuff is stressful. I just felt like she was putting herself in these horribly, horribly, complicated situations. But when it turned for me was when she was willing to sacrifice herself. I thought maybe she’s not quite as bad. There was a line in that section. Her mother had said something like love looks like these other things.

“A woman doesn’t always have a choice, not in a meaningful way. Sometimes there is a debt that must be paid, a comfort that she is obliged to provide, a safe passage that must be secured. Everyone of us has lain down for a reason that was not love.

An American Marriage, Tayari Jones

kg: That’s some grown woman stuff. You had to have lived through some things to understand that part.

Celestial: Yes. That was kind of the turning point, and then when the guys started fighting over her…

kg: Yes. Part of what makes this book so good is not just the story, the imagery is really clear. And that part was one of those parts when I could see them fighting, but in my mind it seemed so ridiculous though that these grown men would be out here under a tree…fighting…for a chick. But I could see all of that.

Celestial: I get it. You know how the male ego is.

kg: It could totally happen

Celestial: Right. It was realistic. I could see that happening, especially with the brother fresh out of jail and if I was in there for some mess I didn’t do? And you pushed up on my woman? I get it.

kg: I really feel like the best friend (Andre) was more wrong than Celestial. But the best friend and Celestial were closer than the best friend and the husband (Roy), know what I mean? So, it was an easy decision.

Spoiler over


kg: Are there any similarities between you and Celestial?

Celestial: Well, I do sing. And I can’t remember if Tayari would have known that. So, that kind of blew me when I read that. That’s really the only similarity that I can see.

kg: Good. Lol That’s a good answer. Anything else you want to tell me? Do you have any other thoughts about having a character named after you?

Celestial: I am very grateful. But there’s something someone said to me after the book came out that was kind of funny. I shared with my coworkers that the book was coming out and I’d met Tayari, blah, blah, blah. This was after it hit the NYT’s bestseller list. My coworker was like, “Wow. Your name is forever etched and out there,” and I didn’t even think of it like that. Someone immortalizing your name like that is really, really cool.

kg: It is!

Celestial: That was one thing that hadn’t even dawned on me, or I hadn’t even thought of it in that way, until she said that. And that was really dope.

I’ve already thanked Celestial for her time during our interview, but I also have to publicly express gratitude for her sitting down with me on New Year’s Eve 2020 to discuss her experience.

There’s so much inspiration in every part of this experience, and I hope it inspires you in some way! If you want to read a non-traditional love story, then check out Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage.


Celestial Holmes is a blogger known for her Lovecraft Country reviews on Black with No Chaser. You can also read her own account of having a character named after her in What’s in a Name: Meeting Tayari Jones.

Writer’s Workshop: Introductions

Introductions are important. Just think about your favorite song. Whether it’s the way the first note comes in or it’s the way an artist says the first word, the introduction to a song determines if you’ll continue listening or fast forward to something else.

Writing is no different.

A good first line or paragraph lets me know if I’ll be reading more of what the author has to say.

Let’s look at this intro to My Dead Parents:

My mother, Anita, died in her sleep in 2010, when she was sixty-four and I was thirty-two. The official cause of death was heart failure, but what she really died from was unabashed alcoholism, the kind where you drink whatever you can get your hands on, use your bed as a toilet when you can’t make it to the bathroom, and cause so much brain damage you lose the ability to walk unsupported. The case of her death was herself, and her many problems. (Anya Yurchyshyn)

As someone who spends a lot of time reading and studying the writer’s craft, I loved this introduction. As soon as I read these eighty-four words, I thought man, if this is how the story begins, then I can’t wait to read the rest of this book!

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

Therefore, I focus for several minutes (sometimes days) on how I will begin any piece of writing. Let’s take “Monday Notes: Seeking Perfection” as an example. Because this was a blog post, I knew I couldn’t waste time getting folks engaged. Initially, I wrote this:

I awoke in a Northwestern Memorial Hospital bed with two women staring at me, one was the nurse and the other, my mother. They told me I’d been hit by a car.

This wasn’t the most engaging introduction for a few reasons:

  1. Readers need to know why I was in the hospital sooner.
  2. Narrative is important. People prefer stories, even if they’re brief. So, I opted for an anecdote.
  3. Beginning in medias res (in the middle of things) is a strategy, but I’d begun too far in the middle. I needed to pull it back to provide a bit of context.

Ultimately, the introduction became this:

I was hit by a car when I was fourteen years old. It was a Saturday. Because my father was the youth pastor, we were going to church to pick up teens for an activity. When we arrived, my then best friend stood across the street in front of the building. She yelled out my name, and without a second thought, I darted into traffic.

This first sentence may be a bit of a shocker. Most people (friends, family, or bloggers) don’t know I was hit by a car. So, I’d argue that a reader would want to read more about this. The next few sentences rewind the story a bit so that you can understand how I was hit in the first place. Then, the remainder of the blog delves deeper into the actual topic: A small imperfection, such as chipping my tooth has bothered me since I was a teenager.

There are many ways you can begin your writing. I’ve just described one: beginning with a narrative. You can also ask a question, begin with a quote, provide a statistic, or give a description.

Have you ever thought about how to begin your writing? Do you just start writing? Do you have a favorite first line from a song or book? Let me know in the comments.

Monday Notes: Seeking Perfection

I was hit by a car when I was fourteen years old. It was a Saturday. Because my father was the youth pastor, we were going to church to pick up teens for an activity. When we arrived, my then best friend stood across the street in front of the building. She yelled out my name, and without a second thought, I darted into traffic.

As the story goes, the car hit me, my body flew up in the air, and I landed on the man’s windshield.

I awoke in a Northwestern Memorial Hospital bed the next day. Aside from being unconscious and sore, I had also chipped my front tooth. Out of all the details my mother, the nurse, and best friend relayed, missing about twenty-five percent of my front tooth is what filled my eyes with tears.

Consequently, every five years, since I was fourteen, I’ve gotten a filling for just that part of my front tooth. It’s been a lifelong hassle. Some years, shading was either too off-white or not white enough, leaving that one tooth in a mismatched contrast. Other years, I didn’t have enough money to get it re-done and had to suffer the coffee stains that remained. Some years, the tooth was too short or too long.

2019

The last time I had it re-filled was 2017. Not only was the shading off, but the dentist had shaped the tooth to be facing to the right.

That’s when I decided to find a new dentist.

“If you want it to look perfect,” new dentist said, “you’ll have to get a crown. That way, it’ll be computer generated and you can get custom shading, so it’ll match your other teeth.” “Plus,” he continued, “you can’t keep getting this filled. It’s deteriorating.”

I saved my money and made my appointment for November 30th. I carefully chose this date because classes would be ending, and I would have the semester break to get used to a crown.

As I lie in the chair, I knew I’d made a bit of a mistake.

I didn’t realize the dentist had to file down most of my tooth. This is standard, so the crown will fit over it. I should’ve googled the process ahead of time.

I knew I’d have a temporary crown for three weeks, but I didn’t know it could fall off, which is exactly what happened.

Not having a front tooth was stressful. Dwight and I have been together since 1993. Last month is the first time he’d seen me without a front tooth. Hell, it was the first time I’d seen myself toothless. And let me tell you, having a little baby tooth right in the front of your mouth creates a black hole only fit for hockey players and such.

The second time it fell off, I was with a friend. Though I was embarrassed, I was grateful we were at her house and not at a public restaurant.

The third time it fell off, I was tired. I’d been so stressed about not having a tooth that I couldn’t sleep, and when I did, I awoke with a pain on the right side of my mouth from where I’d been grinding all night. So, I just left it off until my appointment arrived.

December 15th, I received the permanent crown. Let me tell you something. It’s beautiful. It’s the best tooth I’ve ever had since I was fourteen.

But it’s different. It feels like a foreign object in my mouth.

I’m a tad bit traumatized from the temporary and don’t really want to bite into anything, so it takes me twice as long to finish a meal these days. Jamie, the dental assistant, who’s become my bestie at the office has assured me it’s fine and the tooth will not fall off.

2020

I can feel a slight space between the crown and the back of my actual tooth, but again, Jamie took a picture, showed it to me, and explained that it’s fine. According to her, the dentist will not attach it to my gum line because it may cause irritation and gum disease.

This. Feels. Weird.

So, yeah. This is one of those rare times where I feel as if I’ve made a huge mistake. Instead of seeking to have the perfect tooth, I should’ve sought some level of acceptance of my imperfect smile that only I seemed to have noticed all these years.

Yep. I think that’s the lesson here.

Do you have a crown? Implants? Dentures? An area of your body you wish looked a little different? Let me know about your experience in the comments, while I adjust to this, um, new situation.

Monday Notes: 3 Reasons I Left Facebook

I remember it like it was yesterday. It was around eight in the morning. My groggy eyes were glued to my cell phone. I was watching the weight-loss journey of a tan golden retriever. The background music was sad. Although I knew the ending, I had to see how he did it. How did this fat golden retriever lose weight? Turns out it was through diet and exercise. Hmmmph. It was a heartwarming story, but I couldn’t get those five minutes back. I knew then I needed to leave Facebook for good, but here are a few other reasons why:

It seems like a never-ending reunion. Have you ever been to a family reunion? You show up. You introduce your family to long, lost cousins and great aunts. You find your favorite family member and hang out with them the whole day, vow to keep in touch, and go about your business. From what I understand, class reunions seem to be similar. You catch up, share about your mate, kids, and occupation. Facebook seems to be that but on steroids. It’s cool to catch up, but I’m pretty sure you are not supposed to be connected to all of these people for a lifetime. But because they are now your “forever friends,” you find out a lot more about them than you may have bargained for, like who your boss voted for, if your brother believes COVID is a hoax or not, and if your best friend thinks all lives matter or Black lives matter. It can be #teamtoomuch We were never meant to know all of the things about everyone we’ve ever encountered.

It’s an unnatural interaction. I’m the type of person who’s okay with having a party with all the people I know. As my goddaughter says she never knows who will show up to my events. It could be someone’s 85-year-old grandmother or someone’s 6-year-old son, because that’s the kind of life I live. I’m free and open to all relationships. But Facebook puts all of these people in the same place at the same time…all the time. Like other FB users, my friends’ list included a hodgepodge of people: a former and current director, my current provost, a former program coordinator, a couple principals, friends from undergrad, all types of family members, former high school students, people I went to elementary, high school, and grad school with, and on and on and on. Because we’ve been taught to interact a certain way with each of these people, Facebook creates a weird, alternate reality. Although I’m always me, I found myself functioning as a middle-of-the-road me, because what I might say to my sister may not be the same as what I’d say to the provost of a college. In short, it was too much self-censorship for me.

Everyone’s social media is curated. My FB was comprised of people I actually knew in some way. So, when I saw someone’s close-up shot, I knew she was actually hiding a hoarding problem because I was just over her house. I knew when my friend posted some wonderful quote about relationships that he was on the struggle bus with his own marriage because we’d just hung up the phone. I knew that someone’s perfect selfie was shrouded in depression and anxiety because we’d talked that morning about how it may be a good idea for her to take a shower that day. And this bothered me. FB, in particular seems to be like the Disneyland of socials. Everyone’s happy. Everyone’s excited. Everyone’s passionate. Even when they’re not. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve pushed weeks of mail out of view for my perfectly angled hot cocoa shot. I took a family photo at breakfast the morning after Dwight and I had discussed getting a divorce. But I’ve also posted about not wanting to return to work after the holidays, feeling angry when I realized my bike’s brakes didn’t work, and being disappointed after getting a PhD. I don’t think this is odd. It’s called balance and authenticity. Scrolling through curation after curation is exhausting. I mean even a museum shows the true human condition, which includes pain and sadness sometimes.

Although these are the main reasons I permanently deactivated, I have to mention a few more reasons: I hate that people think they really know you because they read the highlights of your life. I dislike the pettiness and self-centered nature of the platform. The fact that people don’t read the whole article that they post or reply to is quite annoying. Thirst trapping for likes and its evil twin, lurking with no interaction feel a bit creepy. And this idea we’ve created that we can’t live without FB is a bit strange.

If you’re still on FB, I hope you don’t take this as a personal dig. It’s not. I just woke up one day knowing that Facebook is not aligned with how I want to interact with people.