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?

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.

Monday Notes: Virtual Book Reading

For those of you who have not been able to attend our face-to-face book readings, and because it isn’t feasible to convene in person, a few of the co-authors of Daddy: Reflections of Father-Daughter Relationships will be hosting a virtual book reading on Saturday, June 27th from 2:00-4:00 PM (EST). 

Here is the link: The Silent Pandemic: A Disease Impacting Daughters

Here is the password: 5LEDVW

We hope you’ll join us! If you cannot attend, then please ask any questions in the comments, so they can be answered during our talk.

Femonomic: Women Invite Crime

c02c27f8-1d50-440f-9def-29e3a1537457-1One of the best parts of blogging is meeting new people from around the world. This has been true for one woman I’ve followed, who is from India, Lovey Chaudhary. (Femonomic). I realized we shared similar ideas about women and social justice issues when she read and reviewed The Unhappy Wife four years ago. So, when she announced her book of poetry, Femonomic: Women Invite Crime, centered on raising people’s consciousness about how Indian women are (mis)treated, I was intrigued.

Poetry is sometimes stereotyped as flowery and light, but the poems found in this book are anything but. Although I knew Lovey’s background and stance, at first I was alarmed by how the book began. Titles like, “the fate of an unborn in womb” and “infanticide” introduce the reader to Indian culture where babies are murdered because they are not male children. But, I get it. The female species is undervalued at birth. The very idea of having a girl child is repulsive and unwelcomed. And, if girls are allowed to be born in this society, then poems like “acid attack cycle” demonstrate what could happen as they age. If you’re unfamiliar, then this link may provide background on this vile practice.

Another occurrence in this country is that crimes against women are rarely brought to justice because men continue to be in power in misogynistic and violent ways.

One of my favorite poems from her collection that shows the lack of consequence is “crime and punishment,” which I’ll share here:

one of many tainted times

the crime is not rewarded

with the retribution along the same lines

 

the archetypal excuses of the judiciary

and typical society

are silently soaked in sanguine saccharine

grinning gingerly

about legal implications and sentence

 

how ailing it is for you to drink

three cups of justice and two latest of equality

to hydrate pages with some ink while righteousness await

4f852cc4-b70e-4a8a-a4aa-162405a6ea41This poem speaks to me because of its universality. It demonstrates the injustices that many of us around the globe face. There doesn’t seem to be a real “justice system” for all, but rather a system that works for whomever is at the top of the power structure. I also think Chaudhary uses alliteration in a creative way. Silently soaked in sanguine saccharine sounds optimistic, especially because saccharine is sweet and sanguine can be positive, but the implication is that it isn’t. Injustices will continue as usual, not just for India, but for us all.

Chaudhary also asks rhetorical questions throughout, like this one, “Can the damage be undone for what our world has become” (p. 48).

This question and another poem, “plastic planet” is imperative for everyone. The Amazon fires and plastic floating in the ocean make me wonder the same thing. What can we do? Is it too late?

These poems are also inspirational. From self-love to anxiety, Chaudhary encourages the reader to get up and do more.

If you’re interested in poetry or any of the themes mentioned, then please purchase Femonomic: Women Invite Crime or follow her on these platforms:

Blog

IG

Twitter

Monday Notes: An Interview with Lady G (Episode 1)

Hi Everyone! It’s Women’s History Month, so I thought it was the perfect time to release a series of videos that I’ve participated in with two of my close women blogging friends. We call each other SiSTARS!

The first three interviews are intended to help you get to know Lady G a little better. If you don’t already follow her, be sure to do so at seekthebestblog.com! And if you already do, then you understand why Michelle and I had to interview her 🙂

 

Monday Notes: Listening to, Supporting, and Understanding Women’s Issues

In the States, Women’s History Month is a time “commemorating and encouraging the study, observance and celebration of the vital role of women in American history” (Women’s History Month). Isn’t that great?

While I believe people like Harriet Tubman and Helen Keller were influential to society as a whole, I use this month as a time to not only reflect on the important role that friends and family have played in my life, but also to pay it forward by encouraging and uplifting women with whom I’m associated.

img_9354Therefore, I decided to begin this year’s Women’s History Month by having a book reading. On Saturday, March 2, 2019, four of the authors from my most recent edited collection, Daddy: Reflections of Father-Daughter Relationships and I gathered together to share our stories.

img_9382It was a perfect writer’s scenario. It was a dark and stormy afternoon. Seriously, it rained the entire day. The independent bookstore was cozy. Stacks of used and new books served as a backdrop. Right next to us, sat a group of five doing black out poetry. They circled and highlighted words, while also half-listening to our talk. Afterwards, the group’s leader expressed her adoration for the women and the event, highlighting the importance of healing through story.

The support was palpable. This is no exaggeration. The space held supportive energy and the reason was because each author had invited guests who had their genuine interests at heart. Mothers, cousins, brothers, best friends, longtime high-school friends, and book club members were a part of the audience.

book_reading_2019Most importantly, they listened in an attempt to understand each woman’s point of view about her former dysfunctional relationship with her father. During the question and answer portion, a woman from a book club I frequent began by saying she was trying to relate because “she’s a daddy’s girl.” I’d heard her sentiments from other women with similar experiences. They had no idea that some men had little regard for their daughters. It was a foreign concept. But I was happy to know that she and others were attempting empathy.

To me, that’s what creative nonfiction is all about. We should attempt to understand life through another’s eyes. Reading another person’s story is one way to develop the type of empathy I’m suggesting. Think about it. It’s easy to remain in a bubble of understanding that privileges your perspective. But it takes a different level of relating to listen to someone’s story and try to place yourself in that position to feel what they may have felt.

And so I’m pleased.

I recently read someone’s thoughts on “empowering women.” I don’t remember whom, but she suggested that she does not empower women, but rather she creates the conditions for women to be empowered, and from that, they are able to liberate themselves.

That’s how I view this book and this weekend’s past reading. I’ve merely served as a vehicle and set up the conditions. These (and the other nine authors) have done the work to free themselves. Isn’t that a beautiful thing?

Monday Notes: Update #2

Around the first week in May, I was contemplating applying for a job. The job was semi-perfect. It’s here in Jacksonville. It’s at a university. However, it is a bit of a stretch for my field. The job is for reading education, and really I’m literacy and English Ed, but I was going to try for it anyway. Maybe. I kept going back and forth about it, mainly because I’ve learned the hard way (repeatedly) not to make myself fit into a job that’s not for me.

WomenSingBookShot9bWhile I was stewing about the application, I got a call. It was from the editor’s assistant of a book where I have a chapter, All the Women in My Family Sing (which I’ve mentioned here before). She wanted to know if I would be willing to participate in a radio interview in Tampa. I could’ve sworn she said radio interview. But when she sent the information, it was for a television interview!

No matter what, my answer was yes because like I said, I rarely refuse opportunities. In that moment, I decided not to apply for the job. I took it as a sign that I shouldn’t be wasting my time fitting myself into another imperfect for me position. I should be preparing for something I’ve never done before, a prerecorded morning show interview!

NBC_interviewI drove nearly four hours on adrenaline and anxiety. Morning shows don’t give you questions ahead of time because they want you to naturally converse. So, from the night before, up until the host, Cyndi counted down, I was quite concerned about what we would discuss. Because it’s an anthology, it could’ve been about the book in general, my specific story, or how the other stories related to motherhood, because umm, it was a Mother’s Day episode.

Luckily, my goddaughter was there with me. We talked about other things, like the people in the green room and the process itself and that calmed my nerves.

During the interview, I learned a lot. I didn’t know that when they pan across the studio to other things going on, those things are actually going on while you’re talking! Like, there’s actually someone making waffles and another person creating little knick knacks and there’s even an audience! Sheesh! My nosey-ness kicked in high gear. But luckily there are editors and producers who cut away when I started staring at the waffles.

If you have four minutes to watch, then here it is: Daytime Interview.

 

Monday Notes: Update #1

headphones2May was a whirlwind for me, just…like…I…like…it!

So slowly, I’ll be updating you on what amazing things occurred during that month.

The first thing that happened is I was minding my own blogging business, and Nadine Tomlinson emailed to see if I was interested in being interviewed for her Storyteller Series! I rarely say no to new opportunities, so the next thing I know, we were talking like old friends on a Friday evening.

It’s more like a podcast-style situation. If you have about 45 minutes and enjoy that medium, then please be sure to follow this link and listen to my thoughts on relationships, The Unhappy Wife book, and creative nonfiction, in general.

 

Monday Notes: Where Does Your Power Lie?

all_the_womenI forgot to tell you all, I’m published in a special anthology. The purpose of this book is to raise women of color’s voices about issues important to us. It’s published by a woman of color because who else is more qualified to raise our voice than someone who looks and feels like us?

I’m excited to be mentioned in a book with greats like, Natalie Baszile and Marian Wright Edelman. Aaand, I’m thrilled to be a part of a project that is receiving high praise from USA Today and Henry Louis Gates Jr.

But, that’s not why I’m proud.

I’m proud because this exemplifies where my power lies. Writing gives voice to my experiences that merely talking about them does not. My personal essay demonstrates this. It is about affirmative action. In my writing, I don’t politicize the policy. Nope. I humanize it. I describe how it feels to be an affirmative action hire, not once, but twice within two decades.

What’s funny is I’d tried discussing these feelings with friends and family members to no avail. The common sentiment was so what? What does it matter how you received your job? Several weeks ago, I shared the book with my Grannie and she said this after reading my chapter.

“Oh. This is about self worth. This is about more than a job.”

She finally got it after she’d read an emotional account.

img_6121Some people effect change through social justice activities, such as marching and rallying, others through their written words. Neither is more right, but I’m comfortable saying that I’m in the latter group.

Happy Women’s History Month! If you’re interested in reading All The Women in My Family Sing, then click here.