Do you have a new idea almost every day for a writing project?... Are you a short-story writer one day and a novelist the next? A memoirist on Monday and a screenwriter by the weekend?...Do you blab about your project to loved ones, coworkers, or strangers before the idea is fully formed, let alone partially executed? (Lerner, Forest for the Trees)
For the past decade, the opening paragraph of Forest for the Trees has been my refuge.
I presumed, perhaps correctly, that Betsy Lerner understood me in a way that my father and my sands and all my unrequited crushes could not. In college and in New York City, I read the first chapter, "The Ambivalent Writer" in rapid succession, every time I felt depressed. Misunderstood.
In my young adulthood as a self-published poet seeking literary journals that would have me, I was the ambivalent writer.
A funny thing happened to me on my way to becoming a novelist. Part of the descriptions in the first chapter ceased to apply to me. The whole notion of ambivalence deterring completion doesn't fit any more.
Now, I can finish poetry books and novels and screenplays and essays.
Asking for advice about what you should write is a little like asking for help getting dressed. I can tell you what I think looks good, but you have to wear it. And as every fashion victim knows, very few people look good in everything... But in my experience, a writer gravitates toward a certain form or genre because, like a well-made jacket, it suits him.
I've been contemplating this assertion for the last decade. Trying to see if it fits.
Almost a decade ago Sonia Sanchez appeared at Louis Reyes Rivera's Brooklyn writer's workshop where she encouraged people to write everything. She said the opposite of Lerner. Sanchez, a poet, was asked if she could write plays and she said Yes! She encouraged all the Black folk in attendance to do the same...
Finding your form is like finding a mate. You really have to search, and you can't compromise--unless you can compromise, in which case your misery will be of a different variety... The James Joyces of the world, those who can move from short story to novel to epic, are rare, but then again, few writers master each form the first time out of the gate.
Not to be a racialist, but I am hyperaware of there differences between the path of a white writer, male or female and that of a writer of color. In the case of Black writers, I don't think I have any writer on my bookshelf who only writes in one form. Most of my favorites write in at least three... but everyone writes in at least two.
I have Morrison novels and Morrison essays, Adichie novels, short stories and essay, bandele memoir and poetry (and soon novel), Angelou memoir and poetry and essays, Madhubuti poetry and essays, Baraka poetry and essays and plays, Danticat novels and short stories and biography, Hughes poetry and short stories, Brooks poetry and novel, Alice Walker novels and short stories and essays, Giovanni poetry and essays.
This doesn't feel so rare for the Black writer.
Perhaps the Black writer can't afford to be stuck in one form. There is not guarantee that the establishment will validate Black poetry or that the publishing companies will profit off of Black narratives; there is no guarantee that Black novels will be adapted onto Hollywood screens. Who will read a Black memoir?
And so my brother told me, Just Write. Don't worry about the critics and the academy; just write.
My favorite quoted quote in this book is by Mark Twain: "There is only one form for a story, and if you fail to find that form the story will not tell itself."
This, I've found to be true. As a poet, I have stories within me that cannot be explicated or imagined in a single line or a single verse. I need the essay, the memoir, the short story, the novel. I need to break away from the 10 line poem, the 3 minute spoken word piece.
And I've been battling, as Twain predicted, to find the perfect form for every narrative and philosophy presently untold.
"Let's face," Lerner writes, "if in your writing you lift the veil on your family, your community, or even just yourself, someone will take offense. Call it fiction, call it poetry, call it creative nonfiction..."
And how does the writer handle those who are offended? I have no idea. I have been very paranoid over the last decade of being ostracized from the Black community. I figure once my first novel is published, if it is noticed at all, all of the Black Christians and Black Greeks and Black Masons and Black Feminists would hate me.
This paranoia hasn't stopped me from writing any of the drafts; but, the idea of desolation and exile sits with me daily.
Lerner understands, "You think you can't write, but the truth is you can't tell. Writing is nothing if not breaking the silence. The problem is, no one likes a snitch."
And aren't I a snitch? Let's talk about Black herpes and Black homophobia and Black brain-tapping and Black eurocentrism and Black sellouts. Let's talk about Black incest and Black rape and Black domestic violence and Black child abuse. Blacks who hate themselves. Let's talk about Black self-esteem.
I'll go first. I'll talk about myself.
Rarely do I think of my body except for as a vehicle to hold up my thoughts. I only adequately wash my hair or my body, shave my arms or my nether regions; I only change clothes on a consistent basis when I have a man in my life. I try not to offend him.
And since I haven't dated in months, I figure why go through the motions of, what do they call it, self-care?
I am a horrible woman. Horrible at being a woman. I don't cook or clean or color-coordinate. That is, I don't unless I have a man.
Left to my own devices, I spend my entire day evaluating my own thoughts, mining my own brain for sentences which might outstand eternity.
"If you become a successful writer, these ritualistic behaviors will become known as your 'process'. The paper you write on, the time of day you compose--these details will actually seem interesting to some segment of your reading public as well as to a few graduate students as they labor to unravel the mystery of your genius... Should you fail to achieve success, all of these behavior look like only excuses or sick behavior."
Yes, should no agent accept Order of the Oppressed, should no publisher by it all of the months I didn't retwist my locks and all of the years I didn't buy clothes and all of the shoes that I wear for a decade, all of the unarched eyebrows and unglossed lips and unmanicured fingernails and all of the perfume that doesn't exist; all of the books on the floor of my apartment and all of the raman noodles and yogurt all of the unused sponges and mops and rags and scowering powder will just look like one long explanation for why one brown-skinned, nappyheaded college flunkee could never get a man.
Actually, even if my novel was accepted into the post-modern lexicon of random Black American women with shit to say, my writing habits which are my life habits will still be a pretty damned good reason for why I will be the only one on my line who never marries.
For the first 10 years of owning this book, I always focused on the first half of the book which described, quite perfectly, the writer's nature. Now, that I've finished a novel, I am attending to the latter portion of the book.
Okay, so maybe I shouldn't compare my novel to literary blockbusters in my query letters. And Grisham bought 1,000 copies of his own book. So E. Lynn Harris had to self-publish because no one would publish his work. And Terry McMillan road-tripped her own book tour.
And so I'll try to go the traditional route. I'll try to get the literary journals publications that lead to an agent that lead to a book deal that lead to a book tour.
And if that doesn't work, then I'll try to get a Black or Independent to publish me.
And if that doesn't work, I'll self publish my own book with paperback flap covers and deckle edge pages... because it's really not about the profits is it? It's about having a product that is worthy of someone's time.
I highly recommend The Forest for the Trees for all writer of all forms and genres... perhaps this might guide you for the next 10 years of your writing career, too.