Tag Archives: African-American literature

How to Know What’s Worth Showing

30 May
Dolen Perkins-Valdez's New York Times bestselling novel Balm follows three African-American characters who have moved to Chicago after the Civil War.

Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s New York Times bestselling novel Balm follows three African-American characters who have moved to Chicago after the Civil War.

When I was a writing student, a teacher in my program was famous for leaning back after a workshop discussion and saying, “Just tell me a story.” As a piece of advice, it’s almost absurdly on point. “Just tell me a story” is what readers across the country are thinking when they pick up a book. They are rarely interested in matters of craft and language. The problem for writers is that short stories and novels are far different from the stories we tell at bars: they’re much longer. Even if you transcribed the tale of that person you know who goes on and on, the result would be much less than 4000 words, the length of a medium-sized story. So what are all those words doing? That’s probably the biggest question that beginning writers ask. The answer is found in learning what information advances the story and what does not.

One of the clearest examples you’ll ever see of the distinction between story-advancing information and details that should be quickly summarized can be found in Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s novel Balm. You can read the opening pages of the New York Times bestseller at the HarperCollins website.

How the Novel Works

Early in the novel, there is a scene in which one of the main characters, Hemp, has moved to Chicago to search for his wife. He’s introduced to Mrs. Jenkins, a woman who takes boarders, and we’re shown their initial conversation:

She narrowed her eyes, wrinkling a scar across her face that had taken some of the bridge of her nose with it. “I don’t allow no riffraff in my house. That include liars and cheats and no counts, the don’t-want and the can’t-do. My husband and me is God-fearing people.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

This dialogue and scene serves two clear purposes. First, it tells the story: how Hemp found a room. But it also shows the reader a character, Mrs. Jenkins, in all her glory. The dialogue is terrific (“I don’t allow no riffraff in my house. That include liars and cheats and no counts, the don’t-want and the can’t-do”) and brings her character to life, so to speak. We can hear her voice. The rest of the scene continues that process of bringing-to-life for both characters:

“I cook once a day. In the morning before you go off to work, you and the mens sit down with my husband. You got to fend for your other eats.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Course I don’t allow for no loafing. You can’t sit round here all day.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Come on eat. It’s some hoecakes left. You look hungry as a mule. Then get yourself on out in them streets and get some work.”

“Yes, thank you,  ma’am.”

“You don’t say much, do you? That’s good. Ain’t room but for one talker round here. Haw!”

The conversation ends with Hemp explaining that he’s looking for his wife and Mrs. Jenkins promising to keep “an ear on it.” As a scene, it makes sense. We’ve been introduced to the characters and given a feel for their personalities; we’ve been drawn into their lives. We’ve also been introduced to the stakes of the story: Will Hemp find his wife? But look at what the novel does next:

Hemp got work loading ship a week later and earned his first wages as a free man. He bought a sack, shoes, pants, but even his first paying job could not help him shake the sadness. He asked everyone he met, but no one knew of a woman fitting Annie’s description. He decided it would be better for him to stay in one place. It did not make sense for both him and Annie to be moving around.

Before the month was out he knew that as nice as Mr. Jenkins was, he could not go on sleeping in that tight, dark room.

While the novel dramatizes and puts in-scene the initial conversation with Mrs. Jenkins, it summarizes a month of conflict: Hemp’s search for a job, his fruitless search for his wife, and his decision to find a new place to live. All of that could have been the subject of engrossing scenes, yet Perkins-Valdez summarized it. Why? The answer could tell us something about what is important in a story. In this case, what was important was establishing the characters, their voices, their desires. Once we understand those things—once we get a feel for the characters—we don’t need to see their every move. We intuitively understand how those summarized scenes might have played out, and we can skip ahead to another pivotal moment.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s dramatize character and voice and summarize action, using Balm by Dolen Perkins-Valdez as a model:

  1. Choose a pivotal moment in your story. By pivotal, I mean that someone acts, something changes, or a decision gets made. Our usual approach is often to put this moment in scene, but we’re going to try a different approach.
  2. Find or create an interaction that occurs before the pivotal moment. As in Balm, the interaction can be between two characters: a conversation or any moment that requires the characters to work together or against each other or do something at the same time. But the interaction can also be between the character and an object or place: think about Jack London’s famous story “To Build a Fire” and its scene with the man interacting with the wood that he’s trying to burn.
  3. Use that interaction to show off a character. The scene from Balm could easily come with a title: “This is what Mrs. Perkins is like and how newly-arrived Hemp reacts to her.” All of the dialogue and descriptions (“narrowed her eyes, wrinkling a scar”) actively build our sense of Mrs. Perkins. Hemp’s simple dialogue (“Yes, ma’am”) does the same thing. The goal is to give the reader an understanding of who these characters are. Once we have that, we will usually understand their actions. So, choose a moment that allows you, through dialogue or action, to show off the characters, to give the reader a sense for who they are.
  4. Give the scene purpose. In Balm, Hemp is looking for a room and for his wife. He’s not simply shooting the breeze with Mrs. Jenkins. In your scene, something needs to be at stake. The stakes can easily be resolved, as they are in Balm: Hemp gets a room but doesn’t find out anything about his wife. Not every scene needs a pulsing, Hans Zimmer drumbeat in the background. But every scene needs a reason to exist.
  5. After the scene is over, summarize the pivotal moment. Balm summarizes Hemp’s search for a job and his wife and his decision to find a new place to live. After seeing his conversation with Mrs. Jenkins, we can imagine him doing these things, and so it’s not necessary to show them. In the same way, you can dramatize a character-building moment and then trust that the traits you established will be clear enough to make sense during a quick summary of events.

The goal is to build a story that relies more on character and voice (which are inherently interesting) and less on minute-to-minute action (which can become tedious).

An Interview with Jeffrey Renard Allen

16 Jul
Jeffrey Renard Allen's latest novel, Song of the Shank, about Blind Tom, a former slave and piano prodigy, has been named to a list of best-of lists for 2014.

Jeffrey Renard Allen’s latest novel, Song of the Shank, about Blind Tom, a former slave and piano prodigy, was named to a list of best-of lists for 2014.

Jeffrey Renard Allen is the author of two collections of poetry, Stellar Places and Harbors and Spirits, and three works of fiction, including the novel, Rails Under My Back and the story collection Holding Pattern. His latest novel, Song of the Shank, was included on The New York Times‘ list of 100 notable books of 2014. Allen is fiction director for the Norman Mailer Center’s Writers Colony in Provincetown, and he has served as the Program Director for Literature for the Jahazi Literature and Jazz Festival in Zanzibar, East Africa. He currently teaches at the New School in New York City.

To read an excerpt from Song of the Shank and an exercise on stretching present action, click here.

In this interview, Allen discusses the “thick narration” of Song of the Shank, writing characters who are different from the author, and the transforming power of art.

Michael Noll

The most striking thing about the novel is its narration, which feels like stream of consciousness but isn’t, of course, because it’s written in third-person. But there is a definite narrative consciousness at work, one that sees into the characters’ heads with a kind of detached empathy but that also roams where it wants—following, for instance, a group of black Civil War soldiers through the dangerous early months after the war and back home to New York. How did you develop this narrative style?

Jeffrey Renard Allen

In Song of the Shank, I sought to establish a kind of thick narration where various voices seem to slip in and out of what is essentially a limited narration. So the direct thought of a character will pop up at a given moment in the story, along with asides, ideas, song lyrics, biblical verses and other texts, questions and doubts, alternatives, flashbacks and other kinds of voices and materials that may or may not derive from this character. A million embedded stories. At the same time, I wanted the book to feel loose in the way it moves backwards and forwards and sideways in time, although the book novel’s overall structure is carefully orchestrated.

Michael Noll

You can chalk this up to denseness on my part, but I assumed at first that Eliza was black. I caught on, of course, but it took a few pages. Then, in the second section, when I got to Tabbs, who is black, I became aware of the difficulty of the characterization that you accomplish in the novel. It’s not a secret that some, perhaps many, male writers are notoriously bad at writing female characters. And, white writers often create black characters that tend to reflect the writer’s perception of the role filled by black people (The Help) more than the reality that black people actually inhabit. Was it more difficult to write Eliza than Tabbs? Or, to generalize a bit, why do you think it’s so difficult for writers of privilege to imagine the lives of characters who are not like them?

Jeffrey Renard Allen

The New York Times called Jeffrey Renard Allen's novel Song of the Shank,

The New York Times called Jeffrey Renard Allen’s novel Song of the Shank, “the kind of imaginative work only a prodigiously gifted risk-taker could produce.”

It was not any more difficult for me to write Eliza, Perry Oliver, Seven or any of the white characters in the novel than it was for me to write Tabbs, Charity, Ruggles or any of the other black characters. And the reason why is simple: the imagination is a vehicle that carries us to that honest place where we can put ourselves into the bodies of other people. Of course, it requires a lot of hard work to create a convincing character, a person who had the entire emotional and intellectual range of felt life. That said, I might note that I did encounter one great difficulty in this novel in terms of characterization. At first I found it hard to hear my characters, to create dialogue that was both convincing and engaging for people who were alive in New York City in the 1860s.

Any good writer seeks to avoid generalization, which is both an aesthetic and moral dead-end. Instead, you must choose to be, to engage the world as it is. The long and short, I don’t think that it is difficult for writers of privilege to imagine the lives of characters who are not like them. Some writers knowingly or unknowingly, simply choose to embrace their privilege, which means that they must create cardboard stereotypes of people who they feel lack any agency and who are therefore in need of sympathetic white saviors.

Michael Noll

One of most fascinating details in the novel is about the Freedmen arriving in the North, the way begin talking faster than they did while in the South: “Their once slow tongues up the pace too, stumbling into strange conjoinings of consonants and vowels, a metamorphosis that Tabbs has heard seen with his own skeptical ears and eyes.” Do you recall where you learned this detail? Or, if not, how sort of things were you reading? What did your research process look w like?

Jeffrey Renard Allen

I was intrigued by the whole process of the Freedmen’s acquisition of language, this matter of freedom and literacy, as some have called it. So I read quite a number of books on this topic, numerous personal testimonials from both former slaves and from the northerners who taught them, along with historical texts. Like with most things in this novel, I tried to find appropriate but striking metaphors that could help turn fact into image, scene, illustration. But language is also a central concern in this novel where language, where words both constrict and liberate, create and destroy. After all, “Blind Tom” begins as a linguistic construction borne out of Perry Oliver’s desire to exploit Tom for financial gain. At the same time, Tom has a kind of mastery of language that knows no bounds, that no one can contain.

Michael Noll

The first paragraph of this novel is several pages long. The plot is minimal. The narration requires slow reading. In other words, this is a novel that asks for (and rewards, I believe) patience on the reader’s part. As a result, it’s a novel whose value will be measured in literary terms rather than sales. So, I’m curious how you see this novel fitting into Big A, Big L American Literature. If it should win some major award (and if you imagine such an event), what do the judges say about it?

Jeffrey Renard Allen

Of course, I have high hopes for my novel. The first thing I would want any reader to say about this novel is that “Jeff Allen gave everything he had when he wrote this book, every bit of himself, on every page, head and heart” because that is true. I really tried hard to get it right. Art might be the only form of perfection available to humans, and creating a work of art might be the only thing in life that we have full control over. So we might ask, How is great measured? Craft is certainly one thing. I also would like to think that certain works of art transform the artist. Indeed, Song of the Shank required a process of personal growth that I could not have expected when I first began writing the book more than a decade ago. I could not have written a better book.

First published in December 2014

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

An Interview with D Watkins

24 Jun
D Watkins' debut memoir, Cook Up, about growing up and selling drugs in East Baltimore, will be published by Grand Central Publishing in 2016.

D Watkins’ debut memoir, Cook Up, about growing up in East Baltimore, tells the story of his journey from drug dealer to writer.

D. Watkins is a columnist for Salon. His work has been published in the New York Times, Guardian, Rolling Stone, and other publications. He holds a master’s in Education from Johns Hopkins University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Baltimore. He is a college professor at the University of Baltimore and founder of the BMORE Writers Project. Watkins has been the recipient of numerous awards including Ford’s Men of Courage and a BME Fellowship. Watkins is from and lives in East Baltimore. He is the author of The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir and The Beast Side: Living (and Dying) While Black in America.

To read his essay “Too Poor for Pop Culture” and an exercise on writing complex characters and people, click here.

In this interview, Watkins discusses avoiding one-dimensional secondary people in memoir, what it means to write about a community that rarely appears in literary work, and the incredible reception his work has received.

Michael Noll

In some parts of our national discourse, we have a tendency to make symbols out of people—for instance, Chris Kyle, the “American Sniper.” In our hurry to make a point, the real person at the heart of the symbol gets lost. I can imagine that this might have been easy to do with “Too Poor for Pop Culture.” You could have flattened Miss Sheryl, Dontay, and Bucket-Head to be only symbols of poverty, but they seem like much more. For one, you allow them to be funny: “Whateva da fuk a selfie is! What’s a selfie, some type of bailout?” You also let them show their own awareness of how things are: “Put me on that Obamacare when you can, college boy!” Does the ability to show this complexity come naturally to you because you know these people well? Or, do you have to guard against turning them into symbols for a point?

D Watkins

I think it came natural because these are my friends. I wrote “Too Poor” out of a place of frustration, and the layers that my friends and I share just spilled out. We are funny and hurting and tuff and smart and crafty. Sometimes secondary people in memoir can be one-dimensional and that would never work in my writing because my friends make me and we are all complex in our own special way.

Michael Noll

This essay is a really complex piece of cultural criticism. You’re making an argument about the availability of technology but also about politics and economics. How did you keep your point straight? And, where did this essay begin? With any of the points you make or with the story of drinking vodka with your friends in a housing project?

D Watkins

It’s easy for me to keep my point straight because this story is older than me. Black people have been slighted in America since we jumped off of the boat. And really, “Too Poor” was cut short because I could have added more of the convo—we talk about crooked cops, gentrification and everything else that plagues east Baltimore, most of which never makes the news cycle.

Michael Noll

D Watkins was profiled in a long feature in Johns Hopkins Magazine about his evolution from drug dealer to university lecturer and author.

D Watkins was profiled in a long feature in Johns Hopkins Magazine about his evolution from drug dealer to university lecturer and author.

I read and loved the novel Long Division by Kiese Laymon, and in it, the narrator reads a book called Long Division that is set in the part of Mississippi that he’s from. He says this:

“I just loved and feared so much about the first chapter of that book. For example, I loved that someone with the last name ‘Crump’ was in a book. Sounds dumb, but I knew so many Crumps in Mississippi in my real life, but I had never seen one Crump in anything I’d read.”

I thought of this quote as I read the first sentence of your essay, where you name the people you’re with: Miss Sheryl, Dontay, and Bucket-Head (names you created to protect their identities). You go on to write, “Bucket’s no angel, but he’s also not a felon and doesn’t deserve to be excluded from pop culture no more than Miss Sheryl or Dontay.” You’re talking about access to technology and, therefore, access to the pop culture sites and news that most of us take for granted, but it occurs to me that you’re also talking about the absence of people like Miss Sheryl, Dontay, and Bucket-Head in the news and sites that we consume. Was this something on your mind as you wrote?

D Watkins

Initially no. I did not read a fraction of the articles that I do now. Now I consume everything from cable news to all of the popular online magazines. I’m also a columnist for Salon, so now it’s my job, and in my journey I learned that the perspectives of people from neighborhoods like mine are always ignored or written about by outsiders. I now feel obligated to be that voice and hopefully inspire others to do the same.

Michael Noll

Parts of the essay strike me as academic in tone. For instance, you write, “The idea of information being class-based as well became evident to me when I watched my friends talk about a weeks-old story as if it happened yesterday.” The first part of that sentence would fit neatly in any article in a scholarly journal. The second part, though, and the first-hand account that you provide in the essay, might not appear in that scholarly article, which makes me curious about your views of academia and the writing that it encourages. You write in the essay about feeling like an outside in academia—”Not the kind of professor that…”—and so I wonder if you feel that, as a writer, the kind of writing you do is valued by the academic world you work in.

D Watkins

My writing is valued in the academic world—since “Too Poor.” I’ve lectured at 20+ universities in graduate and undergraduate programs covering an array of topics that range from creative writing to public health. I think I have a unique opportunity to create a new lane in academia, a lane where street education is respected amongst the tweed coated scholars.

Originally published March 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Know What’s Worth Showing

6 Oct
Dolen Perkins-Valdez's New York Times bestselling novel Balm follows three African-American characters who have moved to Chicago after the Civil War.

Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s New York Times bestselling novel Balm follows three African-American characters who have moved to Chicago after the Civil War.

When I was a writing student, a teacher in my program was famous for leaning back after a workshop discussion and saying, “Just tell me a story.” As a piece of advice, it’s almost absurdly on point. “Just tell me a story” is what readers across the country are thinking when they pick up a book. They are rarely interested in matters of craft and language. The problem for writers is that short stories and novels are far different from the stories we tell at bars: they’re much longer. Even if you transcribed the tale of that person you know who goes on and on, the result would be much less than 4000 words, the length of a medium-sized story. So what are all those words doing? That’s probably the biggest question that beginning writers ask. The answer is found in learning what information advances the story and what does not.

One of the clearest examples you’ll ever see of the distinction between story-advancing information and details that should be quickly summarized can be found in Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s novel Balm. You can read the opening pages of the New York Times bestseller at the HarperCollins website.

How the Novel Works

Early in the novel, there is a scene in which one of the main characters, Hemp, has moved to Chicago to search for his wife. He’s introduced to Mrs. Jenkins, a woman who takes boarders, and we’re shown their initial conversation:

She narrowed her eyes, wrinkling a scar across her face that had taken some of the bridge of her nose with it. “I don’t allow no riffraff in my house. That include liars and cheats and no counts, the don’t-want and the can’t-do. My husband and me is God-fearing people.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

This dialogue and scene serves two clear purposes. First, it tells the story: how Hemp found a room. But it also shows the reader a character, Mrs. Jenkins, in all her glory. The dialogue is terrific (“I don’t allow no riffraff in my house. That include liars and cheats and no counts, the don’t-want and the can’t-do”) and brings her character to life, so to speak. We can hear her voice. The rest of the scene continues that process of bringing-to-life for both characters:

“I cook once a day. In the morning before you go off to work, you and the mens sit down with my husband. You got to fend for your other eats.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Course I don’t allow for no loafing. You can’t sit round here all day.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Come on eat. It’s some hoecakes left. You look hungry as a mule. Then get yourself on out in them streets and get some work.”

“Yes, thank you,  ma’am.”

“You don’t say much, do you? That’s good. Ain’t room but for one talker round here. Haw!”

The conversation ends with Hemp explaining that he’s looking for his wife and Mrs. Jenkins promising to keep “an ear on it.” As a scene, it makes sense. We’ve been introduced to the characters and given a feel for their personalities; we’ve been drawn into their lives. We’ve also been introduced to the stakes of the story: Will Hemp find his wife? But look at what the novel does next:

Hemp got work loading ship a week later and earned his first wages as a free man. He bought a sack, shoes, pants, but even his first paying job could not help him shake the sadness. He asked everyone he met, but no one knew of a woman fitting Annie’s description. He decided it would be better for him to stay in one place. It did not make sense for both him and Annie to be moving around.

Before the month was out he knew that as nice as Mr. Jenkins was, he could not go on sleeping in that tight, dark room.

While the novel dramatizes and puts in-scene the initial conversation with Mrs. Jenkins, it summarizes a month of conflict: Hemp’s search for a job, his fruitless search for his wife, and his decision to find a new place to live. All of that could have been the subject of engrossing scenes, yet Perkins-Valdez summarized it. Why? The answer could tell us something about what is important in a story. In this case, what was important was establishing the characters, their voices, their desires. Once we understand those things—once we get a feel for the characters—we don’t need to see their every move. We intuitively understand how those summarized scenes might have played out, and we can skip ahead to another pivotal moment.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s dramatize character and voice and summarize action, using Balm by Dolen Perkins-Valdez as a model:

  1. Choose a pivotal moment in your story. By pivotal, I mean that someone acts, something changes, or a decision gets made. Our usual approach is often to put this moment in scene, but we’re going to try a different approach.
  2. Find or create an interaction that occurs before the pivotal moment. As in Balm, the interaction can be between two characters: a conversation or any moment that requires the characters to work together or against each other or do something at the same time. But the interaction can also be between the character and an object or place: think about Jack London’s famous story “To Build a Fire” and its scene with the man interacting with the wood that he’s trying to burn.
  3. Use that interaction to show off a character. The scene from Balm could easily come with a title: “This is what Mrs. Perkins is like and how newly-arrived Hemp reacts to her.” All of the dialogue and descriptions (“narrowed her eyes, wrinkling a scar”) actively build our sense of Mrs. Perkins. Hemp’s simple dialogue (“Yes, ma’am”) does the same thing. The goal is to give the reader an understanding of who these characters are. Once we have that, we will usually understand their actions. So, choose a moment that allows you, through dialogue or action, to show off the characters, to give the reader a sense for who they are.
  4. Give the scene purpose. In Balm, Hemp is looking for a room and for his wife. He’s not simply shooting the breeze with Mrs. Jenkins. In your scene, something needs to be at stake. The stakes can easily be resolved, as they are in Balm: Hemp gets a room but doesn’t find out anything about his wife. Not every scene needs a pulsing, Hans Zimmer drumbeat in the background. But every scene needs a reason to exist.
  5. After the scene is over, summarize the pivotal moment. Balm summarizes Hemp’s search for a job and his wife and his decision to find a new place to live. After seeing his conversation with Mrs. Jenkins, we can imagine him doing these things, and so it’s not necessary to show them. In the same way, you can dramatize a character-building moment and then trust that the traits you established will be clear enough to make sense during a quick summary of events.

The goal is to build a story that relies more on character and voice (which are inherently interesting) and less on minute-to-minute action (which can become tedious).

Good luck.

An Interview with D Watkins

19 Mar
D Watkins' debut memoir, Cook Up, about growing up and selling drugs in East Baltimore, will be published by Grand Central Publishing in 2016.

D Watkins’ debut memoir, Cook Up, about growing up in East Baltimore, will be published by Grand Central Publishing in 2016.

D. Watkins is a writer and Baltimore native whose essays about living and growing up in Baltimore have been widely published. His essay for Salon, “Too Poor for Pop Culture,” went viral, and, since then, Watkins has been featured on NPR’s “Monday Morning” and “Tell Me More,” and sold a memoir, Cook Up, to Grand Central Publishing (forthcoming in 2016). Watkins holds a Master’s in Education from John Hopkins University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Baltimore. He is a professor at Coppin State University.

To read his essay “Too Poor for Pop Culture” and an exercise on writing complex characters and people, click here.

In this interview, Watkins discusses avoiding one-dimensional secondary people in memoir, what it means to write about a community that rarely appears in literary work, and the incredible reception his work has received.

Michael Noll

In some parts of our national discourse, we have a tendency to make symbols out of people—for instance, Chris Kyle, the “American Sniper.” In our hurry to make a point, the real person at the heart of the symbol gets lost. I can imagine that this might have been easy to do with “Too Poor for Pop Culture.” You could have flattened Miss Sheryl, Dontay, and Bucket-Head to be only symbols of poverty, but they seem like much more. For one, you allow them to be funny: “Whateva da fuk a selfie is! What’s a selfie, some type of bailout?” You also let them show their own awareness of how things are: “Put me on that Obamacare when you can, college boy!” Does the ability to show this complexity come naturally to you because you know these people well? Or, do you have to guard against turning them into symbols for a point?

D Watkins

I think it came natural because these are my friends. I wrote “Too Poor” out of a place of frustration, and the layers that my friends and I share just spilled out. We are funny and hurting and tuff and smart and crafty. Sometimes secondary people in memoir can be one-dimensional and that would never work in my writing because my friends make me and we are all complex in our own special way.

Michael Noll

This essay is a really complex piece of cultural criticism. You’re making an argument about the availability of technology but also about politics and economics. How did you keep your point straight? And, where did this essay begin? With any of the points you make or with the story of drinking vodka with your friends in a housing project?

D Watkins

It’s easy for me to keep my point straight because this story is older than me. Black people have been slighted in America since we jumped off of the boat. And really, “Too Poor” was cut short because I could have added more of the convo—we talk about crooked cops, gentrification and everything else that plagues east Baltimore, most of which never makes the news cycle.

Michael Noll

D Watkins was profiled in a long feature in Johns Hopkins Magazine about his evolution from drug dealer to university lecturer and author.

D Watkins was profiled in a long feature in Johns Hopkins Magazine about his evolution from drug dealer to university lecturer and author.

I read and loved the novel Long Division by Kiese Laymon, and in it, the narrator reads a book called Long Division that is set in the part of Mississippi that he’s from. He says this:

“I just loved and feared so much about the first chapter of that book. For example, I loved that someone with the last name ‘Crump’ was in a book. Sounds dumb, but I knew so many Crumps in Mississippi in my real life, but I had never seen one Crump in anything I’d read.”

I thought of this quote as I read the first sentence of your essay, where you name the people you’re with: Miss Sheryl, Dontay, and Bucket-Head (names you created to protect their identities). You go on to write, “Bucket’s no angel, but he’s also not a felon and doesn’t deserve to be excluded from pop culture no more than Miss Sheryl or Dontay.” You’re talking about access to technology and, therefore, access to the pop culture sites and news that most of us take for granted, but it occurs to me that you’re also talking about the absence of people like Miss Sheryl, Dontay, and Bucket-Head in the news and sites that we consume. Was this something on your mind as you wrote?

D Watkins

Initially no. I did not read a fraction of the articles that I do now. Now I consume everything from cable news to all of the popular online magazines. I’m also a columnist for Salon, so now it’s my job, and in my journey I learned that the perspectives of people from neighborhoods like mine are always ignored or written about by outsiders. I now feel obligated to be that voice and hopefully inspire others to do the same.

Michael Noll

Parts of the essay strike me as academic in tone. For instance, you write, “The idea of information being class-based as well became evident to me when I watched my friends talk about a weeks-old story as if it happened yesterday.” The first part of that sentence would fit neatly in any article in a scholarly journal. The second part, though, and the first-hand account that you provide in the essay, might not appear in that scholarly article, which makes me curious about your views of academia and the writing that it encourages. You write in the essay about feeling like an outside in academia—”Not the kind of professor that…”—and so I wonder if you feel that, as a writer, the kind of writing you do is valued by the academic world you work in.

D Watkins

My writing is valued in the academic world—since “Too Poor.” I’ve lectured at 20+ universities in graduate and undergraduate programs covering an array of topics that range from creative writing to public health. I think I have a unique opportunity to create a new lane in academia, a lane where street education is respected amongst the tweed coated scholars.

March 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

An Interview with Jeffrey Renard Allen

26 Dec
Jeffrey Renard Allen's latest novel, Song of the Shank, about Blind Tom, a former slave and piano prodigy, has been named to a list of best-of lists for 2014.

Jeffrey Renard Allen’s latest novel, Song of the Shank, about Blind Tom, a former slave and piano prodigy, has been named to a list of best-of lists for 2014.

Jeffrey Renard Allen is the author of two collections of poetry, Stellar Places and Harbors and Spirits, and three works of fiction, including the novel, Rails Under My Back and the story collection Holding Pattern. His latest novel, Song of the Shank, was included on The New York Times‘ list of 100 notable books of 2014. Allen is fiction director for the Norman Mailer Center’s Writers Colony in Provincetown, and he has served as the Program Director for Literature for the Jahazi Literature and Jazz Festival in Zanzibar, East Africa. He currently teaches at the New School in New York City.

To read an excerpt from Song of the Shank and an exercise on stretching present action, click here.

In this interview, Allen discusses the “thick narration” of Song of the Shank, writing characters who are different from the author, and the transforming power of art.

Michael Noll

The most striking thing about the novel is its narration, which feels like stream of consciousness but isn’t, of course, because it’s written in third-person. But there is a definite narrative consciousness at work, one that sees into the characters’ heads with a kind of detached empathy but that also roams where it wants—following, for instance, a group of black Civil War soldiers through the dangerous early months after the war and back home to New York. How did you develop this narrative style?

Jeffrey Renard Allen

In Song of the Shank, I sought to establish a kind of thick narration where various voices seem to slip in and out of what is essentially a limited narration. So the direct thought of a character will pop up at a given moment in the story, along with asides, ideas, song lyrics, biblical verses and other texts, questions and doubts, alternatives, flashbacks and other kinds of voices and materials that may or may not derive from this character. A million embedded stories. At the same time, I wanted the book to feel loose in the way it moves backwards and forwards and sideways in time, although the book novel’s overall structure is carefully orchestrated.

Michael Noll

You can chalk this up to denseness on my part, but I assumed at first that Eliza was black. I caught on, of course, but it took a few pages. Then, in the second section, when I got to Tabbs, who is black, I became aware of the difficulty of the characterization that you accomplish in the novel. It’s not a secret that some, perhaps many, male writers are notoriously bad at writing female characters. And, white writers often create black characters that tend to reflect the writer’s perception of the role filled by black people (The Help) more than the reality that black people actually inhabit. Was it more difficult to write Eliza than Tabbs? Or, to generalize a bit, why do you think it’s so difficult for writers of privilege to imagine the lives of characters who are not like them?

Jeffrey Renard Allen

The New York Times called Jeffrey Renard Allen's novel Song of the Shank,

The New York Times called Jeffrey Renard Allen’s novel Song of the Shank, “the kind of imaginative work only a prodigiously gifted risk-taker could produce.”

It was not any more difficult for me to write Eliza, Perry Oliver, Seven or any of the white characters in the novel than it was for me to write Tabbs, Charity, Ruggles or any of the other black characters. And the reason why is simple: the imagination is a vehicle that carries us to that honest place where we can put ourselves into the bodies of other people. Of course, it requires a lot of hard work to create a convincing character, a person who had the entire emotional and intellectual range of felt life. That said, I might note that I did encounter one great difficulty in this novel in terms of characterization. At first I found it hard to hear my characters, to create dialogue that was both convincing and engaging for people who were alive in New York City in the 1860s.

Any good writer seeks to avoid generalization, which is both an aesthetic and moral dead end. Instead, you must choose to be, to engage the world as it is. The long and short, I don’t think that it is difficult for writers of privilege to imagine the lives of characters who are not like them. Some writers knowingly or unknowingly, simply choose to embrace their privilege, which means that they must create cardboard stereotypes of people who they feel lack any agency and who are therefore in need of sympathetic white saviors.

Michael Noll

One of most fascinating details in the novel is about the Freedmen arriving in the North, the way begin talking faster than they did while in the South: “Their once slow tongues up the pace too, stumbling into strange conjoinings of consonants and vowels, a metamorphosis that Tabbs has heard seen with his own skeptical ears and eyes.” Do you recall where you learned this detail? Or, if not, how sort of things were you reading? What did your research process look w like?

Jeffrey Renard Allen

I was intrigued by the whole process of the Freedmen’s acquisition of language, this matter of freedom and literacy, as some have called it. So I read quite a number of books on this topic, numerous personal testimonials from both former slaves and from the northerners who taught them, along with historical texts. Like with most things in this novel, I tried to find appropriate but striking metaphors that could help turn fact into image, scene, illustration. But language is also a central concern in this novel where language, where words both constrict and liberate, create and destroy. After all, “Blind Tom” begins as a linguistic construction borne out of Perry Oliver’s desire to exploit Tom for financial gain. At the same time, Tom has a kind of mastery of language that knows no bounds, that no one can contain.

Michael Noll

The first paragraph of this novel is several pages long. The plot is minimal. The narration requires slow reading. In other words, this is a novel that asks for (and rewards, I believe) patience on the reader’s part. As a result, it’s a novel whose value will be measured in literary terms rather than sales. So, I’m curious how you see this novel fitting into Big A, Big L American Literature. If it should win some major award (and if you imagine such an event), what do the judges say about it?

Jeffrey Renard Allen

Of course, I have high hopes for my novel. The first thing I would want any reader to say about this novel is that “Jeff Allen gave everything he had when he wrote this book, every bit of himself, on every page, head and heart” because that is true. I really tried hard to get it right. Art might be the only form of perfection available to humans, and creating a work of art might be the only thing in life that we have full control over. So we might ask, How is great measured? Craft is certainly one thing. I also would like to think that certain works of art transform the artist. Indeed, Song of the Shank required a process of personal growth that I could not have expected when I first began writing the book more than a decade ago. I could not have written a better book.

December 2014

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Ground Ecstatic Experience in Human Motivation

27 May
James Baldwin published The Fire Next Time, with its two long essays, in 1963, and its enormous success put Baldwin on the cover of Time Magazine.

James Baldwin published The Fire Next Time in 1963. It contained the long essay, “Down at the Cross,” and a letter to his nephew, “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One-Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation.” After the book’s enormous success, Time put Baldwin on its cover.

One of the great regularities of human existence is that many of us, at one time or another, feel as though we’ve become the conduit for some superhuman energy. The source differs: God, the artistic muses, love, sex, drugs, and probably a host of others. When writing about such experiences, our language must necessarily match the intensity of the moment, relying on metaphor and on diction and syntax that transcend the everyday or commonplace. But when the moment is over, when the essay or story must move on, how does the language (and, therefore, the essay/story itself) come back down to regular life?

James Baldwin’s famous essay, “Down at the Cross,” included in the book The Fire Next Time, contains an astounding moment of spiritual ecstasy and then immediately grounds that experience in human desire and motivation. You can’t read the essay online, but you should go find a copy at the library or bookstore. It contains so many quotable passages and great pieces of writing that to discuss them all would mean excerpting the entire essay.

How the Story Works

Baldwin is writing about a conversion experience that he had as a teenager. His best friend had taken him to his church, and after a summer of increasing sexual confusion, Baldwin was suddenly overcome one day during a church service:

“One moment I was on my feet, singing and clapping and, at the same time, working out in my head the plot of a play I was working on then; the next moment, with no transition, no sensation of falling, I was on my back, with the lights beating down into my face and all the vertical saints above me. I did not know what I was doing down so low, or how I had got there. And the anguish that filled me cannot be described. It moved in me like one of those floods that devastate countries, tearing everything down, tearing children from parents and lovers from each other, and making everything an unrecognizable waste. All I really remember is the pain, the unspeakable pain: it was as though I were yelling up to Heaven and Heaven would not hear me. And if Heaven would not hear me, if love could not descend from Heaven—to wash me, to make me clean—then utter disaster was my portion.”

This is the intense moment of ecstasy that Baldwin experiences, a moment of human relief that he later calls “at once so pagan and so desperate.” He does not understand how, exactly, it happened, and he feels inadequate to the task of describing the sensation of it. So he turns to metaphor: “like one of those floods that devastate countries” and “as though I were yelling up to Heaven and Heaven would not hear me.” It would make sense if this passage came at the end of the essay because how can anyone follow up something so powerful? How can an essay move forward from such a climactic scene?

Here is how Baldwin solves this problem:

“I was saved. But at the same time, out of a deep, adolescent cunning I do not pretend to understand, I realized immediately that I could not remain in the church merely as another worshipper. I would have to give myself something to do, in order not to be to bored and find myself among all the wretched unsaved of the Avenue. And I don’t doubt that I also intended to best my father on his own ground.”

Baldwin may have experienced the divine, but when he gets up off the floor, he’s still human. He’s still baffled by what is happening to him (“a deep, adolescent cunning I do not pretend to understand”), but the force is no longer an unearthly one but, instead, intrinsically human.

This shift from the sublimely divine to human motivation is common in many religious texts. It’s in the Book of Exodus when Moses goes up the mountain to receive the commandments. He’s blasted by the presence of God. Then, he comes back down the mountain and into human desire. His reaction to the carrying-on of his people is purely human as well: he smashes the commandments in anger and then has to go get new ones made. This shift is also present more generally in the New Testament, when Saul gets knocked off his horse and blinded on the road to Damascus. He was a zealot for one cause before the incident, and even though he changed his name to Paul, he remained a zealot afterward, only for a different cause. In both cases, the touch of the divine is interpreted and grounded in human motivation and personality.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s ground a moment of ecstasy in specific human motivation, using the passage from James Baldwin’s essay “Down at the Cross” as a model:

  1. Find a moment of ecstasy. You can write a new one, but what may be better is to find one that you’ve already written in an unfinished draft of a story or essay. These types of moments tend to sit uneasily in our writing. We want to convey how it feels to have such an experience, but we’re often not sure how or where to do it. So, think about the drafts sitting in your proverbial drawer, collecting dust. What moment of ecstasy (intense spiritual, mental, or physical experience that transcends normal, everyday life) have you tried to write about? Find that draft or passage.
  2. Sum up the result of the experience. Usually, the change is something along the lines of “I was a changed person.” The question is what kind of change took place. How were you or your character fundamentally different after the experience than before? Baldwin sums up his experience in three words familiar to any American: “I was saved.”
  3. Explain how that change fits in with the person you inescapably are. Any change worth its salt has a real-world impact, and yet the change almost never results in a reversal so complete that it leaves you unrecognizable. So, when Baldwin writes, “I could not remain in the church merely as another worshipper,” he’s not talking about a result of the change but about a character trait that had been present all along, a refusal to blend in. So, identify a trait in you or your character that is present before the experience and explain how that trait directs your behavior after the change. If you’re stumped, try using the same introductory phrase that Baldwin uses: “I realized immediately…” Follow the idea through to its practical conclusion. So, Baldwin writes, “I would have to give myself something to do, in order not to be to bored and find myself among all the wretched unsaved of the Avenue.” Because he cannot simply go along, because of his active, searching mind, he must engage himself in the change to an exceptional degree. In your piece, think about the ways that you or your character react to the change, in the context of the character trait, in practical and necessary ways.
  4. Explain how the change impacts the dynamics of an existing relationship. While the change might alter the relationship, it might also simply play into the dynamic that exists. So, Baldwin writes, “And I don’t doubt that I also intended to best my father on his own ground.” That tension between father and son already existed, and Baldwin’s experience in the church merely gave that dynamic another way to manifest itself.

Remember, the goal is to ground an experience that seems unreal or unearthly in the very earthly and real life you’re portraying (yours or your character’s).

Good luck!

%d bloggers like this: