On Thursday, December 12, 2013, Toni Morrison sat down with Junot Diaz at the New York Public Library for a conversation about race and writing. Like many others, I was completely ecstatic about this conversation. God was going to speak with her son — and I got to watch! Two of the most important literary voices of our time speaking to each other. In this case, Morrison did most of the talking and Diaz was that fan in all of us who gets to sit next to our hero, which worked for me.
Coming at the end of the year, this conversation was just what I needed. I’ve had some ups and downs this year as far as my writing goes: I submitted to an online black women’s literary magazine and got accepted. A piece I wrote for Black Girl Nerds went to AfroPunk. I’ve submitted to many more places and gotten rejected. I’m still working on a novel I’ve been planning since last year. But I’ve started submitting. I’ve started submitting. I’m starting to get feedback rather than just a standard “We’re sorry but your work is not for us” email note. For a writer, this is a good sign. When the person on the other end takes some time to explain why you were rejected, it means they feel you have some potential and on some level wants to see you published somewhere.
So when I have the opportunity to see people I look up to being so generous with their time and wisdom, I have some hope. I get to have beliefs of mine reinforced. It helps me get through those periods when I feel so paralyzed that I can’t commit pen to paper or get passed a blank screen. A writer of color knows how much it means to hear Diaz say that you don’t have to write for a white audience. A writer of color knows how much we need to hear those words.
Still, I fight my own doubts. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what’s missing in my writing and if there are ways I can improve it. For instance, I recently read Daniel Jose Older’s Salsa Nocturnal and tried to take note in how rooted it was in New York even though it is a fantasy. I am doing the same for Zadie Smith’s NW, which takes place in Northwest London (hence the name). I took note because creating a location based in a real place has never been important to me. I feel that since I’m making up a fiction, I have license to make up my own locations as well. However, listening to Diaz and Morrison say that basing so much of the story in “the real” actually makes “the ghost” even realer.
I’ve also noticed that even when I write speculative fiction I’ve never been one to root my own myths and legends in existing ones that people can go back to and check the accuracy and attention to detail. I would love to take more interest in Orishas and even the Greek and Roman mythologies I learned so long ago in high school. However, I was never that interested in them. I am tempted to try in order to connect with those who love them enough to have debates about them on social media, but I’d much rather discuss the myths that writers like Morrison, Octavia Butler, Toni Cade Bambara and Gayl Jones create.
I know I’ll never be on that same level as writers such as these, but I have to believe that does not mean I cannot carve out my own space. When I saw Diaz give a talk and book signing in Milwaukee a couple of months ago, he gave some of the realest writing advice I’ve ever heard. He said you have to ask yourself why would anyone ever want to read your shit. That’s a question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately. I keep it right next to Morrison’s brilliant declaration that you must write the story you want to read if it hasn’t been written.
It’s that reconciliation that I need to find: writing what I want to read and making it interesting for others. Writers like Morrison and Diaz (and Smith and Older) know how to find that balance. Oh and endings. I really need to learn how to write endings…