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When You’re a Writer Who’s Not Writing

Placeholder ImageThere was a time you actually called yourself a “real writer.” You took every opportunity to write. You were desperate, at any time of day or night to get to your notebook. Maybe you slept with it next to your bed so you could write your dreams and thoughts immediately. You were an active lover of the written word and your nose was always in a book—if you weren’t writing.

Maybe you received some recognition for your work and people told you they liked what you wrote.

Then you stopped. Maybe now it’s been so long, you’re afraid you don’t have it anymore.

At this point, I’ve been a writer (professional and otherwise) for…well, I’ll say 22 years.    I didn’t always feel like I could call myself a writer, but the truth is, I was born one, and if you connected to the title of this post, you were too.

Here are few things I want to share:

1. Writing is a gift. It is not going to go away. It’s there, inside of you, waiting to be prompted. However, writing is a muscle we exercise, and if we haven’t been exercising it, we can’t expect to be strong right away. Do you go to the gym once and leave toned and HOT after two hours of exercise on a random day? No. Does it boost your confidence for the next couple of days? Absolutely. But the longer you go without exercise, your muscles may atrophy. You’ll lose confidence, and you’ll probably feel reluctant to go to the gym again, because you don’t want to fail. But when you really need exercise/writing, it will be there waiting. What you write may be weak, but when you develop consistency with writing, your “muscles” will strengthen.

2. “Sometimes the only job of a poet is to notice the different kinds of light on leaves.”—Abraham Smith. Abe is one of my poetry mentors and he told me this a long time ago, at a time I was worried because I no longer felt an impetus to write. This quote sounds a little lofty to some perhaps, but to me it is refreshingly reassuring. So you aren’t writing—as long as you are noticing and collecting, you are okay. Noticing how your daughter’s whole back fits the span of your hand, or where her ends are splitting, or how the yellow pansies near the driveway are wilting in the cold. Collecting experiences: memories, current events, words, colors. Because you are a thinking being you are always collecting, consciously or not. Especially as a writer. We often stand in witness. Be reassured if you are in a collecting and noticing place. Know that it is okay.

3. Be willing to start at the beginning. Toi Derricotte, author of “The Undertaker’s Daughter,” and co-founder of Cave Canem (an organization for black poets) said a few key things in a panel discussion I watched recently. She talked about her experience of a debilitating depression wherein she attempted suicide more than once. During this time she was extremely fatigued and because she had insomnia, she didn’t have the strength to write. When she finally began to write again, she says it was just her holding a pen, and moving it around on the paper. It was her beginning at the beginning, like a child—making shapes, then making letters, then finally writing.  I believe that because she loved writing, she was willing to do the work to build her muscle again. You may not be experiencing such a depression. It could just be that your lifestyle is not currently conducive to writing. I get that. But you too, can strengthen your work again. Be willing to start at the beginning. Be willing to do the work. You belong with us. You were born to do this.

4. The best thing for a writer is a book. Especially a non-writing writer. Keep reading.

5. Since writing is your gift, doing it can make you feel like the best version of yourself. It can be your “self-care.” It can be you, loving yourself.

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Mend: Why It Took Six Years

Two weeks ago I shared the news that my book, MEND, was accepted for publication by University Press of Kentucky.

So since my acceptance letter I’ve been doing my best to figure out marketing, as well as editing and preparing MEND for publication. I’m only now realizing too, the fact that I have written a book. It’s still a pretty fantastic idea, especially after working on it for 6 years. It shouldn’t have taken six years, but it took me so long mainly because other important things were happening. In the past six years I’ve had a twin pregnancy, a single pregnancy, moved, began a new job, and did I say I became a mother? I only had one year of writing the book before I had children.

It was difficult to find time to write once I became a mother, but it became necessary that I use the time I had. The days of lingering in coffee shops for hours were over. “Writer’s block” became a thing of the past. If I was going to sit down to write, I had to do work, whether it was good or bad. And a lot of it was bad. My creative energy was now divided into writing a great poem, braiding my daughter’s hair or a myriad of other tasks. The first year of my twins (Eden and Vivienne’s) lives, I made their shoes. Yes, I am that woman. It was a unique time, and now I don’t know how I did it. I made barefoot sandals and spent hours finding perfectly coordinating outfits and making headbands to match.

Suffice it to say, it was tough to make writing a priority, so for a while, it was on the back burner. What motivated me more than anything was the thought of losing my gift of being a writer. I was afraid that if I continued to not write consistently, I’d become the example of every old poet who’d cho094sen “the simple life” over their art. So, after the first couple of years of motherhood, I returned to work full time and began working on the manuscript again, slowly adding piece after piece until finally I attended a writing conference in Miami with the Homeschool. Homeschool Literary Lambda is an organization that holds workshops on visual art and poetry. During the workshop, which was a surreal experience—perhaps because it was my first time away from my children—I wandered around Miami in a kind of daze, listening to music and breathing in the salt of the city. The workshop I was in was taught by Cathy Park Hong, and she was teaching us the art of the long poem. We’d been assigned to write a series of poems. I was mildly annoyed. I thought it would be practical to just write what we wanted, and I didn’t want to have to stick to one subject. This annoyance was short sighted.

A year before, I’d been constantly praying and thinking about what would make the book complete. It was given to me in the middle of the night—and I know it was divine—three words. “Crown of Sonnets.” I know this may sound crazy to some, but this was exactly how it happened. I’d never written a crown of sonnets. I didn’t even have a clear concept of the form. A year later at the conference, I still hadn’t written it. Two weeks after Hong’s workshop, however, it came. I began writing the long poem in my collection, a  sonnet corona entitled, “What Yields.” I worked on the poem for three weeks and by the end I had written eleven sonnets for the series.  I finally had the end of the book.

That was February of 2016. By March I’d finished editing the collection and was sending it out for publication. It had been six years since I’d first begun researching.

Becoming a Poet: Making It

This is the final post in the series.

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My mother has five children. She has always considered me her turtle. And I am–sometimes to my own frustration. But being a turtle works, too, because little by little, bead by bead, you are moving forward. All that matters is that you are moving forward—if only at a snail’s pace. Life is not a series of races to the finish line. I try to keep this in mind, but of course as a human I’ve often spent a lot of time frustrated that I wasn’t further along. The older I become I’ve made an effort to embrace my “turtle-hood” while also pushing myself to dive in.
What I want to say here is that even turtles make it to their destinations. For me, it was only by the love and grace of God. I’ve written a collection of poetry entitled MEND. These poems tell the story of women who were experimented on by Dr. James Marion Sims of Mt. Meigs, AL. Sims is known as the father of gynecology. It is heavy subject matter to be sure, but I was taken with this story. You can read more about MEND and my process of writing it here.
I made a choice to embrace and study what I was most passionate about. Every day I am thankful for the opportunities I’ve been given, and the wonderful people I’ve met along the way.
I am pleased to say that last Thursday I signed a contract for MEND with University Press of Kentucky, as my book was accepted for publication in their New Poetry and Prose Series! My first full collection of poetry will be released in the fall of 2018!
To everyone reading this, your encouragement and acknowledgment have meant the world and made the difference. It has moved me forward and I thank you.

 

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Becoming A Poet: The MFA

I wish I was a better student and peer when I was in graduate school. I had an exceptional opportunity at the University of Alabama. I had free tuition and a monthly stipend. My professors in the creative writing program were kind. I finally had the chance to write and focus on the love of my life. It was a wonderful opportunity that I almost sabotaged.

Call it bad habits, depression or ADHD. Call it all of that. The bottom line was that I couldn’t allow myself to be happy and content doing what I could only dream of before. I was the first person in my family or social circle to pursue an MFA and I had absolutely no clue what I was doing. My professors tried to help me, but they assumed I knew more than I did.

Here are some of the things I didn’t know (from what I can remember):
1) Spending time with your classmates outside of class is just as important as being present with them in class. The relationships developed with them are important because they could possibly be life-long editors and readers of your work and vice versa. (I met classmates I still love and communicate with, but I didn’t give of myself the way I was expected to.)
2) You pursue an MFA with the idea of a collection of some sort already brewing in your head. You write your work in themes that could possibly contribute to your first book. (I wrote poems of all topics, styles, etc., not realizing I should have been working towards a thesis.)
3) Showing up on time and being prepared are of the utmost importance.
4) Every “little thing” matters. 059
And so, suffice it to say, the hardest professional lessons I ever learned I learned in grad school. I was the only black woman in my program. I couldn’t hide or stay under the radar. I walked around not seeing myself and I thought others couldn’t either.
I’m thankful for the patience of my professors, particularly Joel Brouwer, for standing back and watching me grow. He had a quiet manner—in all things, really. His comments on my poetry were sparse and abstract, forcing me to stretch and grow as opposed to giving me direct guidance. It made me feel like I could be flexible with my work and with who I was–that there was room for me.

Here’s one story that still sticks out in my memory: One day I came to Joel’s office crying. I mean, ugly crying. I was taking a course in the English department with a professor known to be hard-nosed. One day he kept me after class to talk.  He was older, tenured and had written a ton of books.  He opened a text book and asked me a question.  In my brain, language—words, are flexible and come in categories. I often hear words and immediately see their homophones, or I am sent off thinking about how words compare to one another while someone is talking. The harder I try to focus, the worse this all gets. If I am tense or anxious it’s terrible. And I’m sure that day this was exactly what happened. I didn’t know what to call it then. The professor pointed to a sentence in the text and asked, “What do you call this?” I was already tense and anxious and I couldn’t answer him. I tried to, and he “clarified,” his question by saying, “no this,” and still pointing to the words. I couldn’t answer him. He was frustrated. He said I would have to withdraw. There was no way I was prepared to write the paper required for his class. I panicked.  I could feel the lump throb in my throat. I needed his class (it was a requirement to graduate) and he had never seen my writing! There was only one paper for the course and before I’d written it, he had told me I couldn’t write it. He made a snap decision about me that day founded on ideas that may have been partially true. The part that was true: I didn’t have a degree in English. I read voraciously on my own, but I hadn’t taken courses that required the level of academic writing he expected. The part that wasn’t: he had assumed, probably because of my background as a poet, my appearance and my lack of access to “his language,” that I wasn’t capable of academic writing. This experience cut deeply. That day when I burst into Joel’s office, he said, “What’s wrong, kiddo?” His arms opened immediately and I sobbed. He talked to me a long time that day, and again, I don’t remember what all he said, but how he made me feel. He made me feel I had value at a time when I didn’t see it for myself. Later, the aforementioned professor said he “would allow” for me to write the paper. It took several drafts, and I was afraid to turn it in, but I did, and I passed the class.
I’m not really sure why Joel believed in me, but I’m glad that he did. I still have no idea how he may have gone to bat for me. To be fair, other than this experience, my classes were informative and I was always excited to learn. I took poetic theory, forms courses, workshops and read poetry by a myriad of diverse writers, thanks to my creative writing professors.

A couple of years later I walked out of grad school beaten into shape. I had more to learn, but I was a professional. My writing techniques had sharpened and I’d added more tools to my poetic toolbox. I would continue to read and write, and I had a thesis!

Poetry as Protest (Protesting at the James Marion Sims Monument)

Read about James Marion Sims, here. Sims is known as the “father of gynecology.” He conducted gynecological surgery on at least eleven slave women without anesthesia from 1845-1849 in Mt. Meigs, Alabama. This case is the subject of my book of poetry.

It was the morning of the solar eclipse. I woke and started my day pretty normally—breakfast, dressing my daughters and doing their hair before they left for school. Between walking around the house with coffee and checking faces for crumbs, I mentioned the New York protest and  Steve Benjamin’s statement to my husband. Benjamin, the mayor of Columbia, had just said he believed that of all the statues at the South Carolina statehouse, Sims’ statue should be removed.   Once the kids and Marcus were in the car and headed to school, Marcus called me on my cellphone.  “Let’s go to Columbia,” He said. “Do whatever you need to do, but let’s make it happen.” Since we have three young children together, Marcus and I always have to partner on all our ventures. We support each other’s careers and individuality.  We try to make it so that regardless of the fact that we have three young children, we both feel free to pursue the things that are important to us. I think honoring each other this way keeps our relationship strong.20170907183132_IMG_0476_1504971744566

After this call, my mind went in to overdrive.  I went to my computer. I started by finding the number of the mayor’s office. “Hello.” I said. “Uh, I read an article about how Mr. Benjamin is interested in having the Sims statue at the statehouse removed, and I wanted to offer my help.”

I awkwardly explained who I was and that I’d written a book on the case of Sims.

“Oh.” She said. “So you’re a poet, you’re a researcher…so, do you want to meet with the mayor? What’s your end goal?”

I told her I would call her back. I didn’t know what my end goal was. I didn’t know what form this need would take. I made calls and wrote emails all morning, trying to get in touch with a network of people I’d never met. I didn’t know anyone personally in Columbia. That day at work I was so exasperated and mentally worn out, I couldn’t even hold a conversation. I hate when I get like that. I call it hyper-focus. It’s when my mind gets so stuck on one thing that I can’t do or think of anything else, even if I want to. That night was the first of two weeks of sleepless nights.

“It’s just the first day,” Marcus said that night. “Of course nothing happened.”

But it did. I’d compiled a list of names— writers in South Carolina from a Cave Canem friend of mine. (Cave Canem is an organization for black poets.) Among this list of names, one stood out. Joy Priest. I contacted her on Facebook, found out she was at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, and the wheels began to turn from that moment. I contacted the statehouse and Joy got an event form sent through by her department head. After we decided on a poetry marathon, we wrote an email to potential readers, and made decisions over the phone on how we wanted the event to go.

The statehouse offered electricity so we brought five heavy duty electrical cords that would stretch from the statehouse outlet out to the monument. Once I arrived in Columbia we had to buy three more electrical cords because the ones we had didn’t reach. We sped all the way to Lowe’s— I was driving and broke a few traffic laws, including running a red light to make a last minute deadly left into the Lowe’s parking lot, and thankfully Joy only nervously laughed while gripping the dashboard.

I wasn’t prepared for seeing the statue of Sims. For years I’d researched this story and never seen the monument in person. It was moving to actually stand in front of the depiction of a person who I knew had caused so much trauma to women whose voices I’ve sought to reverence.

I didn’t have time to process how it made me feel. The marathon began at two and lasted six hours. Ten readers read poems all day on women’s pain, histories, and empowerment. Lucille Clifton was there with her love, and Bettina Judd’s poems were read again and again.  Instead of a traditional protest, this was a meditation on the black female experience, and of course, in particular, on the experiences of the eleven unnamed women that were Sims’s experimental subjects.

Becoming A Poet: Belonging

Even though I practically slept in the computer lab on campus so I could write, I still wouldn’t call myself a poet. I didn’t own a laptop. Real poets looked cool, spoke cool, and wore cool shoes– not to mention they were mega-talented and mysterious. Real poets were bold. Would you be surprised to know that I still struggle with being bold? I’ve been reading and writing for almost twenty years and I still experience intense kfreeperiods of self-doubt. My nervousness threatens to overtake me every other time that I share my work.

By way of my creative writing classes, I’d discovered the reading series on my campus. A reading series is where a group of writers of various genres visit (usually a school campus) at specified times throughout the semester to read their work. A UA’s reading series, I heard the work of fiction writers, poets and creative non-fiction writers. Harryette Mullen (a black poet) came to U of A to read her poems and she was the first black (established) poet I’d ever met in person. I don’t remember our conversation but I remember her signing my copy of her book and as Maya Angelou would say, I remember how she made me feel. She made me feel as if I were already part of the writing community I desperately looked up to. She made me feel as if I already had what I wanted.  At that same reading I met Joel Brouwer, who would become my mentor and thesis advisor when I entered grad school. It was the first day we’d ever met, but he lent me a copy of “Sleeping With the Dictionary.”

I mentioned the awards I received during my junior year in an earlier post. That spring they were awarded in a formal ceremony. My parents and family surprised me by driving up from Charleston, South Carolina, to attend the event. After I received the awards from the creative writing department, Sandy Huss took me aside and said the words that would change my life: “All of the faculty here awarded these unanimously. If you apply to the MFA program here, you’ll definitely get in.” The “MFA” she spoke of was a Master of Fine Arts—in creative writing. An MFA was an opportunity for me to finally devote my life and learning to the art of poetry. There was a place for me. There was an opportunity to do exactly what I had always loved and needed to do. Poetry had never been my side-chick. It had always been the love of my life.

Becoming a Poet: I Choose You

I wasn’t a spoken word artist. The words moved out of me with a tangible rush as I read, but as much as I loved vowels I didn’t stretch them out over my tongue and colorfully use my hands and body while I read. I wrote poems we writers call “for the page,” about childhood, the color green, riding on the bus, or a tree that fell outside my dorm during a storm. I sat in the crowds of spoken word events, marveling at the performers that entered the stage, bravely and confikpearldently commanding the room.

By the time I entered my first poetry workshop, I was in emotional recovery as stated in an earlier post. It was fall and while I was still struggling, I looked forward to every class. I’d wait for my poetry class on a bench outside the building for as long as an hour. I wanted every drop I could squeeze from it. My instructor was Abraham Smith, a fierce-eyed man so in love with poetry it left one with no doubt of its importance in the world.  Abe was a poetry-zealot. Everything he wrote, from our class assignments to an email, appeared in poetic form. He even spoke poetry. I soaked it all in. How blessed I am that he was my first poetry instructor.

When the class was over, Abe offered to continue responding to my poems. I would put a poem in his box every week or so, and he’d put it back in his box with comments. Then, I didn’t understand what a sacrifice that was of his time. (I thanked him, of course, but I had no idea.) By spring semester I was taking my second poetry class with Joyelle McSweeney, and a fiction writing class with Maraya Cornell. Maraya was aware of my interest in poetry, and she nominated me for a departmental writing prize. Imagine my astonishment when a few weeks later I received an email that read: “Congratulations: Best Undergraduate Creative Writer.” And a few minutes after that, “Best Undergraduate Poet.” I couldn’t believe it! The University of Alabama’s Creative Writing faculty had awarded my poetry two significant prizes in one day.