One of the reasons I am so excited about my four whole weeks to myself at the Vermont Studio Center is that, in addition to working on my poetry books, I’m hoping to sneak in some time to work on my fiction, too.
As I’ve told y’all, I’ve been an apprentice fiction writer for several years—fifteen to be exact—and up until I found out in February that I was short-listed for Best American Short Story 2009 for my story, “Easter Lilies in the West Room,” I was in the closet about it.
But I was caught up in memory this morning, thinking about how I first started writing fiction back in the day in graduate school in the MFA in Creative Writing program at the University of Alabama. A senior fiction professor, Alan Wier, told me that I had a great voice for fiction, and that I should transfer from the poetry concentration to the fiction concentration.
I was excited about what he told me, but I didn’t want to transfer from poetry; I wanted to write both fiction and poetry expertly, but the Director of Creative Writing (who was not Alan Wier) wouldn’t let us do that. Not only did she not let us take on two concentrations, she let us know—firmly—that it was impossible for anyone to succeed in professionally writing in two genres.
Of course, I was thinking, “Well, Langston Hughes succeeded in FOUR genres.” But since I was in a program that treated me like a Field Negro most of the time—don’t get me started on that; but in all fairness to the program, this was fifteen years ago, so hopefully they know how to treat Black folks like actual human beings now—I was definitely afraid to bring up a Black writer’s name as proof of what I could do.
So, I put my fiction aside, or I should say, I wrote fiction in secret. Then, in 2000, right around the time I published my first book of poetry, I published my very first short story, “Sister Lilith” in Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora. My story ended up being the first story in the book. I got four sentences in the Washington Post. And a sister got a check from Warner Books for the story. I was happy as a hog in slop.
Then I got another story published in a journal that next year and another accepted for publication in another anthology. Well, I was so naive that I thought I could finally come out of the closet about my status as an official fiction writer.
A few years later, I was at an (unnamed) writers’ conference; I was there on financial aid (which is a great resume line). I was hanging around some of the ladies who were there on financial aid, too, only they were there in fiction, instead of poetry like me. One day, we were kicking it at a coffee house.
It’s been years ago, but still, I remember where I was sitting at the table when I mentioned that I was a fiction writer as well as a poet, and all those women laughed at me. It was a multiracial crew, but even the colored women laughed at me. I remember it all, and the memory still hurts.
Y’all know how mean girls could be back in high school? Well, these grown women had those “mean girls” beat. I nearly cried, I felt so hurt, but the only thing that kept me from crying is that whenever I cry (from hurt feelings), a few seconds later, I get really, really angry. Then when I get angry—Shazam!
Trust me, you do not want to see me angry. I am a Leo woman: enough said.
Please don’t think I’m trying to portray myself as some sort of victim here. I’m five eight and a half and I do weight training, plus, I can poke somebody’s eyeballs out because I learned that from a self-defense class. I know how to take care of myself at all times, but even though it seemed like we all were just kicking it in a relaxed setting, that coffee house was actually a business setting. All these women were writers, too, so if I had gotten angry and gone off, I could have ruined my career past repairing.
Also, I didn’t pull out my figurative switchblade on those women because I have noticed that whenever I go off on mean females, instead of their taking my pay-back in an honorable fashion—since they started the cruelty in the first place—those women start crying, and suddenly, I look like a female Bigger Thomas. In other words I look like the villain, with my big, loud-talking, frightening, BLACK self.
This flip-the-script strategy is a shady-lady move, no doubt—but I must admit, brilliant. There’s a line in an Edward P. Jones short story—I’m paraphrasing here—where a character says that his mother told him that since God didn’t give women muscles, so He gave them the ability to cry on demand.
For a few months after that scene, I thought about abandoning my fiction. My confidence evaporated, and whenever I would have problems with a story, that moment at the coffee shop would play in my mind, and I would say, “They were right to laugh. I don’t have what it takes to do this.”
The only reason I didn’t give up is because I talked to my mama, and she told me those women weren’t really laughing out of righteous derision, but rather, fear. Because the competition out there in the writing world is so stiff, if one more person gets added to the mix, she could get in the way of someone else’s hustle. So those women were just trying to knock out the competition early by messing up my head.
And besides, Mama asked, had any of those women read my fiction before they started telling me what I could or could not do? Did they give me kind advice—like real women would—about how to become a better fiction writer before ridiculing me for being an uppity poet who thought she could write in their genre?
“ ‘No’ to both of those questions?” Mama asked. “Then stop letting some low-down, jealous heifers get in your way before you even get started. I bet they were all homely, too.”
Sidebar: Now that I think about it, all but one of those women were cute-challenged, and even the cute one was a bad dresser.
Anyway, despite what my mama said, still it’s taken me several years of prayer and psyching myself up to get past the trauma and shame of that coffeehouse moment when I was surrounded by women who I assumed would be supportive and instead, who drop-kicked me.
It’s taken me that time to regain the hope I had in 1995, when my professor told me how good my fiction voice was and that I shouldn’t set my prose to the side. And really, up until February, when I found out about the whole short-list thing for Best American, I didn’t know if I’d ever recapture my confidence.
Now, I’m not where I want to be, but at least I’m back to where I was before my feelings got hurt: consistent in my flow and believing I have a right to be doing what I’m doing. I don’t ever expect to be rich and famous, but really, the journey of writing (and enjoying that journey) is the whole point. So I’m not arrogant, but at least I’m hopeful these days.
So first, thank you, Mama, for reminding me that I am a Stone Cold Sister descended from a Stone Cold Sister. And Stone Cold Sisters don’t let anybody get in the way of their journeys.
And thank you, Professor Alan Wier for your kindness at the University of Alabama, back in 1995. Thank you so much. I’ve run into you at conferences before and thanked you, but some things you just have to keep saying, because folks sometimes are unaware how they help you with kind words.
And finally, thank you, Shady Lady Crew of the Coffee House. You don’t know, either, how much you helped me in my progress as a fiction writer. You just don’t know.