Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

Friday, August 22, 2008

A Right to Write?

"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view - until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."

Atticus Finch to Scout in Harper Lee’s
To Kill a Mockingbird

Today’s Word Count for the Novel: 268,822. My goal was to cut 825; I cut 491. 334 shy of my goal.

Rationalization: Sometimes you gotta move things around before you finally cut them. I’m saying my last goodbyes to some passages.

Page Count for the Novel: 1002

What do writers have the right to write?

Free speech says, “Anything save “Fire!” in a crowded theater.” But to paraphrase St. Paul – “almost anything” may be possible, but it ain’t all permissible.

Again, to invoke my husband’s bluegrass mantra: Just because you can, that don’t mean you should.

I’ve potentially trespassed, according to some -- a former writing group and from a friend and mentor, all of whose opinions I respect greatly.

The short story appearing in Relief Journal’s Volume 2.3 comes from a perspective some would not consider right for a white girl. I chose to write from the point of view of someone of a different race.

I’d rather you support Relief Journal than give away the story (by the way: no payment in it for me if you purchase). For now, I do want to meditate on two reactions I received at earlier drafts of this story.

Said someone in my writer’s group: “I’m not sure you have the right to write this story.” I can’t interpret her meaning with 100% accuracy, but I can imagine that perhaps the issue wasn’t about my attempt to walk in the shoes of this character. Rather, one translation might be, “Follow the flights of imagination, especially in order to walk in someone else’s moccasins, but don’t try publishing this.” In other words, exercises promoting empathy and cross-cultural understanding are good, but putting a story out for public consumption smacks of, “Look at me, I know what I’m talking about.” And the follow-up question would be, “How on earth could you truly know?” A point well worth raising.

Said my friend and mentor in an e-mail to me, “(It’s) something about the audacity/privilege of a white woman to imagine she could speak for a black woman when the white woman couldn't (by definition) have experienced some of the episodes the black mother did. . . I do have concern about the perspective, however, as presumably, it is projection. I sit here asking myself if this story challenges white supremacist norms and consciousness by taking the reader inside this situation - or if it perpetuates white supremacist norms and consciousness in a subtle, complex way.”

These are valuable questions. To me, they are just the kind of questions literature should inspire for thoughtful readers such as my friend. She also added at one point, “Yet I liked the story and thought it was important to read.”

I like my friend’s use of the word “projection.” There is no way I can’t project both myself into a character of another race as well as project my assumptions, stereotypes, and norms into this character. I can’t escape it as a white person, and if I were black, or a man, or any other human permutation, I would be in the same boat. I will read another’s life as a book filled with my own bias.

Again, I can’t speak with 100% accuracy here either, but my friend’s comment gets at the problem of power – that whites still speak from paradigms and positions of dominance – and therefore whites, when writing any sort of fiction, risk yet another trespass in keeping with slavery, Jim Crow, blackface, Elvis stealing blues, and other ways whites have either oppressed or adopted what they conceive to be “blackness.”

What would then mitigate such as act as mine that’s carried out in this historical and racial context? I would say, Redeeming answers to the following questions:

Does the story reveal something true of humanity rather than sketch a stereotype? Is the character a unique individual with a special story to tell?
Does the story more closely connect readers across racial and cultural lines?
Does the story use its conflict to explore redemption? Who or what is redeemed, and why?
Does the reader learn something?
Do I, the writer, learn something?

If you read the story, tell me what you think. Or tell me your thoughts on this issue of point of view and whether or not the author’s race is crucial to a story’s authority, authenticity, and truthfulness.

I will say this: I think publishing this story in 2008, rather than 1998, 1988, 1978, or 1968 (the year of my birth and Dr. King’s assassination) is much more permissible than it ever was. Your thoughts on that subject would be appreciated, too!

Robert Olen Butler once commented in an interview (and this is my paraphrase, since I searched unsuccessfully for that interview online) that as a Midwestern, middle-aged white male who grew up with two parents happily married he has more in common with a Vietnamese woman living with her happily-married parents – as opposed to his trying to write the story of a Midwestern, middle-aged white male whose family suffers from divorce. It’s a fascinating thought, and to me a hopeful, life-affirming one, that as writers we can bridge these seemingly vast canyons with our words and imaginations. I treasure stories from Eudora Welty and Doris Betts who walk beautifully and sensitively in the shoes of black women, just as I treasure a man’s walk in the shoes of three women, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours.

Then again, the road to hell is paved with all kinds of good, patronizing, and self-satisfied intentions.

In no way am I done with this topic. Will return to it soon.

Today's Writing Goal: I didn’t meet my last writing goal by 334 words. I’ll shoot down the middle and try to cut 500 words by the next tally, and I will edit the hard copy (8 pages) awaiting me on my desk. (I printed out all 1040-some and have been hard-copy-editing, which leads to these word count goals. After I entered changes through page 500, I stopped and printed again and am now cutting more.)

Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.

Elementary: What color are you?

Colors express all kinds of feelings, and we use language to help describe how we feel. Some people say, “I am blue,” when they are sad, and “I’m seeing red,” when they are angry. Can you think of any other ways we use colors to describe feelings? Try yellow and green and see what you might have heard.

Describe how you have felt today, yesterday, and the day before. Think of times when you felt sadness, anger, joy, peace, jealousy, and fear. Draw a picture of your heart and divide it up like a pizza or a patchwork quilt. Then use any color to color in parts of your heart that have those feelings. Match a color to each feeling

Now write about one of those feelings. Begin with this sentence, “When I feel ___________(name the emotion), I am ______________ (name the color).” Now tell a story about that time. Use lots of detail: what did you see, hear, smell, taste, and/or touch that day you had this feeling?”

Secondary and Adult:

We know that people discriminate based on skin color. But we also know the famous phrase and vision of Dr. Martin Luther King that asks us to judge people not by race but by the “content of their character.” In fact, race is not well-defined by anthropologists and sociologists. So why shouldn’t we “color” ourselves? When we think of this societal convention identifying people by race and juxtapose it against the color wheel we know from art class, suddenly skin color can lose its significance. Which is not to say that race and racism don’t matter, but rather, that if we can step away from the world and all its judgments for a moment, we can ask, How do I color myself?

Name all the colors you know, from primary to secondary to every shade of color that is important to you. Then pick one of the following two prompts.

Color Me Red, Color Me Blue: Pick the colors that best suit your personality, your interests, and your life experience. Write a self-description that begins, “Color me _____ (pick the color) because…”

Inventing Idioms: You may have heard, “I’m blue” when someone is sad or other colors used to describe emotions. Name some other colors and how they are used in common expressions (also known as idioms).

Now invent some new expressions.

You can use metaphor, such as “I’m blue,” where you give an emotion a color.

You can use an action with an implied metaphor, such as “I’m seeing red,” where red represents the emotion of anger and the action of seeing is part of that metaphor’s vehicle.

Start a story or a personal essay where this new idiom begins the description of your emotional experience.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

What a Relief

"I take rejection as someone blowing a bugle in my ear to wake me up and get going, rather than retreat.”

-- Sylvester Stallone

Today’s Word Count: 269,313 (675 words gone!)

Page Count: 1006 (Okay, so I didn’t make my goal of cutting 1500+ words. See my rationalization at the close of this post)

It’s August 17, 2008, and that means Relief Journal is publishing Volume 2.3. Guess who’s in there?

My short story, “Midrift,” thrice rejected, is now published, official and bound, for real. This stopgap story has given me so much hope. Now I join a long list of authors who made it past the marathon route of rejections to catch their breath with a “yes”! I like author and illustrator Debbie Ohi’s list of hope.

“Midrift” had an inauspicious start back in 2004 when my writing group challenged the first draft. Members asked whether I had the right to write this story. (I’m contemplating writing a “Right to Write” post to explore that controversy.) But I am grateful for their questions because the scrutiny made me edit relentlessly and drew me closer to my character and subject. I decided with the ire of a rejected writer I did have a right to write and must finish it.

Over the next few years the story was rejected by three other literary magazines. Each rejection sent me back to revision before I submitted again.

Then I submitted it to Relief. I received no response. Eight months later, I summoned the courage to try the journal, noting in my cover letter I’d read about a brief glitch in the online submission system and I wanted to make sure my work had been received.

Within two months Relief sent me a “You’re on the short list” e-mail, then a congratulations e-mail four months after that, and then I was editing galleys this past July.

This has been my experience – some time spent shouting into a void, and later, an echo back. Rejections have evolved from form letters to personal encouragements, perhaps because every rejection inspires rewrites and a requisite lapse of time to wrap my head around what the story’s really about.

The first draft of my story “3.0” received this message from editor Linda Swanson-Davies of Glimmer Train:

“Although your work did not make it all the way to the top 25 list, it did make it a long way through the January 08 Family Matters judging (top 5% of about 1,200 submissions!) and was indeed a finalist. It was an excellent read… Thanks again for letting us read your work—we will look forward to more in the future!”

And then there was The Missouri Review’s response to a new draft:

“Though the piece was short, it was still vivid and emotionally resonant. The premise was incredibly fresh -- a granddaughter re-imagining her grandmother's life, and through her contemplations learning about her own life. We'd like to see more from you based on the strengths of this piece. We wish you the best of luck publishing your work and hope you'll consider sending us more in the future.”

Now “3.0” awaits a response from a Writers’ Group of the Triad Sixth Biennal Greensboro Awards contest, and if it doesn’t win there, I’m off to a few other journals, including Zoetrope all-story.

I write these stopgap stories for several reasons, not the least of which is I have no other choice but to tell tales as they come to me. But I see other benefits such as the toughening of my writer’s mettle and the need for relief – read, communication with the outside world to know I’m heard, I’m heard! – whenever the novel and I lose momentum.

And my rationalization for not cutting the 1500+ words? In the latest pages I haven’t stumbled on a scene that feels like a boulder in the road; everything I’m editing now has headlong momentum. That may not be the best reason to leave scenes in, because “headlong” can translate to “hectic” and “frantic” writing when I’m striving for something else. I also have to weigh the fact that I stopped reading Ian McEwan’s Saturday the other day when the story got too steep for me. It took emotional effort to stay with it, not because the writing isn’t brilliant, but because I wasn’t ready. That reaction speaks about me much more than it does McEwan’s story. I need a day or two, and then I’ll continue the climb along with him.

Perhaps rejections and acceptances should be viewed this way: as gifts to the public and the writer who are ready when they’re ready and not before – and not when we think they should be.

Today's Writing Goal: I didn’t meet my last writing goal by 825 words. I’ll cut that by the next tally and continue to strive for greater connectivity among scenes. I’m currently backtracking through the places just edited, linking scenes better and beating the bushes for dead words. They keep tumbling out.

Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.


Have you ever tried to be someone’s friend but the person didn’t want to be yours? Have you ever been picked last for a team? Have you ever waited for someone and the person did not arrive? Think about a tough time when you felt rejected. It may hurt to remember it, but sometimes, we have to think about difficult times to understand how to get through them.

Tell the story of what happened, just as you remember. Include what you felt and what was said. Describe the place where it happened.

Now, tell another story. Choose between two options:

Tell the story again. Tell it the way you wish it happened. Share your feelings, what was said, where you were. OR

Tell the story of a time when you rejected someone else. Tell the story of what happened, just as you remember. Include what you felt and what was said. Describe the place where it happened.

Share your story with someone you trust and talk about how to feel better after a time of rejection. If you have rejected someone else, can you do something to make the situation better?

Use the elementary prompt or the following:

There is power in faith. It takes two forms – saying yes and saying no.

I Believe Manifesto

Write a manifesto listing ten things you believe. Do you believe in love with honesty? Do you believe in silent cell phones? Do you believe in organic produce? Whatever you believe, from the sublime to mundane, list it.

Then write the yin to this yang, the I Reject Manifesto. Write a list of ten things you reject.

Let one of the lines from either manifesto inspire the beginning of a piece of writing.