Hissy Fit

 I had anxiously awaited feedback from Catherine Brady, the editor of the novel I’m writing, A Thousand Crowning Sorrows.  I brought the feedback with me on a family vacation to Maui, Hawaii. While I insisted to myself that I could write and vacation, anger and resistance stopped me from using the feedback to complete the novel draft. When I read the words variant spelling, I just got mad and stopped working on it. Any time I thought the words variant spelling, I stopped working.

After a day on Kihei Beach, a delicious portion of Gus’ shaved ice, and excellent curry from a food truck near our resort, I sat staring at my laptop. One of my extended family members, Maela, asked me how I was doing as I stared at my open laptop. I said the usual for three days, “I’m fine,” which was a lie. After speaking those words in the third say, I had a hissy–fit. I told my daughter, my partner, and our extended family how mad I felt whenever the subject of dialect and variant spelling comes up regarding writing dialect. I pounded my fist on a table. I raised my voice and shook my head in upset. I explained that this feedback has been consistent in both my MFA programs and a constant admonition before then. I had waited before entering these programs. I knew I would benefit from studying my craft and I had always been afraid, with reason, of losing my voice and the voices I carried within me. While there are exceptions, I experience adhering to the standards of white–English as absolutely expected and a constant intrusion in the mind and spirit of a writer.

Now to be clear, Kate, Catherine Brady the novel’s editor, recommended that I “Minimize reliance on variant spelling per se and rely on diction, sentence structure, word choice, and idioms instead,” to convey the rhythm and lyricism of the language being given literary expression.

My head kept exploding anyway. This constant suggestion or encouragement or direction communicates to the core of me that the different languages I hear must be forced into standard English, that phonetic spelling, spelling out how the words are pronounced or sound, is not acceptable and my language, the language of the characters in my imagination and memory, is variant, deviant, and illegitimate.

Put that aside for a moment. I have a towering craft challenge. How exactly do I use sentence structure, word choice, and colloquial idioms to convey the rhythm, flow and music of the languages I remember and hear? How do I constantly learn and use writer’s craft to breathe life into the language that the characters in the novel speak?

These same concerns raged during the Harlem Renaissance in some Colored writers’ responses to Zora Neal Hurston’s writing. In The New Yorker, February 17, 1997 edition, Claudia Roth Pierpont addressed the charge of Hurston’s work mimicking racist minstrel depictions of Colored people by Richard Wright in, “A Society of One: Zora Neal Hurston American contrarian.”

Disowned by the founders of the Harlem Renaissance for its association with the shambling, watermelon-eating mockeries of American stage convention, dialect remained an irresistible if highly self-conscious resource for writers, from Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown to Wright himself (whose use of the idiom Hurston gleefully dismissed as tone deaf). But the feat of rescuing the dignity of the speakers from decades of humiliation required a rare and potentially treacherous combination of gifts: a delicate ear and a generous sympathy, a hellbent humor and a determined imperviousness to shame.

One of my family members, Maela, asked the questions at the heart of my dramatic hissy fit display. 1. “What and how do you want to write?” 2. “What might it cost you and the novel if you write what and how you want to write?” 3. “How might you and the novel benefit by being written solely in standard English?” 4. What do you need to write the voices of your characters the way you feel, understand and hear them?

To the last question, I answered without hesitation, “Courage.”

I had lunch with Kate when I returned from Hawaii. After catching up on family, politics, and vacations, I told her about my hissy-fit. We talked about all of the ways a writer can convey language and the voices of characters in the novel. We talked about authors whose characters’ times and voices are authentically expressed. I made a list as we talked. Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Zora Neal Hurston, William Faulkner, James Baldwin, Toni Cade Bambara, Gayle Jones, Toni Morrison and more. Kate later recommended, Rotten English: A Literary Anthology, by Dohra Ahmad It is a non-standard English anthology of the uses of dialect and non-standard English past and present from all over the English speaking world. It is a treasure trove of expanding understanding and learning about the uses of authentic languages.

At home, I pulled books from my shelves: Toni Cade Bambara, Gorilla My Love; Zora Neal Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God; Gayl Jones, Corregidora; Toni Morrison: Beloved; Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination; and What Moves in the Margins; and William Faulkner, Absalom Absalom! 

In response to my sharing my hissy fit, one of my Goddard teachers, Beatrix Gates, suggested I read Tracy K. Smith who is currently serving as the American Poet Laurate. Bea’s note was brief,” And Tracy Smith. Keep going. Bea.” I Duende. The first read immersed me in Smith’s use of uncomplicated language with each line connecting to the last, lingering, and creating its own life through the reader and beyond. The poems fold social, political, and historical events into emotional and spiritual cores speaking of human beings cycles of life as paths to fulfillment. The combination of inspired uncomplicated wording and patient dynamic pacing allows me to use Smith’s poetry as a primer on diction. Her work embodies the concept of art speaking through the artist.

My hissy fit, my family gathered celebrating birthdays and anniversaries, and Maela’s questions have served their purpose, to interpret and make powerful and productive the use of my resistance and anger. I continue to complete the draft of the novel with Kate’s edits. I read. I study. I hone my craft. I teach myself to write with courage with the help of seasoned teachers.

 

 

A Writer’s Life Philosophy

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I became a writer after I contracted rheumatic fever when I was in the seventh grade and began to imagine the world through the window of my second floor bedroom window. We had no medical insurance even though my mother work as a nurse aide at Charity Hospital and as a ward clerk at Flint Goodridge Hospital. It was my mother’s friends and colleagues at Flint who helped provide doctor visits, EKGs, and medications in Flint’s emergency room without charge my mother. It was an amazing pediatrician, Dr. Segre, who treated me without charge and placed me on a year’s bedrest. My teachers sent my homework by my friends who visited me before and after school. My neighbors brought me breakfast and lunch. The radio brought me forbidden blues and jazz. An old oak tree filled with birds, squirrels, flying roaches, and the sights, and sounds of Sixth and LaSalle Streets liberated my imagination. I began writing stories in my head that I still remember today.

I have been driven to tell the stories of my family, my neighborhood, my church, and my life as a black–lesbian–feminist–mother and writer to explore and abrogate the cross generational transmission of trauma that is my experience as a black woman in general and more specifically and historically in my family transmitted from my grandmother to my mother, from my mother, to me, and from me to my daughter. The histories and stories of brutal racism, sexism, and classism along with the effervescent resilience of friends, neighbors, community, spirituality, music, books, art, food, and family has made my personal recovery from internal and external emotional, physical, and sexual harm possible. I wrote about the cross generation of trauma in a Memoir, The Saltbox Box House on Bayou Black. The memoir chronicles the trauma that was rooted in a traumatic event that happened to my grandmother, her siblings, and parents on Bayou Black, near Houma, Louisiana.  However, much of that trauma origin story is shrouded in protective mystery. Covered up for the perpetrators. Shrouded in silence and mystery to protect the victim from furthering harm as well as from the truths of what happened to them. I wrote a historical novel, A Thousand Crowning Sorrows to imagine and explore the Post Reconstruction and Jim Crow lives of my family only hinted at during wakes, funerals, wedding, and holiday celebrations.

I worked  and put myself through college and graduate school while being the primary breadwinner for my mother, grandmother, and my daughter. When I worked for a state agency, The Louisiana Bureau For Women, I was fired, was evicted from my apartment, and for a time, I was judged  harshly by my family and friends for saying I was black, lesbian, and feminist during a work staff meeting and later into television cameras and microphones. With the support of the ACLU, I sued the State of Louisiana and later appealed the state’s decision to the Fifth Circuit of Appeals and sort of won. I won case law, that the state had indeed fired me for saying I was Black, lesbian, and feminist, and that my speech was constitutionally protected speech. However, the state convinced the court it could have been fired me for cause and the state prevailed. I moved away from New Orleans with my daughter. Although, I have returned to New Orleans often, I have never been at home again. I moved between New Orleans, the Bay Area, and Cambridge, Massachusetts for twenty-one years. I have now lived in San Francisco, California for the past seventeen years, the longest I have ever lived in one place.

I have been a part of a women’s writer’s group in every community I have lived in since my mid-twenties. I have developed and maintained writing partnerships for over forty years. I have been and done all of those things with only fragments of time and space to write and make a living for myself and my family.

At sixty–years old I decided I wanted a writer’s life and made a decision to pursue an MFA in nonfiction at USF. The major product of that learning was a memoir, The Salt Box House on Bayou Black, now in the process of moving toward publication.  As I completed the first drafts of the memoir, I realized that the core of the erased history story of my family’s experience in South Louisiana could not be captured in memoir, but had to be imagined in fiction. Only, I didn’t know how to write fiction. I knew I didn’t have the time to teach myself fiction in the organic ways I leaned nonfiction and, I decided to pursue another MFA. I enrolled in Goddard College and earned a MFA in fiction. The major product of that learning is, the historical novel, A Thousand Crowning Sorrows, which is also moving toward publication. After earning a MSW, a MFA in fiction and nonfiction, and having gained the skills and experience I required of myself, I am now fully living a writer’s life and practice I asked myself for. I am writing, continually learning, build writing partnerships and community, and launching a writing wellness practice .

When I imagined and began to put into place the practical foundations for a writing and teaching wellness practice, I thought about the teachers and philosophies that influenced me and inform who I am as a writer, teacher, and healer. In my life experience, a teacher is a rare gift that transcends educational theories and educational programs, and systems. Great teachers transform students into lifelong learners by their example and the content, structures, the contexts of their teaching. When I think deeply about teaching, I think of Elizabeth Vondy, as I do whenever I have a writing conundrums or decisions to make, like guiding a memoir and historical fiction novel to publishing and beginning to launch a liberation–feminist–healing writing practice. I took her English class at Louisiana State University in New Orleans in the fall of 1969. She was a white southern woman with neat permed and bobbed hair, pearls and matching sweater sets, low heels and stockings, a briefcase, and a good leather handbag. In the classroom she was no nonsense and in charge. Mrs. Vondy was clear that her students would not pass if we did not participate fully, complete all readings and assignments on time, if we plagiarized or allowed others to do our work, and if we missed more than three classes. Her syllabus was clear and her directions were precise, what to read when, what assignments were due when, when exams were, and how she would grade.

After the first class a third of the students dropped out. By the last day classes could be dropped, the class was half if its original twenty–six students, especially after she called out one student for plagiarism and two others for submitting work that was not their own. After I turned in my first assignment, Mrs. Vondy invited me to her office hour and we talked for nearly two hours. She told me my spelling and grammar were horrible, but my writing was very promising, that she would continue to mark my errors in red, but I was to never let my educational deficits or another’s opinion stop me from writing or diminish me as a writer.

In our last office hour, Elizabeth Vondy admitted that the learning environment for lack students at LSU was set up to confuse, dehumanize and fail us, and blatantly advantage white students. I believed her. She suggested I find a better learning environment for myself. Elizabeth Vondy’s words helped me make sense of my learning experience at LSU and the larger experience of making sense of the sexism, classism, and racism outside of the segregated black communities I had grown up in, as well as inside of pseudo–integrated equal ones. I took her advice, transferred to Southern University in New Orleans a traditionally black university. Elizabeth Vondy’s example of a teacher’s responsibility and accountability to and for their students bonded me to her for all my life.

Three teaching philosophies and practices that inform my vision, structuring, support of powerful and productive writing practices. The first teaching philosophy and practice I embraced for teaching was Each–One–Teach–One ,an African American educational philosophy. This practice began during slavery when educating a slave was a crime. Slaves who learned to read and write subversively shared that knowledge with slaves who did not have any access to learning. They engaged in learning and teaching knowing the consequences could be death.

The practice of Each-One-Teach-One continued from slavery through the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Civil Rights eras in the U. S. This philosophy, value, and practice was taught in African American churches, schools, and around kitchen tables of my childhood, and those of my parents, and grandparents. The Each–One–Teach–One Philosophy and values taught that the education earned by a black person did not belong to them alone; the education and achievement was shared by the entire community; and it was the duty and privilege of those who earned an education to teach others. Each–One–Teach–One, also taught that people who had less formal education, even those who were illiterate, were in fact intelligent, skilled, and knowledgeable, and they too had the duty and obligation to share their knowledge and skills. This philosophy’s core value and practice taught that all black people had something to teach and formal education, achieved and shared, was the most prized and respected of accomplishments. When I looked to find citations for this philosophy and practice, I found brief mention of this concept ascribed to a white southern missionary, Frank Laubach.  I claim authority and witness to its origins, teachings, and functions inside Southern African American communities, and my lived experience inside those communities.

The second teaching philosophy I reach for when thinking about teaching practices is Paulo Freire. I was introduced to the writings of Freire during my MSW training at Tulane University. I was particularly attracted to his idea for a model of education based on the liberation of those being taught. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire insisted that Western education forced teachers into the role of forcing students to become receptors of colonization. In his analysis, teachers were colonizers and oppressors, while students were the colonized and oppressed. Freire called this type of education, “banking education.” Freire proposed a “problem–posing education” that could be a function of liberation and a practice of freedom. Freire defined the “problem posing education model.”

The teacher is no longer merely the–one–who–teaches,

but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the

students, who in turn while being taught also teach.

They become jointly responsible for a process in

which they all grow. (61)

Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed acted like a battering ram against the racist educational regimes I had been subjected to and had been resisting during my education and training. Freire’s writing resonated with my cultural educational heritage of each–one–teach–one and thrust me further into deconstructing race and class.

The third teaching philosophy I reach for is the feminist perspective of the teachings of Bell Hooks. In Teaching to Transgress, Bell Hooks, while crediting and honoring Freire, also addressed the major issue he did not address: women, their power and value, and the importance of their liberation to the liberation of all. In “Engaged Pedagogy,” Hooks writes about how the teaching ways of Freire and the Vietnamese Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh informed her progressive–holistic–engaged–feminist pedagogy.

Thich Nhat Hanh always speaks of the teacher as healer.

Like Freire, his approach to knowledge called on students

to be more active participants, to link awareness with practice.

Whereas Freire was primarily concerned with the mind, Thich Nhat Hanh   offered a way of thinking about pedagogy which emphasized wholeness, a union of mind, body, and spirit. His focus on a holistic approach to learning and spiritual practice enabled me to overcome years of socialization that had taught me to believe a classroom was diminished if students and professors regarded each other as “whole” human beings striving not just for knowledge in books, but knowledge about how to live in the world. (14)

In Teaching to Transgress, Bell Hooks combines the theories of liberation education, education as a holistic practice, and feminist theories applied to education to formulate her own didactic. Progressive, holistic, “engaged pedagogy” is more demanding than conventional critical or feminist pedagogy. For unlike these two teaching practices, engaged pedagogy emphasizes well–being. That means that teachers must be actively committed to a process of self–actualization that promotes their own well–being if they are to teach in a manner that empowers students. (15)

My early teachers taught me that each student must also teach, teachers must be available for and open to being taught, teacher’s capacities to succeed and excel are directly correlated with their levels of compassion and professional accountability, their commitment to education as a practice of liberation, and education informed by the practices of feminist, progressive, and holistic engaged teaching and learning practices.

I am embracing my success in gifting myself with the writer’s life I have hungered for  and needed. I have pursued advanced learning. I have filled a writing tool box with excellent experience and skills. I have completed two books that I’m moving toward publication. I have a daily personal writing and wellness practice. I am launching a service to provide writing wellness and teaching services to encourage, support, and celebrate the creative health and success of other writers and artists. I am truly fortunate and joyfully living a writer’s life.

 

 

Re-turning & Re-launching: A Writer’s Life

 

IMG_0588Since I was very young all I wanted was a writer’s life, a life lived in my imagining, reading, listening to words and music, observing, remembering, telling stories, learning, teaching, and putting it all on paper. I wanted to be in this delightful space of powerful, positive, and productive work. I decided to pursue a writer’s life to sustain me both creatively and financially in 2013. In the five years since I’m succeeding in building the writer’s life I envisioned.

It is said you can never go home again. This can be translated into any kind of going or any home or any returning. It isn’t that you can’t ever go home or return to a place that holds your history, memories, and foundational connections. It’s that both you and the place will have changed in both easily perceived and imperceptible ways. I am returning to this webpage, formerly Black Magnolias, after a three-year absence. This is a terrifying return, no hyperbole. Writing, communicating, creating, connecting, and engaging on social media causes me to clean my closets, cook and bake for the freezer, repot the plants, and alphabetize the books on my shelves, almost anything, before returning to this social media home. Give me the phone, a small intimate gathering of family friends or strangers, a classroom, an auditorium, a microphone in a crowded recording booth at a radio station, anywhere else. Yet, here I am returning to this space changed, renewed, and living the writer’s life I promised myself. Here I am renewing my invitation to you to share my thoughts and imaginings, my meditations and prayers, my writing, my accomplishments and my procrastinations, yes, I’m inviting you into a writer’s life.

I am now launching A Writer’s Life Teaching and Wellness Practices in order to complete my cycle of remembering, telling, meditating, praying, recovering, healing, sharing, honing my craft, and teaching that have saved, preserved, and propelled me into joy. Launching A Writer’s Life and re–launching this website is truly scary for me, yet after each time I clean or wash or organize something and come back to these pages, fear recedes and my delight and joy at each small step and accomplishment in my own learning and healing is worthy of the fear filled journey. On these pages I will be: sharing excerpts from my writing projects-reviewing the best places for writing away from our desks-sharing writing meditations–contributing writing prompts-reviewing books–discussing authors and books that inspire and teach our craft-speaking to writer’s self-care and wellness-providing writings and supplying images of art, music, photographs, and other subjects and topics that support thinking and writing creatively and, insisting that we: think-write-revise-share–rest-care for ourselves lovingly and deeply-return to the writing-revise-revise again–publish–share even more-write even more.

Come join me and visit A Writer’s Life Blog, leave a comment, share with writer friends and like my Facebook Page. Please be on the lookout for upcoming A Writer’s Life Writing Classes and Workshops and Writing Camp.

Andrea

Website:https://andreacanaan.blog

Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/pg/AWritersLife2015/

This web page was designed and constructed by Suma Nagaraj. She was my classmate and became my beloved friend while I earned my first MFA in nonfiction at the University of San Francisco University in 2015. Suma returned to her home in Bangalore, India and this website has not been updated until now. I am forever grateful to Suma for building this social media home base for me out of love and her belief that I would return to this space an re-launch A Writer’s Life.

 

Promise by Amana Brembry Johnson, Sculptor

Website: http://www.amanajohnson.net