GETTING READY TO WORK: CLAIMING A JOURNAL, THE WRITER WITHIN
Select a three-ring binder, a glamorous notebook, a diary with lock and key, whatever's most comfortable for you. This journal is where you'll begin your initial explorations of self and community. First, you can use it as a place to do the exercises in this book. Later it'll become a workbook for recording dreams, story ideas, characterizations, and comments about stories you've read. Your journal is your passport to thinking like, acting like, and becoming a writer!
Don't try to do the following exercises all at once. Take time between exercises to experience, observe, reflect, and revise.
Writing is a process.
The exercises should be done sequentially. No more than one a day. Each exercise is designed to increase your confidence in your writing, step by step, and to teach you specific fiction skills. If you're struggling with an exercise, repeat it. Move on when you feel your writing is improving. Remember: exercises are an easier beginning than starting a story from scratch. By doing the exercises in this book, you'll be allowed to make mistakes, to explore thoughts and feelings, to learn as you go. After practicing these exercises, when you do sit down to write a story, you'll be much better prepared to succeed.
MY BEST ADVICE
Treasure your journal. It is your first, best learning tool.
For those of you who are new to writing, this chapter will help limber your skills of observing, listening, imagining, and assembling portraits of your world. For those of you who have been writing for a while, these opening exercises will give you the opportunity to sharpen your skills and reflect again how heritage can influence and deepen your writing. In either case, your journey to becoming a better writer has begun. When you're anxious or filled with self-doubt, remember: the collective spirit of our people is with you. You are walking a path that all writers have walked. This path is, at times, both crooked and demanding, but always infinitely rewarding.
Open your journal. Take a deep breath. Begin.
EXPERIENCING A COMMUNITY EVENT
Describe an event you'd like to celebrate--it can be as large as a Kwanzaa celebration or as intimate as a picnic. Write quickly for twenty minutes; don't edit.
When you've finished, reread your description--and ask yourself: Is it specific? Are there sounds in your description? Are there colors, textures, smells, tastes? What did you fail to observe? What did you leave out? What did you write just right?
For twenty minutes, rewrite the description, adding more details.
Compare the two versions and decide which one you like best. Which version conveys the more complete picture?
EXPERIENCING THE FOLK
Look for a person to describe, someone worth celebrating. It can be someone you know, a bus driver, a street-corner musician, or a child playing double Dutch in the street. Write quickly for twenty minutes; don't edit.
When you've finished, reread your description. How well did you describe the person? Would I recognize them if I saw them on the street? How does your person dress, talk, move? What do they feel? Joy? Wistfulness? How can you tell? What outward signs best express their personality? How do they react to touch, sight, taste, and sound?
What makes this person special to you? What about them are you celebrating?
Revise your description for twenty minutes, adding new details.
Compare the two versions and decide which one you like best. Which version is more accurate? The more vibrant and "lifelike"?
TALKING THAT TALK: COMMUNITY STORYTELLERS
Listen for stories!
"I remember . . . ," "Girl, let me tell you . . . ," "Back home, we used to . . . ," "Listen up! It's like this . . ."
Storytelling is a fundamental human activity--some stories are short (leaving you breathless for more), some are long and twisting, some teach, some give praise, some slander, some help you imagine a time and place where you've never lived. In Africa, the griot was honored as master storyteller, responsible for maintaining the stories and legends of the tribe. The griot tradition did not die with the advent of American slavery. Indeed, cultural storytelling kept alive a past and sustained a newly born people. Slaves were not "blank slates" but a community who mirrored, shaped, celebrated, informed, and inspired themselves through stories.
Go out and find a storyteller--a preacher telling biblical stories to a Sunday school class, a teenager bragging about a birthday party to her two friends, a grandmother on the front porch spinning stories about her Alabama childhood.
Listen to the voice of this storyteller, the rhythms in his or her speech. Is the talk slow and meandering or fast and focused? Is the voice loud or soft, rough or smooth? Is the voice conversational or formal? Write a page in the voice of the storyteller you've studied. Try to recapture their story--feel free to elaborate, improve upon your memory--the important thing is to keep writing the voice of the storyteller you heard. To keep imitating the rhythm, sounds, and speech.
Reread your writing. Can you hear the storyteller's voice? Rewrite any sentences that don't sound like your storyteller.
Repeat this exercise with two other people. If you wrote a teenager's rap in the first exercise, try capturing the nostalgic voice of an elderly deacon. Stretch yourself--look for a variety of voices to challenge you. If you haven't heard enough good storytellers, don't underestimate the power of simply asking: "Please, tell me a story." You'll be surprised at what you might hear.
Once you've captured three storytellers, list the differences among the three voices. Which voice did you capture best? Who told the best story? Why was it the best? How did the voice make the story more interesting?
Over time you'll train yourself to hear nuances of speech, differences of grammar, word choice, rhythm, and sound.
For now, listen up! Just as a musician daily practices scales fast and slow, high and low, loud and soft; as a writer you need daily practice in listening to people talk--becoming more in tune with the full range of human sounds.
TALKING THAT TALK:FAMILY TALES
Our ancestors shape our family's stories. Talk to an aunt, a grandparent, a second cousin about your family's heritage. Ask to see pictures, mementos, genealogy charts, family Bibles which have special significance. What stories are attached to these objects? What do these stories reveal about the African American spirit in your family? What makes these stories dramatic and intriguing?
Certain stories are easily passed down through the generations within families. Other stories are told in whispers, with long silences between incidents. Listen for the "gaps" in one of your family's stories. Listen for the silences, for what might be left unsaid, the secrets, then--imagine.
For an hour, write the family tale you found; write the story just as your family tells it.
Next, put a star by all the points in the story where you don't know what happened. These starred points represent opportunities for imagining, for writing fiction.
For example, here's a bare-bones tale from my family history:
One spring, Cousin James packed his bags and left Carolina for California. As a kid, James could outrun, outclimb any kid. He was smart beyond belief, sweet; he dreamed of flying airplanes. When his father remarried, there was a family fight. The next morning, just shy of eighteen, James left and nobody has ever heard from him again.
What was said during the fight between father and son? Were they really arguing about the stepmother? Or some hurt done to the dead mother? Or were they arguing about money? James's career? What happened to James in California? Is he a truck driver--bitter with drink? Or a homeless person dreaming of his mother? Or a counselor for troubled kids? Did he ever learn to fly?
When I begin to imagine what happened, what I don't know, I begin creating stories. Stories which draw upon both my family and community heritages.
Remember: imagination soars from what is most real in the world around you, what is most real about yourself, your family, and your community.
Now revise your family story, filling in the gaps with imagination.
Compare your two tales--the one told to you and your revision. How has your imagination changed the story? Was it harder or easier to imagine because you started with family history? Which version is more compelling? Which story is more satisfying to you as a reader?
Celebrate! You've finished Chapter One.
Reread all the writing in your journal! You've written description, created characters with actions and dialogue, imagined plots, and conveyed your own unique sense of what is special about your family and community--all the things a good writer does!
You're on your way!
Excerpted from Free Within Ourselves by Jewell Parker Rhodes. Copyright © 1999 by Jewell Parker Rhodes. Excerpted by permission of Main Street Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.