Writer, Editor, Parent...

Workshops… or Killing the Babies

Posted: March 20th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Column | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

http://www.flickr.com/photos/wikidave/

Yesterday I was privileged to be in a writing workshop led by Monique Roffey, the UK-Trini writer author of Sun Dog and The White Woman on the Green Bicycle. There were six writers in attendance, almost all published and some of them award winners. We each had submitted stories for the workshop. A writing workshop involves reading and constructive criticism, so one has to walk with metaphorical tissues and/or very thick skin–many of us writers get attached to every single word we have written and hearing those words described in anything but glowing terms is like having a burning stick shoved into our guts.

My story was first at bat. Ignoring the suspicion that it was chosen to go first because it was the worst of the six stories to be workshopped, I read it and sat back biting my tongue waiting for the critique. My story was called “The Magical Negro Speaks”. It came out of my reading this essay by Nnedi Okrafor examining the trope of the magical negro, a black character who comes into a story just to enable some magical change in a white character. I wanted to write a story from the magical negro’s perspective, because the trope usually comes from the white character’s perspective.

My opening paragraph was one of my favourite parts of the story:

“He used to say I came into his life like a force of nature: I was the tsunami to his Indonesia, Hurricane Katrina to his levees. Of course, by the time the earthquake was over and Port Royal was under the Caribbean Sea a legend was born. But you can’t live in a legend. You might look back on it with awe at the destruction and maybe regret for what once had been; you might moralise about why so much had to be lost. But you can’t hold it and marry it and make babies with it. That’s not what happens after a force of nature hits you. Basically, you sweep up the water when the floods subside, bury your dead and move the hell on.”

But the verdict of the workshop was that my beloved paragraph was unsuccessful. It set up an expectation that wasn’t fulfilled and basically seemed like a part of another story. Hearing this sorta broke my heart. I knew the story had problems, and I knew it was unfinished, but I loved that first paragraph and the way it set up the story’s resolution. To realise that, of six sophisticated readers, not one of them got that… it was painful. But such exercises—which a journalist I met a long time ago, Jonathan Friendly, called “killing the babies”—are like a purifying fire. You burn off the trash and what is left is pure, unalloyed. Even if the trash is your favourite paragraph.

I still have to finish the story. By “finish”, I mean rewrite. The workshop was really helpful and I’ll take on board the tips I got and questions the critics posed in reworking it. And who knows? Maybe I can use my baby, that paragraph I love so, in some other story… reincarnation?


An experiment in -isms

Posted: February 21st, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Column | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

A young woman I know did an interesting experiment using her Facebook page. She posted the following status:

“I dislike black people with a passion. Call me ignorant, call me w/e, i real doh care.. I see being black as horribly wrong. :)”

(Translation for those over 35 or those who don’t speak Young Adult Trini English: “I dislike black people with a passion. Call me ignorant, call me whatever, I really don’t care. I see being black as horribly wrong.”)

There was a firestorm of comments following the post, most of them expressing shock and disbelief at the statement by the teen, who is herself half black and living in Trinidad, a country where almost 40 percent of the population is black. The comments ranged from: “How can u dislike someone based solely on their skin colour? I think u need to check urself” to “Being black is a silly thing to hate someone for; if you hate lazy people (or ignorant ppl) for example, there’s some feasibility there cuz it’s their fault their lazy…contrarily, complexion is just a characteristic like gender or what kind of food you like..hardly an excuse for prejudice..”

Fifty-eight comments later, she wrote in another status:

“Dear people freaking out about my status. Thanks for helping with my experiment. I would have loved to have kept this up but (name of her friend) said to stop. I was simply curious after a friend put up a similar status: ‘I dislike homosexual people with a passion. Call me ignorant, call me w/e, i real doh care.. I see being gay as horribly wrong.’.Tons of LIKES. zero comments.”

And they say young people have no direction? Bravo to this young woman for standing up for what she believes in; hopefully those who (unwittingly) participated in the experiment learned something about prejudice and oppression.


Connecting the dots

Posted: September 22nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Column | Tags: , , , , , , , | No Comments »

Steve Jobs, the guy who gave Apple its shine, gave this amazing speech that I happened upon some time ago.

The whole speech is really moving and inspiring, but this is the part that hits me every time:

“[M]uch of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on. Let me give you one example:

“Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.

“None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, its likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.

“Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

Although in my life I have never wanted to be anything but a writer (well, there was that time I wanted to be a nurse, but… does five minutes count?) I have somehow ended up doing a lot of different things. I’ve been an administrative assistant, sending faxes and doing filing. I’ve been an actor. I’ve been an administrator, co-ordinating an NGO and an educational tour at two different points in my life. I’ve  produced shows and done stage management. I tried catering. I’ve been a housewife and full-time mom. Now I’m teaching part time.

All of these things gave me different skills and ways of thinking about the world. I wonder about people who have only ever done one job, and what it’s like to know what you’re going to do every single day. There’s a lot of uncertainty about the life I’ve chosen, but you can’t ever say it’s boring or predictable. And all the skills I learned along the way somehow come in very handy in my new incarnation as the administrator of The Allen Prize, and even in my teaching. Yesterday I shocked my students by doing a very convincing portrayal of “anger” in a lesson on nonverbal communication. It was fun, taking me right back to the days of working under Charles Applewhite at Trinidad Theatre Workshop.

No matter how far I go, my past comes with me, for good or bad. What do you take with you on your journey?


The right thing to say

Posted: September 16th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Column, Editorial | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment »

From Corbis images

I got really annoyed today by someone’s foolish, outta timin’ comment. It wasn’t just the comment, which was mildly offensive and directed at me, but that the person chose to deliver it in front of a room full of people while I had the floor.

I’m not sure why the speaker chose to say what he did. Maybe he thought he was being cute. Maybe it was just his way of breaking the ice. Maybe it was honestly what he thought and he felt the burning need to say it at that time. Whatever the reason, the effect was that I got properly vex.

Not the comment so much but the whole situation sat on my chest like sour doubles for a couple of hours, until I paid a visit to a friend who is recovering from a serious illness. I hadn’t seen her in a long time, in fact, not since she got out of hospital, and I was frankly scared to visit because I am always unsure what to say in such circumstances. It’s not that I was squeamish so much as I was afraid I’d say something to make her uncomfortable about her illness and her gradual recovery. And when I was there, actually sitting next to her, it was as bad as I had feared.

But visiting her helped me put the earlier comment into perspective. Why should I let one comment ruin my day? There are people facing real problems in this world.

And having left her home, I had a chance to think about my own lack of words to say to her. I guess finding the right thing to say can be very hard sometimes.


The message of the bat (for adult readers only)

Posted: September 15th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Column, Editorial | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

I got this message from someone who read my blog. My epic struggle with Chester, the bat who terrorised me at home, touched a chord in her and she wanted to share her own bat story with me.

Warning: this post is on a very sensitive subject. It contains graphic language.

She wrote:

“When I was 30 I was raped and attacked by a man (I remain convinced it was the security guard who eyed me for days).  The long and short is that I was strangled for a while – just enough to almost lose consciousness and die.  I still will never know why he released the hold around my neck (I had black and blue imprints of his fingers around my neck for days……) or why in the end he agreed to leave me alone….I did some serious negotiating with him including getting him not to blindfold me as well as wearing a condom – in the darkness he actually let me feel his dick so that I was sure it was on……

“So with all the negotiating and treating him like a person he lost his desire to control me and left me on the bed naked, bruised and terrified….I lost chunks of my hair from the terror…..called the police after I allowed him enough time to leave (that was part of the deal I struck with this man)…….

“Some days later I went to my parents house – the family didn’t have a clue what to do with me…..and in the bedroom there was this bat – after opening up all the windows I hoped and hoped it had left…I went to sleep (was so exhausted)…..and woke up the next morning…..and guess what the bat was dead and ‘asleep’ on the pillow next to mine…..I think it came to teach me about facing my fears and the ugliness of what had happened to me…..I still don’t love bats but I do have a soft spot for them (at a distance……..) – I received a real blessing……and I remain grateful……”

Thanks, friend, for sharing that story. It doesn’t make me feel any more fond of bats but I value your decision to openly talk about that life-changing experience and what it teaches about fear. They say God doesn’t give you more than you can bear but sometimes it doesn’t feel that way at all. I’m glad to know you survived to tell the tale.


Things that go “Dumb!” in the night

Posted: September 8th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Column | Tags: , , , | 8 Comments »

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about my late, great housebat, Chester. (He’s now decaying in a ravine somewhere, I hope. He was taken out. I’ll say no more.) I talked about how scared  I was of this animal zooming towards me, his leathery wings flap-flapping around my head. But bats are not the only thing I’m afraid of.

I’m afraid of spiders. Not just any old spiders, but the big, creepy ones that thrive in our lovely, lush, tropical climate. Guys like this:

from: http://www.antiguamuseums.org/fauna.htm

I also am afraid of roaches, centipedes, scorpions, etc etc ad infinitum. Pretty much any crawly character turns my blood to ice. Even if I know it’s not dangerous.

Snakes are even worse. When I was a little girl filling water by the tank outside–before the halcyon days of indoor plumbing came to my childhood home–I was shocked to screaming by the sight of a harmless grass snake oozing over my toes. I was probably afraid of snakes before that because of the cultural apprehension most western people have about snakes, but this made it worse. Now, I see a snake and I literally start to stammer, shake and sweat. Frogs, less so, but they still give me the heebie jeebies. Big, maco crapauds will make me run screaming in the other direction.

from: http://alpesoiseaux.free.fr/batraciens/crapaud_commun_bufo_bufo.htm

It’s not only things outside in the bush (or boldface bush denizens who visit indoors) that spook me. Some dogs–pitbulls, especially–scare the daylights out of me. And some animals on two legs have a similar effect.

Cocktail parties nearly top the list of non-animal things that frighten me. Strangers in general make my stomach churn. Oddly enough, public speaking gives me the willies, but you’d never know it from the amount of it I actually do.

Scary?

Top thing that I’m scared of? Being “outed” as dumb, incompetent or a failure. Of course, this biggest fear of all is the most irrational. So what if somebody thinks I’m stupid or untalented? (Big shout out to my homie Raymond Ramcharitar here!) The truth is that I try, harder than many, though no harder than some, to do my best. And whether I fail or not, I have to be satisfied with my best because it’s all I’ve got. In the light of day I am mostly secure in that knowledge. But when the lights go down, insecurity attacks. I can run away from a frog, squish a spider, call a hit on a bat, but there’s no avoiding that ugly voice in my head that tells me I’m not good enough.

This story has no happy ending. I wish I could say I talk myself out of it, or that I have a friend whose reassurance makes it all better. Those things happen sometimes but more often than not I just have to work through the fear–“feel the fear and do it anyway,” as the popular book says.

What are you afraid of?