My favorite plants are the white ones that grow on the side of our bathtub. Whenever the wood underneath gets soaked from the leaks in our old copper pipes, the tiny, umbrella-shaped plants blossom. Mama says they’re called ‘shrooms, but not like the kind in our refrigerator. We couldn’t eat the ones that grew in the bathroom. Every time they grow, Mama puts on her rubber gloves and pulls them out of the splitting wood. I ask her why can’t get the floor fixed, or the pipes replaced. She says it costs too much. We don’t have that kind of money. And this house? This house belonged to my great-grandfather. The family owns it. And they wouldn’t be happy if we changed it in any way. Even though it’s literally falling apart. Instead of gossiping, you would think they’d help us fix it up. But no. We’re the laughingstock of the family. My cousins who live up the street say we’re too poor to afford iPhones like they have. The kids on the bus say we live in a chicken shack. I don’t ever tell Mama this, though. I know she’s trying her best. So, I do my part by bringing home straight As. So, I can go to college on a scholarship and get a good job. So, we can move far away from the family.
My favorite sound is the rain when it hits our tin roof at night. It reminds me of the drumline playing at my high school. I dance for the band. Mama saw the dance tryout flyer crumpled up on my bedroom floor earlier this year and asked why I didn’t want to try out. I told her I was afraid. But the truth is it would cost $500 to join the team if I made it. And our water heater had just broken. And the septic tank was full. And we were low on propane, so the heaters were barely working, and winter was coming. I didn’t think dance was more important than those things. Mama wanted to be a dancer in school, but they were too poor. And my great-aunts said she wasn’t good enough. She forced me to go to tryouts anyway. I made it. So now maybe I can get a dance scholarship to go to Julliard. Or I can become a professional backup dancer for Beyonce. So, we don’t have to pick between water heaters and my dance fees. So, we can move away. So, we can get away from the family.
My favorite short story is A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner. Mama reads it to me from one of her old college textbooks. I like it because it’s strange, like me. She says if I read it now, I’ll know it before the other kids at school. She tells me that I must always be two steps ahead. I tell her we’re poor with money, but rich with knowledge. She laughs. People say money doesn’t solve everything. But they must’ve never been without. Money would literally solve everything for us. We could get the heater fixed. We could stop having to boil our bathwater on the stove (when it worked). We could buy our own house. We could get away from the family.
My favorite day is today. I applied to 13 colleges. I got accepted to all of them. And I’m getting presented with a bunch of scholarships. I was up all night calculating numbers. After paying for all my tuition, books, and housing, I still had thousands of dollars left over. Thousands. I had never seen so many zeros after a dollar sign before. I also spent all night crying. But not because I was too cold to sleep. Or because I heard my aunt say I was too dark to be pretty. No. I cried because I could finally help Mama. I could finally get her old car fixed. I could help her fix her credit. So, she could get a loan. So, she could move. So, she could finally get away from the family.
Author’s Note: About four years ago, I was introduced to Brian Ketley’s The 3 A.M. Epiphany, a book of over 200 writing exercises designed to help transform your fiction. After sifting through prompts about synesthesia, atypical days at work, and practicing negative capability, I arrived at a prompt titled “What If?” In the prompt, I had to choose a historical event and write a short story centered around its opposite outcome. What if the South won the Civil War? What if Japan never attacked Pearl Harbor? I opted to choose a lesser known, yet just as deadly, event in U.S. history: The bombing of “Black Wall Street”, in Tulsa, Oklahoma in the early 1920s. The bomb, dropped on the intersection of Greenwood, Archer, and Pine, inspired the title of my work, GAP (This event was also the inspiration behind the popular song “You Dropped a Bomb on Me” by GAP Band.) In this work, I wanted to emphasize the craft of elements of dialogue, dialect, and plot.
Greenwood Province, Tulsa, OK 1927
“Notha roun’ on me, Scotty! We live, baby!” said Count from the large stage.
The crowd roared with excitement. His band was visiting from Harlem and Tulsa ain’t know how to act. But that’s how we do it here in Greenwood – stompin’ our feet to the sounds of Swing. The smell of pipe smoke wisped through the thick air as the bass from the band shook the wooden floors of the GAP club.
I nodded. The GAP club bustled with the poignant personalities of many – the ladies rolling their lovely brown bodies to the sounds of Count Basie’s band, while the fellas stared in awe, sippin’ the remainder of their scotches. I lined up ‘bout a dozen shot glasses on the sleek, wooden bar and a couple of youngins watched as the bourbon danced into each of ‘em.
“Not for y’all.” I winked. They giggled.
“Oh I know, Mr. Scotty! My Daddy’ll tear my raw hide if I tried!” said young Clyde Stradford. All the girls giggled – their petite brown hands over their mouths. I couldn’t help but smile.
He’d just finished up his last year at GAP High School and had been accepted to one of dem fancy schools up North. Harlem University is what dey call it. “Well, we’on want that. You’d miss the celebration.” I replied.
“Yessir. Can’t believe it’s been a whole six years.” Clyde shook his head.
Now, we usually don’t let the youngins in this joint, but tonight is a special night. It’s the sixth anniversary of the Greenwood Province that almost ain’t exist.
‘Bout six years and some change ago, I was sittin’ in the lobby of J.B. Stradford’s hotel, waitin’ for my wife to finish up in the powder room. Stradford’s joint was the epitome of black excellence – it had over 54 rooms, a ballroom laced with crystal chandeliers, red carpets, and satin table linings. Most people would never believe he’d been born a slave. That night, we were coming to see a brotha named Edward Ellington from D.C. play with his band. Stradford said he had no doubt ol’ Ellie would make it big.
My eyes were glued to the headline of the Tulsa Star, our local newspaper:
Dick Rowland Protected by Greenwood WWI Veterans
Ol’ Roe was accused of accidentally tripping over a little white girl in an elevator at the Drexel Building a few months ago. She screams and everyone reacts – y’all know how that goes. After he was arrested, a few of our Elders marched up to the courthouse to protect Roe from the angry mobs that lurked. They had just lynched ol’ Roy Belton the year before and we ain’t need another headline like that in our newspaper.
As the story goes, a lynch mob approached the group and asked them what Roe was doing with a pistol. Roe looked the men up and down and replied that he’d use it if he needed to. They got into a scuffle and the gun went off. All hell broke loose.
“Still readin’ deh madness, eh?” said Coolie as he sat next to me, peering at my newspaper.
“Coolie”, or Ian Baptiste, was a musician from one of dem islands in the Caribbean and man did he drive the women of Greenwood buck wild. If it wasn’t his long curly jet-black hair, it was surely was his dark skin contrasted against his dark blue eyes that kept them coming. He was opening for Ellie tonight.
“Yeah, man,” I sighed, “Hopefully, you an’ Ellie can take our minds off it for a while. We can’t wait to hear the set tonight.”
He bowed his head graciously, “Life back on deh island jus as wicked, yeh know? At least we have a community here.”
Next thing we knew, Stradford came runnin’ out of his backroom, yellin’ to the top of his lungs, “Y’all run in the ballroom! The mob’s comin’! The mob’s comin!”
It was just before sunset and the shouting of quite a few men could be heard in the distance. Everyone jumped up and hustled all of the women and children into the ballroom. I stood up, lookin’ roun’ for my wife, MaeBelle. She and Stradford’s wife, Posie Kay, came runnin’ out the powder room like some chickens wit’ the heads cut off.
“Scotty, they got me sweatin’ in this satin dress, damn it!” she said. The red dress complimented her ebony skin.
“Where Stradford? Tell ‘em I’m gonna get my pistol!” said Posie Kay, making her way toward her office. Coolie stood in front of her.
“Posie, deh mob’s comin’. It’s not safe.” He said.
Posie Kay looked Coolie from head to toe, “Coolie, get yo ass out the way! I ain’t lettin’ dem white boys take-”
Stradford came between the two and threw Posie Kay over his shoulder. He looked back at Coolie and gave him a nod. We rushed the women to the ballroom, with Posie Kay fussin’ the whole way.
All the men guarded the ballroom, ready to die. Stradford, in his red velvet suit, went outside and stood in front of his hotel – the pistol in his hand just as dark as his complexion.
“Stradford, you crazy? Get in here!” shouted one of the men.
Stradford turned toward us. “If them white boys want my hotel, they gonna have to fight me for it!”
I shook my head. Yeah, he and Posie were made for each otha.
We could hear the mob in the distance – or so we thought. It was the GAP militia, Greenwood’s very own army, charging toward the white mob and they managed to detain the group. Some say the mob worked with the U.S. government to try an’ bomb us – I didn’t doubt it. Once we got wind of this, Stradford, Coolie, and myself went over to meet up with the militia. Stradford’s oldest son, Renald, was one of highest-ranking officials.
“Renny, what y’all gonna do wit’ ‘em?” asked Stradford, shootin’ daggers at the now powerless mob members, “Sendin’ back ain’t gonna stop ‘em from tryin’ this again.”
“I know, Pa.” nodded Renald, glancing at the mobsters, their face as red as his father’s suit, “Y’all let us do our job. You won’t be hearing from them again.”
Renald’s words sent a chill down my spine. To this day, we don’t know what became of those mobsters. Did he kill ‘em? Hell, dey didn’t have a problem with tryin’ to kill us. Dem fools had 99% resentment in their eyes an’ 1% guilt. I ask myself why I only focus on the one percent.
A few fellas grabbed their shots of bourbon as J.B. Stradford walked onto the stage.
“Thank you, Count for that bangin’ performance! I wanna introduce our next act: He came on back to Greenwood to bless our ears! Welcome, Edw- ‘cuse me, Duke Ellington and the Washingtonians!”
The crowd went wild as the sounds of “East St. Louis Toodle-oo” richoted off the walls of the GAP club. I snapped my fingers slowly to the beat of the music. MaeBelle came and leaned over the bar.
“You look good in that red,” I said with a smile.
She grinned, “Don’t I know it?”
I noticed a flower sitting neatly in the side of her hair.
“What’s that there?” I pointed.
“Oh this here’s a posie from Posie Kay,” she smiled, “She said a whole mess of ‘em started growing in that land behind Stradford’s hotel. I heard the Natives gonna build a monument back there or somethin’.”
Here’s a list of things I would buy if I received a dollar for every time I was told my creative writing degree wasn’t practical:
A large island in the South Pacific. I would name it Black Magic Isle and would declare myself the sultan.
The Empire State Building. I would turn it into a mall and various other entities, like the Burj Khalifa, speaking of which…
The Burj Khalifa. Because why not? After all, I’d be quite wealthy, and I’ve always wanted to go to Dubai.
“Oh good. You have a business minor to back you up.”
– Random chick I met in an Uber
It’s a stigma as old as the sands on your favorite beach: “If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life…because that profession probably isn’t hiring.” Every creative, especially writers, know this feeling all too well. The perceived notion that if it’s not vocational, then it doesn’t pay. What non-believers fail to realize time and again is that writing isn’t just a hobby- it’s a necessity to keep businesses booming, economies thriving, and people educated, informed, and entertained. How isn’t that practical?
“Why would you listen to a twenty-something- year- old ‘kid’ with no medical background?” – Overheard from a former co-worker
And let’s not forget various other niches, such as social media copy, web copy, content writing, blogging, article writing, editing, etc. Don’t customers typically read product descriptions before they make a buying decision? Don’t salespersons take marketing documents to close deals? Don’t you read reviews about restaurants before deciding to spend your money there? Don’t you have a favorite show on Netflix? These things aren’t auto-generated by a bot embedded in the processor of some supercomputer. They are planned, written, and edited by professional, talented, and gifted writers. A world of opportunity exists for us.
“Why would you change to an English degree? That’s not what we hired you for.” – CEO, Past employer
The reason why you should never let a non-writer tell you writing isn’t practical is simple:they haven’t and probably never could do it. These are the same people that will be forced to sit through a mandatory “The Art of Storytelling” workshop, mandated by their employer. A workshop that’ll likely be facilitated by that English professor whose degree they said wasn’t “practical.”
The best thing you can do, writer, is bet on yourself.
Find a community that supports you. Join Wattpad, Medium, or WordPress to connect with other writers like you. Put your work out there for the world to see. Create a portfolio showcasing your best work.
Read. Read. Read. Explore how other writers use craft and storytelling elements to resonate with their audience.
As I meander my way through the writing community, I have come to discover that the discourse around fiction writing mirrors that of religion vs. spirituality – “spirituality”, in this case, being the craft and storytelling elements that make up fiction, such as tone or dialogue, while religion, or interpretation of spirituality, mirrors genre (ex. most monotheistic religions believe in a God, but a Christian’s interpretation of God may be different from someone who is Muslim.) Though two works of fiction may differ in genre, fundamentally they share the same elements.
For example, take conflict. In Adam Silvera’s They Both Die at the End, the characters are presented with a conflict of character vs. fate. Given less than twenty-four hours to live, both find themselves trying to navigate the five stages of grief, all while trying to determine how to leave a legacy in the hours they have left. Rufus questions his fate in a phone call with Death – Cast: “How do you know? The End Days. How do you know? Some list? Crystal ball? Calendar from the future? (19)” Conflict plays out differently in Roselle Lim’s Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune. The antagonist’s battle to find herself outside Chinese cultural norms comes to pass once she required to return home after her mother’s untimely death. I argue that the title character’s conflict is character vs. society – she wants to live out her dreams but is tasked with to do this within the confines of a community she resents.
In both works, the parallelisms to reality, whether that be the looming thought of our own demise or deviating from what we are taught is “normal”, are what make the premises not only relatable, but perfect foundations for world-building. In They Both Die, their world is centered around death. From Death Cast phone operators unsympathetically informing “deckers” they are living their final twenty-four hours. To television commercials using the dreaded ringtone in their advertisements. To social media streams of people documenting their last days. Unfortunately, this is not too far off from current events. In a time where is not uncommon to see someone’s demise on Facebook Live or YouTube, the Death Cast world is becoming less fictitious. In Luck and Fortune, Natalie escapes the grasp of her traditionalist mother, but must return to her siloed culture to truly thrive.
The environments we are born into shape us. This is ever present in the way we communicate, aka dialogue/dialect. Originally being from a small town nestled in coastal Georgia, home of the Geechee people, and being of Caribbean heritage (Barbados), I can relate. Regional shortened language, coupled with dialects spoken within a certain community (ex. African American Vernacular English) make for a plethora of “nations within nations.” I have recently started working with domestic fiction, so dialogue is an important factor. Given my cultural background, I do like to incorporate different dialects in my work. I tend to stick with dialects I am familiar with, as I do not want to stereotype or misinterpret ones that are foreign to me. Natalie use of words like “paifang”, “calligraphy”, and “Sono andati?”, are indicative of her Chinese heritage.
Still, Natalie’s reluctance to return home did not surprise me – her tone displayed an ethos of resentment coupled with regret from the first few pages. Lim’s bird symbolism (symbolic of human life), the rain that followed its departure, and the description of the turbulent relationship between Natalie and her mother confirmed the melancholy nature. Tone, though sometimes hard to detect, I believe is important to establish. Admittedly, my works tend to be “dark”, so I use diction that is a little more formal, but I do like to incorporate voice to add variety. Silvera does a great job of mixing tone and voice in They Both Die. While both Mateo and Rufus exhibit tones of distress (ex. “I’m freaking out already, a hundred thoughts immediately drowning out everything around me. (3)”), Silvera does add some comic relief, while also giving insight into some of the flatter characters. Take the scene when Rufus learns he has less than twenty-four hours to live and his friends will not leave him:
“You two are straight up shadows,” [Rufus] says.
“That because we’re Black?” Malcolm asks.
The situation, though serious in nature, has a moment of normalcy, and reminds the reader that the characters are still young adults.
Although they have varying degrees of importance, based on genre, mastery of craft and storytelling elements prove imperative for any type of writing. This requirement supersedes type: genre, literary, creative, or professional writing alike. Just as a building requires the support of a solid structure, or doctors need fundamental knowledge of the human body, all writers would take pleasure in being privy to the elements that form the discipline that’s afforded them so much joy.
Writers, you know the kind of feedback you would want to receive, yeah? So, make sure you are giving it.
It is no secret that we writers tend to be sensitive about the perception of our work. Audiences only see the finished product – not the late nights, pounding of the backspace key, countless drafts, and the various experiences that influence the births of our literary brainchildren.
Since we know how it feels to be the subject of criticism, let’s practice the highest degree of professionalism and tactfulness when the shoe is on the other foot.
Here are a few best practices for giving constructive criticism:
DO: Focus on the craft elements, not the content. Every story is comprised of basic craft elements. These include character, setting, plot, point-of-view, etc. When drafting your critique, focus on the author’s use of the elements. What traits made the character stand out? Did the narrator effectively describe the work’s setting? How did the POV contribute to the tone of the work?
AVOID personal opinions! Your personal opinion does not matter here – your professional one does! You do not have to the like the character’s name. You do not have to like romance novels. You do not have to like stories set in the 1900s. Remember, you are critiquing the effectiveness of various craft and writing elements. Don’t like detective fiction? Doesn’t matter. Try this – analyze the work as if you are the intended audience – what would they look for?
DO: Include examples from the text. Use quotes from the text to support whatever observations you make. For example, if you get a sense that a character has strong, domineering personality, perhaps cite examples of dialogue or visual imagery that helped you come to that conclusion.
DO: List the things that worked well FIRST, then include improvements. People tend to want the good news first. When structuring you critique, try separating your feedback into two sections: What’s Working and What’s Not Yet Working. Under the second heading, be sure to include suggestions for improvements (remember, these are just suggestions – the author has the autonomy to use them or not.)
AVOID Overcomplimenting or Over criticizing. Constructive criticism is a balancing act. The goal is to ensure the writer produces the most effective and engaging work for their audience. Try to find at least three elements that worked well and two areas for improvements.
Great writers need even better editors. Follow these tips to make sure you’re both!
For this week’s Author’s Spotlight , meet the incredible Justine Torres, an up-and-coming novelist:
1. What’s your favorite genre to write and why?
Currently, my favorite genre to write is epic fantasy. I have so much fun with it. I absolutely love this genre because we are world builders. And growing up those were my favorite kind of stories to get lost in for hours on end. It was a place where I could escape from day-to-day life; still do to this day! And for anyone who knows me, I have a slightly overactive imagination and can be a little bit dramatic, so the sky is the limit for me!
2. What influenced you to become a writer?
My reading teacher in the third grade Miss Terrino. She made me fall in love with reading, and she always told me my imagination was going to take me far. Even though I started out struggling with reading and writing, she made me feel like I could do anything I set my mind to. She passed away the year she started teaching me; I never forgot her or her words of encouragement. I owe her everything when it comes to my writing. Every time I feel like giving up, I think of her and keep pushing forward.
3. Do you have any tips or suggestions for up – and – coming writers?
This one took me a while to think of, not going to lie because I am still going through the ups and downs of what it takes to be a writer. So I will share with you what I have learned so far. Don’t give up. Even when it feels like everything is going against you, hold on. I am sure this is something many people have heard before, but every mistake you make, every failure you experience is a lesson learned, so learn it. And don’t let the rejection you receive hold you back, because unfortunately, in this industry, you will receive rejection. Not everyone is going to see your story the way you see it. Find the people who see your vision, and want you to succeed. Keep fighting, and always remember why you fell in love with writing. Hold on to that why and never lose sight of it.
I think I have always had a passport to explore the writing community. Still, it was not until middle school that I flirted with getting my official literary citizenship. My eighth-grade literature teacher, Mrs. Miller, would give us a random prompt at the start of class each morning. I can recall yanking out my 49-cent composition notebook, taking the first fifteen minutes or so to jot down any narrative I could stir up quickly. At that moment, my classmates and I were one and the same. Even if it were only for the first thirty minutes of this class, we had come together for a common goal – catharsis and the exchange of ideas, emotions, and the genesis of a support system. For a long time, I thought I was an anomaly. Being an author, or being a writer, even, was worlds away. This shaped my understanding of the need to feel connected, wanted, and heard. We see this narrative quite often nowadays with the advent of various social justice organizations. The commonality is community.
In the article Do Writers Need To Be Alone to Thrive? , Katherine Towler calls her writing community “very rewarding and enriching.” I, too, find my writing community rewarding. As we live amid the digital age, we have access to hundreds of communities at our fingertips. Whether it be a specific genre, like the Horror Writers Association, or something more general like PEN America, there’s seemingly something for every writer. Presently, I’ve taken note of a few writing communities that I see myself joining. The SNHU Writer’s Community is reminiscent of Twitter (with its micro-blogging structure) and Facebook (the “like,” “share” features), making it rather easy to navigate. This proves intuitive for me, as I am an advocate for social media both personally and professionally. The community demonstrates usefulness, in that it is alive and well – we can ask questions, get advice, and feedback about our work in real-time.
The Authors Guild and the Association of Writers and Writing Programs too, resonated with me. Though their missions differ, I was impressed with what I saw. The Authors Guild, for example, stands for fair payment, distribution rights, and the right to retain ownership of their copyrights. The Authors Guild found a void in the writer’s journey and is successfully seeking to fill it. The Association of Writers and Writing Programs takes a more academic approach in their mission, and the perks to membership reflect that. I especially took note of the Writer to Writer Mentorship Program, which pairs new writers with established ones. Imagine being able to meet up for coffee (post-pandemic) with an established writer? It would be like looking into the mirror, conversing with your future self. These are the type of support mechanisms I would want to receive from a writer’s org -they guide every step of the writer’s journey.
A disadvantage to this, currently, is the physical connection. In The Spooky Art, Norman Mailer said, “If you write a piece and everyone in the room listens as if there is nourishment for one ear…then it will not matter afterward if you hear a dozen separate reactions, for you will at last have the certainty that you are a writer” (10). Sure, we have video chat, but it does not quite compare to seeing your audience in the flesh, feeding off their energy and undeniable presence. But even before 2020 happened, life did. Kids, workplace obligations, and other various externalities kept us from maintaining the connections we made in these writing communities. So how do we retain these connections when life is such an uncontrollable variable?
I think the keys here are empathy and accountability. Just like with our writing processes, managing relationships in the writing community takes work. Could we intermingle an accountability partner in our writing processes? This isn’t a final solution, but I believe leveraging the writing communities we have access to can and will make us better writers. Have you answered the call to your literary citizenship?
Whether you’re just starting out or returning to the game, keep these three things in mind for an easy transition.
No journey is more mystifying than that of the creative writer, and it would be silly of me to deny myself of its magic.
I wanted nothing more than to immerse myself in the world of creative writing, in all “its perils, joys, [and] vicissitudes (Norman Mailer, The Spooky Art)”. Aside from the tangibles (the degree, the certificate), I wanted to acquire the skills to call myself a writer confidently. Also, I needed a writer’s community. Receiving constructive feedback from other creatives was critical for me, as I always wanted to be mindful of my audience’s perception of my work. I trusted that my writer’s community would have the insight I needed to make my work better.
Above all, I needed a writing routine. I understood a routine wasn’t “one size fits all,” so I customized one that would work for me! The Daily Habits of 12 Famous Writers outlines three overarching themes that I have found useful in developing a writing strategy.
• Pushing yourself physically prepares you to work hard mentally. My former cross-country coach used to say, “Your body will give out ten times faster than your mind.” I like to do light exercises to get my blood flowing in the morning, even if it is just for fifteen minutes. As a former dancer, I am no stranger to discipline – it is just a matter of reintroducing that level of physicality to my body. The mental strength will come naturally.
• Do the most important thing first. I will admit that I am not a morning person, but I am not opposed to becoming one. Perhaps after my morning workout, I can start by jotting down a few ideas. That way, even if the rest of my day does not go as planned, at least I got some writing done.
• Embrace the struggle and do hard work. I heard that it takes fifteen days to form a new habit. And old habits die hard. However, I have never been more excited to struggle! There have already been days (like today) that I have deviated away from the goals I set for myself. I recognized this, learned my lesson, and am ready to try again tomorrow.
Making writing my primary focus always sounded like a fairytale to me. The fact that is it now becoming a reality both excites and scares me. I feel like I must be just as afraid as I am excited to keep myself somewhat balanced. Maintain chaos and order. I am sure my concerns mirror those of any writer. Is it a case of the what-ifs? What if I cannot get a job? What if I lose my inspiration again? What if I cannot find a set routine? What if personal obligations do not allow me to write? I ask myself these things often, only to realize that nothing worth having comes easily. If it is something you are passionate about, then it should be worth the fight.